In the lore of American of American outlaws, few names jump more readily to mind than “Bonnie and Clyde.”
But Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker came to fame – or infamy, in the end – as a direct result of the times in which they lived. And if law enforcement had simply allowed Clyde to follow through on his attempt to go straight after his stint at Eastham Prison Farm, Bonnie and Clyde may well have experienced much shorter criminal careers – or none at all - and attained significantly less notoriety.
The lives of both Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were shaped by the Depression. Clyde and his siblings were the children of failed tenant farmers in rural Texas. Bonnie’s father, a brick mason earning a steady living in the small West Texas town of Rowena, died young. That left her mother with three small children and no way to provide for them.
Thus, both families ended up in West Dallas – an impoverished slum area across the Trinity River from the city’s business center, located on the east bank. Bonnie and Clyde both grew up in the West Dallas slum.
As was common for poor kids from West Dallas, Clyde Barrow left school around the age of 16. There were factory jobs available for such kids, but they offered menial work that paid little. Clyde held a several jobs, always moving up to better pay and never being fired, but the money was never enough. So Clyde began to supplement his income through illicit means, mainly car thefts and burglary. In 1927, a good stolen car could bring him $100 – a lot more than the dollar a day he made in factory work.
Over the next few years, Clyde was arrested several times but managed to elude conviction. However, on March 3, 1930, a McLennan County grand jury indicted him on seven counts ranging from car theft to possession of stolen goods. Technically a first-time offender, Clyde received a relatively light sentence of seven concurrent two-year sentences, meaning he would likely serve less than two years.
However, as Clyde sat in the McLennan County jail awaiting transfer to the main prison in Hunstville, he decided he didn’t want to endure the harshness of the next two years while doing nothing but obeying someone else’s orders.
Bonnie Parker had been Clyde’s girlfriend since January, 1930, and she visited him every day at the jail. Clyde convinced her to smuggle a gun to him on one of her visits, and Clyde and two other inmates used it to break out of the jail.
In what became Clyde’s modus operandi after committing a crime, he and the other two inmates headed for the state border and left Texas, stealing cars as they went. They drove all the way to Illinois and Ohio. A botched robbery in Middletown, Ohio, got them arrested and transferred back to Waco, where an angry judge sentenced Clyde to his full 14-year term.
To make matters worse, in September, 1930, Clyde found out he was being transferred to the most brutal hellhole in the entire corrupt Texas prison system – the Eastham Prison Farm.
Eastham was located on isolated river bottomland that made escape difficult and cotton and corn easy to grow.
The work was backbreaking, and there were no checks and balances on the treatment of prisoners.
Clyde, who stood a little under 5 feet, 6 inches tall and weighed 127 pounds, was taxed to his physical limits by the arduous work and inadequate nutrition. He was also regularly beaten and abused by the guards, who took exception to his nonconformist attitude. And, he was preyed upon by Ed Crowder, a hulking brute of an inmate who would frequently beat Clyde into submission and rape him.
All the while, Clyde’s mother, Cumie Barrow, relentlessly petitioned Texas Governor Ross Sterling to parole Clyde. Finally, on February 2, 1932, almost two-and-one-half years after Clyde arrived at Eastham Farm, the governor capitulated and paroled him.
In her unpublished manuscript, Cumie Barrow wrote that Clyde called Eastham Farm “a burning hell” and swore that he’d die before he’d let “the laws” send him back there.
And, after that, Clyde gave a sincere effort to live a law-abiding life. Unfortunately, the Dallas police made sure that he couldn’t keep a job.
Attempting Clean Living: Police Harassment
In the last weeks of February, 1932, Clyde was hired for several jobs. He was fired within days from each of them. The reason was the same each time. The Dallas police knew he was back, and they wanted to be rid of Clyde Barrow for good. So, any time Clyde got a job, the police would come to his place of employment and pick him up for questioning. This was the height of the Great Depression, and employers were inundated with applicants for the most menial jobs. They had no tolerance for employees taken away from their work by the law.
In today’s legal climate, this type of overt police harassment would not be tolerated, and it could easily be stopped. But in the depths of the Great Depression, the police ruled over the poor from the slums of West Dallas.
This drove Clyde to accept a job on a construction crew in Framingham, Massachusetts. After leaving prison, Clyde had expressed a desire to join his family’s business and open an auto parts and repair shop on the small lot the family owned next to his father Henry Barrow’s service station. When he left for Framingham, he intended to stay long enough to save money to open his shop. But Clyde hated Framingham, and he returned to Dallas after a couple of weeks.
Barely a month out of the brutal Eastham Prison Farm, Clyde told his sister Nell, who had arranged the Framingham job through the man who ran the construction crew, that he almost died from loneliness in Massachusetts.
Clyde resumed his search for honest work in Dallas, but the same cycle began to repeat itself. As soon as Clyde found work, the local police would haul him away for questioning, and he would end up being fired.
And then fate stepped in.
The Barrow Gang
Clyde’s closest friend at Eastham Farm had been Ralph Fults. Clyde and Fults had been transported to Eastham together – Fults had been recaptured after an escape attempt – and Clyde had invited the contempt of the guards when he stood up for Fults after they beat Fults for his escape.
Fults had been released from Eastham before Clyde, and when he saw Clyde’s name in the newspaper as a recent parolee, he went to visit Clyde. He showed up at Henry Barrow’s service station on a cold day in March, 1932. Fults introduced himself, and Henry told him that Clyde was at work and would be home soon.
Pictured (Raymond Hamilton & Ralph Fults original Barrow Gang members.)
Clyde arrived home with the news that he had just been fired from his job when the cops showed up to take him in for questioning. Clyde had had enough, and with Fults present, he announced he was never going back to work again.
And thus the Barrow Gang was born.
On March 25, 1932 – with Clyde, Ralph Fults, and Raymond Hamilton as the original members – the gang committed its first robbery. Bonnie Parker became involved in April, and the rest is history.
David Chapin will appear as “Smoot” Schmid in our production of Bonnie and Clyde, opening April 20, 2018. Get your tickets!