True Crime

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

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.

"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.

Across the Houston Street viaduct is West Dallas, known in the '30s as the city's "back-door exit," the favored getaway route for those fleeing all manner of illegal activity. There, in a down-at-the-heels area along what is now Singleton Boulevard, the building and attached house that was once the two-pump Star Service Station, owned and operated by Clyde's father, Henry, still stands. Just a few blocks away, on Winnetka, is a small frame duplex that once served as a "safe house" for members of the Barrow gang.

"The street was called County Avenue back then," Phillips explains, "and one side of the duplex was rented by the sisters of [gang member] Ray Hamilton. On the night of January 6, 1933, deputies from the Dallas and Tarrant County sheriffs' departments had set up surveillance inside the house. As it began to get dark, one of the sisters explained to the officers that her child could not sleep without benefit of a red night-light that hung in the front window. With that she turned on what was actually a pre-arranged signal to anyone approaching that it was not safe to stop.

"Clyde and Bonnie had come back to Dallas to visit family and drove past the duplex several times before deciding to stop." What resulted was a midnight gun battle that ended in the death of a Tarrant County deputy who had been among those hiding inside.

By the next morning, the fugitives were in northeastern Oklahoma, robbing a service station.

The County Avenue stakeout was not the last attempt by local authorities to bring the reign of Bonnie and Clyde to an end. In Irving, at the intersection of Highway 183 and Esters Road, the first attempt to ambush the couple took place. Alerted by an informant that the pair would be meeting relatives there on the evening of November 22, 1933, Dallas County Sheriff's Department officers, armed with sub-machine guns and automatic rifles, hid in barrow ditches to await the arrival of Barrow and Parker. No sooner did they pull up next to the car where Clyde's family waited than a barrage of gunfire erupted. And on that dusty twilight, Barrow again proved his claim of being a remarkable driver. He sped away unharmed.

"Later," Phillips relates, "they found the car he'd been driving, abandoned. It was riddled with bullets. The steering wheel had been shattered. But Clyde had stolen another car and gotten away. The next day's newspaper reported the aborted effort by writing that 'once again the Dallas County Sheriff's Department had escaped from Clyde Barrow.'"

Today, the site of the gun battle is a strip shopping center. The main thoroughfare, once known as Texas State Highway 15, has long since been changed to 183.

The couple's frequent late-night visits to Clyde's parents and Bonnie's mother would ultimately lead to their downfall. It was on isolated Dove Road near Grapevine on Easter Sunday of 1934 that they sat in their car, awaiting a rendezvous with the Barrow family. With them was gang member Henry Methvin. As they waited, two motorcycle officers turned off Highway 114 to check on the parked car. As they drove past, Methvin opened fire, killing the patrolmen.

It was that event, Phillips says, that signaled the end of the Barrow Gang's reign. Hamer, the man about whom the "one riot, one Ranger" legend had been woven, was assigned to hunt down Bonnie and Clyde. Just six weeks after the Grapevine murders, the couple died in that hail of gunfire on a rural Louisiana road. (Clyde was 25, Bonnie 24 at the time of their deaths.) Methvin's father, whom the outlaws were visiting, had tipped off authorities and helped set up the ambush in exchange for lenient treatment of his son.

The tour eventually wound its way to the gravesites: At the Western Heights Cemetery on Singleton, the marker that signals the adjacent graves of Clyde and his brother Buck is now encased in cement after a series of thefts and retrievals over the years. "For years," Phillips says, "the Texas-OU weekend seemed to be a favored time of those who would sneak in and take the marker away. Once, in fact, Dallas police traced it to a pre-game party, where it was being used as a coffee table."  

Originally, Bonnie was buried in nearby Fishtrap Cemetery, but in the mid-'40s it was condemned, and her remains were moved to the Crown Hill Cemetery just off Webb Chapel Road. Looking down at her marker, Phillips tells his audience that he is surprised each time he visits the grave. "There are always flowers, trinkets, and hand-written notes," he says.

Such, he rightfully surmises, is the attraction to legend.

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