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Depression-era Texans

Bonnie Parker stood 4'11" in her stocking feet, weighed 90 pounds, had Shirley Temple-colored strawberry-blond ringlets, was freckle-faced and, according to those who knew her, was very pretty. Born October 1, 1910, in Rowena, Texas, her parents were hard working laborers plunked down in life among the lower caste. A good student in high school, she excelled in creative writing and displayed a dramatic flair for the arts. Her favorite color was red; when she could afford it, she wore fashionable clothes dominating that color. She loved hats of all kinds. As a child, Bonnie's father died young and her mother was forced to bring her and her two siblings to Cement City, near Dallas, where they lived with Mrs. Parker's parents. Married too young, at age 16, her immature rattle-brained husband wound up in the penitentiary a year later. For money, she was forced to become a waitress. Bored and poor, she knew life had something more to offer.

Clyde Chestnut Barrow stood 5'7," weighed 130 pounds, slicked back his thick brown hair in the style of the day, and parted it on the left. His eye color matched his hair. Women found him attractive. He came into this world as one of many children born to dirt-poor tenant farmer parents barely making a living on the cotton fields of Teleco, Texas. Moving with his parents, brothers and sisters to the Dallas outskirts, where his father ran a gas station (in which the family members crowded as one into a tiny back room), Clyde quickly learned to abhor poverty. Bored and poor, he too knew life had something more to offer.

Bonnie and Clyde were meant for each other. And they clung to each other while they fought back against the elements. These elements were destitution and a government they took for its face value. They were children of a nationwide economic depression that not unlike France in the late 1700s had its upheavals -- and those who tried to keep small the size and impact of the upheavals.

An anger dwelt within Clyde, having been born ragged and made more ragged by the Depression. He sometimes killed in cold blood, and always tried to justify the murders as if he had a right to pull that trigger, thus releasing somehow the seething that built up like a volcano deep inside him. Perhaps he actually believed in his own special privilege. As the fame of Bonnie and Clyde grew, they shot their way out of police loops, each time growing tighter and tighter, and claimed that the "laws" they killed just happened to get in the way between their fiery outcry and the rest of the country. Their killings were not personal, they contended. But, the government took them personal. And Bonnie and her man were marked for death.

Depression had lowered a hideous shroud over the nation. The American Dream collapsed along with Wall Street in 1929. Pride of freedom became a joke. "The country's money simply declined by 38 percent," explains E.R. Milner, author of The Lives and Times of Bonnie and Clyde. "Gaunt dazed men roamed the city streets seeking jobs...Breadlines and soup kitchens became jammed. (In rural areas) foreclosures forced more than 38 percent of farmers from their lands (while simultaneously) a catastrophic drought struck the Great Plains...By the time Bonnie and Clyde became well known, many had felt the capitalistic system had been abused by big business and government officials...Now here were Bonnie and Clyde striking back."

While they terrorized banks and store owners in five states - Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Louisiana, and New Mexico - Americans thrilled to their "Robin Hood" adventures. The presence of a female, Bonnie, escalated the sincerity of their intentions to make them something unique and individual - even at times heroic - and above similar activities of all-male motor bandits like John Dillinger, "Baby Face" Nelson and "Pretty Boy" Floyd.

Historian Jonathan Davis, in an excellent A&E Cable Network-produced Biography on the two bandits, says of Bonnie and Clyde's crimes, "Anybody who robbed banks or fought the law were really living out some secret fantasies on a large part of the public." Even more than their insurgence against their status in life was Bonnie and Clyde's devotion to their own. With police and government detectives constantly on their trails, sometimes literally by inches, they time and time again risked their own lives to protect the other. Says Marie Barrow, Clyde's sister, in Biography, "They never worried about anything else but each other."

When on the lam, they found time to visit their Dallas-area families, risking capture more than once. Marie asserts that her brother and father had concocted their own signal to let the families know when the outlaws were in town: Clyde would pause the latest of his stolen automobiles in front of the Barrow service station and from the car toss a soda pop bottle containing directions to a place of rendezvous. "My mother would fix them something to eat," she adds.

In their getaway cars, Clyde and Bonnie habitually carried a Kodak box camera; they loved to pose in dramatic tableaux wielding shotguns and revolvers, self-parodying the gangster image they realized they had earned. More than that, they loved to pose together, embraced or kissing, having other gang members do the snapping. When they died, the police found an undeveloped roll of film under their car seat -- photos of them together, looking adventurous and deeply in love.

They knew they were going to die, maybe next week, maybe next month. Maybe in the morning. They never pretended they might be the only exception to the standard, "Crime doesn't pay". But, because they knew their time was limited -- their crime spree lasted less than two years -- they decided to let all hell break loose in the meantime to whoop and holler it up till death do them part. Bonnie's last request to her mother was, "Don't bring me to a funeral parlor. Bring me home."

The last two years of their lives, once they met, were a whirly-gig. Never-ending highways burning in the Southwest sun; dusty backroads; the scorch of over-heated radiators; the burn of rubber; the stifled crampedness of one car after another; their only air the hot breeze they channeled through rolled-down car windows. Fast life. A die-young life. And they wouldn't have traded it for the world.

Near dusk, on November 21, 1933, a gray sedan rolled over the horizon and came to a stop about 100 yards past where the detectives lay. Bonnie and Clyde alighted and peered down the road, as if expecting company. Ted Hinton, a deputy sheriff of Dallas County, although he would have liked to have brought his men nearer to them, decided that to wait could imperil the lives of innocent comers. He stood in the tall grass and shouted, "Barrow, surrender in the name of the law!"

Bonnie and Clyde said nothing; but darted for their car. The detectives opened fire, clipping both fugitives in the knees, but not stopping them. Before he jumped in, Clyde drew a machine gun from the front seat and sprayed the rows of grass from whence the shots were coming. The lawmen hit the dirt, Clyde's bullets whining over their heads. When they looked up again, the gray sedan was further down the road, crossing the open plain to disappear from sight. The discouraging attempt hadn't been a dismal failure. Hinton and the detectives learned one thing that night: You don't give a hands-up to killers like Bonnie and Clyde. You shoot first, then read them their rights.

To the extent that Depression-era Texans were at all class-conscious, Clyde Barrow, and Bonnie Parker probably would have been looked upon as "white trash." They distinguished themselves from the state's sizable population of lawbreakers by being impulsive, deadly and thoroughly unprofessional. They mostly hit grocery stores and filling stations, killing without qualms, provoking John Dillinger to gripe that these were the kind of punks who gave armed robbery a bad name. What earned them a place in criminal history was their elusiveness, and the public's fascination with a boy-and-girl bandit team who had a flair for the dramatic and enjoyed their publicity. They took pictures of each other engaging in horseplay with guns, and mailed bad poetry to newspapers. Bonnie's main beef with the press was the frequent publishing of a captured photo of her smoking a cigar, which she claimed was taken strictly as a joke.

Despite their small stature and underage looks, they were armed to the teeth, Clyde favoring the heavy Browning Automatic Rifle (the BAR, usually stolen from National Guard armories and shortened) designed for muscular soldiers. Their narrow escapes in shootouts became front-page news, and taught their pursuers that the Thornpson gun would not always penetrate the tough skin of the V-8 Fords Bonnie and Clyde generally used. So when police finally ambushed the outlaws in Louisiana, May 23, 1934, with a posse led by Frank Hamer, a legendary former Texas Ranger hired specifically to bring them down, the lawmen shredded their car and its two notorious passengers with 167 bullets mainly from high-powered rifles.

Bonnie and Clyde's deaths made national headlines at the height of the public-enemy era, and the morbidly curious had a field day. The Barrow car was towed to the town of Arcadia with the bodies still inside, and the battered corpses were laid out in gory splendor for the benefit of sightseers, one of whom had to be constrained from cutting off Clyde's trigger finger for a souvenir. Others were content to pose for pictures with the riddled and blood-soaked Ford, which has remained a popular tourist attraction wherever displayed.

Despite a minimum of redeeming personal qualities, Bonnie and Clyde still have a large following, and left a legacy of questions still argued in books on their career. Their betrayal is part of the mystery; the members of the ambush party later gave conflicting versions of the killing; Clyde's sexual character is still debated; and the story persists that authorities covered up the fact Bonnie died pregnant. It's true that Clyde wrote a letter to Henry Ford complimenting his automobile; but a similar letter to Ford from John Dillinger has been studied by handwriting experts and declared a fake.

William J. Helmer with Rick Mattix. Public Enemies: America's Criminal Past, 1919-1940. Facts on File. September 1998.

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