She was an honor student and loved poetry, but she dropped out of school, married Roy Thornton before her sixteenth birthday, and had “Roy and Bonnie” tattooed on her right knee to celebrate the union. After a stormy two years, Thornton went to prison; Bonnie never divorced him and died five years later, still wearing Thornton’s wedding ring. Those five years would make her a legend as the partner of another man.
Bonnie Elizabeth Parker was four in 1914 when her father died. Her mother moved her three children to “Cement City,” an industrial area of West Dallas to be near relatives and to secure work as a seamstress. That rough and tumble area was where Bonnie met and married Thornton, and it was where the four-foot-ten inch, eighty-five pound Bonnie met Clyde Chestnut Barrow one year after Thornton went to prison.
Clyde Barrow had already made a name for himself with the Dallas police force for a series of robberies. When he was arrested again, Bonnie wrote letters pleading with him to stay out of trouble, and then she smuggled a handgun to him that he used to escape. He was captured in a week and sent to Eastham Prison Farm in April 1930. One account says that to avoid hard labor on the prison’s plantation, Barrow had a fellow inmate chop off two of Barrow’s toes on his left foot. Another account says that before Barrow was paroled in February 1932, he beat another inmate to death for repeated sexual assaults. Whatever happened in that two-year prison experience, Clyde Barrow walked out as a hardened criminal, bent on getting revenge for the treatment he had received.
Historians believe Bonnie stayed with Barrow and his gang, which had an ever-changing list of members, because she loved him. She willingly took part in the series of small robberies—stores and gas stations—with the goal of eventually launching an attack to liberate Eastham prisoners. She was arrested with one of the gang members as they tried to steal guns from a hardware store. After a few months in jail, a grand jury failed to indict her, and she was released. While Bonnie was in jail, Barrow was accused of murder because he drove the car in a robbery in which a storeowner was shot and killed.
A few months later, while Bonnie was visiting her mother in Dallas, Barrow and a couple of his cronies were at a dance in Oklahoma and ended up killing a deputy and wounding a sheriff—the first time the Barrow Gang killed a lawman. Before the reign ended, they had killed nine.
The crime spree continued. In the last six months of 1932 the gang killed five men—law officers and private citizens they were attempting to rob. The following March, Clyde Barrow’s brother, Buck was released from prison and the two couples—Bonnie and Clyde and Buck and his wife Blanche—moved into a garage apartment in Joplin, Missouri. Their loud drinking parties caused neighbors to grow suspicious and report them to authorities. On April 13, 1933, when five lawmen approached the apartment, the gang opened fire killing a detective and fatally wounding a constable. As the gang ran for their car, Bonnie covered their escape by firing her M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle (their weapon of choice). The got away without any of their personal belongings, which included Buck’s three-weeks-old parole papers, a large stash of weapons, one of Bonnie’s poems, and a camera with several rolls of undeveloped film. Before the police gave the film to The Joplin Globe, Bonnie and Clyde were known primarily for their crimes in the Dallas area. But the pictures, swaggering attempts to look tough as they posed with their guns, made the Barrow Gang a front-page story across the nation.
For the next three months they made headlines, roaming from Texas to Minnesota, robbing banks and stealing cars, killing those who got in their way, and kidnapping both lawmen and robbery victims. Sometimes they released their hostages with enough money to get back home. While the public enjoyed following the increasingly violent behavior, the five members of the gang, forced to ride in one car, began to bicker according to a prison account written years later by Blanche Barrow. There was no place to hide—restaurants and motels offered the threat of exposure—forcing them to cook on campfires and bathe in cold streams.
On June 10, 1933, Clyde missed a construction sign and flipped their car into a ravine. Bonnie received third-degree burns on her right leg, either from a fire or acid in the car’s battery. While they waited in a tourist court near Fort Smith, Arkansas, for Bonnie’s leg to heal, other gang members botched a robbery and killed the town marshal of Alma, Arkansas. Despite the serious condition of Bonnie’s leg, they were forced to flee. It was July 18 when they checked into a tourist court near Kansas City, Missouri, and began a series of stunts that drew immediate attention. Blanche Barrow, while wearing jodhpur riding breeches—clothing unfamiliar to women in that area—registered for three guests, and five people openly stepped from the car. She paid with coins instead of bills for the lodging and for meals at the neighboring restaurant that was a favorite hangout for Missouri highway patrolmen. When Clyde went to a drugstore to purchase bandages and ointment for Bonnie’s leg and crackers and cheese, the pharmacist became suspicious and notified authorities who were on the lookout for strangers shopping for such supplies.
Ironically the ensuing gunfight resulted in a bullet hitting the horn on the lawmen’s armored car and caused them to think it was a cease-fire signal. Although they got away, both Blanche and Buck Barrow were severely injured. Clyde Barrow was so sure his brother would die from his injuries that Clyde dug his grave. Again, they drew attention to themselves by tossing out bloody bandages. When the authorities arrived, Bonnie and Clyde escaped on foot; Buck was shot and died later, and Blanche was taken into custody.
For six weeks the remaining three members of the gang moved from Colorado to Minnesota and south to Mississippi, committing small robberies and trying to replenish their arsenal. They returned in September to Dallas where their families tended to Bonnie’s leg injuries, which never healed properly and caused her to spend the rest of her life hopping on one foot or being carried by Clyde. He stayed busy pulling off minor robberies until November 22, 1933, when the Dallas sheriff almost caught the pair as they headed to a family meeting. Clyde sensed that something was wrong and drove quickly away amid police machine gun fire that struck both him and Bonnie in the legs.
The next week, a Dallas grand jury indicted Bonnie and Clyde for the 1933 murder of the Tarrant County deputy—the first murder warrant issued for Bonnie Parker. On January 16, 1934, Clyde Barrow succeeded in reaching his goal of revenge on the Texas Department of Corrections by leading an escape of former gang members and other prisoners from the Eastham Prison. One of the escapees shot a prison officer, which focused the full power of state and federal authorities on the capture of Bonnie and Clyde.
Retired Texas Ranger Captain Frank A. Hamer was employed to get the Barrow Gang. A tenacious hunter, Hamer had the reputation for getting his man—during his career he suffered seventeen personal wounds and killed fifty-three criminals. For over two months Hamer stalked the gang—always one or two towns behind. On April 1, 1934, Barrow and another gang member killed two Texas highway patrolmen. A witness, who was later discredited, claimed to have seen Bonnie laugh at the way the patrolman’s “head bounced like a rubber ball.” The story was picked up in the papers and fueled the public outcry against Bonnie Parker. The Highway Patrol offered $1,000 for “the dead bodies,” and Governor Ma Ferguson put up another $500 for each of the killers.
Bonnie closed the door on any possible claim for clemency a few days later when Clyde and another gang member killed a sixty-year-old Oklahoma constable and took the police chief as a hostage. Before they gave the chief a clean shirt and let him go, Bonnie asked him to spread the word that she did not smoke cigars (she chain-smoked Camels). The arrest warrant named Clyde, a John Doe, and Bonnie as the killers of the constable.
Frank Hamer had been studying the movements of the gang. He realized that they visited family, moving in a circle along the edge of five midwestern states, enabling them to escape without law enforcement being able to follow them across the state line. He estimated when it would be time to visit a gang family member in Louisiana. Hamer amassed an armor-piercing arsenal, a posse of four Texas and two Louisiana officers and lay in wait on a rural road near Arcadia, Louisiana. The father of one of the former gang members, who later claimed that he was forced to cooperate, flagged down the speeding Ford carrying only Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow at 9:15 a.m. on May 23, 1934. The posse opened fire, hitting the stolen vehicle with 167 bullets. Reports said that Bonnie’s bullet-riddled body was found holding a machine gun, a sandwich, and a pack of cigarettes. Clyde, whose body was barely recognizable, was still clutching a revolver.
The death scene erupted in chaos with souvenir hunters scavenging pieces of clothing, hair, and shell casings. They were not buried together as they wished, but in separate Dallas cemeteries. Mobs descended on the Parker home, and a throng of 20,000 made it almost impossible for the family to reach the Dallas gravesite. Although thousands crowded both funeral homes hoping to see the bodies, the Barrow family held a private service and buried Clyde next to his brother Buck. They shared a simple granite marker with their names and the words that had been selected by Clyde: “Gone but not forgotten.”
No one will ever know the real extent of Bonnie Parker’s involvement in the crimes of the Barrow Gang. Some gang members claimed that she never killed anyone, but she was involved in eight murders, seven kidnappings, less than a dozen bank heists, many armed robberies and car thefts, and a major jailbreak. One account says that the largest haul of any of the robberies netted only $1,500.