The 1930s were the age of the outlaw in the U.S. While most citizens struggled against the Great Depression and the lawlessness brought about by Prohibition, renegades such as John Dillinger, “Pretty Boy” Floyd and “Baby Face” Nelson straddled the line between terrorist and folk hero. But one couple of the era lived a life grand enough to be considered downright Shakespearean.
Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow’s stars were crossed from the start, and now a trove of artifacts relating to the infamous crime couple’s life and death are coming back into the light of day. Most of the items come from the family of former Dallas County Sheriff R.A. “Smoot” Schmid as part of RR Auction’s “Gangsters, Outlaws, and Lawmen” live auction event. Among the items are pages from Schmid’s personal scrapbook documenting his time playing the antagonist in the storied tale of the Barrow Gang, as well as a few pieces that were only widely discovered to exist in the past few years.
“Well, the only thing I could say is Clyde would want to make as much money as you could [for the items]," Buddy Barrow, Clyde’s nephew, said at a press-only event earlier this week showcasing a collection of the items for auction. “It’s kind of amazing how somebody could pay that much for a keepsake.”
Buddy was joined by Rhea Leen Linder, Bonnie’s niece, who said they never learned much about their ill-fated kin growing up. She said she was surprised that anyone would care about the family history they kept quiet for most of their lives, but now she's happy to see these historical items preserved by people who’ve taken an interest in the crime couple.
“We never talked about Bonnie and Clyde. I knew nothing about them,” said Linder, who was raised by her aunt Billie Jean Parker. “We always hid from anyone knowing who we were or where we worked or anything at all. I actually had two ex-husbands that neither one of them knew anything about it.”
Linder joked that she was “brought out of the closet” by Clyde’s sister Maria, who also persuaded her nephew Buddy to reveal himself around the turn of the millennium. Since then dozens of pieces of Bonnie and Clyde memorabilia have shown up in auction houses, with this collection being the latest and one of the largest. It features dozens of items, including Bonnie’s purported bloodstained glasses, which she was never photographed wearing, and a ring with a three-headed serpent made by Clyde.
“As generations go by with collections, the emotional connection to Bonnie and Clyde to people like Smoot’s family is like, ‘Well it’s just stuff under our bed,’ now. [To] their grandfather it meant everything to [him],” said Bobby Livingston, executive vice-president of the Boston-based auction house holding the event.
Below are just a few of the most interesting pieces that will be up for grabs when the auction begins June 15.
In Schmid’s scrapbook there are several pages such as this, with relics pertaining to Bonnie and Clyde pasted onto them, including the warrants for their arrest. The warrants were issued by Dallas County Sheriff Schmid on Nov. 28, 1933, six days after a failed ambush in Sowers, Texas. The charge of murder was levied against Clyde, and for the first time Bonnie, after a Dallas grand jury indicted them for the murder of Tarrant County Deputy Malcom Davis in January of that year. Davis and a group of deputies had been staking out the house of Lillie McBride, sister of Barrow gang member Raymond Hamilton, when Clyde walked up to the porch sometime after midnight. As the trap was sprung, Clyde fired a blast from a shotgun, killing Davis before escaping into the night.
Postcards from Raymond Hamilton
Hamilton had been a close friend and confidant to Clyde, however they had a falling out after Bonnie and Clyde broke him out of the Eastham Prison Farm near Houston. The basis of that fallout was recorded in a handwritten letter, dictated by Clyde, which won $40,000 at a 2016 auction. However, this letter from Hamilton to Schmid is far more humorous than Clyde’s. Showing his Southern charm, Hamilton wished his former advisory a merry Christmas from his jail cell as he often did during his time on the run, Livingston says. Unfortunately for Hamilton, he was sent to the electric chair less than six months later. A program from the execution is also pictured above and will be part of the auction as well.
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One of the most unusual pieces going to auction this June is this single button taken from the bloodstained and bullet riddled death shirt of Clyde. The shirt itself was purchased from Clyde’s sister Marie by local collector Charles Herd and his brother for $35,000 after a chance encounter at a book signing. “I talked to different dealers and auction houses and they all told me the same thing, ‘You paid too much for this,’” Herd said. The experts were wrong, however, as the shirt was sold at auction for $85,000 in 1997. Herd kept the button before the shirt was sold, and though this single button is unlikely to bring in anywhere near as much as the shirt it came from, just about anything lifted off the bodies of Bonnie and Clyde seems to have value to someone. “The police did not say stop or halt, they just blew them away. They were like magpies going through all of that material in the trunk and taking things,” Herd says. “They all made off with their mementos.”
Bonnie’s Promise Ring
No one was quite sure what to make of this ring when it was first rediscovered, Livingston said. It came as part of the Schmid collection and was said to have been crafted by Clyde himself during a stint in prison before being gifted to Bonnie. “Because it’s coming right from the family we didn’t doubt the account, but how did she get it, how do we know it was Bonnie’s?” Livingston asked rhetorically. As it happened, Buddy was able to confirm Clyde made jewelry, since he has several of Clyde's pieces in his own collection. He instantly recognized the ring – encrusted with three jewels on the heads of three snakes and bearing Clyde's makers mark, a musical note pierced by an arrow – as his uncle’s handiwork. The ring was taken by Schmid after Bonnie and Clyde ditched their car following the foiled Sowers raid.
Bonnie’s Bloody Glasses (pictured at top)
Perhaps the most historic item up for auction are these glasses taken from Bonnie’s body after it was riddled with 26 bullets on May 23, 1934. The authenticity and even the existence of these glasses have been debated for years given that Bonnie was never photographed wearing them, nor were they visible in photos of the aftermath of their final showdown. However, an article published in the Shreveport Journal the day after their death states: "[Bonnie] wore eyeglasses – the kind one wears to see better, not dark ones for glare or disguise." Livingston says that eyewitness reports on the day corroborate that Bonnie was indeed wearing the glasses at the time of her death and that this is the first time the glasses are being publicly displayed in more than 80 years. The glasses were taken from the scene by Louisiana Sheriff Thomas Hughes before finding their way into several private collections.