IN SEARCH OF BONNIE AND CLYDE
Battle of Platte County
by Mark Vasto
For more than seven months, W.D. "Deacon"
Jones had let his gun do most of the talking for him,
but on Nov. 18, 1933 he was finally able to put those
actions into words for Dallas Deputy Sheriff Ted Hinton.
Captured without resistance while picking
cotton on a farm near Houston, the fugitive Jones told
Hinton a chilling story of four murders, a multi-state
spree of robberies, abductions, a pivotal gunfight and
-- most important to Hinton -- a tale of two passionate
young lovers who appeared to be on a suicide mission.
The pivotal gunfight he spoke of occurred
in Platte County; the two lovers were better known as
the bandits Bonnie and Clyde.
Only two-months earlier, Blanche Barrow,
married to Clyde's brother Buck, had been sitting in
a Platte City jail cell, held on a $15,000 bond and
awaiting her trial on the charge of assault with the
intent to kill. Captured in Iowa only five days after
an epic gun battle with Platte County lawmen, she at
first proclaimed innocence and then decided to waive
formal arraignment. Her husband dead -- largely due
to injuries sustained in the Platte County battle --
she seemed resigned to her fate of 10-years hard time
in the state penitentiary.
To Platte City residents, the 22-year-old
redheaded outlaw was one of the greatest curiosities
they could imagine. For a city whose social calendar
was largely comprised of going to Riverside Park for
horse races and the occasional band concert on the Platte
County Courthouse lawn, a visit to see Blanche Barrow
became the "in-thing" to do. In those days,
the jail was open to general visitors and Blanche Barrow
seemed more bemused at the spectacle she was a part
of. She alternately toyed with her visitors fabricated
stories or sometimes offered up what seemed to be genuine,
heartfelt, jailhouse confessions. Visitors were shocked
at her rather diminutive frame, commenting that she
looked more like a "Sunday school teacher"
than hardened criminal.
Fiercely curious and sharp-penned Maxfield
Jones, then editor and proprietor of The Landmark, wasn't
impressed with what he saw when he visited.
"Mrs. Barrow is a small, frail, girlish
woman but evidently schooled in crime," Jones wrote
in September of that year. "Her hard facial features
belie any innocence she might otherwise display, and
it is well to separate her from better society and be
rid for a time at least of her demoralizing, criminal
Max didn't know the half of it.
The Bad Guys:
The Barrow Gang
The subject of countless stories and screen
adaptations, the real story of Bonnie and Clyde is far
more sensational than most people acquainted with the
folklore can even believe.
To some, Bonnie and Clyde are misunderstood
depression era vigilantes, to others they are nothing
more than psychopathic killers...the Columbine "trench
coat mafia" of their day. One thing, however, cannot
be disputed: in an era where bank robbers and gangsters
like John Dillinger, Al Capone and "Pretty Boy"
Floyd inspired a sort of guilty pleasure for a country
gripped in the throes of the worst economic depression
in history, Bonnie and Clyde were the guiltiest pleasure
of them all.
Perhaps it was the innocence of their
youth. Both were hardly out of their teenage years and
both were of small stature (Bonnie Parker was reported
to stand 4'11 and weigh a paltry 100 pounds). They were
out on the open road, running away from it all, drinking
from the heady mixture of danger with romance. What
teenager hasn't dreamed at one point or another of doing
Perhaps it was the sheer audaciousness
of their actions that according them a begrudging sort
of respect. In a part of the country that was just a
buckshot away from the days of the "wild west,"
the frequently updated chronicle of their narrow escapes
from the law and daylight robberies seemed to be other-worldly.
They insisted that they were products
of their environment: disrespected, underpaid, bored,
poor and ticked off. Two persecuted lovers fleeing from
unjust forces of a corrupt government system that wanted
nothing more than to see them fail.
They were the stories of Robin Hood and
Joan of Arc all rolled up in one; Romeo and Juliet with
And nobody believed the legend more than
Bonnie and Clyde themselves did.
"They think we're just school kids
'cuz we look so small," Clyde was reported to lament.
But lawmen didn't know the depths of Clyde
Born to impoverished dustbowl farmers,
Clyde grew up with his parents and eight siblings in
a storage room attached to the back of a gas station
-- a considerable step up from the viaducts the family
often slept under during harder times. Desperate and
poor, Clyde and his brother Buck took to running around
Waco pool halls, drinking moonshine and engaging in
all sorts of petty crime and recklessness. Clyde's story
changes forever when he decides at age 20 to rob a garage
with his brother and an accomplice in Denton, Texas.
In a theme that would be constant for
the rest of his life, a patrolling police car notices
their erratic behavior and gives chase. In an equally
recurrent theme, Clyde escapes and Buck does not. Buck
is sentenced for the crime but an undeterred Clyde continues
to burgle Waco area businesses every day.
In Dallas, 18-year-old Bonnie Parker is
just as angry and her partners are just as unlucky.
Bonnie finds herself reduced to living with her grandmother
because her husband, whom she dropped out of school
at age 16 to elope with, has been arrested on a petty
thievery charge. She works by day in a truck stop, enduring
flagrant harassment and belligerent flirtation with
every coffee she serves. One frequent (and extremely
well-mannered) customer is a young policeman named Ted
"She was a very pretty young woman
with taffy-colored hair that glistened red in the sun,"
Hinson would write admiringly of her in later years.
"Photographs...failed to do justice to her looks.
Maybe someday Hinson would have summoned
the courage to ask this obvious crush of his out for
an Ovaltine after work. Maybe he would have been the
one who would have rescued her from the drudgery, in
so doing, rescuing her from her ultimate fate. As it
turned out, Hinson was destined for a decidedly different
and far more violent future with Bonnie Parker.
Worlds collide when the ovaltine is shared
with Clyde Barrow instead. Inseparable, the two begin
what is, by all accounts, a polite but intense love
affair. Their courtship is interrupted by a knock on
Bonnie's door in February of 1930 and Clyde is finally
arrested for his thievery.
Unwilling to have another paramour pried
from her embrace into the long arms of the law, Bonnie
smuggles a gun into the Waco prison during a visit and
manages to slip it undetected to Clyde, despite the
presence of attending guards. That evening, as a guard
pushes a meal under his bars, Clyde simultaneously pulls
the gun. He busts his friend out of jail and they both
escape from prison that very same night.
Knowing police will have Bonnie and his
family home under surveillance, Clyde doesn't immediately
return to his love, instead running all the way to Illinois
where he begins to rob trains and steal cars. His luck
runs out when he neglects to change the license plate
on a stolen Ford V-8 before the police catch up to him
on the road.
Clyde had a chance to reform after his
brother was sentenced for crimes he participated in
but he did not. He had the chance to serve out the probable
light sentence for petty thievery in Waco but he did
not. He had the chance to learn from mistakes and perhaps
change his ways, but he did not. Now he was a felon
who had pulled a gun on a prison guard and fled across
state lines. The presiding judge showed no leniency,
sentencing Clyde to 14-years hard labor at Eastham Prison
Farm Number 2 in Huntsville, Texas.
The judge may as well have sent him straight
At Eastham, Clyde was allegedly the victim
of near-daily prison rapes and constant beatings. Working
endless shifts on the sweltering cotton lines of the
farm, Clyde sent despondent, hopeless love letters to
Bonnie. His mother, after hearing about the incredibly
harsh circumstances her son was enduring made a heartfelt
appeal for his release. A partisan judge took sympathy
on the heartbroken mother, and granted Clyde parole,
but not before the desperate prisoner cut off two of
his toes in an attempt to get off the picking line.
Freed after serving only two years on
the 14-year sentence, Clyde was not gracious in release
or grateful for the reprieve. Right or wrong, he had
endured more than he could handle, and soon the entire
country would taste the unbridled fury he had forged
under the savage Texas sun. Reunited again with Bonnie,
he vowed never to be away from her side again. Together
with childhood friend and expert car thief W.D. Jones,
recently paroled brother Buck and his new wife Blanche,
the group would proceed to cut a swath across the map
that reverberates to this very day.
By the time the Barrow gang pulled into
a quaint looking Platte County tourist camp on Wednesday,
July 18, 1933, 6 people -- mostly lawmen -- lie murdered
in their wake.
The Good Guys:
Sheriff Holt Coffey and
1933 was a big year for Platte City. Favorite
son Guy Park was elected Missouri Governor and Franklin
Delano Roosevelt was readying to offer America his new
deal, defeating Herbert Hoover in the previous year's
election. Times were tough, to be sure, but the area
had its share of rain and the outlook for the year's
crops were good. The county had managed to pull itself
out of debt and banks in Camden Point and Edgerton were
healthy enough to remove their $.10 restriction on withdrawals.
Sheriff Holt Coffey and County Prosecutor
David Clevenger began their first year in each of their
respective offices and the two became fast friends.
They both knew they were in for a tough year, particularly
with the anticipated repeal of prohibition and the proliferation
of gambling in the area. Fiercely Democratic Landmark
Editor Max Jones delighted in it all: there was going
to be plenty to write about this year.
If there was ever an All-American composite
for county sheriff, Holt Coffey certainly fit the bill.
Born on a horse farm in Kentucky, Coffey was a handsome
family man with a carefully barbered haircut, a strong
and athletic man who even played semi-pro baseball for
a time. He was also an expert marksmen in both his right
and left hands, although he had a reputation for incredible
restraint. Indeed, in his first year as sheriff, Coffey
didn't even have to fire a single shot.
He started off the year by collaring Coner
Carey, a highway robber wanted in Kentucky, but only
after the bandit crashed his car into a fire hydrant
in Platte City and was otherwise rendered helpless.
On Jan. 13, acting on a tip from Clevenger, the two
busted an illegal liquor still in Iatan -- when the
owner wasn't present (he came home and quickly confessed
to the crime).
Buoyed by the two arrests and enjoying
the favorable coverage of their exploits in The Landmark,
Clevenger married his sweetheart on Jan. 27. The Coffey
family felt the sting of loss, however, as Holt's father
Lincoln had a heart attack and passed away on Feb. 3.
Both Clevenger and Coffey would take time off from the
front pages of The Landmark until resurfacing with decided
aplomb on March 3. On that day, it was reported, Clevenger
and Coffey, set a "record in criminal pursuits"
by capturing a chicken thief, a tire thief and their
accomplices only hours after their alleged crimes. Clevenger
quickly prosecuted two of them before midnight of the
On March 16, Clevenger and Coffey busted
an illegal floating crap game in Weston, again without
firing a shot. Like the other instances, The Landmark
was happy to report on the success of the county's two
heroic law officers while conveniently explaining away
a Weston bank safe robbery which occurred during the
same week (blamed on outside "experts" who
were "slick enough to leave trails that would fasten
the crime on local people"). The Landmark, for
the most part, was happy enough bashing the Republican
party and cheerfully blasting away at the ill-advised
repeal of prohibition (except for when St. Joseph's
Goetz Brewery announced they would advertise).
The Landmark saved particular venom for
the plethora of ramshackle beer halls that soon dotted
the Platte County landscape and the patrons who frequented
them, particularly the ones who felt the need to "soak
their hides with rotgut beverages and go wild."
That said, even The Landmark had to admit that one establishment
had seemingly gotten it right: The Red Crown Tavern
on what was then called "Highway Junction"
(today's KCI airport exit on I-29).
The Red Crown, which opened as a "tourist
camp" one year earlier (the term "motel"
had yet to be invented), was more than happy to take
advantage of the repeal of prohibition. Already an acclaimed
resort for the area, The Landmark marvelled at the interior,
describing it as being "beautifully decorated in
water colors of harmonizing and restful shades,"
declaring it an "ideal stopping place for (a) motorist.
The next week, in as bold a headline The
Landmark's linotype machine could muster, readers were
to be informed that Bonnie and Clyde agreed with their
assessment of the Red Crown's accommodations. The now
infamous story was simply entitled "BANDITS VISIT
Next week: The battle of Platte County.