Police Apprehend Bonnie and Clyde Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker carried out one of the most celebrated crime sprees of the Great Depression era before meeting their violent end in a controversial police ambush.

Summary of Event

The exploits of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, commonly known as Bonnie and Clyde, inspired one of the most popular criminal legends to emerge from the era of the Great Depression. Great Depression;crime From 1932 until 1934, Parker and Barrow embarked on a crime spree that extended from Texas into several southern and midwestern states. Their crimes were small but occasionally violent and generally focused on holdups of small businesses and banks. By 1934, Barrow, Parker, and a rotating gang of accomplices had been implicated in more than a dozen murders, including the killing of several law-enforcement officers, and they were among the most wanted criminals in the United States. [kw]Police Apprehend Bonnie and Clyde (May 23, 1934) [kw]Bonnie and Clyde, Police Apprehend (May 23, 1934) [kw]Clyde, Police Apprehend Bonnie and (May 23, 1934) [g]United States;May 23, 1934: Police Apprehend Bonnie and Clyde[08630] [c]Crime and scandal;May 23, 1934: Police Apprehend Bonnie and Clyde[08630] Barrow, Clyde Parker, Bonnie Hamer, Frank Simmons, Marhall Lee Methvin, Henry

Their criminal activities also made Parker and Barrow minor celebrities. Widespread economic privation and a sensationalist press helped construct a popular image of the bandit as a romantic antihero during the Great Depression, and many of the era’s criminals, including Barrow and Parker, cultivated this image. The pair would often leave their kidnapped robbery victims unharmed and even gave them enough money to return home. Parker, an amateur poet, sent letters and verse to newspapers and left her work behind for authorities. Barrow, whose experiences with high-speed chases had made him a skilled driver, allegedly wrote automobile magnate Henry Ford a letter in which he praised the performance of a stolen Ford sedan.

By late 1933, the pair were living a life much less romantic than their popular image. A police raid on their safehouse in Joplin, Missouri, forced them to leave most of their possessions, and they had begun using a series of increasingly remote hideouts. Further encounters with the police led to more shootouts, resulting in the death of Barrow’s brother, Buck Barrow. In early 1934, the Barrow gang freed several inmates at the Eastham Prison Farm, the brutal prison where Barrow allegedly committed his first murder in 1931. The bold act and ensuing publicity enraged Texas officials, who hired former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer to track down Parker and Barrow. Hamer, who had killed dozens of criminals in shootouts, began tracking the Barrow gang in February, 1934. He found an unlikely source of assistance in former accomplice Henry Methvin, whom the gang had freed from Eastham in the raid. In exchange for immunity from pending charges in Texas and Louisiana, Methvin informed authorities about a planned meeting between Barrow and Methvin that was to take place on May 23 at Methvin’s parents’ house outside Gibsland, Louisiana, approximately 50 miles from the Texas border.

Hamer assembled a posse composed of four officers from Texas and two from Louisiana and made plans to wait for Parker and Barrow along State Highway 154, the most likely route to their meeting place. The officers were hidden and heavily armed behind natural barricades when they deployed along the roadside just after dusk on the evening of May 21, the designated time of the meeting. Parker and Barrow did not show that evening, and the pair waited through the next day and into the morning of May 23 before the Ford sedan driven by Barrow and occupied by Parker came into view. The posse remained hidden as Barrow stopped to talk with Methvin’s father, who had been enlisted as a decoy and had parked his truck in the road to force the couple’s vehicle into the lane closest to the officers’ hiding place.

What happened immediately afterward is the source of controversy. As Methvin’s father dove for cover, the assembled officers opened fire, striking the sedan and its occupants with approximately 130 rounds of ammunition. Barrow, struck in the head with the first bullet fired, died instantly, but participants claimed that they could hear Parker screaming in agony as she was hit by multiple gunshots. Authorities did little to secure the scene of the ambush, which was soon inundated with reporters, souvenir seekers, and onlookers. Bystanders reportedly removed locks of hair from Parker’s corpse, and Hamer and other members of the posse took weapons from the car as souvenirs. American newspapers, capitalizing on the sensational nature of the deaths, published front-page stories of the ambush of along with photographs of the bullet-riddled automobile. Popular media trumpeted the killing of the famous duo as a victory for law enforcement and evidence of the devastating and inevitable consequences of a life of crime. Yet the romantic legend of Parker and Barrow survived, spawning a multitude of books, articles, feature films, and other popular culture references.

Many questioned the ambush’s propriety, particularly the killing of Bonnie Parker, who was not wanted for a capital crime. Some evidence indicates that the head of the Texas prison system, Marshall Lee Simmons, may have issued a direct order to Hamer to kill both Parker and Barrow. All accounts of the incident suggest that the couple was completely taken by surprise: Barrow was driving without shoes, and Parker was reportedly eating a sandwich as they approached the point of ambush. Although Barrow had killed numerous policemen in shootouts and the sedan he was driving contained numerous weapons, there is no evidence that either he or Parker attempted to use force or that they were even aware of the presence of the posse. Although the posse possessed high-powered weaponry capable of disabling the sedan’s tires and engine and thus removing the only available escape option, accounts indicate that the first shot fired hit Barrow in the head at close range. The well-documented frustration expressed by authorities and Hamer’s violent reputation prompted further speculation that the killing of the infamous couple was unjustified and premeditated.

Significance

Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.

(Library of Congress)

Many scholars suggested that Americans traumatized by the Great Depression seized on the true-crime gangster stories of the era as a means of assuaging frustration and escaping the reality of daily life by living vicariously through the exploits of high-profile outlaws, whom the media often portrayed as morally ambiguous figures opposing a broken, corrupt, and oppressive system and capable of random acts of compassion toward ordinary citizens. The crimes and violent deaths of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker occurred during the final wave of the “public enemy” era and paralleled the careers of other famous criminal gang leaders such as John Dillinger and Arizona Donnie “Ma” Barker. Yet the story of Bonnie and Clyde proved one of the most popular and durable criminal legends of the twentieth century, and it periodically resurfaced in motion pictures such as The Bonnie Parker Story (1958), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and Natural Born Killers (1994); popular songs such as the 1968 Merle Haggard hit “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde;” and numerous biographies and other literary treatments. At the end of the twentieth century, the legend had gained a measure of popularity in American hip-hop; several musical recordings contained references to Parker and Barrow.

When the U.S. government consolidated federal law-enforcement agencies into the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 1935, the federal government took a more active role in combating organized crime and in inspiring the federalization of a number of crimes whose enforcement had been the states’ responsibility. The government’s efforts to prevent interstate criminal activity continued to grow throughout the twentieth century as organized crime and gang violence remained sources of media attention and public concern. [g]United States;May 23, 1934: Police Apprehend Bonnie and Clyde[08630]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barrow, Blanche, and John Neal Tebo Phillips . My Life with Bonnie and Clyde. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004. Memoir written in prison by Barrow’s sister-in-law. Edited by noted researcher of Parker and Barrows. Includes accounts of Blanche Barrow’s experiences with the Barrow gang and previously unpublished photographs from author’s personal collection.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bruns, Roger. The Bandit Kings: From Jesse James to Pretty Boy Floyd. New York: Crown, 1995. Examination of the outlaw as folk hero discusses prominent American criminals from 1850 through 1940.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knight, James, and Jonathan Davis. Bonnie and Clyde: A Twenty-First Century Update. Austin, Tex.: Eakin Press, 2003. Detailed biography of Parker and Barrow contains previously unpublished information and photographs as well as refutations of previously unchallenged theories and allegations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Phillips, John Neal. “The Raid on Eastham.” American History 35, no. 4 (October, 2000): 54. Narrative account of the prison break that led to the ambush of Parker and Barrow; the author alleges that Marshall Lee Simmons ordered Frank Hamer to kill the couple.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Prassel, Frank Richard. The Great American Outlaw: A Legacy of Fact and Fiction. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993. Scholarly discussion of the outlaw in American popular culture.

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