The Short Life Of Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow’s Lovestruck Partner In Crime

Published July 10, 2023
Updated June 10, 2024

Born in 1910 in Texas, Bonnie Parker seemed like the last person who would ever become an infamous criminal — but then she met Clyde Barrow.

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow are perhaps the most infamous couple in American history. Between 1932 and 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, Bonnie and Clyde robbed countless banks and small businesses across the Central United States. The criminal couple also kidnapped some of their robbery victims — and shot anybody who stood in their way. In all, authorities believed that the pair killed at least 13 people.

Their crime spree attracted plenty of media attention in their time, not only for their murders and robberies, but also for their inseparable relationship. And Bonnie and Clyde’s reputation only grew after they were both gunned down by lawmen in Louisiana on May 23, 1934. Books and movies — especially the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde — cemented the pair’s legacy.

But many people who knew Bonnie Parker as a young girl were shocked about the path that she took. In her early years, she had been a good student with dreams of becoming an actress someday. Trading the possibility of fame for infamy, she ultimately opted for a life of crime.

What motivated her to join Clyde on his crime spree? Why did she seem to accept their imminent fate? And how can we separate Bonnie herself from the seemingly inseparable Bonnie and Clyde?

Bonnie Before Clyde

Bonnie Parker

Wikimedia CommonsAn infamous photograph of Bonnie Parker smoking a cigar and holding a gun. Recovered in Joplin, Missouri, in 1933.

Bonnie Parker’s life before she met Clyde Barrow has certainly received less attention than her exploits with her infamous partner in crime.

She was born on October 1, 1910, in Rowena, Texas, to Henry and Emma Parker. Henry died when Bonnie was just four years old, so Emma moved Bonnie and her siblings to a small town in West Dallas near relatives.

Bonnie was a good student with an interest in poetry. Along with writing, she also dreamed of becoming an actress.

But despite her honors in school, she was no teacher’s pet.

In The True Story of Bonnie and Clyde, Emma Parker recalled that Bonnie “was always in a scrape of some sort” in school and “too full of mischief.”

Bonnie’s cousin Bess remembered an incident when two girls had been stealing Bonnie’s pencils. Given the Parker family’s poverty, Bonnie didn’t take to them kindly. After she caught them one day, Bess and Bonnie “lured them down to the gravel put and gave them the beating of a lifetime.”

While she was still in high school, Bonnie began a relationship with her classmate Roy Thornton and married him shortly before she turned 16. As Bessie recalled, “When Bonnie loved, she loved with all her heart, and that was the way she loved Roy.” But their love was not to last.

An Ill-Fated Romance With Roy Thornton

Dallas In 1933

Wikimedia CommonsA view of Dallas during the Great Depression in 1933.

Although Bonnie Parker and Roy Thornton soon settled in with the former’s mother, trouble emerged early on in their relationship.

Roy started taking off without warning for long periods of time, which forced Bonnie to get a job at Marco’s Café in Dallas to make ends meet. There, she had a reputation for working hard. She also took pity on a number of homeless men who came to the restaurant, and fed them for free.

Meanwhile, Roy’s absence grated on Bonnie.

“Diary, every night I look at his dear little pictures,” Bonnie wrote in her diary. “I am fully discouraged, for I know I can never live with him again.”

According to HISTORY, Roy was eventually imprisoned for robbery in 1929, and the estranged couple would never cross paths ever again.

Despite this, Bonnie never officially divorced Roy. Indeed, when she died, she still had a tattoo on her thigh commemorating their love.

By the end of 1929, Marco’s Café had closed, so Bonnie now had no job and no husband. However, she wouldn’t stay single for long.

When Bonnie Met Clyde

Bonnie Parker And Clyde Barrow

Wikimedia CommonsOne of the best-known photos of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. 1933.

In January 1930, 19-year-old Bonnie Parker would meet 20-year-old Clyde Barrow at a friend’s house, where she was tending to her friend’s injury.

“It all came about so simply, as such momentous and life-changing things often do,” recalled Emma Parker. “Clyde dropped by this girl’s house. Bonnie was there, and they met.” Emma believed it was love at first sight.

Despite the fact that Clyde already had a criminal record, Bonnie found herself hopelessly in love with him, and her heart was broken when he was arrested yet again for car theft shortly after their romance began.

“Sugar, I am so blue I could die,” she wrote Clyde in February 1930 while he sat in prison. Soon after Clyde’s release in 1932, Parker joined him on a new crime spree alongside the rest of the Barrow Gang. Before long, they had terrorized many businesses in states like Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri.

Why did Bonnie join Clyde’s gang?

Bonnie herself never left any letters or diary entries to explain her most fateful decision, and those close to her were left wondering that same exact thing. Her mother, Emma Parker, was especially baffled, as Bonnie had once apparently encouraged Clyde to stay out of trouble.

Perhaps Bonnie was bored by her past life as a waitress and wanted to pursue a new adrenaline rush. Maybe she thought joining a criminal enterprise would be exciting. Or perhaps Bonnie simply decided to join Clyde because she wanted to demonstrate her devotion and love to Clyde.

Bonnie Parker On The Run

Bonnie And Clyde

Wikimedia CommonsIn a photo meant to be humorous, Bonnie Parker points a shotgun at Clyde Barrow. 1933.

Apparently new to being a criminal, Bonnie Parker was briefly imprisoned in March 1932 after a failed robbery, according to Texas State Historical Association. Though she wasn’t behind bars for long, she felt bored enough to return to an art form she had once excelled at in school: poetry.

One of Bonnie’s most famous works, “The Trail’s End,” seemed to eerily predict her gruesome fate with Clyde in the final stanza: “Some day 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.”

Another work by Bonnie, “The Story of Suicide Sal,” told the tale of an innocent girl who was lured into a life of crime by her boyfriend.

But if she felt hesitant about her own new life of crime, she didn’t let that stop her from joining back up with Clyde and his gang after she was released from prison. From there, the couple robbed banks, grocery stores, gas stations, and other small businesses across the Central United States.

Authorities also believed that they were responsible for at least 13 murders, including members of law enforcement. Bonnie was an accomplice in nearly all of the crimes, but it’s uncertain whether she personally killed anyone.

The criminal couple’s violent actions, plus their inseparable relationship, made them notorious across early 20th-century America. And the media coverage of the pair only elevated their notoriety, with newspapers describing Clyde as a “notorious Texas ‘bad man’ and murderer” and Bonnie as “his cigar-smoking, quick-shooting woman accomplice.”

In all, Bonnie and Clyde spent about two years on the run before they were gunned down by a posse of six lawmen in rural Louisiana on May 23, 1934. The posse shot about 130 rounds of ammunition into the couple’s stolen Ford V8, hitting Bonnie at least 26 times and Clyde at least 17 times.

After the duo died, police had to fight back against looters who tried to steal “souvenirs” from the scene, like pieces of Bonnie’s bloodstained dress. Perhaps this was a grisly sign that the notorious couple would continue to capture the American imagination long after they were gone.

The Legacy Of Bonnie Parker

Ford V8

Wikimedia CommonsBonnie Parker standing in front of a Ford V8, presumably in Joplin, Missouri. 1933.

So why did Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow become such legendary outlaws? And what did Bonnie contribute specifically to that image?

Bestselling author Jeff Guinn wrote in the Smithsonian Magazine that he thinks that the idea of “illicit sex” helped drive the couple’s infamy — and helped them stand out among other notorious criminals of the era.

“The pair were young and traveling together without benefit of marriage,” Guinn explained. “And while ladies smoked cigarettes, this gal smoked a cigar, Freudian implications and all.” (In reality, Bonnie likely did not smoke cigars and only posed with one for the sake of a photoshoot with Clyde.)

Meanwhile, others have argued that Bonnie’s poetry helped cement the couple’s crime spree and relationship into legend. After all, Bonnie was known to be a talented writer, and she could have helped romanticize her relationship with Clyde despite also predicting their impending demise.

Interestingly, some have even suggested that Clyde would have never reached the level of infamy that he did if Bonnie had not been by his side.

“It was Bonnie Parker who supplied the unique ingredient: the image of the tiny feminine figure with a machine-gun, who chose to die with the man she loved,” argues author John Treherne. “It was as though Annie Oakley had teamed up with Billy the Kid, or as if Maid Marian had fought with bow and arrow beside her Hood.”

After learning about Bonnie Parker, read about two other infamous members of the Barrow Gang, Blanche Barrow and Buck Barrow.

Kendrick Foster
Kendrick Foster is a recent graduate of Harvard University, where he majored in History.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.
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Foster, Kendrick. "The Short Life Of Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow’s Lovestruck Partner In Crime.", July 10, 2023, Accessed June 25, 2024.