Monday, December 6, 2010

A Bonnie and Clyde Q&A-- What Affect Did Bonnie & Clyde Have On Society??

The fact that throngs of strangers felt compelled to attend their funerals-- is a testament to the living legends Bonnie & Clyde became within their time. But what impact did Bonnie & Clyde's well publicized reign of terror and subsequent bloody demise, have on a Depression torn populous-- and what lasting legacy if any, did their martyrdom have which may have survived until today??

One way to ponder these compelling thoughts is to ask-- what affect did Bonnie & Clyde have on society?? Now that's as loaded a question as a BAR locked on full auto-- and one asked here often in one form or another. But as I suppose a doctoral thesis could be disseminated on this subject, I'm not sure an historical post can do this topic the justice it deserves. However I'm willing to take a stab at this engaging query, while also asking others to please add their perspectives as well.

Outside the parameters of the Southwestern United States and within a much larger picture, Bonnie & Clyde were very much a product of their times-- The Great Depression. This impoverished paradox of a time period, created "both" some of the most painful malaise and heroic feats of human determination ever witnessed. Those uniquely dramatic years, were filled with more than their share of heartache and misery for many-- which levied heart wrenching pressures on people's hopes, dreams and lives.

Gender roles were altered during the Depression, when the traditional image of a strong male breadwinner was lessened. Wives and children of most any age, were thrust into odd but necessary positions as family providers. Often, just keeping families intact was a challenging task. Otherwise motivated couples put off weddings, while many delayed divorce-- as often it wasn't deemed a responsible choice, to contemplate beginning or dissolving a family during such hard times. Indeed the reality of The Great Depression from a perspective of survival-- was "all hands on deck". Young children were compelled to grow up fast, and often forgo schooling-- in order to be useful for more practical endeavors. Pressures within the family unit ran high, as both money matters and disagreements over the most basic of human necessities-- lay at the heart of everyday life.

Not unlike the pressures exerted on families-- pressures tearing at the fabric of society during the Depression Years could be extreme. Mistrust in government and institutions ran high, as many in the mainstream seemingly lost trust in the ability of their leaders and others in authority-- to make a difference in helping facilitate basic human needs. While it's been reported that the general crime rate decreased during this period-- crimes of passion and murders due to robbery increased. Suicide rates also rose, although the image of people jumping to their deaths wasn't as common as has been portrayed in Depression Age lore. However 17.4 suicides per 100,000-- did become a painful statistic and reminder of a most troublesome time.

Concerning outlaws such as Bonnie & Clyde, they seemed a not unexpected by-product of what some might call an understandable lawlessness. At it's worst, this rash of violent crime had the potential of erupting into anarchy. And as within Civil War times just 70 years before-- any hint of anarchy needed to be repelled. Although the vast majority of law abiding citizens were just that-- when times were bad and champions were hard to come by-- emboldened criminals could indeed be envisioned as heroic figures. Then just as in creating the perfect blend of anything-- add the components of Bonnie & Clyde. Add the passion of 2 young lovers, who formed an exceedingly rare outlaw couple along with their gang. Throw in the image of a woman viewed as tough and gritty, flirting with people's imaginations and grabbing headlines. Then top it off with stories of this couple, who fought against all odds to survive over and over while pulling off nearly impossible feats of escape and bravery-- and well, the law perhaps never stood a chance-- in the court of public fascination versus such an impassioned pair of opponents.

In reporting on Bonnie & Clyde, the print media although portraying B&C events as accurately as they could-- also spun editorial content and satirical expressions-- which sometimes appeared to mock law enforcement's inability to bring one smallish man and his woman companion to justice. But of course in the end, the newspapers were also quick to point out 'ol sparky's patience-- in waiting in the wings for this loving pair of Texans, should they be caught. However the Texas electric chair would never be warmed by Bonnie & Clyde-- as instead, an ambush posse of 6 in Louisiana enacted their own brand of justice-- by both shooting their way to a much needed victory and propelling Bonnie & Clyde to immortality, through the sheer carnage of their actions. But some might question the level of victory these men achieved?? To me it's a fair question to ask, whether martyrdom has been more kind to Bonnie & Clyde-- than victory ever was to law enforcement?!?

I've chosen to comment, when others feel it fair to draw some comparison between today's moral standards and those of the 1930s. Based on a lack of public outcry-- as I view it, May 23rd, 1934 may have well been considered just another day in Depression Age America. Although the end for Bonnie & Clyde made for great headlines-- to my knowledge, this event caused little admonishment of the law, nor reform of outlaw hunting-- nor some congressional call for criminal rights adjustments. If anything quite the opposite seemed true-- as advantages held by outlaws of the '30's over law enforcement, fueled frustrations which led to laws and tactics being strengthened-- to help battle those who would aspire to be the scourge of society. The advent of a national law enforcement presence to combat using state lines as a shield, along with radio patrol cars and improved law enforcement weaponry-- would prove to be the undoing of many a criminal in the post Bonnie & Clyde era. And those criminals have Bonnie & Clyde to thank in part, for their more modern tactical misfortunes.

Indeed the tenor of the times in the '30's were so much different than today-- that realistically, a comparison of the 2 for purposes of providing argument supported by superimposing today's moral standards upon those which existed then-- seems uniquely unfair. As the 1930's were closer in both years and reality (just 50 years removed)-- from the mentality of an 1880's Wild West-- than we are now to the '30's (some 80 modern years later)-- things were more aptly "the way they were" then. Truly a different time and place in history. Bonnie & Clyde being hunted down and brutally ambushed by a posse laying in wait-- apparently just wasn't that unusual for those times. Imagine if that ambush occurred today. Many gangsters of the '20's and outlaws of the '30's met violent ends-- although not as dramatically. And just as within Wild West times, the bullet riddled bodies of Bonnie & Clyde were displayed before a morbidly curious public-- who didn't think twice of making it "an event" to view the dead bodies of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, and then discuss it later over dinner.

Even Bonnie & Clyde's family members were noted to have held differing opinions of the inevitable and it's aftermath. It's been said, that Henry Barrow in talking with Ted Hinton told Hinton something to the effect that-- I know you're going to have to kill my boy, for he won't go back to prison. And then in a remarkably honorable expression, Barrow told Hinton-- I just want you to know there are no hard feelings. But conversely after the ambush, it was Emma Parker who may have echoed what many felt-- in seemingly criticizing the cowardice of the ambush posse-- for employing stealth laden tactics in waylaying Bonnie & Clyde, instead of facing them straight up. A similarly reported comment by Charles Stanley "The Crime Doctor"-- while displaying the Warren Death car at Austin, Texas-- resulted in Frank Hamer taking the stage and slapping Stanley for his right of free expression.

So what was learned concerning the deaths of Bonnie & Clyde?? I'm not sure. Perhaps a reinforcement of the age old adage that crime doesn't pay. Or that true love never dies. Or maybe some lesson in needing to end deadly rampages sooner, to prevent additional loss of life. Or for newsboys, it may have been thought "Shoot-- there go our best headlines". I'd love to find some well researched account of what affects Bonnie & Clyde had on society. What was the affect of the ambush carnage among members of law enforcement?? Were children counseled by teachers, in learning lessons from the example of Bonnie & Clyde?? And what about Bonnie & Clyde's influences on the treatment of criminals in their wake??

Perhaps we can point to the strengthening of public safety as a societal impact of Bonnie & Clyde, with law enforcement learning from weaknesses turned to strengths-- as a result of battling these and other 1930's outlaws, who turned the law's shortfalls into criminal advantages. However much as we might like to learn of these societal impacts, in reality it seems The Story of Bonnie & Clyde may be a more personal one-- filled with personal recollections, one on one anecdotes and family impacts. I'm also not sure it could be said that dubious police actions were in any way corrected, as a result of Bonnie & Clyde's ambush. Many famous examples exist, where loss of life may have resulted from questionable police judgment-- such as the 1993 Waco siege and 1969 Chicago Fred Hampton raid.

It was the '67 movie Bonnie & Clyde, that brought memories of the actual outlaws back to life after having fallen into obscurity. But the ambush scene as filmed-- somehow seems kinder to me, than I envision the hell and finality of the actual event having been. I would think just the overwhelming smell of cordite in the air, would have made breathing difficult and burned the eyes of the ambush posse members. In that regard it may have taken more than a few seconds, to really focus on the 2 shattered bodies which lay in front of them-- as a reminder of a job well done in the eyes of the law. Realistically Bonnie & Clyde had to be stopped-- and they were.

Whenever this topic arises, I can't help but think in terms better understanding the pain filled and socially complicated Depression driven years of the 1930's-- as providing the best opportunity to address this multifaceted historical question. To me it's wrong of us now, to attempt some self righteous moral kidnapping of 1930's America. Our grandparents and great grandparents were their own people in their own time, with their own values and sense of right and wrong. I'm sure many times that fateful May evening it was said-- "Yep--they got Bonnie & Clyde today-- shot 'em to pieces". I suppose comments like "it's a shame" or "should've gotten them sooner"-- were all the rage.

What impact did Bonnie & Clyde have on society?? That's a good question, but one with perhaps few clear answers. It may be that because it occurred within The Depression Age, the ambush which propelled Bonnie & Clyde to iconic status, was in fact a horrific event camouflaged among many horrific events. As such, I'm not sure being part of such tough and hardened times-- that Bonnie & Clyde had much of any specialized impact at all?? For among the pain and hardships of May 23rd, 1934 upon so many, with the exception of their families who knew no greater pain-- the deaths of Bonnie & Clyde may have been just a poignant part of another desperate day. And for the families of Bonnie & Clyde's victims, the events of May 23rd-- may have provided a sense of closure and redress.

Somehow-- I can see that being just the way it was. We remember the impact this daring duo and loving pair made based on a dozen murders-- their devotion to one another and for an unwavering love for their families. We remember the paradox of a murdering gang, who could also be kind to others. But in addition to those who knew Bonnie & Clyde had to be eliminated, these West Dallas desperadoes did seem to have a grass roots appeal for many. Let's not forget those throngs of common citizens, who went out of their way-- to pay their respects to Bonnie & Clyde upon their deaths. In such difficult and reflective times-- perhaps that outpouring of allegiance, was some sort of silent tribute to the defiance these outlaws represented within many?? I wonder what the law must have felt, in standing among so many mourners who chose to mark the passing of Bonnie & Clyde??

I welcome your comments.


BarefootOkieGal said...

My parents were both young kids during the era of Bonnie and Clyde - Mom was born in 1925 and Dad was born in 1921 - but they lived in areas which B&C were known to frequent (Mom lived in Coweta, OK, which is near Broken Arrow and Muskogee and is on the road to Little Rock, and which is also near the Cookson Hills where various outlaws found refuge; Dad grew up in Nebraska, Missouri and Iowa living in the little towns close to where those states join up, an area which many outlaws of the time chose to frequent.

My dad never had much to say about any of the outlaws of the time - he was a farm kid and didn't follow the exploits of the outlaws in the papers, and he'd never actually seen any of them. I remember once when some of my mother's siblings were discussing the "bad old days" (my mom's family was much more interested in outlaws) and my dad mentioned that he remembered when Bonnie and Clyde were ALMOST caught in Dexfield Park; he lived not too far away at the time, and apparently it was quite a big deal!

My mother's family's attitude about the outlaws of the time was fairly sympathetic - if they had run into B&C, I believe they would have helped them out. A lot of people of the time seemed to have the attitude that because times were so bad, there were a lot of basically good people who were out committing crimes. I've mentioned my grandmother's attitude, on having Pretty Boy Floyd pointed out to her while she and my young aunt were shopping in Talequah - "Just don't pay him any mind and don't bother him - everyone's got a right to buy groceries."

Quite a lot of people were so poor that anything that could take their minds off their poverty was welcome - many of them no doubt thought that the outlaws lived glamorous lives, and while they themselves were not inclined to break the law, there was always something interesting about the people who did, just because they were so different. Maybe that is why they were the subject of so many fictionalized magazines - people wanted to dream about a "better life," even one purchased with bullets!

The pursuit of Bonnie and Clyde did cause changes in the way police officers pursue wanted criminals. It was pretty easy to see why they could get away so often - so many jurisdictional conflicts, no way to keep in touch with other officers by police radio, and other difficulties. I do believe that the FBI used the knowledge they gained about B&C to better able them to go after outlaws who jumped state lines.

Judging from what my relatives would say, however, quite a lot of people didn't really think about the various outlaws in one way or another. Times were so hard that most people were just trying to get by. I think it is in that spirit that so many people helped these outlaws - you never turned away someone in trouble when times were so bad. And, given the fact that in many of these areas, moonshine was sort of a local hobby, often people weren't so judgmental of other lawbreakers.

I can only judge their effect on other people by the memories I have of the relatives I had who still remembered and talked about them years after their deaths: They didn't approve of their actions but could understand how people could behave that way, given how bad times were and how hard it was to get work even for law-abiding citizens; they were interested in how they lived because their lives were made to seem interesting compared to folks who chopped cotton and did other tedious and dirty tasks (the magazines didn't truly portray the horror of the lives they were living!) and they were interesting to talk about because they were playing a cat-and-mouse game with the police, and people were interested in seeing how long they could stay on the run, and what would finally happen in the end.

BarefootOkieGal said...

One of the things that interests me about the life and times of Bonnie and Clyde is the fact that back then, it was not at all unusual for the bodies of dead outlaws to be displayed for public viewing - remember that someone offered to buy Clyde's body from Henry Barrow so they could take it on the road and show it off? Some accounts say that the car broke down in front in front of the school; some other accounts say that the car stopped so that the kids could come take a look at Bonnie and Clyde. Who knows? Back at that time, it probably would not have been considered inappropriate for children to see the dead bodies of criminals, as it may have been viewed as a visual warning of what could happen if you "went bad!" And people have to keep in mind that it was not at all unusual in those early days for someone to display a more-or-less mummified outlaw in a traveling museum - just what the man who tried to buy Clyde's corpse intended to do, apparently. To me it all reminds me of Merrie Olde England, where families would pack a lunch and flock off to a hanging or a beheading as a group - and again, I believe it was meant to be a deterrent: "Don't grow up to be a bad guy and you won't end up like him!"

Another thing to remember about the Depression is that death was not something remote that happened to you in a hospital, and what happens after death is taken care of by strangers. People often died at home, and their bodies would often be cleaned and dressed by their own families and laid out in their very own parlor or living room for the visitation. So - laying out a public figure's body for people to view was not considered tacky at the time, and people who viewed the bodies were not considered ghouls.

I would imagine there was an element of curiosity involved, however - back then, people did not have the opportunity to see B&C except for photos (no one had cell phone cameras back then, and so no one had ever seen them moving around!) and they may very well have just wanted to take a look at B&C to see if they LOOKED like the outlaws they were. I know some people were surprised to see how small they really were!