The Story of Bonnie and Clyde


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Katie: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert and joining me today is Sarah Dowdey. How are you, Sarah?

Sarah: I'm doing good. How are you, Katie?

Katie: Good. We were talking about rearranging our Netflix queues earlier and you brought up a specific film.

Sarah: Bonnie and Clyde.

Katie: Exactly. And that's who we're going to talk about today, but not the Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway version.

Sarah: No. And if you've seen that, you probably remember it being very glamourous, well-dressed gangsters, but reality is a little different, as it usually is.

Katie: Clyde Barrow was born in 1910 in Texas to a sharecropper father. He was one of eight kids, and he wasn't particularly interested in school. Some accounts say that he never made it past the fifth grade and he was always a troublemaker. My favorite story is that he liked to sell stolen turkeys with his brother.

Sarah: Oh, wow. And Bonnie came from similarly humble backgrounds. Born in 1910 in Rowena, Texas - both of these are really tiny towns kind of on the outskirts of Dallas. Maybe today you'd call them suburbs, but back then they were probably just dusty stops on the road. After her father died, she had a pretty rough upbringing but still managed to do really well in school.

Katie: And she was a pretty girl. There are different accounts as to what she looks like. We keep finding things that say she was 4'11" and other things that say she was 5' and then a wanted poster that says she's 5'5" - so apparently no one knows - with sort of red-gold hair and freckles. Miss Bonnie Parker decided she wanted to get married when she was 16 and eloped with a no-good man.

Sarah: Yeah. It kind of started off a kick in taste for bad men for poor Bonnie, because her husband soon landed in jail. She actually never divorced him, interestingly enough.

Katie: No. Supposedly, she was wearing his wedding ring still when she was found with Clyde. Not to be too much of a spoiler, but they don't live.

Sarah: Yeah. They don't quite make it, if you haven't seen the movie. So, things kind of fall together for the pair in 1930 when they meet at the home of a mutual friend!

Katie: And it was love at first sight according to accounts. Bonnie Parker's friend had broken her arm and she was there taking care of her, and the story goes that Clyde came over to see this girl and saw Bonnie, and that was the end of that.

Sarah: Clyde actually already had a criminal past of his own and he had barely known - they'd known each other for a couple months and he gets arrested and put into prison. She helps break him out at one point.

Katie: Right. This is my favorite part. She'd been writing letters to him where she addressed him as "Sugar" and being very supportive. Then he and his cellmate convince her to smuggle him in a gun. So, it's like a cartoon. She brings him a gun in jail and both he and his cellmate escape, where they stole cars, started robbing again, and of course, he was recaptured in Ohio and stuck in a Texas prison called Eastham Prison Farm.

Sarah: Which he ends up calling a hellhole for good reason. It sounds like it was pretty bad, and imagine, this was Depression-era Texas, too. That kind of compounds everything. But it's a place where the prisoners are regularly beaten. He saw people put into tin sweatboxes in the Texas heat. Even prisoners were murdered sometimes, so the guards could collect a $25 reward for captured inmates.

Katie: And even if you weren't being murdered, you were still picking cotton from sunup to sundown, again, in the Texas heat. Stories say he left prison even worse than he started. He came out a much more bitter man.

Sarah: Yeah. But he starts to thinking in prison that his dream when he gets out is that he's gonna really stick it to them. He wants to form a gang, come back and turn everybody loose.

Katie: While he's in prison, Bonnie's still writing to him and his mother is actually writing to the state and asking for leniency for her son. And her pleas work, but not before he's already gotten two of his toes cut off as a sort of get-out-of-jail-free pass.

Sarah: Yeah. But by February 1932, he works out a conditional pardon because Eastham is so crowded that they've got to let some people out. He meets up with Ralph Foltz, who he was sort of planning a future escape and breakout with. He meets up with him again and starts bringing his gang together.

Katie: This is about when the Barrow gang forms, and he goes right back into robbery after he's released, of course, because that's what you do. The first one didn't go so well. He killed a store owner in the next one. This is where the bad stuff starts. He's stolen a Ford and he's in Oklahoma, and they're drinking whiskey in the car and pull up to a dance and decide maybe they'd like to have a little fun. A couple of police officers walk over to talk to them, because drinking and driving are generally frowned upon, and they shot them. One of the officers died and one was wounded. One of the gang members folded and turned Bonnie and Clyde in.

Sarah: Yeah. Bonnie and Clyde, they're famous for being robbers and being murderers and turning over gas stations and restaurants and banks, but they weren't really that great at it, were they?

Katie: No, not at all.

Sarah: They never made more than $1500. Sometimes they would rob an establishment and not get anything at all. Usually, they just got enough to buy them a few nights at a motel and a little bit of food.

Katie: When I think Great Depression robbers, I think more of John Dillinger or BabyFace Nelson.

Sarah: Gangsters.

Katie: Exactly, who held up banks and got thousands and thousands of dollars and were living the glamorous life during the Great Depression, but not so much for Bonnie and Clyde.

Sarah: I think since they didn't have the big gangster image that somebody like Dillinger had, they're almost considered more like Robin Hood figures until they get into more and more murders. But banks, the Depression, they're not held in that high esteem. I think people were kind of intrigued by the couple.

Katie: But of course, instead of targeting these major institutions, they were more going toward little mom-and-pop stores and little filling stations and smaller banks. So, they weren't even targeting "the man" so to speak, but the people who were really part of their own group. They continued on their little crime spree. After that shooting at the dance, they drove to Bonnie's aunt's house in New Mexico, and Clyde was speeding and that's what caught a police officer's eye. He came looking for him, and so they kidnapped him, which became another part of their MO. They liked kidnapping police officers and then releasing them several hours later.

Sarah: Take them on a little joyride.

Katie: I think just for kicks.

Sarah: That's actually - even though they weren't great robbers, Clyde was actually really good at hot-wiring Ford V8s.

Katie: And it was his favorite car. There was a letter purported to be by Clyde that he sent to Ford that said, "I have drove Fords exclusively when I could get away with one," and it said that John Dillinger sent them a similar letter, because with the new V8 engine, you could get places with that car.

Sarah: Yeah. He was a fast driver. They did make their way around the country. Bonnie also really liked taking pictures of the gang.

Katie: Some of the rolls of film were found in some of their stolen cars, and that's part of how this great, mythic, glamorous couple-to-the-death thin g came because of these pictures. When they got them developed, it's all -

Sarah: Great pictures of them posing with cigars and guns and Bonnie's always nicely turned out in these chic clothes and she wore a lot of makeup when women didn't really wear much at the time. It's all very posed and they're trying to kind of assume this glamor.

Katie: Yeah. She was posing - there's one picture you'll find easily on Google images, where she's posing, pretending she's shooting Clyde. The other one of her is smoking a cigar, which apparently she really disliked, because she smoked cigarettes and nice girls didn't smoke cigars.

Sarah: One of their officers who they kidnapped and later released, he asked her if there was anything she wanted to tell the press and she was like, "Tell them I don't smoke cigars."

Katie: It was this one point of vanity that bothered her more than all the killings.

Sarah: Yeah, apparently.

Katie: So, the killings and the robberies continue. The thing I think is interesting is that they kept going back to Texas to see their families. So, they would do these holdups and these kidnappings, and they would drive back to Texas. Eventually, at some point, this is going to catch up with them, but not quite yet. In 1932, W.D. Jones joins their gang and things start to go a bit awry again. They stole a car.

Sarah: The FBI kind of starts to get on to them at this point. They find a stolen Ford, of course, in Michigan that had been taken from Oklahoma. Then in Oklahoma, they find another stolen Ford. Clyde really liked his Fords. And they start to trace these cars, and they find one has a prescription bottle in it. After tracing the prescription, it goes back to Clyde Barrow's aunt. That's when the FBI issues a warrant for him charging him with interstate transportation of a stolen automobile.

Katie: In 1932, the police try to ambush them in Dallas and it doesn't work. Policemen are killed. And they go right back to more robberies, and they rob an armory and get a whole bunch of weapons. Then in Missouri, they kill another policeman. That brings us up to about March 1933 when Clyde's brother is released from prison. So, what's better than one Barrow but two Barrows? So, he and his wife Blanche join the gang. And they all got a little place together, Bonnie and Clyde and W.D. Jones, and Blanche and Buck, but their behavior is so suspicious they're quickly put under surveillance. The neighbors notice that they never came out of the house.

Sarah: And is this when Bonnie was burned, too?

Katie: Not quite yet. That's a year later, I think. But of course, they figure out who it is. There's a gun fight. All of them escape and they leave behind more rolls of film with more pictures of Bonnie and Clyde which just feeds the media flame. After this, they steal another car and the man pursues them in someone else's car - so way to be feisty man with the stolen car - and he was kidnapped of course, because, again, this is what we do. Then the car wreck you were talking about happened in 1933 and things really start to go south for them, because Bonnie's severely injured. She was pinned under the car, and her whole leg was burned. It was a really, really nasty -

Sarah: Battery acid kind of thing.

Katie: Yeah. And she needed to be in a hospital, but of course, she was an outlaw and she couldn't. So, they had to do the best they could on their own. It said that Clyde called her sister to come and also hired a nurse to watch over Bonnie. But this injury plagued her over their next several escapades. She couldn't get around like she used to.

Sarah: And it also raised further suspicions, like them buying medical supplies, the local pharmacies had been alerted to people buying certain burn supplies.

Katie: Exactly. So, if you saw a guy and you thought he was Clyde but you weren't entirely sure, and then he picked up a big thing of burn ointment, there's a good chance it's Clyde Barrow. Again, in July 1933, they set up shop in a tourist camp and an officer came to visit, figured out who they were, another gunfight ensues - big surprise, because it seems to happen a lot -

Sarah: Gunfights or kidnappings.

Katie: And Buck Barrow is seriou sly wounded to the head and Blanche is blinded by glass in her eye. They manage to escape, but they aren't doing very well. Someone else spies them, turns them in, and Clyde, Bonnie and W.D. Jones are all shot. They left Blanche and Buck behind. They didn't know what else to do. Bonnie and Clyde left tighter, and then W.D. left all by himself, and didn't exactly try to meet up with them again. I think he'd had enough. He was kind of the weak link.

Sarah: Their working relationship was over. Not too long after that, Clyde starts to return to this idea of busting out prisoners from Eastham. He had kind of let the plan fall by the wayside over the past few years, and he was a little worried he was actually getting led into a trap when he was first approached about it. But he starts the operation on January 13th, 1934; he and Bonnie and a few of their accomplices drop off an inner-tube filled with two Colt 45s in a ravine outside of the prison. There's an elaborate exchange where the prisoners are sent out on a work detail, and they know that this one particular guard doesn't follow protocol, because instead of doing his job, he'd rather beat up the prisoners and harass them instead of standing back and guarding them with his rifle. Knowing this, they have him come over. They grab the guns by then. They shoot the guard. Chaos ensues. Four prisoners have planned to escape, working with the gang, they rush out, and Clyde covers them with machine-gun fire. All the guards freak out. Almost all of them abandon them. Only one actually holds his post, and he's kind of credited with preventing what probably would've been a mass escape at Eastham. Imagine this one guy just standing there.

Katie: Against the Barrow gang.

Sarah: And I love this. One extra convict sneaks out with the rest of the gang and hides in the woods for a day and then gets caught.

Katie: It's called seizing opportunity!

Sarah: Yeah. I guess he thought it'd be a good chance. Then the officials realized pretty soon that, looking at the prisoners who escaped, looking at the known gang members, they realized Bonnie and Clyde must be behind this. There was even a little bit of - some people were disturbed that the Barrow gang would have such easy access to a prison where all their buddies are.

Katie: Yeah. Looking back, I wrote a blog post about John Dillinger, and he escaped from more than one prison, as well. I'm thinking maximum security didn't quite mean the same thing then as it does now.

Sarah: Yeah. Some of these guys who escape in '34 - when they're captured, they escape again later from other prisons or from the same one. It seems like most of these guys escape from prison several times.

Katie: Bonnie's no-good prison also -

Sarah: Yeah. He escaped from Eastham, didn't he?

Katie: Yeah. No-good husband from way back in the day!

Sarah: Yeah. But anyway, they shoot a guard during this - not Bonnie and Clyde, but members of their gang inside the prison shoot a guard and kill another guard. After that, they're fate is really sealed. The prison director kind of has it out for them. He's been, obviously, hugely embarrassed by this stunt and by the murder of one of his guards. So, he commissions a retired Texas Ranger, Frank Hamer, to be a state highway patrolman and have a temporary detail to find Bonnie and Clyde.

Katie: So, now they've got a bounty hunter on their tail, and also, two of the men they'd helped escape - Ray Hamilton and Henry Methvin - have joined the gang. So, they've increased their numbers since they've lost Buck and Blanche. Buck ended up dying from his injuries and Blanche was sent to a women's penitentiary. They are out on the hunt again and they rob another bank. Then the event that probably turns the tide of public opinion against them -

Sarah: Yeah, that Robin Hood perception that I mentioned earlier, really changes - is gone.

Katie: They're in Grapevine, Texas, and patrolmen are walking up to their car to question them and without even any warning, they shot them and killed them.

Sarah: And there's a little contention over that because their accomplice, Henry Methvin, apparently fired the first shot and Bonnie and Clyde had wanted to do their normal thing and kidnap the cops instead. But once a shot was fired, they were committed to it at that point.

Katie: A couple of accounts I read said that Clyde had said, "Let's take them!" and Henry took that to mean, "Let's get rid of them!" whereas Clyde meant it, "No, let's actually physically take them like we like to do with officers of the law."

Sarah: Regardless of what happened, two young police officers were killed in cold blood.

Katie: With at least one of them leaving a wife behind. I'm not sure about the other. And two more men joined the bounty hunter, so there were now four people who were just dedicated to catching Bonnie and Clyde. So, it's only a matter of time. After this, there is another robbery and then another attempted car theft and another officer killed. They stole another Ford V8 - their fave - in Kansas and went to see their families again. This is where Bonnie's poem comes in. She wrote a poem called The Story of Bonnie and Clyde, and she gave it to her mother. It begins with, "You've read the story of Jesse James, of how he lived and died. If you're still in need of something to read, here's the story of Bonnie and Clyde." It goes on to say that basically the newspapers are lying and they're not as ruthless as that. Their nature is raw; they hate the law, the stool pigeons, spotters and rats. So, again, probably not going to win you a whole lot of sympathy!

Sarah: No. We should say, too, Bonnie would sit in the backseat of the car - when she wasn't navigating for Clyde or participating in a shootout - and type poetry.

Katie: She's known for that one and one she wrote called The Suicide of Sal, I think, so that creative writing -

Sarah: And Clyde played saxophone. That was another thing found in their car, in addition to lots of license plates, and some money, and lots of guns, was Clyde's sax.

Katie: I like the humanizing details. They help.

Sarah: Yeah, especially at this point. Methvin, the accomplice who participated in the murder of the two highway patrolmen, ends up being their undoing. Remember, we were talking about Frank Hamer earlier, and in his search for Bonnie and Clyde, he eventually gets connected with Henry Methvin, or rather his father, who is seeking a pardon from the state of Texas for his son. At this point, Methvin betrays Bonnie and Clyde and sets them up for the eventual police ambush.

Katie: Right. Henry Methvin's father gets the guarantee for leniency for his son, because Methvin was the one who would probably be in the most trouble after those Grapevine killings and his father knew it. So, he agrees to help them set the two up. They are ambushed in Louisiana on May 23rd, 1935.

Sarah: 1934. Methvin finds a pretext to Part Company with Bonnie and Clyde for a little bit knowing that they're going to reconvene at his parents' house, and the police wait near the house. This is in Gibsland, Louisiana, about a mile off of I20. Some accounts say they waited for a couple days and then others say it was just overnight.

Katie: Yeah, most of the ones I read were saying overnight.

Sarah: Yeah. There's a little controversy there, too. But by 9:10 in the morning, they hear a roar of a V8, and they know it's gotta be Clyde driving that fast. They start shooting pretty much as soon as they get an ID on Clyde.

Katie: With no warning. They don't say, "Stop!" They don't say, "You're under arrest!" They just start shooting, and 167 bullet holes were found in the car and more than 50 in the bodies of the two. When they opened the door, they saw bloody cigarettes in Bonnie's lap along with a gun.

Sarah: Clyde went first. Bienville Parish Deputy Prentiss Oakley fired the first shot, hit Clyde in the head; he was killed pretty much instantly. But Bonnie, apparently, took longer to kill and a lot of the policemen later said they were haunted by hearing her scream after Clyde had been shot and before she died.

Katie: Especially since there weren't any warrants out, I don't think, against Bonnie.

Sarah: No capital warrants.

Katie: Yes. She wasn't ever accused of being a murderer just someone who was along for the ride. While she was in trouble, there was nothing out saying -

Sarah: That's kind of become an interesting question, too. Did Bonnie ever kill anyone or did she even fire a gun? Even one of their own gang members, W.D. Jones, later said that in the five shootouts he participated in with her, he never saw her fire but said she was a hell of a loader.

Katie: So, helpful, if not necessarily the worst one. It was complete pandemonium at the site where they were shot and killed. You can see video right after the shoot. Someone came up just to see everyone rushing around, see the bodies; people were taking pictures and taking pieces of them.

Sarah: Yeah. From there it gets pretty ghoulish.

Katie: Trying to take pieces of her bloody hair and pieces of her dress.

Sarah: Pieces of his ear. They towed the car into town to show the school kids. It's all rather grisly.

Katie: In the car, they found a bunch of guns and a bunch of license plates.

Sarah: And the saxophone.

Katie: And the saxophone. They tried to change license plates after every single robbery they committed.

Sarah: They actually realized that after they lost one of their rolls of film - left it behind and the police got a hold of it - they decided they wanted to start covering up the license plates on their stolen cars and not documenting that. An interesting fact about Methvin, too, the informer, he was later sentenced to death for killing a police officer, something that happened after he signed his pardon agreement. After hearing about his role in catching Bonnie and Clyde, the court commuted it to life and he was released from prison in 1949. Then a few years after that, an unknown person knocked him unconscious and placed him on a railroad track where he was cut in half. So, I guess somebody like Methvin has probably made quite a number of enemies over his lifetime. But I wonder -

Katie: It's still quite a creative way to get rid of someone.

Sarah: Another rather cartoonishly violent thing to do.

Katie: The sad fact that keeps sticking with me is that Bonnie's mother wouldn't let her be buried next to Clyde which, of course, is where she wanted to be. Clyde is buried next to his brother and Bonnie is home.

Sarah: And then they may have died in 1934, but the legend really only grew from there. We talked about the movies, and there's actually a new one in the works. If you haven't seen the'67 original, soon there will be a film starring Hilary Duff and Kevin Zegers. So, we'll see -

Katie: And I remember hearing some really snotty quotes back and forth from Hilary Duff and Faye Dunaway actually about this movie.

Sarah: Yeah. Faye Dunaway did not really approve, did she?

Katie: Not that I read celebrity gossip, but if I did, that's what I would have heard.

Sarah: There are still people who want a piece of Bonnie and Clyde. You can buy a square-inch of Clyde's pants for $200 and the car that they died in -

Katie: Merry Christmas!

Sarah: I know. That's what I want. My birthday's coming up, all! Just kidding. And you can see the car that they died in at a Las Vegas Casino along with Clyde's shirt.

Katie: So, if you'd like to learn the real story of a bunch of criminals and not buy a lot of kitschy memorabilia, you can check out the Stuff You Missed in History Class blog on our homepage at www.HowStuffWorks.com.

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