When most people hear the name Bonnie Parker their first thought is unlikely to be “this was a famous American poet of the early 20th century”. A more likely adjective to use is actually infamous because, of course, she was a part of one of the most notorious criminal gangs in history. Along with her partner Clyde Barrow she set off on a murderous rampage across the American mid-west that was to end in both their deaths in violent circumstances. That said, however, she should also be remembered as an accomplished poet.
She was born in Rowena, Texas in October 1910 and christened Bonnie Elizabeth Parker. Her father died when she was only four years old and her mother then moved the family to Dallas. Bonnie did well at school and won prizes for her spelling and writing. Unfortunately things started to go wrong when she was ill-advisedly married at the very young age of 16, both of them dropping out of school. Her husband Roy Thornton was frequently on the wrong side of the law and was often incarcerated for a variety of crimes. For this reason, at least, the marriage was on shaky ground and they lost touch in 1929, only three years after the wedding.
Bonnie reverted to living with her mother and soon became bored with her existence in what was then a small provincial town. It was not too long though before she ran into her future partner in crime, Clyde Barrow. It is part of the legend that the man released from prison in 1932 was unrecognisable from the young boy who had first been arrested – some described him as a rattlesnake. There was almost an immediate mutual attraction and their paths to eventual destruction began here.
A number of robberies, with ever increasing violence and bravado being a feature, took place. Bonnie and another gang member were caught after one failed robbery and she was sent to jail where she passed the time writing poetry on any bits of paper she could find. One of the pieces that she wrote here was The Story of Suicide Sal. She was soon out of prison though and soon resumed her criminal association with Barrow.
Their crimes got ever more daring, and violent. Anyone who got in the way was simply killed in cold blood. At the same time as they were committing their crimes Bonnie found time to write poems and send them to newspapers. This was a time of general economic depression and some people viewed their exploits with a certain amount of awe and respect, although it could not be proved, at first, that they had actually been killing people. The Barrow Gang themselves felt that they were desperados just trying to make a living the best way they could. Here are the last few lines of the poem The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde (also known as The Trail’s End) that Parker wrote and sent to a newspaper:
A huge bounty was placed on the Barrow Gang and, despite being a major target of the FBI and other agencies, Bonnie and Clyde were eventually cornered by a posse of lawmen on a quiet road in Louisiana. The pair died, their bodies riddled with dozens of bullets. Their robbery and killing spree had lasted the best part of two years but it was only a matter of time before they were stopped.
Bonnie Parker was just 24 years old when she died on 23 May 1934