(This is the first in an occasional series I’m going to start doing. This series will focus on historic crimes in Northwest Arkansas and adjacent areas. Since I write crime fiction, and have an interest in the history of crime, I thought this might be an interesting topic to explore. For my inaugural post, I’ll focus on some names that most folks will be familiar with.)
In the early morning hours of June 15, 1933, two carloads of worn out people pulled into the Twin Cities Tourist Camp, located on the corner of North 11th Street and Waldron Road in Fort Smith, Arkansas. They’d been on the run for several days, working their way from Wellington, Texas to Hutchinson, Kansas. There were five people in those two cars: Buck Barrow and his wife, Blanche; WD Jones; and Buck’s brother, Clyde, and his lady, Bonnie Parker.
Collectively, they were known as The Barrow Gang. They’re more famous as Bonnie and Clyde.
On June 10, Clyde, traveling with Bonnie and WD, had run their car off the road, going over a twelve-foot ravine. The car, a Ford V-8 coupe, had rolled over, trapping Bonnie inside. Sulfuric acid from the battery had leaked onto her right leg, burning her badly. A local farm family by the name of Pritchard had helped them, though when Sam’s son-in-law Alonzo Cartwright saw all the guns Clyde retrieved from the car, he slipped away and went for the sheriff. Clyde noticed he was gone and guessed where, so when Sheriff George Corry and City Marshal Paul Hardy arrived, they were disarmed and taken prisoner. Things were getting tensed at the Pritchard place, so they handcuffed the two officers, put them in the backseat with Bonnie laid across their laps, and headed for Oklahoma. Around 3 a.m., they met with Buck and Blanche at a bridge near Erick, Oklahoma. They tied the policemen to a tree using barbed wire, then disappeared. They later abandoned Corry’s Chevy and stole another Ford in Hutchinson, Kansas, before making their way to Fort Smith.
The Barrows were well-known in the Southwest, and, since a shootout in Joplin, were becoming famous in Missouri and the Midwest as well. But during this time, they tried to make contact with another famous Oklahoman, Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd. Floyd had other business, though, and didn’t think much of the Barrows, calling them trigger-happy punks and not true professionals (John Dillinger was likewise disparaging of them). By the 16th, Floyd was in Kansas City and became a prime suspect when McAlester, Oklahoma police chief Ott Reed, officers W.J. Grooms and Frank Hermanson of the Kansas City Police Department, FBI Special Agent Raymond J. Caffrey, and outlaw Frank “Jelly” Nash were killed.
By Sunday the 18th, Bonnie’s condition was becoming serious. Clyde knew something had to be done, so he left Fort Smith for Dallas and brought back Bonnie’s sister Billie Jean Parker Mace. They arrived in Fort Smith about mid-morning of the 19th. Bonnie had begun to rally, and having Billie Jean there helped even more.
But now that Bonnie was getting better, the gang’s finances were getting worse. Between rent, medicine and food, they were running low on funds. So they decided that Buck and WD would try to raise some funds while Clyde stayed with the girls.
Buck and WD left the tourist camp about noon on Friday the 23rd, headed north on Highway 71 for Fayetteville to rob a grocery store. Both men were experienced criminals. WD had been robbing, stealing cars, and taking part in gunfights for six months, and Buck had staged robberies for ten years, so what should have been simple turned into a bloody comedy of errors.
WD and Buck began casing stores late that afternoon. Rather than being professionals about it, they raised the suspicions of the owner of Bates Brothers Market, who wrote down their descriptions and license plate number. About 5:30 p.m., Buck parked a block away and WD walked across the street to Brown’s Grocery at 111 West Lafayette.
When WD entered the store there were only two people there: Mrs. Robert L. Brown, who was behind the counter, and Ewell Trammell, the bag boy. WD produced a pistol and told them both to be quiet. He then tried to open the register but couldn’t. Mrs. Brown opened it for him, then stuck her hands back in the pockets of her apron, hiding two diamond rings. WD took $20 from the till, then frisked Trammell, getting thirty-five cents from him.
Then, rather than walk the block back to where Buck was parked, WD decided to steal the Model A delivery truck parked outside the store. Mrs. Brown told him the keys were in it, but neglected to mention the battery was dead . WD knocked seven-year-old Wanda Audit down as he ran from the store, then had to push the truck and pop start it. He then drove a couple of blocks, across one block, then back up the hill to Buck. They were last seen headed south on 71.
Thanks to the information from Mr. Bates and the call from Mrs. Brown, Fayetteville police had a good start. By 6:00 p.m., they were notifying communities along the getaway route by phone, asking for help. One of the most obvious places to watch was Alma, since it had the intersection of US Highways 64 and 71. FPD reached Alma Marshal Henry D. Humphrey at the AHC Garage, run by his son, Vernon. They gave him the license number and description, then asked him to watch for the fugitives.
Alma was a small town, and Henry was the only full-time officer. Vernon would have gone with his father, but he had to stay at the shop until his night mechanic arrived, and the mechanic was running late. So Henry took Ansel M. “Red” Salyers, a Mississippi Valley Power Company employee and what we today would call a reserve deputy sheriff. They left AHC at about 6:20, headed north on 71 in Salyers’s maroon Ford sedan. Henry had a .38 revolver and Red had a .30-30 Winchester. About two and a half miles north of town, they met the late mechanic, Weber Wilson, as they topped a hill, and waved at him, then continued on. Before reaching the bottom of the hill, they met a black Ford that was traveling fast.
Buck had made the fifty mile trip on one of the ten most dangerous highways in America in about fifty minutes, a trip that, today, takes almost forty minutes at 75 mph on Interstate 540. They were only about twenty minutes from the tourist camp, thinking their luck was turning. Then they topped the hill and crashed into the rear end of Weber Wilson’s blue Chevy.
Red and Henry heard the crash and turned around to investigate. When they reached the site, they saw the plates on the car—1933 Indiana 225-646—matched the number they’d been given by FPD. Red stopped the car facing east, blocking the road behind Buck’s Ford.
Things happened fast then. Buck and WD recovered from the crash and saw Weber crawl out of his car, pick up a large rock, and come toward them. Since neither could afford questioning, they came out shooting.
Weber saw the guns, dropped the rock, and ran. Henry had just stepped out of Red’s car, close to the Ford, and Buck shot him full in the chest with number-four shot from a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun. Henry was blown into the roadside ditch.
Red was more fortunate. His car shielded him from WD’s gunfire from a Browning automatic rifle (BAR). He tried to hold his own, but the BAR outclassed Red’s deer rifle. Several shots were exchanged. Then Buck’s shotgun jammed and WD had to reload. Red took advantage of this and ran for a house some seventy-five yards away. WD managed to reload and fired at Red, but missed, sending rounds into the house, the barn, and even a nearby strawberry field, but missing Red entirely. Red hid behind a rock chimney to reload, and Buck and WD ran to his car, the only one there still running. Just as they drove away, Red got in a couple of shots. One of them knocked off the horn button, taking two of WD’s fingertips. While driving away, the two outlaws took shots at a passing motorist.
They headed north, but only for a few hundred yards. Then they turned onto a small lane that took them to Rudy Road about a mile later. They turned south there, where they were seen by the Farris family, and reached Highway 64 in just a couple of miles. For some reason, they decided to dump Red’s car and flagged down Mark Lofton and his wife, robbed them, and took their car. Unfortunately, they were across the Arkansas River from the tourist camp, and there was only one way across—the bridge at Van Buren, which by then was guarded by law enforcement. So they dumped the Lofton car and headed into the woods, waited till dark, then stole across the river on the Frisco railroad trestle that ran alongside the automotive bridge.
The trip was a disaster. Instead of getting the needed cash, they had only $20. Instead of a new car to replace Buck’s roadster, they wrecked the sedan they’d had and lost two other cars. And instead of keeping the low profile needed while Bonnie recovered, local law enforcement was on the alert for them.
Having only one car, Clyde took the women and slipped into eastern Oklahoma, then returned for Buck and WD. By first light on Saturday the 24th, the gang was gone, though law enforcement didn’t know that. They put Billie on a train back home and headed for Kansas. There were a few more incidents—such as a woman in Winslow being robbed and raped by two men the morning after the shootout, and a strange call for an ambulance to go about twelve miles north of Van Buren—but The Barrow Gang was long gone, headed for Kansas and other adventures, including a later gun battle
in Iowa where Buck and Blanche would be captured after Buck was shot in the head, a wound he later died from.
Marshal Henry Humphrey died that Monday at Saint John’s Hospital, the fifth lawman killed by the Barrows, but not the last. Clyde became convinced that all lawmen had it in for him, and that he’d never go back to prison, swearing they’d have to kill him instead.
Just about eleven months later, on May 23, 1934, that’s exactly what happened when he and Bonnie were killed in a law
enforcement ambush outside Gibsland, Louisiana, taken down by a posse consisting of Ted Hinton, Prentis Oakley, Manny Gault, Bob Alcorn, Henderson Jordan, and Frank Hamer.
But that’s another story.