From Dallas to Wichita Falls, see how Bonnie and Clyde's connection to TX remains strong
The story of Bonnie and Clyde's secret hideaway
She wouldn’t have made much of an impression on the busy streets of Wichita Falls. A tiny young woman not even five feet tall. Those who bothered to give her a second glance would have seen a pixie face framed by dark blonde hair and beset with intense blue eyes. She had come to Wichita Falls to get away from an old flame and old troubles and to start a new life – or so she said.
“I’m through with him! I’m never going to have anything more to do with him!” she told her mom, referring to the boyfriend who preferred life on the wrong side of the law.
Jobs were hard to find during the Great Depression, and the mother was bothered her daughter could only find work in Wichita Falls, more than 100 miles away from their home in Dallas. Parker was born in Rowena, a small town near San Angelo, but the family moved to Dallas when Parker was 4 after her father died.
But the job was a lie.
Bonnie Parker did not move to Wichita Falls to wait tables in the summer of 1932. She came to hook up again with Clyde Barrow and embark on a career of crime that would shock and fascinate an entire nation and emblazon their names in legend -- Bonnie and Clyde.
Clyde was a high school dropout who became a car thief at an early age. Bonnie seemed destined for better things. She excelled in school and showed talent in music and writing. She loved poetry and dreamed of becoming an actress.
The two met in Dallas in 1930. While it’s often hard to separate fact from fiction in their lives, one thing is certain by all accounts. They fell instantly and totally in love. That Bonnie was already married to a man in prison did not matter. From the moment they met, Bonnie and Clyde were unconditionally devoted to each other.
The couple's Wichita Falls hideaway
Wichita Falls became their hideaway, their love nest – and the base of operations for their deadly crime wave.
Clyde was the first to beat a path to Wichita Falls in about 1930. He had met a Wichita Falls girl who was visiting in Dallas in 1929 and fell instantly in love.
Grace Donegan was a dark-haired beauty. She was married but separated and had moved back to her parents’ home on Third Street. Their fling lasted a few months, but Grace tired of the petty crook and at one point told a friend she felt he was stalking her. She was likely saved by the arrival of Bonnie Parker on the scene.
Wichita Falls’ population during the Bonnie and Clyde era was about 73,000, mostly condensed in what are now considered older neighborhoods near the central district.
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Stand in the west parking lot of the MPEC complex and face west. Ninety years ago, you would have seen the Bungalow Tourist Park, a cluster of cabins on the opposite side of North Burnett Street. This is where Clyde Barrow schemed with his buddies.
Slightly to the south you would see – and still can see – John Upton's market where groceries were sold on the first floor and a few small bedrooms on the second floor were rented out – often by the hour. The market and tourist court is where Bonnie and Clyde set up housekeeping.
Now turn and look east. The entrance to the Kay Yeager Coliseum is where Grace Donegan’s house stood. Clyde Barrow’s former and current lovers faced each other through their front windows. A little discomforting, no doubt.
The life she always wanted, for a time
“For a few weeks it’s like the life Bonnie thought she’d she always have,” writer Paul Schneider wrote of the couple's time in Wichita Falls in “Bonnie & Clyde: The Lives Behind the Legend.”
“They wanted to live right. They wanted to be married. Live right,” Bonnie’s younger sister, Billie Jean, recalled in later years.
Raymond Hamilton was a gang member who sometimes stayed with Bonnie and Clyde in Wichita Falls. “Bonnie and Clyde are in love,” he recalled. “She is jealous of him and he is jealous of her. Clyde doesn’t gal around any at all. Bonnie is the only girl he ever thinks about.”
Bonnie and Clyde had already had encounters with the law and Wichita Falls seemed like a good place to lay low and not be recognized.
Bonnie spent much of her time in the rooms above the grocery store dabbling at her poetry. When things got too boring, she accompanied Clyde and Raymond, staying in the car as they robbed rural filling stations. If they had a heist near Dallas, she might ride along to visit friends and family while the men conducted their business.
Summer of crime in the Southwest
The summer of ’32 was riddled by crime across the Southwest. Clyde and Raymond got the blame for some of the heists – and were guilty of some of them. Raymond’s loyalty to Clyde eventually earned him a trip to the electric chair for a murder he did not commit – but Clyde did.
As criminals go, Bonnie and Clyde and their companions weren’t very good. They expended most of their time and energy on nickel-and-dime heists at mom-and-pop stores and filling stations.
What Clyde Barrow was very good at was evading the law. He preferred stolen Ford V-8 coupes. Rural cops, often driving their own pickups and packing their own bird guns, were no match for Clyde’s powerful battlewagons that bristled with guns stolen from armories. The bandits would roar across jurisdictional lines, leaving small town lawmen in their dust.
It didn’t take long for the pair to capture headlines. The nation was mired in the Great Depression. Suddenly impoverished, millions of Americans grew bitter about America’s institutions of government and banking and took pleasure in the exploits of those who thumbed their noses at the establishment – John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly and Ma Barker’s gang in real life and Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney on the silver screen.
And Bonnie and Clyde.
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Modern-day Robin Hoods?
The couple developed a cult-like following among down-and-outers and transient camp-dwellers who shielded them from pursuing lawmen. The myth was born that they were modern-day Robin Hoods robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.
They were not.
Clyde and his buddies were cold-blooded killers. Escalating from petty crime to bigger heists, Clyde became responsible for at least nine murders – most of them police officers. The killings – and the notoriety – might have ended much sooner if it hadn’t been for the gang’s uncanny ability to escape from desperate situations, roaring through police lines with guns blazing and leaving behind a trail of bodies as they vanished across the plains.
Life on the run from the law
By the end of 1932, their pleasant days above the grocery on North Burnett Street were long gone. Theirs were lives on the run. Clyde’s brother, Buck, and his wife, Blanche, were often along for the ride.
“When money was needed, some small place was robbed. When a car was needed, one was stolen. When guns and ammunition were needed, some armory was burglarized at night. We roamed over many states, leaving a trail of horror behind us,” Blanche Barrow said in a handwritten account of their travels.
Gunfights with lawmen were common. Bodies piled up.
After Clyde and a companion shot and killed two motorcycle highway patrolmen near Dallas, their fate was sealed. There would be no capture, no trial, no prison. Only violent death awaited them.
Ambushed by the law
That came May 23, 1934, on a rural road in Bienville Parish, La. when a half-dozen law officers ambushed the lovers and riddled them and their car with bullets. The ambush was led by Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, who had once prowled Wichita Falls streets looking for the couple.
Thousands of mourners – or the morbidly curious – attended their funerals.
Story made for the movies
They were barely cold in their graves when the first movie was made about their adventures. Henry Fonda played Clyde. Other books, movies and television shows followed, but the breakthrough film “Bonnie and Clyde” in 1967, shattered the sex and violence taboos of the movies and found a massive audience. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway’s glamorized portrayals of the couple ensured they would not be lost to history for generations to come. The Netflix movie, "The Highwaymen," is a much more accurate account.
Last link to Wichita Falls history
The old grocery store on North Burnett is the only known remaining link between Bonnie and Clyde and Wichita Falls. Over the years, it has changed hands, sat vacant for periods, became a restaurant and most recently was the Neon Spur rock bar. It’s vacant again. Its red brick exterior with outside staircase has changed little since Bonnie and Clyde holed up there.
In the stillness of the night, a person might imagine a woman reciting her poems in the long-darkened rooms above:
“…they do not ignore
That death is the wages of sin.
Someday they’ll go down together
And they’ll bury them side by side
To few it’ll be grief, to the law a relief
But it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde.”