Bonham, Texas was a little fart of a town in the 1930s. Still is in many ways. Some seventy miles northeast of Dallas, as the crow flies, Bonham was the former location of my great uncle’s pharmacy and soda shop. Jeter’s Pharmacy, “On the East Side of the Square,” was were you could get Ipana Toothpaste for 39¢ a tube, Asp’rin for 64¢ a bottle, and Alka-Selzer for 49¢ a box.“Our Fountain Service is Popular,” Jeter’s boasted—“one which we are justly proud.” I knew the soda jerk, the man who manned the fountain. His name was Elonzo Glenn Jeter. His older brother Plato owned the pharmacy and filled the prescriptions. E.G. or Glenn, as most folks called him, filled the soda glasses. He was my grandfather. His grandchildren called him Daddy Jeter.
He wanted to be a pharmacist like his older brother, so he enrolled at the University of Texas to study pharmaceutical sciences. Before he could attend classes the Great Depression forced him to return home and earn a living. It was sometime in the early 1930s when Daddy Jeter was making a curbside delivery in front of the pharmacy when, as the story went, he heard a commotion up the street. He saw a man and woman brandishing guns and running from a filling station. They jumped into their car and raced down the square in front of my grandfather. Daddy Jeter said he got a good look at the passenger as they drove past. It was a young blonde woman, bearing all the marks, according to newspaper descriptions, of Bonnie Parker.
My grandfather’s brush with history was brief—just long enough to spot two thieves fleeing a holdup. As a kid, I loved hearing that story. Somehow knowing that the infamous Barrow Gang robbed a gas station in Bonham, Texas and my grandfather witnessed their escape made him part of history.
Most people live their whole lives without witnessing history up close. Not Daddy Jeter. He had a front row seat—as brief as it was.
Of course Daddy Jeter’s experience with Bonnie and Clyde was like many in the early years of Depression-era Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri—fleeting and chaotic. That’s the way outlaws want it. Get in and out and gone. And Bonnie and Clyde, at least for 18 months or so, were some of the best at creating bedlam and then disappearing in a flash. But history caught up with the outlaw couple. On May 23, 1934, on a dirt road in another little fart of a town—Gibsland, Louisiana—Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were ambushed and killed by two former Texas Rangers (Frank Hamer and Maney Gault), the local sheriff of the perish and his deputy, and a Dallas policeman who knew the couple from their Dallas days. Stopping to help a friend, who supposedly had a flat tire, the lawmen sprang from cover. The couple’s car, a stolen 1934 V-8 Ford Deluxe sedan, was hit with 167 bullets. The shooting lasted just a few seconds—long enough to kill Bonnie and Clyde.
Forty years later, I had my own brush with Bonnie and Clyde and their violent history. The exact location escapes my memory—perhaps at the Texas State Fair—but sometime in the 1970s I saw their death car. It was on some macabre national tour. Pay your fare and gawk at the rolling tomb of Bonnie and Clyde. Stare at the shattered glass, count the bullet holes, study the blood stained seat, and imagine them jerking like fish out of water as bullets riddled their bodies. It was chilling.
Bonnie and Clyde have passed from history into mythology. The transformation began even before their deaths. After shooting their way out of Joplin, Missouri and beating a hasty escape, police found in their abandoned cabin a cache of guns, a pardon signed by Texas Governor Miriam (Ma) Ferguson for Buck Barrow, Clyde’s brother, a poem composed by Bonnie, and a camera. The police developed the film and sent the pictures to newspapers around the country, along with Bonnie’s poem, “The Story of Suicide Sal.” The photographs were of Bonnie and Clyde playfully posing with automatic weapons and smoking cigars. In the papers, and much to her chagrin, Bonnie was known as “the cigar smoking gun moll.” She was upset at being called a cigar smoker, not a gangster or a prostitute.
The pictures of outlaw lovers, outsmarting and outgunning G-men became a romantic image for Depression-era readers. It was tantalizing. John Dillinger had the looks of a leading man. Pretty Boy Floyd and Machine Gun Kelly had monikers that were memorable. But no gangster in the 1930s had the illicit sex appeal of Bonnie and Clyde. For those out of work or had lost their farms to foreclosure, big banks and fat cat businessmen were to blame for their woes. The idea that a diminutive man from West Dallas and his petite lover were stealing from the rich and making national and local law enforcement look like Keystone Cops played into the myth that Bonnie and Clyde were modern-day Robin Hoods. People suffering under severe economic hardships were looking for ways to escape the drudgery of the times. They found it in the movies and the newspapers. Genuine heroes were in short supply, so anti-heroes would have to do—villains and outlaws, who in the movies were always more interesting than the Dudley Do-Rights. Bonnie and Clyde fit that bill to a tee. And the public couldn’t get enough of them.
Their myth continue to grow in the decades following their deaths. A handful of movies depicted the couple as flawed champions of the forgotten man—the ones who worked hard, paid taxes, and did what was right only to be beaten down by the system of corrupt politicians and their crony bankers. The most famous of these movies was Arthur Penn’s Bonnie Clyde, starring Warren Beaty and Faye Dunaway. The popularity of the anti-hero was coming into it own in the mid- and late 1960s, especially with the success of Clint Eastwood’s portrayal of the “Man with no name” in Sergio Leone’s “Spaghetti Westerns”: A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). It’s not surprising that Penn presented Bonnie and Clyde in the same light as Eastwood’s anti-heroes, as a no-named outlaw couple fighting a corrupt and corrupting system that favored the well-to-do and the well-connected. After shooting up a foreclosure sign in front of a farmhouse, Beaty’s Clyde wanted the dispossessed farmer to know, “We rob banks.”
Those who went to see Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 (and have watched it since) didn’t know that the real Bonnie and Clyde also robbed grocery stories, gas stations, hardware stores, and even a meatpacking plant—the very businesses owned and operated by those the myth said they championed. They picked the very pockets of the hard working men and women who, through their hard earned money, were desperately trying to keep their families fed during desperate times. The truth about Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow is they were two-bit thieves and murderers. The first man Clyde killed was the owner of a combination filling station and jewelry shop in Hillsboro, Texas. His name was John Bucher. Clyde and his crooked friend took $20 and a few diamond rings. Before the shooting spreed ended in May 1934, the Barrow Gang had killed at least twelve people—nine were officers of the law.
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The reality of the killer couple is explored in the 2019 Netflix movie The Highwaymen, starring Kevin Costner (Frank Hamer) and Woody Harrelson (Maney Gault). Though the filmmakers embellished the relationship between Hamer and Gault (which wasn’t as longstanding as presented), made Gault out to be a down on his luck ex-Texas Ranger (which wasn’t true), and placed the two lawmen in situations they were never in (like arriving shortly after the notorious murders of two Grapevine, Texas police officers), The Highwaymen brings more reality into the Bonnie and Clyde story than previous depictions, including and especially Arthur Penn’s 1967 film.
Set as a modern-day Western, where the line between good and evil is drawn with a heavy hand, The Highwaymen recaptures a time when we took for granted that men with badges were heroes and men who killed men with badges were villains. What seems so refreshingly out of place, particular in the last few years when officers of the law have been villainized as breakers of the law—cruel, abusive, and even murderous—is the fact that Hamer and Gault are so careful to abide by the law. It is true they chase Bonnie and Clyde across the Texas state line, outside of their jurisdiction, into Oklahoma and Louisiana, but they seek to work with local and federal authorities. And when Hamer is convinced he has cornered his pry in Louisiana, he and Gault enlist Henderson Jordan, the sheriff of Bienville Perish, to help spring the trap.
Except at the climatic shooting, when we get a brief glimpse of them, at no time during The Highwaymen do we get a good look at Bonnie and Clyde. They are a distant blur, filmed from behind, in shadow, represented by body parts—feet and hands. They are not the stars of the show. They are not the heroes of the myth. The heroes are Hamer and Gault, and the other lawmen.
Some have taken issue with how Frank Hamer is portrayed in The Highwaymen. Monica Muñoz Martinez as written extensively on injustices perpetrated on Mexican-Americans in Texas in the early twentieth century, when Hamer served as a Texas Ranger (The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas, Harvard University Press, 2018). Martinez wrote a harsh review in The Washington Post, in which she accused Hamer biographers of leaving out practices of intimidation or “[dismissing] the behavior as uncharacteristic or [trying] to excuse his abusive policing practices as simply part of a violent era.” This is certainly not the case with John Boessenecker’s biography of Hamer (Texas Ranger: The Epic Life of Frank Hamer, the Man Who Killed Bonnie and Clyde, Thomas Dunn Books, 2016). Nevertheless, Martinez claims that “‘The Highwaymen’ is an eerie reminder of how far we have to go in bringing about a critical understanding of police violence, one desperately needed to inform our ideas of justice and heroism.”
Nothing I’ve read of Hamer makes him out to be a saint. But heroes need not be saints. He was a tough lawman who lived during lawless times. Whether he bent or broke the law in carrying out his duties as a Texas Ranger is open for debate. But to claim that The Highwaymen shies away from that debate, as Martinez implies, is untrue. In one chilling scene, narrated by Harrelson’s Gault on the night before the ambush, the viewer is left with the impression that Hamer—dubbed “The Angel of Death”—was too cavalier in taking another man’s life. And knowing that Bonnie and Clyde died from ambush makes you wonder whether his form of justice was really just. But there should be no mistaking that the real life hunt for Bonnie and Clyde was a dangerous affair. Clyde made it clear to family and friends that he would not be taken alive—and his penchant for killing police officers was proof enough of that claim. The question, especially after Gault’s narrative, is whether Costner’s Hamer will shoot first and ask questions later, or whether he will give the murderous couple an opportunity to surrender. I’ll leave that for you to find out. But one thing is clear from The Highwaymen, Bonnie and Clyde were not heroes and should not be celebrated as such. And for that, this movie has contributed much to the reality of the real Bonnie and Clyde. The myth has hung on far too long.