Historical Series: Bonnie and Clyde live fast, die young


Posted by: Alan Fleck. Written by Alan Fleck and Matt Hirst.

The gangsters’ car slowed but did not stop as it approached a planned family reunion in Sowers, near present-day Highway 183 and Esters Road in Irving, Texas. The driver correctly sensed something was not quite right and sped up to leave the area. Lawmen hiding in the bushes opened fire and wounded but did not kill the car’s occupants. Bonnie and Clyde escaped once again.


During the span of only two depression-era years in the early 1930’s, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow went on a crime spree in North Texas and the central United States, which brought them stardom. The Barrows gang, initially preferring to only rob rural gas stations and stores, were responsible for approximately a dozen bank robberies and the deaths of nine law enforcement officers, as well as killing at least three non-policemen.


The couple and their gang’s violence was so ruthless, their crimes resulted in them being listed among the most wanted national criminals of the day, including John Dillinger and ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd. But despite coming to call the Dallas area their hometown, Bonnie and Clyde each had family beginnings originating slightly outside of Dallas itself.


Bonnie Parker was born in 1910, in Rowena, Texas, and then moved to West Dallas. Bonnie was the second of three children, and lost her father when she was just four years old. Bonnie did well in school, earning honors, and had lots of friends. She also worked at Marco’s Cafe in Dallas until it closed in 1929, a mere three years after she married her first husband, Roy Thornton, at age 16. It was during her unhealthy relationship with Roy that Bonnie would be introduced to criminal life.


Clyde Barrow was born in 1909, in Ellis County, Texas, to a family of sharecroppers, who moved often from place to place. Clyde was the fifth child of seven, and only reached the seventh grade in school. While still a young man, Clyde became a small-time thief, stealing cars and stripping them to sell the parts. He was caught while robbing a gas station. Clyde served two years for armed robbery quite early on in his life and was released on good behavior in 1931.


For the duration of the gang’s fugitive career, Bonnie and Clyde would often return to their adopted hometown of Dallas, which ensured no shortage of historical marks left around the city and surrounding towns. John Neal Phillips, as a result of his research for his book, Running with Bonnie and Clyde – The Ten Fast Years of Ralph Fults, wrote, “Barrow and Fults returned to Texas. They often visited West Dallas. Using what they called ‘the backdoor, variously U.S. 80 through Arcadia Park, or the old Coppell road through the Trinity bottoms, they would drive up to the Star Service Station just long enough to gas up and touch base with the family.”


The town of Sowers, farm community annexed into Irving near the area of present day Highway 183 and Esters Road, was one of the Barrows gang’s preferred hideout and meeting spots. Clyde knew it well and this allowed him to do a good job of covering the gang’s tracks, at least early on.


Despite the Dallas area police’s increased attempts to stop the gang, Clyde routinely took extra precautions when it came to the gang’s planning, normally keeping them a step ahead of the authorities. But the importance of family to Bonnie and Clyde often complicated matters, and as the gang’s notoriety grew, visiting family became a greater risk.


Buddy Barrow, son of Clyde’s younger brother L.C., said his father told him “family meetings never met in the same place twice.”


However, as written by John Neal Phillips in Running with Bonnie and Clyde, “only once did Barrow agree to meet a second time at the same precise location.” This one time would almost lead to the Barrows gang’s capture. The event is now known as the Failed Sowers Ambush, Irving’s most notorious Bonnie and Clyde episode, and one of the most notorious Bonnie and Clyde events overall.


On November 21, 1933, Bonnie and Clyde came to the Sowers area to celebrate the birthday of Clyde’s mother, alongside a few of Bonnie and Clyde’s siblings. As described by John Neal Phillips in Running with Bonnie and Clyde, “When he and Bonnie arrived for the celebration of his mother’s birthday, Barrow had no gift. But he promised to give her one the following evening at the same time and place. This enabled the Dallas County Sheriff’s department, with the help of an informant, to organize an ambush.”


This set the scene for four lawmen-Dallas County Sheriff Smoot Schmidt, Deputy Sheriff Ed Caster, Deputy Sheriff, Irving resident Ted Hinton, and Deputy Sheriff Bob Alcorn-to stake out the Barrow’s safe house and wait for their return the next evening. With nothing more than a blind tip to go on, the four lawmen stood waiting and watching the house from the security of the roadside bushes.


For whatever reason, Clyde sensed something was amiss upon their arrival to Sowers. Seeing that the couple’s car was not pulling over, the lawmen unleashed fire upon Bonnie and Clyde’s car, injuring both in the knees, but it was not enough to stop them. Although injured, Bonnie and Clyde were able to escape the ambush and flee town.


Bonnie and Clyde came across another vehicle in Grand Prairie being driven by Thomas James and Paul Reich, whom they would promptly hijack, leaving behind their 1934 model Ford Coupe full of personal belongings. Although the site of the hijacking has changed much since, this well-known crime scene can be found near to the abandoned Dallas Naval Air Station entrance on Highway 80 (Jefferson Boulevard).


Alongside Irving and Grand Prairie, Grapevine holds some of the area’s most tragic Bonnie and Clyde history for the area. Marked now by the Wheeler-Murphy Monument, found roughly six miles south of downtown Grapevine at Highway 114 and Dove Road, is the spot where Bonnie, Clyde, and Henry Methvin (a member of the Barrows gang) killed two police patrolmen. The gang stopped to rest on their drive back to Dallas, and by chance, the two officers saw their car and wanted to inspect it further.


This senseless murder of the two police officers, E.B. Wheeler and H.D. Murphy, on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1934, would be one of the Barrows gang’s last crimes, as it sparked a police effort to stop Bonnie and Clyde’s rampage. Public opinion against the Barrows gang was reaching a boiling point.


As reported in The Grand Prairie Texan, April 6, 1934, “The brutal murder of the two highway policemen near Grapevine last Sunday has certainly stirred the state, and aroused the ire of the citizenship in general. The killing was supposed to be the work of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, who for the past several months have ruthlessly committed robberies and murders in most every section of the state.


While Clyde and Bonnie are working in one part of the state, Ray Hamilton, who Clyde and Bonnie, it is alleged, freed from the penitentiary, is moving about in another section and the activities of these gangs are becoming an outrage. There must be some cooperative action that will lead to their capture. As long as they are abroad, the lives of every police officer in the state is at stake.”


Henry Methvin’s parents were able to obtain a life-saving deal from law enforcement for their son on May 21, 1934, in exchange for helping to set up Bonnie and Clyde for the final ambush. The plan was for Henry to be away from Bonnie and Clyde and to tell them he would meet them at his parents.


On the second morning of waiting in roadside bushes, May 23, 1934, police ambushed and killed Bonnie and Clyde in Gibsland, Louisiana, west of Arcadia, and south of present day Interstate 20. Henry Methvin’s father pretended that his truck had broken down, so Bonnie and Clyde would stop to assist.


Following the final ambush, the bullet-riddled car was towed, with the bodies still in it to Arcadia, Louisiana.


Law enforcement involved in the final ambush included Frank Hamer, Manny Gault, Bob Alcorn, and Ted Hinton, along with two Louisiana officers, Henderson Jordan and Prentiss Morel Oakley. Ted Hinton has also participated at the failed Sowers Ambush.


“My grandfather knew Bonnie when she was a waitress at the café in Dallas that he used to eat at,” Teddie Story, an Irving resident and Ted Hinton’s granddaughter, said. “He also knew Clyde from a messenger service he worked for briefly in Dallas.”


Clyde Barrow was buried in Western Heights Cemetery in Dallas, next to his brother Buck. Clyde’s marker states: “Gone but not forgotten.”


Bonnie Parker is buried in the Dallas Crown Hill Memorial Park next to her mother. Bonnie’s epitaph is believed to be from one of her poems: “As the flowers are all made sweeter by the sunshine and the dew, so this old world is made brighter by the lives of folks like you.”