Bonnie Elizabeth Parker (October 1, 1910 – May 23, 1934) and Clyde Chestnut Barrow (March 24, 1909 – May 23, 1934) were well-known outlaws, robbers, and criminals who traveled the Central United States with their gang during the Great Depression. Their exploits captured the attention of the American public during the "public enemy era" between 1931 and 1934. Though known today for his dozen-or-so bank robberies, Barrow in fact preferred to rob small stores or rural gas stations. The gang is believed to have killed at least nine police officers and committed several civilian murders. The couple themselves were eventually ambushed and killed in Louisiana by law officers. Their reputation was cemented in American pop folklore by Arthur Penn's 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde.
Even during their lifetimes, the couple's depiction in the press was at considerable odds with the hardscrabble reality of their life on the road—particularly in the case of Parker. Though she was present at a hundred or more felonies during her two years as Barrow's companion, she was not the machine gun-wielding cartoon killer portrayed in the newspapers, newsreels, and pulp detective magazines of the day. Gang member W. D. Jones was unsure whether he had ever seen her fire at officers. Parker's reputation as a cigar-smoking gun moll grew out of a playful snapshot found by police at an abandoned hideout, released to the press, and published nationwide; while she did chain-smoke Camel cigarettes, she was not a cigar smoker.
Author-historian Jeff Guinn explains that it was the release of these very photos that put the outlaws on the media map and launched their legend: "John Dillinger had matinee-idol good looks and Pretty Boy Floyd had the best possible nickname, but the Joplin photos introduced new criminal superstars with the most titillating trademark of all—illicit sex. Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were young and unmarried. They undoubtedly slept together—after all, the girl smoked cigars... Without Bonnie, the media outside Texas might have dismissed Clyde as a gun-toting punk, if it ever considered him at all. With her sassy photographs, Bonnie supplied the sex-appeal, the oomph, that allowed the two of them to transcend the small-scale thefts and needless killings that actually comprised their criminal careers."
Bonnie Elizabeth Parker was born in Rowena, Texas, the second of three children. Her father, Charles Parker, a bricklayer, died when Bonnie was four. Her mother, Emma Krause, moved with the children to her parents' home in Cement City, an industrial suburb of Dallas, where she found work as a garment sewer. Parker was one of the best students in her high school, winning top prizes in spelling, writing and public speaking. As an adult, her fondness for writing found expression in poems such as "The Story of Suicide Sal" and "The Trail's End" (known since as "The Story of Bonnie and Clyde").
Parker did not date until she was in her second year of high school, but in that year she fell in love with a classmate, Roy Thornton, whose good looks and smart clothes caught her schoolgirl's eye. The two quit school and were married on September 25, 1926, six days before Parker's 16th birthday. Their marriage, marked by his frequent absences and brushes with the law, was short-lived, and after January 1929 their paths never crossed again. But they were never divorced, and Parker was wearing Thornton's wedding ring when she died. Thornton was in prison in 1934 when he learned of his wife's ambush; his reaction was, "I'm glad they went out like they did. It's much better than being caught."
In 1929, between the breakdown of her marriage and her first meeting with Clyde Barrow in January 1930, Parker lived with her mother and worked as a waitress in Dallas; one of her regular customers in the café was postal worker Ted Hinton, who would join the Dallas Sheriff's Department in 1932 and, as a posse member, would participate in her ambush in 1934. In the diary she kept briefly early in 1929, she wrote of her desperate loneliness, her impatience with life in provincial Dallas, and her love of a newfangled technology — talking pictures.