How Did Bonnie and Clyde Really Die?


Bonnie Elizabeth Parker and Clyde Champion Barrow were one of the most famous criminal couples in the history of the United States. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

It was a spring morning in Louisiana near the border with Texas in the grimy heart of the Great Depression — May 23, 1934, to be precise. Clyde Champion Barrow, one of the most wanted men in America, insouciantly parked his stolen Ford at Ma Canfield's café and hobbled inside to order a breakfast of either burgers, BLT or fried bologna, depending on which witness testimony you choose to believe.

There were a lot of witnesses and they all seem to have known perfectly well who Clyde was. He'd been lurking in the area for some time by then. They watched him warily as he collected the sandwiches and limped back out to the car and handed one of them over to his driving companion, Bonnie Elizabeth Parker, one of the most wanted women in the country.

Morning at Ma Canfield's

You'll note that Bonnie didn't share Clyde's last name. This wasn't a proto-feminist statement of independence. It reflected the minor detail that the two notorious fugitives weren't married. Or, at least, not to each other. Bonnie was officially the wife of a violently abusive crook who was serving time for robbery. Bonnie hadn't taken his name either. She'd married him when she was only 16, soon thought better of it, and separated from him a few years later.

Still, neither was divorced, so Bonnie and Clyde were officially living in sin, but that was the least of their outlaw behavior. By May of 1934, the couple was wanted on multiple charges of theft and murder, and had broken the law in just about every way possible. They'd also become popular criminal pinups thanks to a cache of glamorous photos discovered by the cops at one of their previous hideouts. But there was little glamour in their lives that spring morning in 1934.

The reason Bonnie stayed in the car while Clyde went inside the diner was because Bonnie could barely walk at all. About nine months earlier, Clyde had crashed a different stolen car into a river and the battery acid splashed all over one of Bonnie's legs. They managed to save her leg from complete ruin with the help of some baking soda, but not before the acid ate it down to the bone in some places. Things had deteriorated to the point that Bonnie had to hop rather than walk to get around, and as often as not, Clyde had to carry her.

And as we already mentioned, Clyde himself had a pronounced limp. Some years earlier while serving time in a penitentiary, he'd cut off two of his toes to avoid the prison's brutal forced labor regime. All in all, lugging Bonnie in to get some breakfast sandwiches would have been unnecessarily strenuous, and so she waited in the car.

As Clyde pulled out of the parking lot, Bonnie ate a few bites of her sandwich and wrapped the remainder in the paper napkin it came with. A short time later, the powerful car was doing 60 miles per hour (96.5 kilometers per hour) down a back-country straightaway when they spotted a truck that looked like it'd broken down. The driver was standing next to the vehicle looking forlorn. They knew the truck and driver well. It was Ivy Methvin, whose son, Henry, was part of Bonnie and Clyde's little gang. Lately, they'd spent many an evening visiting in the Methvins' house. Clyde slowed the car to see if he needed help.

The Set Up

Ivy didn't need help. In fact, his truck wasn't even broken down. About two months earlier, Henry, a violence-prone hothead recently sprung from jail, had mistaken Clyde's instructions to kidnap a police officer who was getting too close and had gunned him down instead. Enraged by the unnecessary loss of life, Clyde reluctantly shot down the second officer, a 24-year-old, about-to-be-married novice out on his very first day of motorcycle patrol.

Bonnie and Clyde were already wanted for multiple crimes but it was this outrageous act that turned the tide of public sentiment against them and stoked the efforts of law enforcement to bring them down by any means necessary.

Given the nature of the incident and his role in it, Henry had a lot of gall to cut a deal with the cops, but that's just what he did when he agreed to help a posse of lawmen ambush his two former partners in crime. Henry's father Ivy was recruited to play a part, which he did convincingly enough on that morning in May.

No sooner had Bonnie and Clyde slowed down to see about Ivy's well-being than six men with guns appeared from the woods and opened fire. The phrase "a hail of bullets" doesn't do justice to what happened next. It was more like a blizzard. The men fired 167 shots; Clyde's stolen car's windshield was perforated by so many holes it had more empty space than glass.

The guy in charge of the carnage, a Texas Ranger by the name of Frank Hamer, was not a subtle man. He walked up to the passenger side where Bonnie sprawled, her half-eaten sandwich still in her grip, and fired another burst into her prone body point blank. She was definitely dead, and so was Clyde. That was the end of their run as the most famous criminal couple in American history.