Bonnie and Clyde: On the Cutting Edge of Crime

(Excerpt from Bonnie and Clyde: A Biography by Nate Hendley)

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were cutting-edge criminals operating in a rural environment that had barely advanced from the 19th Century. Few American farms had electricity in the early 1930s and horses were still used to transport people and crops. Telephones weren’t common in country residences. Police departments in rural and small-town communities were understaffed and under-funded, if not downright incompetent.  Archaic laws made it difficult for police officers to chase criminals across state or county lines. Local cops couldn’t rely on a powerful federal presence to help them out either. As late as 1933, agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation weren’t allowed to carry guns or make arrests.

Bonnie and Clyde thrived in this milieu. Using fast Ford V-8s, they could zip from community to community and make speedy getaways. Clyde’s preference for Browning Automatic Rifles (BARs), which could spit out 20 bullets in under three seconds, meant that the Barrow gang was usually better-equipped then most small-town police departments.

The presence of Bonnie added a curious, contemporary twist to the Barrow gang’s exploits.

Unlike Clyde, Bonnie was not a young offender who fell into crime almost as a habit. By all accounts, she was an intelligent, high-spirited girl brought up by a normal, loving family. Bonnie always remained close to her family, risking arrest or capture to visit her kin. All sources agree that Bonnie was deeply in love with Clyde. It’s unclear how smitten Clyde was in return.

If Bonnie was loving and loyal to Clyde, the exact nature of her role in the Barrow gang is open to dispute. Some movies and books have portrayed Bonnie as the real boss of the Barrow crew, ordering around a meek and mild Clyde. As intriguing as they are, such depictions aren’t accurate. Captured members of the Barrow gang always insisted that Clyde led and Bonnie followed. Clyde Barrow was the undisputed leader of the gang that bore his name.

Some of Bonnie’s criminal cohorts say she never even fired a gun, much less killed anyone. Other witnesses depict her as a gun-loving shrew, who laughed as she killed two badly wounded motorcycle policemen lying helplessly by a Texas highway.

The extent of Bonnie’s private relationship with Clyde has also been grounds for much speculation. It’s not even clear if they were lovers, as well as partners in crime. Some historical accounts offer lurid portraits of a nymphomaniac Bonnie, seducing the male members of the Barrow gang when Clyde couldn’t please her. Other accounts depict Clyde as gay or impotent—more interested in guns than sex.

Regardless of her private relations with Clyde, it was clear that Bonnie was no ordinary moll. While she deferred to Clyde’s leadership, she wasn’t submissive or subservient. Unlike Blanche, the wife of Clyde’s older brother, Buck, Bonnie wasn’t prone to hysterics. She didn’t lose her cool, even when caught in a police ambush. She was willing to risk death and jail to stay with Clyde. She was always by his side, even during shootouts.

It was this “stand-by-your-man” quality that separated Bonnie from other female felons of the Depression.

“Most so-called ‘gun molls’ were never more than mistresses or wives, and rarely took part in the action,” notes crime writer and historian Rick Mattix.

Without Bonnie, Clyde would have been regarded as a two-bit cop-killer with a grudge against society.

Bonnie was arguably the smartest member of the Barrow gang. She certainly was the most artistically inclined. Two poems she wrote helped cement Bonnie and Clyde’s legend. These works make good use of rhyming verse and criminal lingo to glorify the Barrow crew. One poem, entitled, “The Story of Bonnie and Clyde”, became widely published following the death of its subjects.

“The Story of Bonnie Clyde” rather falsely glorifies its subjects, portraying them as poor, put-upon folks striking back against oppressive police. Clyde comes across as downright noble in this work, an admirable person not a low-life criminal. No matter. Bonnie’s verses firmly became entrenched in the popular consciousness, even if they were nothing more than fantasy.

(Nate Hendley is a Toronto-based author and writer. Click on this link for information on his books)

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