Clyde Chestnut Barrow was born in Ellis County, Texas, near Telico, a town just south of Dallas. He was the fifth of seven children of Henry Basil Barrow (1874–1957) and Cumie T. Walker (1874–1943), a desperately poor farming family that emigrated, piecemeal, to Dallas in the early 1920s as part of a wave of resettlement from the impoverished nearby farms to the impoverished urban slum known as West Dallas. It was a place of flimsy shanties and tent cities, piles of garbage and teeming open sewers, swarming insects and rampaging epidemics. The Barrows had neither shanty nor tent: they spent their first months living under their wagon. When father Henry had earned enough money to buy a tent, it was a major step up for the family.
Clyde was first arrested in late 1926, after running when police confronted him over a rental car he had failed to return on time. His second arrest, with brother Marvin "Buck" Barrow, came soon after, this time for possession of stolen goods (turkeys). Despite having legitimate jobs during the period 1927 through 1929, he also cracked safes, robbed stores, and stole cars. After sequential arrests in 1928 and 1929, his luck ran out and he was sent to Eastham Prison Farm in April 1930. While in prison, he was sexually assaulted repeatedly for over a year by a dominant inmate, whose skull he eventually fractured with a length of pipe. It was Clyde Barrow's first killing.
Paroled in February 1932, Barrow emerged from Eastham a hardened and bitter criminal. His sister Nell remembered a conversation with sister Marie about the new parolee: "There's a new air about him—a funny sort of something I can't put my finger on.... I'm afraid he's not going to go straight." Marie was blunter: "Something awful sure must have happened to him in prison, because he wasn't the same person when he got out." Associate Ralph Fults was there, inside "The Walls" with Barrow, and said he watched him "change from a schoolboy to a rattlesnake."
In his post-Eastham career, he focused on smaller jobs, robbing grocery stores and gas stations, at a rate far outpacing the mere ten to fifteen bank robberies attributed to him and the Barrow Gang. Barrow's favored weapon was the M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle (called a BAR). According to John Neal Phillips, Barrow's goal in life was not to gain fame or fortune from robbing banks, but to seek revenge against the Texas prison system for the abuses he suffered while serving time.
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."