On January 7, 1933 Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were in the wrong place at the wrong time: at a modest house in west Dallas just after midnight. And for their mistake Tarrant County deputy sheriff Malcolm Davis paid with his life.
Davis was one of six Tarrant and Dallas county lawmen staking out the house that night, waiting for Odell Chambless. Lawmen knew that the house, owned by Lillie McBride, a sister of Barrow associate Raymond Hamilton, was used as a safe house by Chambless, Barrow, Hamilton, and other outlaws.
Chambless was wanted for robbing the Home Bank of Grapevine a week earlier.
Chambless and Les Stewart of Arlington, smiling and waving pistols, had locked bank officials and customers in the bank vault and escaped with $2,250. But their getaway car bogged down on a muddy road, and the two separated and struck out on foot. Stewart was soon captured by three private citizens. Meanwhile Chambless appeared at the farmhouse of W. A. Shumaker. Chambless temporarily won Shumaker’s trust by claiming to be a member of a posse searching for the bank robbers. At gunpoint Chambless then forced Shumaker and brother-in-law Jesse Trigg to drive him to west Dallas. (Note the Boyce House byline.)
Early in January 1933 lawmen had been tipped that Chambless after the bank robbery might hole up in the McBride house in Dallas. On the night of January 6 deputy sheriff Davis and five other lawmen arrived to find the house occupied only by Maggie Farris, eighteen, and two young children. Maggie was another sister of Raymond Hamilton. After the lawmen entered the house, Maggie turned on a red light in the front room. She explained to the lawmen that the red light helped the children sleep. While four of the lawmen interrogated Maggie in the house, deputy sheriff Davis and another lawman waited in the dark on the back porch.
About midnight Bonnie and Clyde and associate W. D. Jones approached the house in a car. According to T. Lindsay Baker in Gangster Tour of Texas, “He [Barrow] wanted to check with robber Raymond Hamilton’s sister, Lillian McBride, to determine whether a radio with hidden hacksaw blades had been delivered to Raymond in the Hillsboro jail.”
At the time, Lillie McBride was indeed in Hillsboro visiting Raymond.
When Clyde Barrow arrived at the McBride house and saw the red light in the front room, he did not stop the car. The red light was a warning signal. As he drove past, Clyde thought he saw the silhouette of a man in the front room. Clyde continued driving, going around the block. In the meantime one of the lawmen had told Maggie Farris to turn off the red light. She complied.
When Clyde approached the house a second time, he saw that the red light was off.
All clear, he thought.
Nonetheless, as he got out of the car and walked toward the house, he wore an overcoat that concealed a sixteen-gauge sawed-off shotgun.
Maggie saw Clyde approaching, opened the front door, and screamed: “Don’t shoot! Think of my babies!”
Clyde fired through a window into the front room.
The shot brought deputy sheriff Davis running around the side of the house from the back porch.
Reaching the front porch, Davis shouted, “Hold on there!” at the man with a shotgun.
Clyde Barrow turned and shot Davis at close range, propelling him backward.
Barrow then ran in the darkness a block and a half to Eagle Ford Road (Singleton Boulevard today), where he was picked up by W. D. Jones and Bonnie Parker.
As the trio drove away, Malcolm Davis lay dying at the McBride house. He was one of at least nine lawmen thought to have been killed by the Barrow gang during its short reign of terror during the Depression.
Malcolm Davis was fifty-one years old.
As Davis was buried and lawmen sought his killer they questioned relatives and associates of Chambless, Hamilton, and Barrow and charged some with being accessories in the Grapevine bank robbery and in the murder of Malcolm Davis.
Although unpaved at the time, Eagle Ford Road was the spine of west Dallas and the main conduit for the Barrow gang as its members navigated in and out of west Dallas. The McBride house (shown) at 3111 North Winnetka Avenue is just a block and a half north. The Barrows lived at 1221 Eagle Ford Road, Raymond Hamilton on the corner at 1201. Raymond’s brother Floyd, another Barrow gang associate, lived two blocks north on Crossman Avenue. The house where Barrow lived and the house where Malcolm Davis died are just three blocks apart.
The murder of a lawman was shocking in 1933 but quickly becoming less so. The early 1930s were the era of ruthless high-profile criminals—“public enemies”—spawned, in part, by Prohibition and the Great Depression: Alvin Karpis, Machine Gun Kelly, John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd.
And Bonnie and Clyde. (Photo from Wikipedia.)
The murder of deputy sheriff Malcolm Davis is but one chapter in the story of Bonnie and Clyde, a story that was written in sensational headlines across the front pages of newspapers around the country for two years beginning in 1932: robberies, murders, prison breaks, gun battles, manhunts.
Davis’s chapter in the Bonnie and Clyde story is typical: His murder and funeral merited two days of front-page headlines. Then the Barrow gang’s next outrage commandeered the headlines. And then the next outrage and the next, moving the gang’s story inexorably toward May 23, 1934 and Gibsland, Louisiana.
Bonnie Elizabeth Parker was born in 1910 in Rowena, Texas. But after the death of her father in 1914 Bonnie and her mother moved to the meager farm of Bonnie’s grandparents on Fishtrap Road in Cement City, an unincorporated enclave west of west Dallas. (Photo from Wikipedia.)
Place names of the area hint at its biology and geology: Fishtrap Road, Chalk Hill Road, Eagle Ford Road (Eagle Ford crossing on the Trinity River had been the western terminus of the T&P track until 1876).
Place names also hint at early settlement of the area: French Settlement Road and La Reunion Parkway are reminders of the short-lived French colony of the 1850s.
Cement City, located between the Trinity River floodplain and the Texas & Pacific railroad track, was a pocket of poverty and crime. It was dominated by two plants that excavated local limestone to make cement. The plants provided a living for immigrants from Mexico and struggling farmers from rural Texas who lived in shotgun houses and trudged unpaved streets that were either dusty or muddy as the workers hoped to work their way to a better life one bag of cement at a time.
The elementary school (1916) that Bonnie Parker attended still stands—abandoned—on Chalk Hill Road near a cement plant. The school building is made of, predictably, cement blocks.
Bonnie was a bright student. In 1922 she won a countywide spelling bee. She wrote poetry, loved to “play act” and attend “talking pictures.” But she dropped out of high school and was married just shy of her sixteenth birthday to Roy Thornton, a safecracker who abused her and soon went to prison for robbery. Bonnie and Roy never divorced, and even though Bonnie would soon meet the love of her (short) life, she would wear Roy’s ring into that ambush outside Gibsland.
Clyde Chestnut Barrow was born in 1909 the son of an Ellis County sharecropper.
(In the 1910 census, “Iva M.” was Clyde’s older brother Marvin Ivan “Buck” Barrow.) (Photo from Federal Bureau of Investigation.)
In 1922 the Barrows moved—by horse-drawn wagon—to west Dallas. Then, as now, people who had no home often lived temporarily under bridges and overpasses. The Barrows lived under their wagon in a squatters camp under the Houston Street viaduct until father Henry had saved enough money by selling scrap metal to first buy a tent and then to build a three-room shotgun house. Clyde dropped out of school after the sixth grade and received his further education on the harsh streets of west Dallas. Soon he was stealing bicycles and hubcaps.
West Dallas, like Cement City, was unincorporated: no city services, scant law enforcement. The rates of unemployment and disease (tuberculosis, typhoid) were high. The rates of crime were higher, earning west Dallas the nickname “the Devil’s Back Porch.”
By 1926, by some accounts, Clyde had drifted down to Houston, where he furthered his education, joining the Root Square Gang. Gang members committed petty thefts and used the proceeds to get “hopped up” on marijuana and shoot dice. His neighbors, the New York Times wrote, recalled other disturbing behavior: Clyde had broken a bird’s wing and laughed at its attempts to fly; he had tortured the pets of several neighbors.
Clyde soon returned to west Dallas, and in 1931 the Barrow family moved its shotgun house from Muncie Avenue to Eagle Ford Road. The house was oriented on the lot parallel to the road and a portico added to the front and a room to the rear of the house. The front became father Henry Barrow’s filling station and store, and the rear was the expanded family residence. Henry dug a well and sold water to neighbors. He also made and sold white lightning.
Cement City and the Devil’s Back Porch were the kind of places that people take desperate measures to escape. By 1930 Bonnie Parker was working as a café waitress. When Bonnie met Clyde in January at the home of a mutual friend in west Dallas, she was ready to escape. Clyde was already attempting to escape in his reckless fashion. Clyde held a few legitimate jobs but also moonlighted: He cracked safes, robbed stores, stole cars and even turkeys. Clyde, then twenty-one, had already been arrested four times and was wanted for robberies in Sherman, Denton, and Waco.
Upon meeting, Bonnie and Clyde were mutually smitten. Although Bonnie’s bad marriage had made her swear off men, she fell hard for Clyde (she had his name and hers tattooed inside a heart on her thigh).
But a month after they met, Clyde was arrested while sleeping at the Parker farmhouse and jailed in Waco. Bonnie, a pistol concealed in her bosom, visited Clyde in jail. He used the gun to escape. But he was arrested soon after in Ohio and in September 1930 began serving a fourteen-year term at Eastham prison farm north of Huntsville.
Eastham was infamous for its brutality—by both its guards and its prisoners. Young Barrow was beaten and raped frequently by inmate Ed Crowder, a sadistic trusty. In October 1931 Barrow used a lead pipe to crush Crowder’s skull. It was Clyde Barrow’s first murder. After Clyde killed Crowder, inmate Aubrey Scalley, serving a life sentence, stabbed Crowder’s corpse fifteen times with a homemade knife and agreed to take the blame for the murder. A grand jury declined to indict Scalley, ruling that he had acted in self-defense.
The manual labor at Eastham prison farm—picking cotton, clearing brush, chopping wood—was as brutal as its populace. To avoid that hard labor, in January 1932, Jeff Guinn writes in Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde, Barrow chopped off two toes of his left foot with an ax. The self-mutilation was unnecessary: Unbeknownst to Clyde, his mother had petitioned the governor for a parole. The parole was granted just a week after Clyde chopped off his toes.
On February 2, 1932 Clyde Barrow was released from Eastham. Bonnie and Clyde were reunited, even if Barrow had to walk out of prison on crutches.
But Barrow—beaten, raped, and now self-mutilated—was a changed man. Bitter, hardened. His sister Marie later recalled, “Something awful sure must have happened to him in prison because he wasn’t the same person when he got out.” Fellow inmate and Barrow gang member Ralph Fults said Barrow changed “from a schoolboy to a rattlesnake.”
Indeed, from then on, as Barrow robbed and killed, he was as motivated by vengeance against the criminal justice system as by monetary gain or notoriety. In fact, even before he left Eastham, Barrow vowed to return one day—not as an inmate but rather as a liberator. He would free prisoners—and kill as many guards as he could.
Himself now liberated, Barrow knew that he needed faster cars and heavier armament for his planned raid on Eastham. On April 18 Bonnie and Clyde and Ralph Fults stole two cars in Tyler. Then, passing through Kaufman they stopped to steal guns and ammunition from a hardware store. But as they were breaking in they were surprised by the city marshal. A brief firefight ensued, and the trio escaped in the two stolen cars.
Only to become bogged down on a muddy road.
Abandoning the high-powered cars, they trudged to a farm, where the only mode of transportation was . . . two mules.
More accustomed to Ford V8 horsepower than to mule power, the trio soon abandoned the mules and stole another car. It, too, became bogged down on a muddy road. By then a posse was on their trail. In another brief firefight Fults was wounded and captured, Bonnie was captured, and Clyde escaped.
Bonnie was held in the county jail in Kaufman. In her cell she began writing a poem, “The Story of Suicide Sal.” Despite her incarceration, Bonnie seemed to relish her new vocation. Her poem about the outlaw life was sprinkled with underworld jargon.
We each of us have a good “alibi”
For being down here in the “joint”
But few of them really are justified
If you get right down to the point.
On April 30, 1932 the gang—minus its poet—robbed jeweler John N. Bucher in Hillsboro. During the robbery occasional gang member Ted Rogers shot Bucher to death. But Bucher’s widow later identified gang member Raymond Hamilton as the killer (Rogers and Hamilton looked a bit alike), and Hamilton was sentenced to ninety-nine years at Eastham. Now Clyde Barrow had even more motivation for his planned raid on the prison farm.
On June 17 the Kaufman County grand jury no-billed Bonnie. She and Clyde were reunited and back in business.
But life for Bonnie and Clyde was not all guns and getaways. Bonnie wrote her poems; Clyde played his saxophone. Now and then they drove Clyde’s fast Ford coupe over to Crystal Springs dance pavilion just outside Fort Worth. According to musician Roy Lee Brown in Cary Ginell’s Milton Brown and the Founding of Western Swing: “People like Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow, Raymond Hamilton, they were killers all right, but they never caused any trouble when they came out there. They just wanted to dance like everyone else.”
Fast-forward from June 17, 1932—past at least seven robberies, six murders (including Malcolm Davis and three other lawmen), and three abductions—to June 10, 1933. While driving with Bonnie and W. D. Jones near Wellington, Texas, Clyde missed warning signs at a bridge under construction and flipped their car into a ravine. Gasoline ignited. Bonnie sustained third-degree burns (her stockings melted to her legs) to her right thigh that caused the muscles to contract. As a result, from then on Bonnie Parker either walked with a cane, hopped on her left leg, or was carried by Clyde, who himself favored his three-toed left leg.
Beginning on June 10, 1933 public enemies Bonnie and Clyde would limp toward their fate at Gibsland, Louisiana.
On July 19, 1933, four months after brother Buck Barrow was pardoned from prison and rejoined the gang, Bonnie and Clyde and Buck and wife Blanche were holed up on a tourist court outside Platte City, Missouri when lawmen closed in. The gang fired back with Browning automatic rifles and escaped, although Buck Barrow suffered a horrendous head injury. He died ten days later.
By 1933 Bonnie and Clyde were infamous. That year the county spelling bee champ was the subject of a Tijuana Bible (pornographic comic book).
As a young woman in a notorious gang, Bonnie became the focus of media attention. The gang traveled with a camera as well as guns and ammo, and photos of Bonnie, some made public after the gang left them behind at a hideout, came to define her to the public. But in many photos she was merely striking a pose as a joke. (Photo from Wikipedia.)
Bonnie came to hate this much-reprinted photo of her with a cigar in her mouth. Bonnie, who smoked only cigarettes, had struck the pose as a joke.
Likewise, Bonnie was not overly enamored of guns. She simply had fallen in love with a man who was. Again in this photo she struck the pose as a joke. (Photo from Wikipedia.)
Fast-forward again from July 29, 1933—past one armory robbed, two gun battles fought—to December 8, 1933.
Gang member W. D. Jones had been arrested in November and was talking. Based on his information, on December 8 Clyde was indicted for the murder of Tarrant County deputy sheriff Malcolm Davis. So was Bonnie Parker. It was the first murder indictment for the county spelling bee champ.
Fast-forward again from December 8, 1933—past at least one abduction, one murdered lawman, four robberies, and five gun battles—to January 16, 1934.
It was payback time. At long last Clyde Barrow was ready to return to Eastham prison farm as Clyde the Liberator.
Clyde’s main objective was to liberate gang member Raymond Hamilton, who had been wrongly imprisoned for the murder of Hillsboro jeweler John N. Bucher and was facing 263 years in prison for a medley of crimes. Clyde also wanted to liberate inmate Joe Palmer.
Before dawn on the morning of January 14, Bonnie and Clyde, accompanied by Raymond Hamilton’s brother Floyd and gun-for-hire James Mullens, drove down a country road used by Eastham prisoners in their commute to the prison farm’s fields. The car stopped. Floyd Hamilton and Mullens walked to a wooden bridge on the road and tucked two forty-five-caliber automatic pistols under the bridge.
The next day Floyd made his regular biweekly visit to his brother at Eastham. Floyd told Raymond the details of the planned raid.
Raymond and Joe Palmer, while working in a prison farm work detail, retrieved the pistols at the bridge and bided their time.
The morning of January 16 was dark, cold, and foggy at 6 a.m. as Bonnie, Clyde, and Mullens returned to the prison farm road. Normally prisoners did not work in the fields in fog: Their guards could not see them. But the prison’s supply of wood for heat was low, and a cold front was approaching.
In the dark Clyde and Mullins, armed with Browning automatic rifles, hid in the brush and waited, listening for the sounds of approaching men, tools, and horses.
About dawn prisoners, escorted by armed guards on horseback, began arriving at the nearby field. Suddenly gunfire rang out as prisoner Joe Palmer shot two of the guards, killing one and wounding the other. The guard whom Palmer killed had once brutally beaten him.
Clyde and Mullens began firing round after round over the heads of the inmates as men ducked and scattered in the fog. In the Ford V8 Bonnie leaned on the horn to give the escapers direction. Piling into the car were Clyde, Mullens, Joe Palmer, Raymond Hamilton, and two inmates who took advantage of the raid to escape: Hilton Bybee and Henry Methvin. Clyde invited Bybee and Methvin to join the gang. They accepted.
“Desperado’s Light of Love Keeps Horn Blowing During Fusillade.”
The Associated Press news service called the raid “the most spectacular prison delivery in Texas history.”
Outraged—and embarrassed—by the raid and the killing of a guard, Lee Simmons, head of the Texas prison system, issued a shoot-to-kill order against Bonnie and Clyde. Simmons also hired ex-Texas Ranger Frank Hamer to hunt down the pair. To that end Hamer formed a six-man posse.
Soon after the raid Hilton Bybee, James Mullens, and Joe Palmer left the Barrow gang. (Photo from Federal Bureau of Investigation.)
On February 10 the gang stole automatic weapons from the National Guard armory at Ranger—one of at least five armories robbed by the gang.
On February 27 the gang used those weapons to rob a bank in Lancaster, Texas of $4,000 ($75,000 today). After the gang members divided the loot, Raymond Hamilton, who had increasingly quarreled with Clyde, left the gang.
The Barrow gang now consisted of Bonnie and Clyde and Henry Methvin.
Two’s company, three’s a betrayal . . .
Fast-forward to April 1, Easter Sunday, 1934. Fifteen months after the murder of Tarrant County deputy sheriff Malcolm Davis and seven weeks before Bonnie and Clyde would eat their last breakfast in Gibsland, Louisiana, two more lawmen would become a chapter in the story of Bonnie and Clyde:
Bonnie and Clyde (Part 2): Death on Dove Road