This year marks the 75th anniversary of 1934, a bad year for American outlaws.
Indianapolis-born bank robber John Dillinger saw his last movie on July 22, and Chicago’s own Lester “Baby Face Nelson” Gillis was found dead in a ditch on Nov. 27. Oklahoma’s Cookson Hills protected Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd before he headed west on Oct. 22. And, carrying this streak of bad luck over to early 1935, Arizona Donnie Clark, known as “Ma” Barker, and son Fred, who had been exercising their perverse family values out of Tulsa since 1915, had their last exchange of unpleasantries with the FBI on Jan. 16.
This hit parade began on May 23, 1934, when Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker had their final run-in with the law outside of Gibsland, La. The two drove into an ambush and, about 130 rounds later, 25-year-old Clyde and 23-year-old Bonnie were so much hoodlum tartare. Former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, who headed the ambush posse, offered a sarcastic final word on the morning’s work: “I hate to bust a cap on a woman. Especially when she’s sitting down.”
Clyde was a small fella ” just under 5 feet 6 inches and with a top weight of around 125 pounds. Viewing his corpse, one gawker reportedly mumbled, “He was nothing but a little bitty fart.” Bonnie was no giant, either, topping out at 4 feet 11 inches. It was only her dreams of Broadway stardom or fame as a renowned poet that were large.
The couple was, in a sense, the Bizarro World version of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It has been said of the musical duo that Astaire gave Rogers class and she gave him sex appeal. Bonnie made Clyde sexy, and he made her dangerous.
The two were Texans, but they spent a lot of time and criminal effort in Oklahoma ” and not always successfully.
The Barrow gang mostly used Oklahoma as a place to hide or as a source of small-time robberies for grocery money. Despite repeated attempts to strike up a partnership with Pretty Boy Floyd in Sallisaw ” Floyd, like Dillinger, is said to have disdained Bonnie and Clyde as bush leaguers capable of stealing only milk money from kids ” they never made many friends on this side of the Red River. They did manage to liberate $1,500 from the Central National Bank in Poteau, but Clyde was merely the wheelman for that holdup.
Clyde was never the sharpest knife in the drawer. After a botched jailbreak early in his career, the Waco Times-Herald referred to him and the other crooks he tried to escape with as a trio of “baby dumbbells.”
His failures, plentiful enough, were not always his fault. In late 1933, he recruited two cons ” by way of escape ” from Texas prisons to form a new gang: Henry Massingale and Dock Potter. Bonnie stayed behind on this trip, and the three men headed north to Enid with the intention of starting a mini crime wave. Unfortunately for them, three other inmates had just busted out of the prison in McAlester, so Oklahoma was full of lawmen on the lookout for three cons on the run. Clyde, Massingale and Potter spent hours trying to dodge the Sooner cops.
They stole four cars in one day in their attempt to elude the law, losing the last one by getting it stuck in the mud. Then, a chance for redemption: They saw some elderly ladies playing croquet. Massingale charged up to them and, waving a gun in the air, ordered they give him the keys to one of their cars. But, the ladies weren’t about to give up their wheels easily ” they began knocking him with their croquet mallets. Clyde and Potter took off. Massingale was captured and went back to jail.
There’s no denying that Clyde had a sense of humor. Once, he and partner Ralph Fults stopped a rural mail carrier named Bill Owens and stole his car. They forced him to accompany them as they headed north to the Texas-Oklahoma border. Clyde, a good driver, crashed across a toll bridge into Oklahoma and soon offered to let Owens go. The postal worker asked for his mailbag, which the crooks handed over, and when Clyde promised they would abandon the car in plain sight on down the road, Owens asked them to burn it instead. Then the government, he plotted, would have to buy him a new one. Apparently amused, Clyde agreed, and when the car was found later, it was a burning wreck.
THE END OF THE LINE
Being a small-time criminal isn’t all fun and games. Sometimes people get hurt. Sometimes they get murdered. It was in Oklahoma that Clyde really started his journey to Gibsland when he killed his first cop.
Bonnie was home with her mother Emma in West Dallas. Clyde and partners Raymond Hamilton and Ross Dyer were passing through Stringtown in Atoka County on Aug. 5, 1932, when they came across an outdoor dance. The three stopped to high step with the country girls, but Clyde and Hamilton eventually ambled back to the car, passing a flask of whiskey back and forth.
Sheriff Charles Maxwell approached the car. Wanted for a murder in Hillsboro, Texas, Clyde and Hamilton were touchy about making small talk with the law, so they opened fire on Maxwell. Witness Duke Ellis, who was playing guitar for the band, said that he saw the sheriff flung backwards from the vehicle by the force of the gunfire. Undersheriff Eugene Moore shot back as Clyde, trying to escape, drove into a ditch. Bystander Harry Bryant picked up Maxwell’s discarded gun to join Moore in blasting away at the car, but Moore was hit by a single bullet, dying before he hit the ground.
Clyde and Hamilton ran into the bushes, finally stealing a car and roaring back to Dallas. Dyer, who hid by mingling with the crowd, was arrested in McKinney, Texas, and ratted out his partners.
During its four-year crime spree, the Barrow gang would kill at least nine police officers. Eugene Moore was only the first. The last to die was also an Oklahoman.
SLEEPING IN A CAR
On the morning of April 6, 1934, Commerce Chief of Police Percy Boyd and 60-year-old town constable Cal Campbell drove out of town to check out some people who were sleeping in a car. It was Clyde, Bonnie and current partner Henry Methvin.
Clyde saw the cops approaching his car and tried to drive away, once again getting stuck in mud. As Campbell neared the vehicle he thought he saw a gun in someone’s hand. He had no experience in gun fights ” he had been a contractor before the Depression hit ” but he pulled his gun and opened fire. Clyde and Methvin shot back.
Campbell was killed and Boyd received a minor head wound.
The gang kidnapped Boyd, who spent the day with them and decided he really liked Bonnie. When he was finally released, Boyd asked Bonnie if she had any message she’d like for him to relay to the press.
“Yes,” she answered. “Tell them I don’t smoke cigars.”
Less than seven weeks later, she and Clyde would be smoking together, but definitely not stogies. Methvin’s parents, with his approval, helped the law in setting up the ambush with the understanding that the state of Texas would not seek to prosecute Methvin for any of his crimes. Texas agreed.
But Methvin forgot to make a deal with Oklahoma, where he ended up doing time for the Campbell killing. Sometimes you have to read the fine print ” even when there isn’t any.
Knocking over banks in early Oklahoma was never a sure thing. Clyde Barrow and his business associates hit the bank in Poteau for $1,500 ” a huge haul by Barrow gang standards ” but others in his profession didn’t even have that kind of luck in the Sooner State.
One of the earliest attempts was also one of the most successful. Texan Willis Newton, one of the Newton Boys, dropped by the town bank in Boswell, Choctaw County, in 1919 and slipped away $10,000 richer.
Most outlaws who lived in Oklahoma were smart enough not to foul the nest, but such was not the case with one of “Ma” Barker’s brood, Arthur “Doc” Barker, who, on Jan. 15, 1922, robbed the bank in Muskogee. He got caught and served five months at the state prison in McAlester. Doc finally wound up on the infamous island of Alcatraz, where he was killed during an attempted prison break in 1939.
Ketchum, in Craig County, currently has a population of around 300. It’s not a ghost town, but it is running a mite low on protoplasm. But Ketchum was the scene in August 1923 of a failed bank robbery attempt that cost the life of teller Frank Pitts.
Finally, some members of Pretty Boy Floyd’s gang decided easy pickins could be found in Boley, in Okfuskee County. Floyd warned them not to try it, as Boley was an all-black town, and the people there all owned guns and knew how to use them. He was right. On Nov. 23, 1932, the citizens stopped the robbery in progress by blasting away and chasing the would-be robbers out of town. “Doug Bentin
Source: “Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde” by Jeff Guinn.