True Crime

Dallas' favorite criminal pair offers tourists a real Texas treat

Last Saturday, while thousands of Dallas residents tended the traditions of the season by cheering a downtown Christmas parade or assaulting neighborhood malls, others with an appetite for things a bit more hard-edged gathered to tour the dark side of the city's history.

It was not Santa the busload of 40 history buffs wished to see but, rather, the gravesite of infamous badman Clyde Chestnut Barrow. They had shelled out $35 for a firsthand look at what's left of the old Hargrave's Café, where Clyde's girlfriend and partner-in-crime, Bonnie Parker, once worked as a teenage waitress. Christmas cheer was put on hold in favor of a visit to a rural site near Grapevine where two motorcycle patrol officers were shot and killed by the Barrow Gang. Signals of yuletide warmth were absent along the broken-down streets of West Dallas, breeding grounds of the storied criminals, through which the trip wound.

For the fourth year, the Dallas Historical Society's Bonnie and Clyde Tour, a homage to the notorious couple who spent a frantic and bloody four years in the early '30s robbing, kidnapping, and killing throughout the United States, was a sellout. In fact, the recent tour was the second this season, added after last spring's outing drew such interest that a number of patrons unable to reserve a seat on the bus insisted on trailing behind in their own cars.

The Dallas Historical Society's Bonnie and Clyde Tour drew a busload of history buffs, including a Texas Monthly writer researching the infamous duo pictured here .
AP/Wide World
The Dallas Historical Society's Bonnie and Clyde Tour drew a busload of history buffs, including a Texas Monthly writer researching the infamous duo pictured here .

"We've had people from as far away as California come for the tour," says society executive director Lisa Hembry. "Last year, a couple from Canada read about it while sitting in the airport during a layover and rearranged their travel plans to stay and take the tour." This year, along with amateur historians, crime buffs, and the camera-carrying curious was Texas Monthly writer Gary Cartwright, researching the outlaws' backgrounds for a time-period novel he's working on. And, as Hembry notes, there are always those on board whose father or grandfather had known or at least met Bonnie or Clyde; a couple of years ago, a nephew of Barrow's even took the tour.

Indeed, the Bonnie and Clyde legend has not only been sustained in the 66 years since that May day in 1934 when they were killed in a furious Louisana ambush planned and led by Texas Ranger icon Frank Hamer, but it has continued to grow. Arguably Dallas' most infamous couple, they have been lionized in books, songs, and movies. To some they remain players in a romantic tragedy: Romeo and Juliet in a getaway car. To others, they were Robin Hood-like characters stealing from the evil rich--government and banks--though there is precious little historical evidence that they ever got around to giving much to the poor. To those who have bothered to look beyond the mythical versions, Clyde was nothing more than a semi-illiterate thug with a death wish. Bonnie--bright, intelligent, and pretty--was along for the ill-fated ride from the moment in 1930 when she slipped a gun into a Waco jail and helped her new boyfriend escape.

Before their crime spree ended, the Barrow Gang--which also included the unsavory likes of Clyde's brother Buck and his wife, Blanche; Floyd and Raymond Hamilton; Ralph Fults; Joe Palmer; Henry Methvin; et al.--was accused of no fewer than 13 murders and robberies of banks and store owners in Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Louisiana, and New Mexico. At the height of their criminal rampage they were banner headline news nationwide.

The tour, hosted by local historian John Neal Phillips, author of the acclaimed Running With Bonnie and Clyde, isn't sugarcoated and doesn't venture into the romantic myths. No, he explains, Clyde's middle name was not "Champion" as has been so often written. The snappy line in the Warren Beatty-Faye Dunaway film where Clyde politely introduces himself to a bank teller by saying, "We're the Barrow Gang...and we rob banks," is pure, grade-A bull. "Not only did they never say anything like that," Phillips says, "but they never used their real names while they were on the run." Is it true Bonnie was pregnant with Clyde's baby at the time of her demise? "The autopsy report indicated nothing of the sort," the tireless researcher says.

During the five-hour drive through another time, customers get their money's worth. Along an all-but-deserted block of Swiss Avenue that reconstructionists haven't gotten around to is the boarded-up remnant of the old Hargrave's Café, where Bonnie, a strawberry-blond 16-year-old already married to a convicted thief named Roy Thornton, was waiting tables when she met Barrow in 1929. Clyde, just out of prison after doing time for burglary and auto theft, worked just down the street at United Glass and Mirror, where an auto paint and body shop exists today.

"Bonnie never divorced Thornton," notes Phillips. "In fact, she was still wearing the wedding ring he gave her when she was killed in the Louisiana ambush." Among the medical examiner's notes made during her autopsy was the fact that she had a tattoo on her thigh that read "Bonnie & Roy."

In Dealey Plaza, Phillips re-creates a time when a hotel, an automobile showroom, and the Court House Service Station stood where the memorial to a fallen president now exists. Nearby, he says, were restaurants like Marco's Café, the Farmers' Lunch Room, and American Café, where Bonnie also worked before venturing into her life of crime. It was in the American Café, he says, that a young postal employee named Ted Hinton often enjoyed flirtatious lunchtime visits with the Parker. Hinton, later a deputy sheriff, would participate in the Louisiana ambush and co-author a book (Ambush, written with Larry Grove) on the chase.

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