Why is it that the more information we have about history the less we actually know? I mean, we have plenty of eyewitness testimony about George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Big Horn from both the army survivors and the Indians. And then there's the Sad Life and Tragic Death of Edgar Allan Poe where we have contemporary first hand accounts of Edgar's last days. So why do people keep writing books about what really happened? Oh, well, we suppose assistant professors of history have to eat, too.
Now the basics about Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow are pretty easy to establish. The Barrow family, including Clyde and older brother Marvin Ivan (sometimes listed as "Ivan Marvin" but called "Buck"), had moved to Dallas in 1922. Buck was the older and began indulging in petty thievery and soon young Clyde joined in. Such activities were not that uncommon among the kids in the impoverished area known as West Dallas. After all, it was pretty easy to turn things like stolen chickens and pilfered metal items into ready cash, something the Barrow family had little of.
All this ended up with Buck and Clyde's first run-in with the law. They were arrested for stealing chickens. Buck got a week in jail, and Clyde was let off. The official story is Buck and Clyde stole the chickens, but Bonnie's sister later said that Buck and Clyde bought the chickens for resale. But, alas, the chickens had been stolen before the Barrow brothers bought them, and so Buck and Clyde got the blame.
What we see here is the beginnings of a pattern of contradictory tales about - quote - "what really happened" - unquote - with the Barrow gang. The official story and the stories from the family members almost never quite gibe. Usually no one denies the basic facts of an event, but who was actually involved in a particular criminal deed - who was the specific "perp" as they say - is often disputed.
Regardless of the rights and wrongs in the matters, it didn't take long for the brothers to become well known to the Dallas police, and they were frequently hauled in for questioning. Clyde began to resent this because he had a number of legitimate jobs, and if he was hauled down to the police station, he lost wages for his time away from the job. So Clyde finally began to think, what the heck, he'd join Buck in his - ah - his "brokerage business".
By 1930, the Barrow Brothers' thievery had become less petty and had increased in gravity until they were stealing cars and driving them north to Oklahoma. You might get 50 cents for a chicken, but $100 per car. Buck and Clyde also found they could break into businesses after hours and walk away with items that could be sold. Sometimes they came away with cold hard cash. So it was inevitable that both brothers soon became - ah - "guests" of the State of Texas.
What landed the brothers in prison were separate incidents. Buck had been caught fleeing the scene of a burglary and was sentenced to four years. Clyde had been with him but managed to escape. But later Clyde was arrested for seven counts of theft and got a total of two years. Here the details become a bit fuzzy. Either he got a total of fourteen years with twelve years suspended (possible since this was officially a first offense) or he got seven two-year sentences to be run concurrently (again a common practice). In any case, Clyde could expect to get out of the slammer in two years total provided he behaved himself.
Which he didn't. In fact, both brothers soon escaped. On March 2, 1930, Buck, while working unsupervised at the Ferguson Prison Farm (now the Jim Ferguson Unit), just walked away. Clyde on the other hand, had been in the jail at Waco waiting for transfer to Huntsville. Somehow he got a gun - either he snatched it from a guard or Bonnie smuggled it in - and on March 11, he forced a guard to release him and his cellmate, William Turner.
Clyde's liberty was short lived, and in a week he was back in the Waco slammer. When he went off to Huntsville, he now had fourteen years to serve. Once more different people say different things about how got Clyde his extra time. One account is he was tried for escape aggravated by threat with a firearm. Others say the judge didn't bother charging him with the escape, but just switched him from concurrent to consecutive sentences. Alternatively the twelve suspended years could be activated. It really doesn't matter though in the end. Clyde was now looking at nearly a decade and a half of incarceration and had a reputation as an escape risk. On April 21 Clyde arrived at the Eastham Prison Farm (now the Eastham Unit) twenty miles north of Huntsville.
On the other hand Buck, after being on the lam for two years and at the urging of his (third) wife, Blanche, and his mother, Cumie, turned himself in. The prison authorities were flabbergasted when two days after Christmas, 1931, Buck, Blanche, and his mother drove up. They agreed to let him finish the remaining two years without any added time for the escape. Clyde remained in prison.
But of course, Clyde is only one half of the famous pair. Bonnie Parker had been living in Dallas with her widowed mother, and in 1926 at age 16, she married a small time crook named Roy Thorton. Roy, too, ended up in prison and after 1929, didn't have anything to do with Bonnie. However, he and Bonnie were never officially divorced, and she continued to wear their wedding ring. In 1934, Roy was killed during an escape attempt.
Bonnie is a rather sad and pathetic figure. A tiny, diminutive girl not hitting five feet or 100 pounds when soaking wet, she had visions of being an actress and poet. But the Parkers, like the Barrows, lived in West Dallas and could barely put food on the table or clothes on their backs. So with Roy in the slammer, Bonnie lived with her mom and got a job as a waitress. She was quite popular with the customers, including a young man named Ted Hinton who was about to embark on a career in law enforcement. Ted liked Bonnie, but she really took a shine to Clyde. After Clyde was arrested, they claimed to be married, and in some law enforcement memos she is listed as "Bonnie Barrow". That way Bonnie could visit Clyde and send him letters while he was in jail.
Now Bonnie had been with Clyde on some of his early escapades, and she had been arrested when Clyde was put in Waco. As you may expect, Bonnie's mom never approved of Clyde and ragged on about what happened if you hang around with crooks. Clyde, though, was protective of Bonnie and had told her that if she was ever arrested to tell the police she had been forced to go along. The judge bought her story, and after a month in jail, she was released without going to trial.
A word is in order about the American penal system. It has always been stylish for Americans to denounce the inhumanity of places like the Siberian Gulag and France's - quote - "Devil's Island" - unquote. Actually Devil's Island - the Île du Diable - is only part of the overseas penitentiary which from 1852 to 1953 was based in Cayenne, French Guiana.
There are plenty of books about the unspeakable brutality of these foreign prisons. The best known are novels, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Alexander Solzhenitsyn about the Gulag, and Papillon by Henri Charriere (yes, Papillon is fiction). Now Americans can understand how the Soviets could set up the Gulag, but how could a nation as civilized as France permit such brutality as the Cayenne penitentiary?
One of the lesser known books about Devil's Island didn't sell particularly well. This was Flag Over Devil's Island and was written by a former inmate convicted of forging and counterfeiting named Francis "Flag" Lagrange. Flag's book differs from most others in that he said that Devil's Island did not merit its fearsome reputation. Yes, it was, he said, a prison, not a summer camp - pas une colonie de vacances. But he was always treated fairly. If you caused no trouble, he said, you could get along and would probably be assigned some easy going, slow paced, and unsupervised job like maintaining the gardens of the homes of the prison officials, doing housework, or taking care of the kids. It was the trouble makers and incorrigibles who ended up in the jungle work camps, and acts of brutality when they occurred were individual acts by individuals and not the norm. In short, "Devil's Island", said Flag, was certainly no worse - and in many ways was better - than other prisons of that era.
Now one thing Americans do not teach their children - certainly not in middle school history classes - is about the horrible conditions that could be found in our own prisons up to the mid-twentieth century (they're not particularly fun places to be in even now). Of course, part of the reason for our reticence is we simply prefer airing out other people's dirty laundry. But another is that the evidence is contradictory. For every story of how horrible the early prisons were, you can find another that prisoners were treated fairly and real attempts were made at rehabilitation.
What this means, of course, is not that the historians have a personal agenda at producing "revisionist" history so they can get on television shows as one of the ubiquitous talking heads that show up on the History Channel. Instead the contradictions in the historical record indicate that there was simply a large amount of variation in how prisoners were treated. Yes, some prisoners were treated according to the rules, and some prisons with horrible reputations, like Alcatraz, were not the real hell-holes they were pictured as in films and on television. Charlie Berta, considered a dangerous man and an escape risk at Leavenworth, was sent to Alcatraz in the first batch of prisoners in 1934. Now this was (reputably) the worst time to be on the Rock. Total silence. The Spanish Dungeons. Truly man's inhumanity to crooks.
But, alas, Charlie caused consternation to those who wailed at the Alcatraz the Horrible when during an interview in his later life, he said that there was no brutality at Alcatraz. It was an invention of the media. That doesn't mean there weren't individuals guards who caused problems. "The guy that hit me on the head," Charlie added, "he was no good." But as Flag said about Devil's Island, these were acts by individuals and not typical.
Even state prisons varied in their conditions. Some wardens were surprisingly modern in their philosophy and developed programs intended on reform. In fact, when Blanche, Buck's wife, was captured on July 24, 1933 after the famous raid at Dexter, Iowa and sent to prison in Jefferson City, Missouri, she found she was treated fairly and even with kindness.
On the other hand there were prisons in the United States that honestly could be labeled as the most brutal in the world. This is particularly true of the southern penitentiaries where by far the worst conditions were on the state farms and at the convict mines. Prison farms were bad enough (as Clyde was soon to find out), but the convict mines, as folklorist Alan Lomax (who saw many southern prisons firsthand) has correctly pointed out, produced scenes which rivaled those of Nazi concentration camps. Again we must point out that Americans do not teach this part of Americana to their kids.
The prison farms and mines were designed to produce a revenue for the state and turn a profit. There was also a system of convict leasing where convicts were hired out for work in private farms, businesses, and for county and state departments. Naturally the private firms made sure they minimized the cost (clothes, food, facilities) and maximized productivity (quotas, hours worked). After disappearing for a time in the early and middle twentieth century, today convict leasing has returned with a vengeance and is a now a way for businesses to complete with cheap foreign labor. Prisoners may be - quote - "paid" - unquote - between 20 and 40 cents an hour, making possible nice, high profit margins, which among other things, help keep up those fat executive bonuses you keep reading about. The consumer might be surprised to find out how many items in their own homes are produced by convicts whose work is leased to companies who outbid firms employing law abiding citizens.
But the difference from today's leasing system and those of earlier days, was the amount of sheer physical brutality that not only accepted, but considered right during the mid-twentieth century and before. "Ain't nothin' better for a bad man than hard work" was the saying. They might have added "and hard thumpin'". Lee Simmons, the head of the Texas prisons from 1930 to 1935, openly said he believed in corporal punishment for all - in the home, in the schools, and in the prisons.
Lee Simmons is what historians call a "complex man", which means he was a product of time and era that seems unusual to us. Ironically as a young man he had been arrested for murder and acquitted on grounds of self-defense. Then after he won the sheriff's election for Grayson county, a friend of a defeated candidate fired five shots point blank at him. Lee took the oath of office while confined to his bed. After serving two terms as sheriff, he became a rancher and businessman and acquired such a reputation of integrity and industry so that in 1930, the Governor of Texas, Dan Moody, appointed Lee as head of the Texas prisons.
In fairness to Mr. Simmons, he did implement true reforms and is considered one of the first directors of the modern era of penology. But he was also on record in favor of the "Bat" to handle the more unruly convicts. The Bat, nicknamed "Black Betty" by the prisoners, was an officially sanctioned method of discipline, and was a 3 foot strap of hard leather attached to a wooden handle. The standard procedure was to spreadeagle the stripped prisoner face down on the ground, and while being held by other prisoners, beat him repeatedly. Naturally serious and even life threatening injuries were common where the prisoner's skin would be ripped open exposing the muscle. The regulations stipulated all instances of corporal punishment be noted, and defenders of Simmons' records point out that in his first year, there were only only 80 instances of physical discipline in the entire Texas prison system. That was over a 40 % drop from the previous year.
But the truth is that the official number is ludicrously low. Prisoners would be beaten for the smallest infractions: showing intransigence or disrespect, failing to make quotas, not keeping up with the work, falling behind when running to and from the fields, or simply to set an example for new prisoners. Sometimes, the guards didn't need any reason. They just drew straws to see who would beat the prisoners for fun.
Despite what you may think, such methods were largely ineffective in dealing with hardened and dangerous criminals. Today, more effective methods for inmate control have been developed, and prison administrators have found one of the most useful ways for dealing with the more incalcitrant prisoners has been to revoke their television privileges. Talk about cruel and unusual punishment!
In any case, Clyde was not particularly happy when he found himself on a work gang at Eastham which at the time was one of the worst prisons in Texas. Still functioning as the Eastham Unit of the Texas State Penitentiary (although the buildings of Clyde's day are abandoned), it lies about twenty miles north of Huntsville.
Today there are visitors to Eastham who have commented on the courtesy and fairness of the officials and guards. But in Clyde's day, it was a horrible place. Violence by the guards was bad enough, but violence from other inmates could be worse. Particularly brutal was when jockers went after punks (if you don't know that that means you probably shouldn't be reading this). Clyde, who was slight of build, found himself the unwanted attentions of a building "tender", a big six-foot brute named Ed Crowder. A tender was a convict given the responsibility - and authority - for maintaining order in the barracks. There were real advantages to being a barracks tender - you were allowed to carry knives, you received extra food, and you also had the pick of the "gal-boys" in your dormitory.
Clyde was not able to fend off Ed and had to endure Ed's - well - Ed's "attentions" for a year. Finally Clyde thought enough was enough. So one night after Clyde went into the showers and Ed followed him in, Clyde brained the larger man with a pipe. Amazingly, a fellow convict with a life sentence volunteered to take the rap, knowing a death sentence was unlikely and figured that he only had one life to serve in the Texas prisons, anyway. In fact the grand jury refused to return a bill, saying the murder must have been self defense.
Even though Ed was gone, Clyde still decided Eastham was not for him. He had also run afoul of other guards as he was not subservient and docile like a good convict should be. Family members noticed he showed signs of beatings when they visited him, and a friend, Ralph Fults, who later became a Barrow gang member, didn't think Clyde could stand much more.
But the only way you could get off of the farm was if you weren't fit for the work. Severe illness was one way to get off the job, but you had to really be sick. Debilitating injuries, such as might interfere with you working in the fields was another way to be excused. Since serious illness is something you can't easily control, Clyde opted for the latter. He took an axe, and although he didn't give anyone forty whacks, he did cut off two of his toes (or had someone do it for him). For the rest of his life Clyde walked with a limp, but it did get him transferred to an indoor job.
Some people think Clyde's self-mutilation was actually a ploy to get him a parole. That isn't very likely. You don't get paroled because you have only 8 1/2 toes on your feet. You get paroled because you either convince the parole board that society would be better off with you out of prison or you've hired a fancy pants lawyer to work on your case. Better still, get your mother to wrangle a parole for you.
Which is what happened. Clyde's mom, Cumie, thought her son was ill-served by Texas justice. So she went to the governor and made a case for Clyde. Whatever she said, the arguments were good enough and Clyde was paroled on February 8, 1932, a few weeks after he chopped off his toes.
There is some indication that Clyde may have tried to go straight. For a while. For a little while. For a very little while. But he, like many convicts, had trouble finding work (this was the worst years of the Great Depression), particularly work that would let him live as high on the hog like he wanted. Besides, he loved the fast pace of a life of crime and was clearly gratified about duping the law. So when Clyde left Eastham we really have the beginning of the Bonnie and Clyde story. The trouble is it's kind of hard to know exactly what that story was.
Oh, we know approximately what went on. Bonnie and Clyde began robbing local stores, businesses, and filling stations. Yes, they did rob banks, but not that often. Banks, as you know, often have armed security guards, and the big money was often locked up in vaults with timed locks. Of course, the tag line "They rob Piggly Wigglies" doesn't sound quite so catchy if you want to make a hit movie, and somehow Bonnie and Clyde became known as bank robbers.
Bonnie and Clyde ranged mostly through the Midwest carrying off their robberies, and with an irritating frequency kept being located by police. Important punctuations marks in their essay of crime occurred at Joplin, Missouri (shootout); Wellington, Texas (car wreck severely burning Bonnie); Fort Smith, Arkansas (shootout), Platte City, Missouri (shootout); Grapevine, Texas (murder of two officers); Dexter Park, Iowa (shootout with Buck and Blanche captured and Buck dying of wounds a few days later); Eastham Prison (breakout with one guard killed), and of course, Gibsland, Louisiana.
The number of people - citizens and officers - killed by the Barrow Gang in their gun battles and robberies are among the highest of any outlaw band. The gang's travels were also characterized by amazing ineptness and lack of financial success. Far from pulling in enough cash so they could live high on the hog at the early gangster resorts like Hot Springs, St. Paul, and Saratoga, they barely managed to pay for food and gas. You have to contrast them to someone like Willie "The Actor" Sutton, who made off with tens of thousands of dollars from large metropolitan banks using carefully laid out plans. More to the point, Willie never hurt anyone (he claimed he never even carried a loaded gun), committed one of the most daring escapes from prison, and was sickened when he found that kids had begun to look on him as a hero.
The first definite murder of a lawman by Clyde Barrow was at Stringtown, Oklahoma not far from Atoka. On August 5, 1932, Clyde, Raymond Hamilton, and Everett Milligan had been driving to get away from a store robbery. Clyde's usual getaway plan was to put the pedal to the metal and high tail it three or four hundred miles before stopping. But driving non-stop at high speed for hours on end can be tiring and after a while, they thought they needed a break. Despite what you may read on some articles on the Fount of All Knowledge, Bonnie was not with them on this job. According to Clyde, it was Ray's idea to stop when they came to an outdoor dance on the road outside of Stringtown on the west side of what now is US 69.
Now despite many admirable qualities and general hospitality to visitors, residents of rural Oklahoma do raise the occasional eyebrow when strangers show up, particularly strangers who are loudmouthed, obnoxious, and hit up on the local ladies. The dance was proceeding along well enough, but with Clyde, Ray, and Everett present, the residents were indeed getting irritated, particularly the strangers were being loudmouthed, obnoxious, and were hitting up on the local ladies.
Now it was common for Atoka County Sheriff Charles Maxwell and Undersheriff Eugene Moore to stop by the dances to check how things were going. Square dances could get rowdy (and in the 1930's had almost disappeared in the Appalachians because so many people had been killed at what Alan Lomax referred to as drunken blowouts). But the people at Stringtown were usually well behaved.
Although there was plenty of drinking going on and although Prohibition had not yet been repealed, the officers usually ignored what was really a minor infraction, and truth to tell not really against the law (it was the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol that was prohibited from 1918 to 1933, not drinking per se). Still, though they knew and were friends with the locals, they decided to arrest the newcomers. Actually, from comments the lawmen made to the musicians, Charlie and Gene may very well have been trying to protect the strangers, since the townspeople were very ticked off at the dudes in the pressy suits trying to make their way with the girlfriends and wives. The two officers walked up to a car where Clyde and the others were sitting and told them they were under arrest. Clyde and Ray pulled out guns and shot both officers. Charlie survived but Gene died, leaving three children ages 1 to 7, and a young wife who never remarried.
This incident was completely characteristic of Clyde. First, if there was any doubt that he might be apprehended, he would shoot first and not bother to ask questions. Secondly, Clyde had a knack of drawing attention to himself in a way that seems not only incredibly reckless, but downright stupid. Even when the gang stopped for a rest at the ubiquitous tourist courts (motels with individual cabins), they would do dumb things like pay for food and liquor all in silver dollars, wear their fancy duds at places where casual was the norm, or cover the windows of the cabins with newspapers. Naturally the local citizens would get suspicious and call the cops. Then after the obligatory gun battle, the gang would roar off with guns blazing and tires squealing. As like as not, someone would get killed, adding up one more homicide charge to the others.
The Stringtown murders pretty much sealed Clyde's fate. He was now - not only a cop killer - but a cop killer who would shoot officers in a particularly brutal and callous manner. Clyde knew that he would have no chance of leniency if he was arrested. He had only one option and that was to stay on the run. He continued with his robberies and began breaking into National Guard Armories where the surplus weapons and ammunition from the First World War were stored. Before long he was traveling with a virtual arsenal. At any time the gang might have a dozen firearms and literally thousands of rounds of ammunition in a single automobile. Unlike the stereotype 1930's gangster, Clyde eschewed the Tommy gun, preferring instead the Browning Automatic Rifle, known as the BAR (usually pronounced as "Bee-Ayee-Are", less commonly as the word "bar").
The killing of the officers at Stringtown was actually Clyde's third murder. As we know he had killed Ed Crowder at Eastham (although admittedly there were definitely extenuating circumstances). Then on, April 30, 1932, a little more than a month after his parole, a witness reported that Clyde and Ray knocked on the front door of the store owned by John Bucher. John sold everything from groceries to musical instruments to jewelry and had closed for the day. But he lived upstairs and was always glad for some extra business. When John came downstairs with his wife, Clyde and Ray pulled their guns and forced John to open his safe.
We have multiple versions of what happened. One was that John was opening the safe and as he reached in he accidentally jostled Ray's arm. The gun went off accidentally, the bullet hitting John in the head. Another story, told in a newsreel (with reenactments) was the Clyde deliberately shot John and took much pleasure in the deed.
But the third story was the one that Clyde told his mother and was - as you can guess - a bit different from either. First, we learn that Ray wasn't even there. Instead, Clyde was with two men named Ted Rogers and Johnny Russell. And Clyde didn't even want to rob the store since when they were casing the joint earlier, he thought John's wife had recognized him. But Ted and Johnny insisted they couldn't pass up such a potentially lucrative haul.
After they went into the store, Ted told Bucher to open the safe. Clyde's story is John kept a gun in his safe and reached for it, and in self-defense Ted fired. But Clyde insisted he had nothing to do with the killing and had stayed in the car. So he wasn't involved at all.
The trouble with Clyde's version is that John's wife positively identified both Clyde and Ray and that's the story the authorities believed. Ray denied he ever pulled the trigger or was even there, a denial he maintained literally to the last day of his life. That was May 10, 1935, when he was sent to the electric chair.
But was Clyde the innocent bystander as he told his mother? Weeeeeeellllll, there's room for doubt, and Raymond's brother, Floyd, muddies the water even more with a story which he said he heard direct from Clyde. Clyde told him that he, Clyde, "didn't think" he had killed the man. Now the attentive will notice this is equivalent to an admission that he might have killed John. Now, if Clyde was in the car, how can he think he might have killed Bucher? CooperToons is a bit skeptical that Clyde's story to his mom is indeed the whole truth.
But Floyd confirmed that Ray wasn't there, a fact which he said John's wife confirmed when she was first questioned. However, the policemen convinced her to change her story, and Ray was charged with murder. Naturally we don't know where Floyd got his information about a police interrogation when he wasn't even present. Ray later left the gang and was captured. However at that time, Ray was sentenced, not to death, but "only" to 200 plus years at Eastham.
All right. We've had hold ups, robberies, and hair raising escapes and shootouts with the police. The only thing lacking for a good gang-busters movie is a massive prison break out. Oddly enough, that did indeed happen although it was left out of the 1967 movie.
To what degree Clyde was the mastermind of the Eastham break out on January 15, 1934 has - as always - been a big question. Traditionally Clyde is credited as the brains, but other historians who have really researched the escape think the idea was Ray's. In the latter scenario, we learn Ray told Floyd to wrap some guns in inner tubes and place them near the boundary of the farm where the crew with Ray would be working. Ray would make a break for it, get the guns, and after making sure to discourage any pursuit, make his getaway in a waiting vehicle. It was Clyde who agreed to drive the car.
Amazingly, the plan worked exactly as planned. After the men were run out to the fields in the morning and started work, Henry made a break for it. Fog obscured his getaway and by the time the guards made chase, Ray and several others reached the hidden guns and opened fire, killing one of the guards, Major Joe Crowson (Major is a given name, not a military rank). Among those who joined the breakout uninvited was a young convict named Henry Methvin from Louisiana. A total of five men reached Clyde, who had blown his horn to guide the convicts to his car, and they drove away at his usual breakneck and uncatchable speed.
The Eastham breakout caught the imagination of the public, but embarrassed the heck out of Lee Simmons. He was already under fire for what even for those times was seen as a brutal system which was producing nothing but more hardened criminals. He knew something had to be done and so went to the governor of Texas.
We must pause here and remind ourselves that we are talking about Bonnie and Clyde. Just where did this tiny, pretty young slip of girl fit in? Was she simply an immature, giddy adolescent, who became infatuated with having a "bad boy" as a boyfriend? Or was she a hard-bitten, cigar-chomping, pistol-toting gun moll, who would shoot down coppers as readily as Clyde?
Well, as usual you can take your pick which Bonnie you like best. Her family said it was the former. She never fired a gun, they say, and her only crime was having Clyde as a boyfriend. On the other hand we have an eyewitness, a local farmer, who said he saw Bonnie help Clyde shoot down two Texas state troopers outside of Grapevine, Texas. This was April 1, 1934, as Bonnie and Clyde were taking a break on the side of the road. The troopers, Patrolmen Edward Bryan Wheeler and Holloway Daniel Murphy, not suspecting anything, were simply checking out what they took to be a stalled car. When they walked up, Bonnie and Clyde opened fire. Bonnie then went over up to the body of one of the policemen and shot him several more times. So says one story.
That Bonnie had violent tendencies was also stated by some people who knew her. According to Blanche Barrow, Clyde's sister-in-law, she and Bonnie got into an argument and Bonnie yelled that Blanche was a wimp who was quote - "scared to kill a cop" - unquote - implying, we suppose, that she, Bonnie, was not afraid to kill a cop. William Daniel "W. D." Jones, who later served 15 years in prison for his participation in the gang, also testified that Bonnie shot at policemen. That was in a statement after his capture, although as we'll see in a minute, he didn't stick with that story, particularly after he was old and alcoholic, and certainly not after August 20, 1974, when he got hit by a train and died.
On the other hand, it is true that Clyde was not a person who shot people for no reason and was certainly no "thrill killer". If there was no risk to him he would take people hostage (even policemen) and let them go unharmed. Why, as W. D. told it in an interview to Playboy Magazine in 1969, he was practically traveling with St. Clyde the Wholesome and St. Bonnie the Pure! Clyde didn't swear, drink to excess, and Bonnie and Clyde - and W. D. really made this claim - said their prayers every day. And contradicting his earlier statement, he said although Bonnie was great a loading ammunition, she never fired a gun.
W. D's recollections do not - that's do not - totally jibe with the memories of one hostage, who while sitting trussed up in the back seat, remembered the gang all had quite the potty mouths. Four letter words flew back and forth with great élan, and the hostage expected to get killed at any moment. He was surprised (and relieved) when the gang did let him go. Two other hostages remembered that Clyde discussed with Brother Buck whether they should just kill the two men and just be done with it. But ultimately the officers were released, in part because they had been kind to Bonnie. By that time Bonnie was suffering from life-threatening burns and injuries from the car wreck.
Clyde's driving skills are largely responsible for the Barrow Gang's elusiveness. He would high tail it away from robberies along country roads, zipping down rough side roads to elude pursuit. But high speed driving country roads is not wise operation of a motor vehicle, and this was born out at Wellington, Texas on July 11, 1933. Clyde had been barreling along a country road when he failed to notice a detour sign. The car went up in the air and landed in a dried creek bed. Some authors have said the car battery spilled acid onto Bonnie's legs, but W. D. and Bonnie's and Clyde's family said the car actually caught on fire. Whatever the cause, Bonnie received massive third degree burns, particularly to her legs, and nearly died.
So which, if any, of W. D.'s two interviews - 1933 or 1969 - should we believe? The 1933 interview was after all a voluntary statement to the police. He had been cautioned that anything he said could be used as evidence - yes, police would let prisoners know of their rights long before Miranda - and W. D. said that Clyde killed people who "interfered" with his attempts at thieving and shot officers without provocation. It was this time that he said Bonnie fired at policeman.
And W. D. himself? Why he was just a dumb kid, he said, doing what Clyde told him. He never wanted to do any harm, and he left the gang once he saw how bad they were. But it wasn't his fault that he went back to the gang. That was because as he walking along a street in Dallas and minding his own business, Clyde drove up and made him get in the car. So W. D. was forced to return to a life of crime. He later repeated tale of forced participation on a film.
But what about the gun battles, W. D? The ones where officers were killed? Why, he didn't even remember them. After all, after the accident at Wellington, he was hurt so bad he didn't know what he was doing.
Now contradictions are common in the historical record, particularly regarding testimony in general, and eyewitness testimony in particular. First, accounts vary with the person, even if everyone is trying to tell the truth. So the more people you have telling their side of the story the more stories you have. Next, the stories change as time goes on, even when told by the same person. Memories fade and what people learn from others becomes blurred with what they actually saw.
So what do do? Well, we'd like to say we should stick with the earliest testimony. Earlier accounts are usually the most accurate, and so that's what you go with.
That is, we said early accounts are usually the most accurate, but there are times you should go with the later versions. That's particularly true if the stories are told with an agenda whose importance fades with time. And the Barrow gang had an agenda as long as their collective rap sheets.
For instance, Blanche wrote her memoirs between 1933 and 1935, giving us a near contemporaneous record. She said that she and Buck were not really part of the gang, and it was only bad luck they were at the famous shootout in Joplin. In fact, they had gone to Clyde to convince him and Bonnie to abandon their life of crime. When the police showed up, Blanche said she became hysterical and ran screaming out the door of the motel room. This was also the story told by journalist Jan Fortune in Fugitives, a book published in 1934 and shortly after Bonnie and Clyde were killed. Jan probably got the story from Blanche and that's the picture we have in the 1967 movie. Blanche, hysterical to the point of helplessness, runs around screaming as Warren, Faye, and Gene shoot their way past the cops.
(Note: In the movie, Blanche, played by Estelle Parsons, is quite a bit older than Bonnie and doesn't compare in glamor to the tall blond haired beauty played by Faye Dunaway. However, the real Blanche in the 1930's was - shall we say it? - a hot babe and at least as pretty if not more so than Bonnie. The two girls were also the same age.)
Why, then, did Blanche tell the historian John Neal Phillips in a 1984 interview that was not the way she acted? According to her story then, she was cool and collected and escaped with the others without any hysteria.
Well, here we have to sort out the circumstances. When Blanche wrote her memoirs she was in prison serving a ten year sentence. She and Buck had been captured at the Dexter Iowa gun battle after which Buck (who had already been severely wounded in a previous gunfight) soon died. So Blanche found herself the only Barrow gang member in custody accused of participating in a slew of crimes that ranged from harboring fugitives to multiple murders of police officers. A screaming hysterical woman trying to get two family members to surrender to the authorities would not likely have been the actual trigger man (or trigger woman) killing lawmen simply doing their jobs.
On the other hand, the spittle flinging shrieking hysteric very well may have been the way Blanche acted but just didn't like people thinking it. We certainly know she didn't like the way she was depicted in the movie with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway (although she did meet and liked Warren). As she herself put it in the interview with John, "That movie made me out like a screaming horse's ass." But regardless of the truth of the matter, you can't really blame historians for depicting a principle of a story as she herself depicted herself in her own writings.
So in the end all we can say that in the story of Bonnie and Clyde there is no real way to sort the self-serving wheat from the gritty realistic chaff, and we have to acknowledge that the later accounts from gang and family members (usually derived from what Clyde himself said) must remain suspect although they are still legitimate primary source material. If we return to the (in)famous murders of two policeman near Grapevine, Clyde told his family that it was really Henry Methvin, the last in a long line of gang members, who fired the shots and Clyde just wanted to take them hostage. This story is the one most accepted, but we must emphasize, it the story that Clyde told his mother.
But the episode of most controversy was the final one - the ambush on the road south of Gibsland, Louisiana where six lawman riddled Bonnie and Clyde's V-8 with over 150 high caliber bullets. Of course, Bonnie and Clyde got riddled with high caliber bullets as well. The exact circumstances have been debated and argued since May 23, 1934.
After the Grapevine killings, Bonnie and Clyde lost a lot of their Robin Hood appeal with the public. By then the gang had killed fourteen people, including nine officers (contrast this with John Dillinger who may have killed one policeman during a gunfight, although even this is questionable). There were renewed calls for their capture, and so the first lady governor of Texas, Miriam "Ma" Ferguson and after discussions with Lee Simmons, hired Frank Hamer (pronounced "HAY-mer") to hunt the criminals down. Frank had a reputation for being the toughest and most persistent lawman in the country. If you wanted a crook caught you went to Frank. By then, though, Frank had retired from the Texas Rangers and had gone into business as a private detective and security officer. He was so highly regarded that his fees were $500 a week and he was rarely without work. He only agreed to take on Bonnie and Clyde if he could collect the reward money and retain any of the firearms and ammunition they had.
Frank called in three other officers to help, Manny Gault, Bob Alcorn, and Ted Hinton. Ted, if you remember, had been a frequent customer of Bonnie's when she was a waitress. But Frank and his deputies had no legal authority outside of Texas and when in another state, he would call on the local authorities. So when he finally tracked Bonnie and Clyde to Bienvelle Parish in Louisiana, he contacted Sheriff Henderson Jordon (which has the local pronunciation "JER-don") and his deputy, Prentiss Oakley, who at the time was only 23.
Now it is clear the final encounter with Bonnie and Clyde was not just good luck or happenstance. There had been much behind the scenes negotiations. The officers had contacted the father of Henry Methvin, Ivan or "Ivy", (or he contacted them) and the usual story was that a deal had been made. If Ivy helped catch Bonnie and Clyde, then his son, Henry, would get a pardon. Ivy agreed to help by having his truck off the side of the road when he knew Bonnie and Clyde would be going by for a planned meeting with Henry. How much Ivy's participation was voluntary is like so much else debated. Some say he worked actively with the officers; others say he was forced. In one account, the officers commandeered his truck and even tied Ivy to a tree.
But in the movie, Warren got out of the car to help Michael J. Pollard's father, Dub Taylor (who played the fireman in the old Casey Jones TV show with Alan "Skipper" Hale). Faye had moved over to the driver's side and after Dub jumped under the truck for cover, the lawmen opened fire without any warning. After 54 seconds of slow motion photography enhanced by some rather uncomfortable special effects (both for the viewer and for Warren and Faye), Bonnie and Clyde were dead.
In reality, Bonnie and Clyde did not get out of their cars, and the lawmen claimed they called out a warning. The earliest account was written by Henderson, and he claims that as the car stopped, he shouted, "Put 'em up Clyde! You're covered!" Clyde put the car forward and the men opened fire. Henderson stuck with this story all his life and later amplified it saying Bonnie and Clyde actually went for their guns before they opened fire. Ted also said they called out a warning and agreed Clyde went for his gun. He and Bob later reenacted their part for a newsreel. Henderson also said an effort should have been made to take them alive.
Hmmmmmmm. If the officers told Bonnie and Clyde to put up their hands, it seems the lawmen had made an effort to take them alive. So once more we have to ask, what should we believe?
Today a reasonable compromise (out of many possibilities) which is supported by some testimony from the mass of contradictions is that Hamer and Ted considered calling out a warning not only futile but dangerous (Ted later said as much). Henderson and Prentiss, with no first hand dealings with Bonnie and Clyde decided they would give a warning. But the whole question became moot when the relatively young Prentiss, nervous at encountering two of the most famous (and dangerous) criminals in America, opened fire prematurely. His bullet hit Clyde, whose foot slipped off the clutch, and the car lurched forward and headed down the road. The other officers thought Clyde was trying to get away and opened fire.
One thing that is often not evident is the degree that the FBI - then called the Bureau of Investigation - was involved in the hunt for Bonnie and Clyde. But in 2009, a trove of Bonnie and Clyde files were found in the Bureau's files (everyone thought they had been thrown out) and were released to the public in an unedited and unredacted form. Among the memorandum is one that discusses that the FBI was involved in negotiations with the Methvin family. However, federal involvement was limited in that they could only arrest Bonnie and Clyde for transportation of a stolen automobile across state lines. Murder and bank robbery were state offenses, and the rather wimpish federal statue had in fact been contrived and pushed through Congress by Edgar specifically so the Feds could chase the mobile outlaw gangs of whom it was a given they would cross state lines in stolen automobiles. Edgar really wanted to catch Bonnie and Clyde and even traveled to Iowa to question Blanche personally after her capture. There is also a memo which shows that although the Bureau of Investigation offered assistance to local authorities, the state lawmen really preferred to work on their own. At that time, we need to remember, the agents of the Bureau of Investigation had limited authority in making arrests and were not armed.
Despite the thousand of dollars offered for Bonnie and Clyde, the officers only got about $200 apiece. Some law and order people were most indignant in the reneging on the promised booty by the states. But most rewards were - and are - offered contingent on arrest and conviction not for blasting people away with automatic rifles and shotguns. "Dead or Alive" rewards, although not unknown, have always been rare and are not considered proper. Frank, though, didn't mind since he could clear a good amount selling the firearms he had been promised.
The so-called "Bonnie and Clyde Death Car" is still around. Originally Henderson decided to keep the car - either as evidence (according to one story) or to make money from it by selling or displaying it (according to another). The owner, though, Ruth Warren, asked for it back. But when Henderson told her she could have it for $15,000, Ruth hired an attorney who, knowing the cozy dealings with district officials, went to a federal judge at Shreveport who ordered the car returned to Ruth. Surprisingly, the car was in working order and Ruth drove it back to Shreveport - bullet holes and bit of Bonnie and Clyde still there. It was loaded onto a van and shipped back to Topeka (another story is she drove it all the way back to Topeka, a less likely scenario in a Humble CooperToons' Opinion). Ruth made considerable money renting the car for display at a price which is, as you may guess disputed. Some say it was $150 a week; other accounts say $200 a month. You can now see the car, plus other Bonnie and Clyde memorabilia in a Nevada casino.
In the end you have to wonder. Just what the heck were Bonnie and Clyde thinking? Somehow they convinced themselves that by burglarizing grocery stores, holding up service stations and fruit stands, and (rarely) robbing a few small town banks, they would be on easy street and live a life in fancy hotels, eating meals at the finest emporiums, and taking vacations at the various underworld resorts.
Instead Bonnie and Clyde ended up driving through the most rural and poverty stricken areas of America, wolfing down sandwiches whenever they could, and stopping at cheap motels or "tourist courts" as they called them - but only when they were lucky. Most of the time they lived out of their inevitably stolen automobiles and were constantly on the run. Sometimes they drove 1000 miles in 24 hours. W. D. said in his 1969 interview their life was hell, an opinion shared by the other gang members. In his old age Ralph Fults was once asked of all his crimes, which was the most spectacular crime. None of them, he said. They weren't spectacular for him, and they certainly were not spectacular for their victims. If the movie "glamorized" Bonnie and Clyde, that's because the actors, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, were glamorous, not the real people or the life they lived.
Still in their own time, the lives of Bonnie and Clyde fired the imagination of the public, at least for a while. This was not only the era when outlaws could remain on the run for years, but it was also the era of the gangster movie. Audiences could sit in a cinema and watch a newsreel about Bonnie and Clyde, and then sit back and enjoy a movie with James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson living the high life but in the end getting their just desserts. And the real Bonnie and Clyde ended up on film, too. Ted Hinton had brought along a 16 mm movie camera and filmed the aftermath of the ambush. On the flickering grainy film you can see the bullet ridden car and inside, the lifeless bodies of Bonnie and Clyde.
Bonnie and Clyde were among the last of the Depression Era bandits. Within a year of their deaths, the other Legends of Outlawry - John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd - would be dead. In five years, when Blanche got out of prison, America was getting revved up for World War II. The Great Depression was over and people even in West Dallas were finding good paying jobs. But gangster movies and crime shows remain as popular as ever they were.
There had been a number of movies about the Barrow gang before the film with Warren and Faye. There were, of course, newsreels during their time and after their death in 1934. Then there were documentaries, one in 1940 and the other in 1945. But Hollywood cranked out their own fictionalized versions of the duo. One was the Bonnie Parker Story starring Dorothy Provine (perhaps better known as the air-headed wife of Rip Torn on the Man From Uncle episode "The Alexander the Greater Affair", and as the older sister of Halley Mills and girlfriend of Roddy McDowell in That Darn Cat!). Dorothy's Bonnie ran around and talking tough with "Guy Darrow" and his brother "Chuck". From the title, you can see that Bonnie was made out to be the leader of the gang. There were also movies clearly based on the duo, often with changed names, including a film starring Henry Fonda. We even have an Untouchables episode loosely based the gang but the names had been changed to protect the facts. But by the time the 1967 movie was shot, Bonnie and Clyde had pretty much fallen off the radar screen. Certainly the baby boomer kids hadn't heard of them, although their parents had.
The smart Hollywood boys thought the 1967 movie would flop. One of the ways for evaluating a movie's chances and the channels for distribution was to let Jack Warner see it before its release. The story was if he got up to go to the bathroom during the show, the studio wouldn't spend much for its distribution. During the screening of Bonnie and Clyde, Jack got up not once, not twice, but three times. Afterwards he dismissed the movie entirely, saying it was a three pisser.
But for most of the young people who saw the picture, it was a no-pisser and is now ranked as one of the most important movies in cinematic history. It was a financial and - if not at first - a critical success. Estelle Parsons won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and we also forget that before that movie, Warren, Fay, Gene, Michael J. Pollard, and even Gene Wilder (who had a small but important part) were just up and coming actors. The movie catapulted them all to iconic superstardom.
Oh, yes. And Bonnie and Clyde, too.
Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde, Jeff Guinn, Simon and Schuster (2009). Personally, CooperToons rates this one of the best general Bonnie and Clyde books. Well, written, easy to read, and well researched.
My Life with Bonnie and Clyde, Blanche Barrow and John Neal Phillips, University of Oklahoma Press, (2004). Again caution is required in any source from someone who is both a gang member and a family member. Fortunately John provides a long and well written section of commentary and explanation in the back which helps brings things into perspective. But this is essential for the true Bonnie and Clyde student. Blanche was one of the longest lived of the Barrow gang, dying in 1988, although strictly speaking, Marie, Clyde's sister who actually went along with the gang now and then, lived into the twenty-first century.
Bonnie and Clyde: The Lives Behind the Legend, Paul Schneider, Another recent book on Bonnie and Clyde and is told in the present tense, perhaps to give an immediacy to the book which has to be classified as the "new" journalism. Instead the writing comes of as a bit trying too hard to be innovative and actually make the book hard to read. Also it reads a bit choppy (though this may be considered the pot calling the kettle black). The pronoun "you" often refers to Clyde as if Clyde himself is musing on what is going on. On the other hand, unlike some "creative non-fiction" the quotes are well documented.
"Riding with Bonnie and Clyde", Playboy Magazine, November, (1968). W. D.'s not entirely credible account of his time with the Barrow gang.
"Two More Bad Men Nabbed by G-Men: Ted Walters & Floyd Hamilton Captured in Texas", Life Magazine, September 5, 1938. An article about Floyd's capture. Pictures of Floyd are a surprise. He's usually smiling and looks like a pleasant, mild manner chap.
Portal of Texas History: Barrow Gang Collection, http://texashistory.unt.edu/explore/collections/BCM/, Primary documents of the Barrow Gang including police records, statements, and memoranda.
Clyde's Criminal Record is at "Clyde Champion Barrow, FBI Criminal Record" http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth78935/ This is the record from the Bureau of Investigation, the forerunner of the FBI, which was even then headed by J. Edgar Hoover. High resolution images makes for easy reading. Clyde's record runs from 1926 until the last entry of May 23, 1934. It is a list as long as the proverbial arm.
Bonnie and Clyde's Hideout. http://texashideout.tripod.com/A nice website on Bonnie and Clyde which includes original documents and photographs.
Official Report of the Coroner Bienville Parish, Arcadia, Louisiana, http://texashideout.tripod.com/coroner.html. The original report of the bodies of Bonnie and Clyde. From the handwriting you suspect it was written by a bonafide M. D. and it is very difficult to decipher. Except for that problem it details the wounds, but because of the illegibility and some ambiguity if a "cut" is an independent wound, it's hard to determine how many wounds there were. A CooperToons count has between 21 and 40 bullet wounds in Clyde. The usual number is over 50.
The Days of Bonnie and Clyde, http://www.sl-prokeys.com/thompson/bonnieandclyde.htm. A nice timeline of Bonnie and Clyde.
Bonnie and Clyde, FBI Files, http://vault.fbi.gov/Bonnie%20and%20Clyde. A large number of documents from the then Bureau of Investigation. Much of it involves the automobiles that the duo stole, the number of which is quite staggering. Certainly needed for the true Bonnie and Clyde afficionados although you do wonder what prompted them to in 1983 "revise" a memo written in 1934. The memo is labeled as being from the "Federal" Bureau of InvestigatiOn at a date before the Department of Investigation was redubbed the FBI. Be that as it may, in that memo, the FBI is described as being heavily involved in tracking and locating Bonnie and Clyde.
The site, the FBI Vault at http://vault.fbi.gov, has a lot files about a lot of people of "interest" to the FBI. A memo about Henry Miller describes him as a "phoney writer".
"Clyde Barrow", The Internet Accuracy Project, http://www.accuracyproject.org/cbe-Barrow,Clyde.html. An excellent site that tries to correct some of the errors that occur with the rise of the Fount of All Knowledge."
"Bonnie and Clyde and Lee", Light Cummings, Texoma Living Online, http://www.texomaliving.com/lee-simmons. An article about Lee Simmons and his dealings with Bonnie and Clyde
Handbook of Texas Online: Prisons, Texas State Historical Society, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/jjp03. Another excellent article from the Handbook of Texas Online.
"Famous Automobiles: Bonnie and Clyde's Death Car", Trivia Library
Part 1: http://www.trivia-library.com/a/famous-automobiles-bonnie-and-clyde-death-car-part-1.htm
Part 2: http://www.trivia-library.com/a/famous-automobiles-bonnie-and-clyde-death-car-part-2.htm
Part 3: http://www.trivia-library.com/a/famous-automobiles-bonnie-and-clyde-death-car-part-3.htm
The history of the so-called Bonnie and Clyde "Death Car" from its purchase by Jesse and Ruth Warren up to its recovery by Ruth. Oddly, Jesse didn't seem much interested in getting the car back.
Video and Audio Media
Timewatch: The Real Bonnie and Clyde, BBC (2009). A show based on Blanche's memoirs. It discusses Clyde's days at Eastham Penitentiary as an explanation of his hatred for authority and his decision never to return to Eastham.
The Making of Bonnie and Clyde, (2008). Interviews with the people who made the 1967 movie.
Interview with Billie Jean Parker Collins Jud Collins (1968). An interesting interview with Bonnie's younger sister. The telling sounds very credible as Billie never denies she was with Bonnie and Clyde and admits she was with them when Clyde carried out a hold up.
Interviews with Floyd Hamilton, ca. 1965. Floyd Hamilton, who was Raymond's older brother, gave a number of interviews, and once on a television show he answered questions during a polygraph test. The reliability of lie detectors, CooperToons feels obligated to mention, is controversial and not considered adequate to be used in any court in the United States. Scientific groups have generally dismissed polygraphs as a means for determining truth of testimony. But is was interesting see an actual polygraph test test in action and how the lie detector expert interspersed the main questions with "irrelevant" control questions. The broadcaster and technician were honest and mentioned that the "real" polygraph test was run previously off camera. So it was a bit of a letdown when the technician stated the test was inconclusive.
Floyd did not have as much direct dealings with Bonnie and Clyde as did his brother Ray, and so his information, as he readily admitted, was simply what Bonnie and Clyde told him. However, Floyd himself later committed plenty of crimes and had the dubious honor of being one of J. Edgar Hoover's designated Public Enemy #1. After a spree of bank robberies, hold ups and car thefts, Floyd spent decades in jail, including twelve years in Alcatraz. There he participated in a famous escape attempt on April 14, 1943 where he, James Boarman, Harold Brest, and Fred Hunter overpowered two guards and ran to the bay and jumped in. One of the guards (who had been tied up) got loose and raised the alarm. The prisoners were spotted and the guards opened fire, killing Boarman. Brest and Hunter were recaptured but no one found Floyd and warden James Johnston announced Hamilton was dead. He was later chagrined when Floyd, who had been hiding in one of the many caves under the island, climbed back to the industries building and was discovered by the guards. In 1958, Floyd was paroled, turned his life around, and become a useful citizen.
As far as the life an an outlaw, Floyd said Bonnie and Clyde lived out of their cars, ate in cheap stores and restaurants, bathed in streams, and went to the bathroom in the bushes. It was not, Floyd said, a glamorous life, but the most miserable life anyone could lead. That he knew firsthand because he led such a life himself.
Alcatraz: The Final Sentence, (2001). Interviews with former residents of the islands, guard and associate warden Phillip Bergen, and prisoners Leon "Whitey" Thompson and Charlie Berta. Charlie said the brutal picture of Alcatraz was a media creation and that he had no excuses for being there. "I knew what the law was," he said. "I came from a good family. I had a good father. I had a good mother."
Phillip himself says that the system at Alcatraz was not really a silent system. A manual of the rules - issued to the inmates - says they could converse quietly at their jobs and at meals. It was, Phillip said, not a silent system, but a quiet system. On the other hand - we must point out - the "quiet" systems seems to have been very quiet in the early to mid-1930's.
Scottsboro Boy, Haywood Patterson (with Earl Conrad), Doubleday (1950). Contrast accounts of inmates to Alcatraz to Scottsboro Boy, which is is an eyewitness account of a southern prison in the 1920's. It is often forgotten that the southern penitentiaries were part of an intentional system of subjugation of African Americans that continued well into the mid-twentieth century and beyond. In the late 1960's, bodies of murdered inmates were found in an Arkansas prison where an investigation revealed that inmates were being tortured in the prison hospital. Inmates that died were buried secretly. And this wasn't even the worst of the prisons.
Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice, David Oshinsky, Free Press (1997). A more academic - but no less horrible - look at the southern penitentiary. Statistics show that in some decades, 40 % of the prison population were dying in a given year.
Flag on Devil's Island Francis Lagrange (with William Murrary), Doubleday (1961). Flag's account of his time of Devil's Island. Oddly, there isn't that much difference in the picture Flag paints (no joke intended) of life on - quote - "Devil's Island" - unquote - and that of Henri Charriere in Papillon (which we must emphasize is largely fiction) or of Rene Belbenoit in Dry Guillotine. Flag, of course, was able to avoid the worst places like the jungle work camps. This doesn't mean Cayenne was a nice place to be, but it was - as Flag said - no worse than any prison of the era and in some ways was better.
Discussion with Anonymous Prison Guard, ca. 1978. The author of CooperToons once had a conversation with a former prison guard who was then working as a custodian but was studying to be (and later became) an accountant. From his comments prison was still not a place to be, even for the guards. "Oh, God! It was terrible!" he said. "Those guys were ...". Well, let's just say it wasn't a nice place.