Sunday, 2 February 2014

After the Ambush



Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, 1933, on the road
during their crime spree (United States Public Domain)
This year is the 80th anniversary of an event to prove the old saying  “Crime Does Not Pay.”

On the morning of 23 May 1934, a 6-man force on special assignment led by ex-Texas Ranger Frank Hamer and 5 other lawmen accompanying him waited  in the bushes alongside Louisiana State Highway 154 near Gibsland, Louisiana. They could hear and see a beige 1934 Ford V-8 with 2 occupants in the distance, coming their way at high speed. This was the moment the six men had been waiting for since camping out at this spot for the past 48 hours. They were all armed with .30-calibre Browning MI918 automatic rifles, complete with 20 rounds of deadly armor-piercing shells, plus an equally impressive display of shotguns and pistols. The trap was all set.  All or nothing here. 

Hamer glanced directly across the road to the old Ford Model A truck jacked up on one side to appear it was in the midst of a tire change. As the approaching car came closer, the driver slowed down and along with the passenger looked over at the truck, a vehicle that the driver probably recognized as the truck belonging to Iverson  Methvin, the father of their most recent gang member, Henry. Little did the occupants know that Henry, his father, and the 6 lawmen hiding  in the bushes had carefully arranged this whole thing as a trap.

“It’s them,” one of the lawmen said.

Without missing a beat, all 6 lawmen remained hidden in the bushes and fired nonstop for 30 seconds at the occupants, who never had time to even reach for their weapons. The officers emptied their automatics, then quickly turned to their shotguns, before finishing up with their pistols. Over 150 rounds later, the murderous duo of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, otherwise known as Bonnie and Clyde, slumped dead, their infamous 2-year crime spree covering 11 states finally coming to a horrific end. Both were so young. Barrow was 25, Parker was 23. The solid gunfire was so loud that the lawmen were temporarily deaf for several minutes. In the car, they found rifles, shot guns, hand guns, thousands of ammunition rounds, plus 15 sets of US state license plates, such places as Illinois, Indiana, Texas, Ohio, and Oklahoma. To date, the couple had been responsible for 13 murders, 6 kidnappings, 6 bank robberies, one jailbreak, and approximately 100 miscellaneous felonies, including stealing cars, and robbing small stores and gas stations for a few bucks here and there.

Word of the ambush spread quickly once Hamer and 3 other officers--Hamer’s  subordinate Ted Hinton from Texas, Louisiana officers Henderson Jordan and Prentiss Morel Oakley--left for Gibsland to call their superiors with the news that Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were now confirmed dead. The 2 Texas officers who stayed behind--BM “Manny” Gault and Robert Alcorn--could not control the circus-like mob descending on the ambush scene on Highway 154. With the sting of cordite still heavy in the air, a souvenir-hunting woman ran away with a piece of Parker’s dress and a lock of her hair. One man tried to cut off Barrow’s trigger finger, while another man tried to slice away Barrow’s ear. All around the V-8 Ford, others were collecting shell casings, and pieces of clothing and glass. Then Hamer returned to restore order before the spectacle really got out of hand.

The death car was towed into nearby downtown Arcadia and parked in front of Congor Furniture Store and Funeral Parlor, where an undertaker named CF Bailey began embalming. Within hours the town’s population soared from 2,000 to 10,000 folks, all coming to catch a glimpse of the bullet-riddled car and whatever else. Taking full advantage of the situation, enterprising town merchants sold beer, groceries and fresh sandwiches at inflated prices to the spur-of-the moment sightseers.

Two of those who arrived were HD Darby, an undertaker from nearby Ruston, and Sophia Stone, also from Ruston. Both had been kidnapped by the Barrow Gang the year before and came now to identify the bodies. Bonnie Parker had thought it quite comical that when she had asked Darby his profession, he replied he was an undertaker. “Maybe someday you might be working on me,” Parker answered. And that’s exactly what Darby ended up doing. Helping out in the funeral parlor, Darby along with Bailey soon realized that preparing the 2 criminals for burial while shot so full of holes was no easy task because the embalming fluid was not staying in the bodies. The official coroner report stated 17 wounds on Barrow and 26 on Parker.

Both from the Dallas, Texas area, Bonnie and Clyde had wanted to be buried side by side. But the Parker family wanted nothing to do with that.  Instead, they were laid to rest in different neighborhoods of the city. Buck was buried beside his brother Marvin, called “Buck,”  who was a member of the gang briefly until he was shot and killed a year before. Laws changed soon after the Bonnie and Clyde crime spree ended to make murder and kidnapping a federal offense. Later in 1934, authorities hunted down and killed 3 other notorious individuals…John Dillinger, “Pretty Boy” Floyd and “Baby Face” Nelson. The next year, the Barker-Karpis Gang crime spree ended also, thus bringing an abrupt halt to the Public Enemy era of the Great Depression.

If the 6 lawmen were expecting a financial reward for ridding the earth of Bonnie and Clyde, they didn’t receive it outside of $200 each and a few souvenirs. Louisiana lawman Henderson Jordan tried to keep the Ford V-8 death car for himself, until he heard from Mrs Ruth Warren of Topeka, Kansas, the owner of the vehicle that Barrow had stolen on 29 April 1934.  She wanted the Ford V-8  back that she had paid $785.92 for brand new. So, she went down to Arcadia in August and confronted Jordan who demanded $15,000 for the return of the vehicle. It took a court order and $3,000 (a large sum of money in the 1930s) in legal fees charged by a local lawyer whom she had hired named WD Goff. Federal Judge Benjamin Dawkins threatened to send Jordan to jail, if he didn’t release the car. He did.
The Barrow-Parker death car, the day of the ambush,
1934 (United States Public Domain)

Remarkably, the car was still running and the steering was intact after absorbing all that lead. Holes, blood, pieces of flesh and all, Mrs Warren had no qualms in driving it to Shreveport, Louisiana, then had it shipped by truck back to her 2107 Gabler Street home in Topeka.  There, the car sat in the driveway for a few days before she leased it to a hustler named John Castle of United Shows, who put it on tour. That didn’t work out so well because his sideshow went belly up in a few months. Getting the car back, she rented it to carnival promoter and anti-crime advocate Charles Stanley for $200 a month, until she finally sold it to him in 1938 for $3,500. The 1934 Ford made tours across America, appearing at state fairs, flea markets, circuses, auto showrooms, and schools, then was exhibited at a Cincinnati, Ohio amusement park from 1940-1952. Ted Toddy, another showman, bought it in 1952 for $14,500 and put it back on the road until he placed it in storage in Atlanta, Georgia in the early 1960s. By then, he felt the public was not interested in the story of Bonnie and Clyde anymore. Oh, yeah.

Then it came out of retirement when the movie Bonnie and Clyde was released in 1967, starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. The public was suddenly interested again. For a time, the car toured Canada with a carnival. Toddy sold it in 1973 for $175,000 to Peter Simon, owner of Pop’s Oasis Raceway Park in Jean, Nevada, who put it on display where people could actually sit it in. As of July 2011, after making the rounds inside several Nevada casinos, it’s now in the lobby of Whiskey Pete’s Casino and Hotel in Verdi, Nevada, on the California border, behind protective glass.

Back to 1934…the 6 lawmen were looked on with suspicion by some people after the ambush for not giving Barrow and Parker a chance to surrender. But Hamer wanted no part in warning them. He had learned his lesson. The murderous duo had survived other carefully-laid traps before. Hamer died in 1955 at the age 71. His fellow-Texas lawman Robert Alcorn died 9 years later on 23 May 1964, exactly 30 years after the Highway 154 ambush.

The later deaths of collaborators Henry Methvin and his father, Iverson, were apparently under suspicion. Henry didn’t smarten up. Only a few months after the Parker-Barrow ambush, he was convicted of murdering a policeman in Oklahoma. He was paroled in 1942, then in 1948 was struck by a train when he had walked a little too close to a set of railway tracks after a bout of heavy drinking. His father was killed 2 years before by a hit-and-run driver. Foul play in both cases engineered by someone or a group seeking revenge on the father and son, on behalf of Bonnie and Clyde?

The longest surviving member of the Barrow Gang was Blanche Barrow, the wife of Clyde’s brother Buck. She and her husband had joined the gang for 5 months in 1933, until they were captured following a shootout. Buck died a few days later in hospital and Blanche stood trial for her involvement with the others. She received 10 years in prison, but was let out on parole in 1938 for good behavior. Blanche remarried in 1940. She was very unhappy with her character role in the 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde played by Estelle Parsons, who by the way, received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Blanche said in a 1984 interview that the movie made her look “like a screaming horse’s ass.” You have to see the movie to know what she meant. A heavy smoker, Blanche died of lung cancer on Christmas Eve, 1988 at the age of 77.

Today, Bonnie and Clyde live on in country folklore. They made their name during the Great Depression when banks throughout America were foreclosing on people who couldn’t make their loan and mortgage payments. So, did anybody give 2 hoots if a bank here or there was robbed? To some, Bonnie and Clyde were like modern day Robin Hoods. You know, “steal from the rich and give to the poor.” Yeah, sure.

Today, Clyde Barrow’s Dallas, Texas gravestone reads, “Gone but not forgotten.” So right about that.

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