Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Bonnie and Clyde: Romeo and Juliet in a Getaway Car

They Meet

"Two, two silhouettes in a room
Almost obscured by the gloom..."
Two Cigarettes in the Dark

P. F. Webster, L. Pollack

Clyde never forgot his first days in West Dallas. Thinking of them in adulthood made him bitter. Only a child then, he recalled the humiliating experience of his family being forced to live for days under a viaduct with other transient families who had no place to go and no money to get them there even if they had. When it rained, the Barrows jumbled together with maybe forty others watching the ground below the overpass turn from clay into mud, and into a little river where they otherwise would have been able to sleep that night. Henry and Cummie Barrow had left the cottonfields back at Teleco and had come to Dallas with their eight children (of which Clyde was the fifth) to seek employment. Within a couple of weeks, due to insistence, Papa Barrow found work at the Star gas station on Eagle Ford Road. Not much money, maybe, but it provided the family with a roof and four walls the one-room storage area behind the front counter littered with Dr. Pepper and Nehi signs.

Clyde Barrow's parents (credit: Carl Mydans/TIMEPIX)
Clyde Barrow's parents (credit: Carl

Cummie thanked the Lord her Henry had escaped the grueling heat and torturous labor that had been slowly killing him as a cotton picker. Maybe they ate meatless stew for weeks on end now, and sometimes went to bed hungry, but at least her kids were able to attend school, Cedar Valley, and would get an education so they wouldn't have to endure any more downpours.

Clyde and his brother Ivan, whom everyone called "Buck," generally skipped classes, though. They would wander for hours in the back streets of Dallas and engage in fisticuffs with the other truants who, like Clyde, saw no future at Cedar Valley.

While the wayward Barrow boys were ditching school, across the tracks in Cement City, a cute little redhead with ringlets and a too-mature swivel in her hips for a teenager was attracting the attention of the local boys in Cement City High School. Bonnie Parker was a capable student, her teachers noted, and they saw her with her mother and grandmother every Sunday at the First Baptist Church in town. The only trouble is she seemed a little too preoccupied with Roy Thornton, one of the "bad boys." Much to her mother's woes, Thornton was an after-school staple walking her home daily to Olive Street. No one, not even Mrs. Parker, was really surprised when Bonnie quit school and eloped at age 16.

Clyde Barrow and older brother Buck dropped out, too, to spend their days sleeping and their nights yahooing with the hillbillies who hung out in the pool halls, at freight yards and on the corners of West Dallas. Bored, they made their own excitement and, much to the chagrin of the local police, excitement meant something illegal. At first, this translated as small stuff, breaking a window here, stealing a bag of candy there. But, boredom escalated and so did their "excitement".

One night, the "Terrible Barrows" (as the neighbors took to calling the duo) stole a flivver and cruised the dark boulevards of nearby Denton. They wanted money and, with a little moonshine under their belt, decided to burgle one of the many shops fronting Main Street. They chose the Motor Mark Garage. Pulling their car, headlights off, through an alley, they parked behind the place and jimmied the shop's lock until it snapped. Greeting them in the alcove was a small safe, bathed in moonlight that poured in through the window. It looked inviting. More so, it looked portable. Hoisting it, they carried it out and tossed it onto the back seat of their auto, laughing at the incredible ease of this job.

A scouting patrol car, however, had earlier spotted the suspicious vehicle and, before Clyde and Buck could travel two blocks with the ungainly prize, they found themselves being pursued. Panicky, driver Buck crashed the car into a lamp-post; the two brothers lit out. Clyde escaped through a succession of Denton backyards, but Buck had stumbled. The police nabbed him. Refusing to name his accomplice, they took him to Denton's courthouse and booked him for robbery. In an ensuing trial, he received several years in Huntsville State Prison.

Clyde might have learned from this fiasco and his brother's literal stumbling into constabulary hands. He didn't. The night after the foiled theft, he and his friends were out burgling other stores in neighboring Waco.

Just as unlucky as the oldest Barrow boy had been with the law was Roy Thornton, Bonnie Parker's young husband. About the same time Buck was being incarcerated, he too was slapped with a multiple-year jail term for thievery. Bonnie moved back into her grandmother's house and took a job as a waitress at Marco's Cafe in the heart of Dallas. She was more angry at Roy than she missed him; she had warned him time and again, "Be careful!". Now here she was, reduced to catering to hungry, louting truckers with heart tattoos who slapped her behind and passed crude comments as she wiggled by with heavy soup trays. One of her nicer customers was a town policeman named Ted Hinton; he never flirted and seemed to mind his own business, merely acknowledging her with a friendly hello at breakfast every morning.

Bonnie Parker (CORBIS)
Bonnie Parker (CORBIS)

"(Bonnie) was a very pretty young woman with taffy-colored hair that glistened red in the sun and with a complexion that was fair and tended to freckle," he wrote years later. In his book, Ambush, co-authored with Larry Grove, he admitted he had had an attraction to her. "Photographs...failed to do justice to her looks. The clothes she wore viewed by later generations tend to diminish the sparkle she had when I knew her...Bonnie could turn heads."

Though Hinton and Bonnie rarely spoke those mornings in the cafe, and it is doubtful they knew each other's last names, both would, in less than five years, come together on a country highway in northern Louisiana. Bonnie would be dead. Hinton would be one of a group of lawmen who shot her.

But, in the late Fall of 1929, there was no harbinger of death, lest it be in the auspicious form of the gremlin who kicked the air out of the nation's money gullet. Both Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow saw, from their respective angles, the quivering beginnings of what would be called in time the Great Depression. They saw the "Out of Business" signs being nailed to the doors of once prosperous Dallas shops, saw the clutters of furniture piled in front of homes whose families lost their daily bread and the rent money; saw the gray procession of truck farmers on the roads around Dallas thumbing their way to Anywhere, USA, where, because they were tossed off their land here, began a search for new beginnings elsewhere.

Clyde fumed at the sight. He knew what it was to go hungry and cussed President Hoover and the rest of the damn cigar-chomping politicians who were allowing dungaree America go to the dogs. The government was taking away the lives of all these people well, he would take back something from the government for a change. And he'd do it as he always had done it: by slapping the face of Uncle Sam.

Throughout neighboring McClennan and mostly Waco counties, he and an assembled band of ruffians terrorized small shop owners through burglaries and face-to-face holdups, and, as if daring the law to react, boasted his crimes to anyone who listened. Just before Christmas of 1929, authorities determined to fully investigate the activities on one Clyde Chestnut Barrow with intent to apprehend once enough evidence was gathered.

Not realizing that he was in danger, Clyde drifted around Dallas as slowly as the days crawled for the poor at Yuletide. One evening, hearing that a sister of one his huckleberries had slipped and fallen on an ice patch and broken an arm; he decided to pay her a visit to cheer her up. After salutations were complete, he asked her what the clatter was in the kitchen.

"That's my girlfriend," she said, "mixing up some hot chocolate. Go in and say hello. Her name's Bonnie Parker."

It was love at first sight, for both of them. Insanity born over Ovaltine. Almost forgetting about their unfortunate mutual friend, Bonnie and Clyde talked well into the late hours. And they continued to see each other, almost daily over the next couple of months.