CHAPTER 8: A Stumbling Start
The first three weeks of clyde barrow’s and Bonnie Parker’s new lives as career criminals were notable mostly for bad decisions and worse luck. At times, their misadventures would have constituted slapstick comedy if lives hadn’t been at stake.
After dark on March 25, 1932, the trio of Clyde, Ralph Fults, and Raymond Hamilton set out to commit its first robbery. They didn’t have to go far. The Simms Oil Refinery was just a few blocks down Eagle Ford Road from the Barrow family garage in West Dallas. Clyde picked the fume-spewing target. He swore to his cohorts that a Simms employee had told him the company would have a large amount of payroll cash in its safe on the night of the 25th. It would be simple to sneak there under cover of darkness, cut through the chain-link fence surrounding the refinery, overpower a guard if one happened to be there, crack the safe, stuff their pockets with loot, and roar out of Dallas with their haul. Clyde anticipated a large take, perhaps as much as several thousand dollars.
As Clyde had promised his partners, cutting through the fence was easy. He hadn’t known that four employees were still going to be in the building, but they were quickly subdued and tied up. The refinery safe was located and its door cracked open with a hammer and chisel. But then Clyde’s foolproof plan imploded—the safe was empty.
The would-be thieves bolted. Clyde’s initial attempt to lead his newly formed criminal gang had been an abject failure, and Raymond Hamilton let him know it. Though he was still only 18, Hamilton had been supporting himself through petty crime for several years. He’d begun by stealing and reselling bicycles, then graduated to stealing cars. After the Simms fiasco, Hamilton wanted the gang to focus on automobile theft. The individual takes would be much smaller than they might be from robbing banks or businesses, he argued, but at least you didn’t have to wonder whether there was money in a safe.
From GO DOWN TOGETHER by Jeff Guinn. Copyright © 2009 by 24 Words LLC. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Inc.
Fults and Clyde had a different plan. Their immediate goal was conducting the long-planned Eastham Prison Farm break, and for that they’d require a lot more money than they could earn by fencing stolen cars. To successfully pull off the Eastham raid, they knew, the gang would need additional members and a lot more firepower than the cheap weapons they’d used in the Simms break-in. Fults had some specific acquaintances in mind as recruits. He knew several crooks living in and around Denton who he believed would make enthusiastic, competent partners. But there was no sense asking them to join up without enough powerful assault weapons to overwhelm the prison guards.
The gang’s current arsenal consisted of the cheap Saturday Night Special handguns that were readily available anywhere, plus a couple of shotguns. In the 1930s, almost every Texas family had a gun or two—it was considered strange to be weaponless. Small-caliber pistols and shotguns were available on street corners for a few dollars. These, however, were notoriously inaccurate even at close range. More upscale weaponry could be purchased in hardware stores. Every town of any size had one. There were no background checks involved when guns were purchased. Even Thompson submachine guns—“tommy guns”—were on sale for a few hundred dollars each. Those who didn’t have nearby stores selling guns could send away for them by enclosing a check with the mail-order forms routinely found in popular magazines. For the Eastham raid, Clyde and Fults also wanted bulletproof vests and a large supply of ammunition. So Hamilton was overruled; the gang would try to make its Eastham budget in one grand haul. Fults preferred banks to small businesses. Even though Clyde had never tried to rob a bank, after the Simms blunder he was in no position to disagree.
While Bonnie waited at home with her mother, Emma, the trio of Clyde, Fults, and Hamilton staged a series of small stickups in and around Dallas to gather some traveling money. They couldn’t stay in the area long. After the Simms break-in, the West Dallas cops were on the lookout for their old target Clyde Barrow. The decision was made to drive north and find a bank to rob somewhere far away from the local heat. Long-distance travel for business, recreation—and crime—had become much easier. The post-World War I Federal Highway Act added 300,000 miles of hard-topped interstate highways. In 1924, Rand McNally published its first national road map, making it relatively simple to plan out routes, and including many smaller state and farm roads as well as the major thoroughfares. Clyde loved the newfangled maps. Throughout his criminal career, they would be found in virtually every stolen car he abandoned along the way.
Clyde, Fults, and Hamilton drove through Oklahoma, Kansas, and Iowa before finally picking out a bank almost 900 miles from Dallas in Okabena, Minnesota. It seemed like a perfect target. The bank was set in the middle of a town square. There were roads leading away in several directions. But at the last minute, Clyde called the robbery attempt off. There was too much snow and ice on the local roads, he told Fults and Hamilton. Their car might skid out of control during the escape. It would be better, he insisted, to turn back south and find another bank to rob in a less frigid region. According to Fults’ memoir, they’d seen one, the First National Bank in Lawrence, Kansas, that might do.
They had driven almost nonstop from Texas to Minnesota, pausing only for meals and gas. All three were exhausted, and when they took turns driving on the 400-mile trip back to Lawrence, each fell asleep at the wheel and let the car veer off the road into adjacent fields.
In Lawrence, Fults claimed in his memoir, they had enough money to check into a local hotel, the Eldridge. The next two days were spent casing the bank and the town. After the Simms fiasco, they wanted to be absolutely certain of success. They learned that the First National Bank’s president usually arrived at 8:45 in the morning, with the rest of the bank staff showing up some 10 minutes later. There seemed to be only one guard, but as soon as the bank opened for business there was a steady stream of customers.
On the third day, the bank president arrived at the bank at his usual time. Clyde and Fults, brandishing shotguns, rushed into the building after him while Hamilton waited outside at the wheel of the getaway car. Clyde forced the bank president to open the vault, while Fults guarded two employees who arrived while the robbery was in progress. The Lawrence bank’s vault wasn’t empty. Clyde was given two bags of currency. Then he and Fults locked their prisoners in the vault and ran out to join Hamilton. A few miles out of town they stole another car. It all seemed ridiculously easy. The bank guard hadn’t even arrived for work by the time the gang grabbed the money and fled. If the town cops made any attempt to pursue them, they never got within sight or sound of the thieves.
According to Fults, the trio fled 290 miles to East St. Louis, Illinois, where they paused to count their loot and discovered their take was an astounding $33,000. No old Lawrence newspaper accounts exist to verify or disprove Fults’ claim, but $33,000 would have been enough to recruit and supply an army to assault Eastham Prison Farm. Fults might have been wrong about the location of the robbery as well as grossly exaggerating the take from it. But whatever the amount and whichever bank the gang robbed to get it, the haul was substantial enough to impress Raymond Hamilton. He wanted to hit more banks right away. Clyde and Fults refused. They wanted money to finance their Eastham plan, and now that they had some in hand they intended to buy guns and head back to Texas.
Fults knew of a pawn shop owner in Dupo, Illinois, who fenced high-caliber weaponry. It seemed more logical to make their purchases through him than at a hardware store where the shopkeeper might mention a substantial purchase of guns to the police. Fults and Clyde spent their shares of the Lawrence take on .45-caliber pistols, tommy guns, and bulletproof vests. Raymond Hamilton wanted nothing further to do with them or their Eastham plans. He took his cut of the money and left for Bay City, Michigan, where his father lived. Clyde and Hamilton had disliked each other from the beginning, and Clyde told Fults he hoped Hamilton “chokes on that wad of money.”
Clyde and Fults drove back to Texas in early April, making a quick stop in West Dallas so Clyde could visit his family and spend a few hours with Bonnie. The cops there were still looking for him. Clyde’s father, Henry, kept his radio on during the day, listening for police bulletins that might indicate his son’s pursuers were nearby. When Clyde sneaked over to see Bonnie, he brought Fults with him. Fults had never met Bonnie before, but they liked each other immediately. Her mother was less friendly. Emma Parker refused to let “the cons” enter her house.
After the brief visit Clyde and Fults drove 40 miles north to Denton, where they met with four local crooks—Johnny Russell, Jack Hammett, Ralph Allsup (called “Fuzz” because of his burr haircut), and Ted Rogers, who eerily resembled Raymond Hamilton. The quartet was enthusiastic about the proposed Eastham raid, probably because they’d all done at least some local jail time. The new group called itself “the Lake Dallas Gang” after the area waterway. Clyde thought six assailants would be enough to pull off the raid. At night there were four picket guards outside Eastham’s Camp 1 dormitory. If the Lake Dallas Gang could get the drop on them, they could then break the prisoners out of the dorm before the other guards sleeping on the second floor could wake up and stop them. While many inmates had tried to escape from Eastham, nobody had ever attempted to orchestrate a break from the outside. Eastham was considered too remote and forbidding. That meant the gang should have the advantage of complete surprise. What would happen to most of the escaped prisoners afterward apparently was not discussed, beyond helping as many as possible get clear of Eastham and arming them with the guards’ captured weapons. They would then have to be responsible for maintaining their own freedom. But Clyde was especially concerned that Aubrey Scalley would be broken out. He was grateful to Scalley for taking the rap in the Ed Crowder killing.
In preparation for the raid, Clyde, Fults, and their new partners found an isolated spot by Lake Dallas to test the guns and vests they’d bought in Illinois. They were joined by another recruit known only as Red, who was an acquaintance of Jack Hammett’s. The tests near the lake were less enjoyable. The vests, probably propped against trees, were perforated by every bullet striking them, and many of the guns wouldn’t fire at all. The pawnbroker in Dupo had bilked Fults and Clyde.
To get money to buy a replacement arsenal, the gang members planned a simultaneous April 11 stickup of two banks located in Denton’s main square, only to be scared off that morning when they saw two Texas Rangers sitting in a car parked on the square. It was odd that the Rangers would be hanging around in town. They usually arrived to investigate after a crime had been committed. Clyde suspected someone in his new gang might be an informer, but he had no proof and decided to go ahead with plans for the Eastham raid.
Besides its recurring need for better weapons, the Lake Dallas Gang was also having second thoughts about whether it had enough members to successfully carry out the Eastham attack. Clyde and Fults knew two brothers in Amarillo who might agree to join them, so they drove 365 miles northwest to the Texas Panhandle to track them down. Red had asked to come along. He brandished his .44 revolver and bragged that he’d “part the hair” of any cop that got in their way.
They arrived in Amarillo on April 13, but the brothers, never identified in any existing Barrow Gang lore, were nowhere to be found. Clyde, Fults, and Red turned back toward Dallas, but their car broke down in the small town of Electra about 200 miles east of Amarillo. Normally, that wouldn’t have presented a problem. Clyde could have easily hot-wired another car. But an Electra city employee named A. F. McCormick found it suspicious that a trio of strangers had apparently parked in front of a warehouse, and he called Electra sheriff James T. Taylor to investigate. Taylor hurried over with J. C. Harris, another city employee. They arrived in Harris’ vehicle just as Clyde, Fults, and Red left their stalled car and began walking into town, undoubtedly planning to steal another automobile. Taylor leaned out and asked the trio if they had a problem. Fults explained their car had died, adding they were from Wichita Falls. Small-town Texas sheriffs often made the assumption that young male drifters were up to no good. Taylor said he would have to take them into custody and check out their story. Instead of surrendering, Clyde pulled a .45 and told the sheriff and Harris to put up their hands. As they did, McCormick drove up in a Chevrolet. Fults, who had just relieved Taylor of his revolver, pointed the gun at McCormick and made him a captive, too. Then Clyde and Fults jammed into McCormick’s car with the three prisoners. There was no need to make room for Red—he’d run away as soon as the confrontation commenced. Clyde later decided that Red was the traitor who had tipped the Texas Rangers to the aborted April 11 bank robberies in Denton.
Clyde and Fults hadn’t anticipated having three hostages on their hands, one a sheriff. As Clyde drove south out of town he and Fults began apologizing to Taylor, McCormick, and Harris for causing them any inconvenience. About eight miles out of Electra, they pulled the car to the side of the road and let the trio go. Fults kept Taylor’s gun, joking “We’ll take good care of this.” There was a clear risk in releasing three witnesses who’d gotten good looks at them. Kidnapping was considered a much more serious crime than car theft or bank robbery. But whatever mayhem Clyde and Fults were hoping to commit on Eastham prison guards, they intended no physical harm toward anyone else.
To elude potential pursuit, Clyde drove back north toward Oklahoma. Once past the state line, he planned to drive east for a while, then south back to Denton, where he and Fults could rejoin the rest of the Lake Dallas Gang. But they were barely underway again when McCormick’s Chevrolet ran out of gas. Clyde wasn’t necessarily negligent in checking—car gas gauges in the early 1930s were notorious for inaccurate readings.
Rural mail carrier Bill Owens, slowing down as he passed the stalled Chevy, was astonished when the two men standing beside the car leaped up onto his running board and forced him to pull over at gunpoint. Clyde got behind the wheel of the Ford; Owens was ordered into the front passenger’s seat while Fults sat in the back. Owens expected to be shot. Clyde assured Owens that as long as he cooperated he wouldn’t be harmed, but they had a scary moment on a toll bridge across the Red River and the Texas-Oklahoma border. Instead of stopping to pay the toll and call as little attention to the stolen Ford as possible—Owens was certainly cowed enough to sit quietly and not yell for help—Clyde crashed through a chain barrier and barreled into Oklahoma as a pair of bridge guards fired at the car. Though their shots missed, the guards called in a report and soon there was an all-points bulletin issued for Owens’ vehicle. Clyde had the car radio tuned to a local station, and as they neared the town of Fletcher there was an announcement that state police were setting up roadblocks on major roads in the area. Clyde immediately swerved off onto a small farm-to-market road and told Owens to get out. The postman asked the outlaws to leave him his mailbag, and they handed it over. Then Owens asked what Clyde intended to do with his car. Clyde promised that he and Fults would eventually abandon the Ford “in plain sight” where the vehicle could be easily found. Owens requested a favor: would Clyde and Fults please burn his car rather than just abandoning it? If the Ford was destroyed, the government would be obligated to buy Owens a new one. Clyde was glad to oblige; he thought it was funny. A day later, the smoldering remains of Owens’ Ford were discovered nearby. Clyde and Fults had stolen another car to complete their much interrupted trip back to Denton.
Nothing was going right. Clyde and Fults still didn’t have high-caliber guns to blast their way past the Eastham guards, and they had lost Red instead of returning from Amarillo with two additional members for the Lake Dallas Gang. But Clyde and Fults remained determined to go ahead with the Eastham raid. The rest of the gang was agreeable. Jack Hammett offered to hit a hardware store in the nearby town of Celina and filch a new arsenal. Clyde and Fults said they’d travel east to Tyler and steal two cars large enough to haul escaped prisoners away from Eastham and fast enough to outrun any lawmen in pursuit. They’d meet back by Lake Dallas afterward and make their final plans for the attack. Clyde also wanted to get a message about the impending raid to Aubrey Scalley, and he wanted his girlfriend to deliver it.
Bonnie’s involvement with the Lake Dallas Gang until then was strictly ornamental. She was Clyde’s lover, available between jobs to offer moral support and physical comfort. But now she had a chance to get in on the action, albeit in a relatively risk-free way. Female friends and relatives visited Eastham inmates all the time. On April 17, Clyde and Fults drove Bonnie southeast toward the prison farm, hopping out of the car about a mile away from the main gate and letting her drive in alone while they hid in the woods. Bonnie played her role perfectly, telling the guards she was Scalley’s cousin. Nobody was suspicious. This tiny girl obviously wasn’t a threat. As a building tender, Scalley was able to enjoy a private conversation with Bonnie; ordinary cons were supervised while meeting with visitors. When she returned to pick up Clyde and Fults, Bonnie told them Scalley liked the plan and would be ready whenever his rescuers arrived.
It certainly meant a lot to Bonnie that Clyde trusted her enough to use her as a go‑between. Unlike her estranged convict husband, Roy Thornton, Clyde clearly wanted to include her in, rather than exclude her from, every crucial aspect of his life. The Scalley visit had gone so smoothly, and she had enjoyed being involved so much, that it seemed natural for her to ride along with Clyde and Fults when they went to Tyler to steal big, fast cars for the Eastham raid. Fults didn’t mind her tagging along. They’d had several good conversations; he found Bonnie to be “articulate, thoughtful, and witty.” Bonnie, in turn, felt the Eastham and Tyler trips gave her new status as a full-time member of Clyde’s gang. Before leaving for Tyler, she told her mother she was finally moving to Houston to take the made-up job selling cosmetics there.
No one expected trouble when they set out for Tyler on the night of April 18. Clyde had a lot of experience driving away in stolen cars before anyone noticed. Still, Fults asked to stop on the way when they drove through the small town of Kaufman. There was a hardware store there, and he wanted to buy some ammunition. When he rejoined Clyde and Bonnie in the car, he told them the store had a fine selection of guns. The other Lake Dallas Gang boys were supposed to be stealing a new batch of weapons in Celina, but what would it hurt to swing back through Kaufman on the return trip from Tyler and swipe some there, too? It made sense to Clyde, and Bonnie was agreeable. It would just add to the evening’s adventure.
Things went as planned in Tyler. There were many cars to choose from, and Clyde picked out and hot-wired a Chrysler. Fults stole a Buick. Both cars were big enough to transport several Eastham escapees as well as Lake Dallas Gang members, and they were fast, too. On the gravel road between Tyler and Kaufman, Clyde and Fults raced their new rides at speeds approaching 90 miles per hour. They were impressed with the massive vehicles, which rolled into downtown Kaufman around midnight, well after its townspeople had turned in for the night. While Bonnie waited in the Chrysler, Clyde and Fults began breaking the padlock on the door of the hardware store.
Unfortunately for the would-be gun thieves, Kaufman employed a night watchman downtown. He noticed the two huge cars and the men in front of the hardware store. He approached them with his gun drawn, Clyde spotted him, and the two exchanged wild shots. Clyde told his family later that he deliberately fired high. Then the watchman ran for help as Clyde and Fults jumped back into their cars and sped out of town, with Clyde’s Chrysler ahead of Fults’ Buick. Behind them, a bell began ringing loudly—the watchman’s cries had been heard and someone was sounding the alarm.
The townspeople of Kaufman might have gone to bed early, but they awakened ready for action. In the few minutes it took Clyde and Fults to figure out an escape route to the main road back toward Dallas—there was no time to consult a road map now—the highway was blocked, probably with a pair of giant road graders. The fleeing criminals had no choice; they yanked their cars into U‑turns and drove back through town again, whizzing past a growing crowd of alarmed citizens and finally blundering east onto a narrow country road of packed dirt. There was no roadblock there. Clyde and Fults had cars that were undoubtedly much faster than any vehicles the country bumpkins they’d just left behind could use to pursue them. They hadn’t gotten the guns, but they’d clearly gotten away. And then it began to rain.
In spring 1932, almost all the back farm roads in Texas were still dirt, and Clyde and Fults were driving down one of them. It had been raining recently in and around Kaufman County, and as the Lake Dallas crooks tried to make their getaway a heavy new storm struck. The already saturated farm road quickly deteriorated into thick, goopy mud, and the weight of the massive Buick and Chrysler sank the tires of the cars so deep in the sludge that the vehicles stuck fast. Try as Clyde, Fults, and Bonnie might to get them up and out, they wouldn’t budge. The fugitives were drenched. The lighter, slower vehicles of their Kaufman pursuers would probably be able to skim over the worst of the mud. The trio had to abandon their immobilized cars and slog off on foot. They knew pursuit was coming. Everyone gathering in downtown Kaufman had seen the two cars racing away on the farm road.
The rain hammered down hard in the pitch-black darkness as Clyde, Bonnie, and Fults stumbled through sodden pastureland. When they came upon a farmhouse at about 1 am they pounded on the door to wake up whoever was inside. The bleary-eyed farmer who emerged had no car for them to steal, but he offered the use of his two mules. There wasn’t much choice. Clyde and Bonnie clambered up on one mule, and Fults got on another, though not before it pitched him into the mud. The town of Kemp was a few miles away, and they guided their balky mounts in that general direction. Bonnie’s splendid adventure had degenerated into complete misery. She was soaked to the skin, petrified at the prospect of imminent capture, and perched on the uncomfortable, bony spine of a mule. They had to ride bareback because the farmer had no saddles.
It was almost dawn before they finally reached the outskirts of Kemp. There was some relief in spotting a car parked in a driveway; it belonged to a local doctor named Scarsdale. They hot-wired the car and drove away, leaving the mules behind, but only got a mile out of town before Scarsdale’s car ran out of gas.
Now they were really in trouble. The sun was up. The posse of angry Kaufman citizens had surely found the abandoned Buick and Chrysler by now, and learned from the farmer about the trio’s escape by mule. The car theft in Kemp would arouse additional pursuit, from that town and the nearby community of Mabank. Clyde, Bonnie, and Fults were miles from anywhere else, with no way to get word to other Lake Dallas Gang members to come and rescue them. Shivering, scared, the trio had no option other than trying to hide in the brush.
Soon pursuers appeared. Led by the city marshal of Kemp and Mabank’s chief of police, a motley pack of farmers and small-town citizens was painstakingly picking its way through the countryside, checking every gulley, grove of trees, and clump of underbrush. They knew the backcountry well, and their quarry realized it was only a matter of time before they were discovered. Clyde and Fults still had their handguns, but they were far too outnumbered to win a shootout.
They went undiscovered until about 5 pm when, in desperation, they ran across a road to a small store on the other side. A car was parked there, but before Clyde could get it hot-wired they were spotted and the posse was on them. The fugitives stumbled to the banks of nearby Cedar Creek. Clyde and Fults tried shooting over their pursuers’ heads, but that only caused the posse members to start shooting, too, and they weren’t trying to miss. Fults was hit in the left arm. It would be only a matter of moments before Clyde and Bonnie went down, too.
Clyde made a quick decision. He didn’t want Bonnie to be caught or shot. But if they made another attempt to flee, she would be a liability. Bonnie would never be able to outrun the men chasing them. If Clyde slowed his own pace to match hers, they’d both be captured. But Clyde didn’t consider surrendering. He’d sworn he’d never go back to prison, and meant it. His only remaining option was to try to get away alone, then see what could be done later about rescuing Bonnie and Fults.
There is no way to be certain what Bonnie thought as her boyfriend, Clyde, blurted out that he was abandoning her in a muddy creek bottom where she was being shot at by lots of angry men. If she begged him to not leave her, Clyde wasn’t persuaded. Perhaps she summoned up a movie heroine moment and agreed that her lover should save himself if he could. Probably she was too panic-stricken to understand what he was saying. In any event, Clyde vaulted up out of the creek bed and ran straight toward the men firing at them. For once, he was in luck. The two closest posse members he charged were both reloading their guns. There was so much confusion that Clyde was able to run free while the posse descended on Bonnie and Fults. Clyde made his way back to Kemp, where he stole one car, drove a little way and stole another, and finally reached his family in West Dallas.
Back on the banks of Cedar Creek, as soon as Clyde had sprinted away Fults told Bonnie to give herself up. In his memoir, he said he suggested she tell the posse that she’d been kidnapped and forced to come along on the failed hardware store robbery with him and Clyde. Bonnie emerged and was immediately taken prisoner. Fults, still bleeding in the creek bed, was captured a moment later. Someone guessed he might be the notorious Oklahoma bandit Pretty Boy Floyd. The posse dragged Bonnie and Fults back into Kemp, where they were locked together for the night in the town’s minuscule, one-cell jail.
Bonnie was calm enough to ask that someone examine Fults’ injured arm. The local physician was summoned—Dr. Scarsdale, who was so put out by the theft of his car that he refused to treat Fults.
Fults was in agony. Bonnie, peering outside through a barred window, could see dozens of armed men ringing the jail, forming a guard to prevent anyone from rescuing the prisoners. On the night of April 19, 1932, just three weeks after they’d begun, it seemed that her glamorous criminal partnership with Clyde had come to a sudden, ignominious end.
Check out Jeff Guinn’s interview on KERA: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde.