Why Were Bonnie and Clyde Idolized?

Last Updated: October 18th, 2023 by Kerry Wisby (Teacher-BA English Literature, 1920s & Great Gatsby Expert)

Although the crimes of infamous lovers on the run, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were terrible and violent, their legacy has cemented them as one of the most revered crime couples of the past century.

Statue of Bonnie and Clyde in Buffalo Bill's Casino
Statue of Bonnie and Clyde in Buffalo Bill’s Casino

But what about their lives made them into such icons? They were robbers, murderers, thieves, and kidnappers.

They used violence and force to get what they wanted, so why did people alive in the 1930s revere them? Why are they still living in pop culture today?

To put it simply, they were seen as heroes despite what they did due to the social and economic situation of the United States at the time. They were considered the Robin Hoods of their generation.

Let’s get into why they were such household heroes!

Why Were Bonnie and Clyde Considered Heroes?

To start understanding why they were such important figures in history and in the 30s, you first have to understand the historical atmosphere surrounding these wild criminals.

In the 1930s, the effects of the Great Depression were still gripping the United States and almost everyone was feeling the ripples from the crashed economy.

Crime was at an all-time national high since folks were doing any and everything to keep from starving or losing their homes.

What made Bonnie and Clyde so popular?

Bonnie and Clyde were seen as Robin Hoods of a sort. They were taking on police officers and the FBI (then called the Bureau of Investigation,) as they fled around the country.

When they had money, they sent it to their families. When they did not have anything, or if they were injured, they were given help by family, friends, and strangers alike.

But why did their life and their crimes create such a powerful impact on the citizens of the United States?

It was their attitude. They did not care.

They took what they wanted, when they wanted, from whoever had it. They saw the system of the United States and how the economy was crumbling. They saw how the government, both federal and local, were not helping their citizens in an effective way and took their lives into their own hands.

Average people saw their autonomy as appealing. People were not exactly seduced by the crimes Bonnie and Clyde committed, but rather their vigilante wild child antics that allowed them to take care of themselves.

Bonnie and Clyde were experienced in the unfair, inequitable, and unsupportive ways of the government and decided to live a life without it, whatever the cost.

Individual Histories of Bonnie and Clyde

Photo of Bonnie Parker with short description
Photo of Bonnie Parker with short description

Bonnie Parker was born in Rowena, Texas in 1910 to a bricklayer father and a seamstress mother. She was the second child out of three. Her father passed away when she was just four years old, and her mother then moved the family to Dallas for better work.

Bonnie was a poet and photographer, briefly keeping a diary when she was 18. In this diary, she details her hatred for Dallas, her love of taking pictures, and later, poems such as “The Story of Suicide Sal” and “The Trail’s End” were found written by her.

Six days before she turned 16 she married Roy Thorton, who she had met in High School and dropped out within her second year. Her marriage was troubled, riddled with abuse, absences, and Thorton’s frequent issues with the law, leading to his eventual arrest in January 1929.

This was when Bonnie met Clyde Barrow. (Get that “When Harry Met Sally” image out of your head. Not at all the story.)

Clyde Barrow in front of his car
Clyde Barrow in front of his car

Clyde Barrow was born in 1909 in Ellis County, Texas. He was the fifth out of seven children in a poor farming family and knew struggles his whole life.

In the early 20s, the Barrows moved to the outside of Dallas, where they lived under their wagon until they saved the money to buy a tent.

In the years before he met Bonnie, Clyde was arrested for several crimes, starting at 17 when he was arrested for not returning a rental car on time. He was also arrested for having stolen turkeys, cracking safes, and stealing cars.

At 21 years old he met Bonnie through a mutual friend, and they began their relationship, which was cut short when Clyde was arrested for auto theft.

Bonnie tried to help Clyde break out of prison by smuggling him a gun ( read where are Bonnie and Clyde’s guns), but he was recaptured and returned to prison, where he was sexually abused by a fellow prisoner. Clyde killed the man with a lead pipe, and another prisoner with a life sentence took the blame for him.

This was his first kill in a string of murders tied to his name.

Were Bonnie and Clyde in Love?

Bonnie and Clyde met each other in 1930, sparking a most unusual love affair during an era punctuated by death, theft, and all forms of crime. They enjoyed celebrity status because they stood out from other gangsters—they committed crimes as a couple.

But were they in love, or were they just a couple of outlaws benefiting from the partnership that made them famous?

The couple no doubt had a dysfunctional love affair, but you can’t argue that they were in love. In The Story of Suicide Sal, which Bonnie wrote while in prison, she said, “I couldn’t help loving him madly, for him even now I would die.”

While she never admitted that she meant Clyde by that, it would be easy to see from the rest of her poem that it was a case of art imitating life.

Before they were ambushed, the couple had apparently expressed their wish to be buried next to each other, but Bonnie’s mother didn’t like the idea. Instead, she buried her daughter several miles away from where Clyde was laid to rest. (Read more on where are Bonie and Clyde buried)

What Impact Did Bonnie and Clyde Have on Society?

Bonnie and Clyde together
Photo of Bonnie and Clyde together from a newspaper following their death

A huge, massive, ginormous impact!

Bonnie and Clyde are still the original crime couple today, and folks still talk about Bonnie and Clyde when referring to a duo of criminals or terms of endearment, “the Bonnie to my Clyde.”

Songs, stories, movies, and shows have all been inspired by one set of lovers running wild in Texas. Their impact has shown no sign of slowing down any time soon.

Why Were Bonnie and Clyde So Popular?

They became almost folk heroes, partially overnight, thanks to Bonnie’s image. Bonnie was a woman, and she was a criminal. The police described her as cigar-smoking, gun-slinging, and just as brutal as Clyde.

For a woman to have her name tied up as a major player in a crime spree and a massive nationwide manhunt was almost unheard of. She became a focal point of the Bonnie and Clyde duo. Bonnie’s portraits of her smoking a cigar and holding a revolving pistol (given to her by Clyde) are some of the most famous images of the couple.

Wanted couple Bonnie and Clyde in newspaper
Wanted couple Bonnie and Clyde in newspaper

People saw Bonnie as a revolutionary, whether she was or not is up for debate, but needless to say, she walked (and murdered,) so that countless other female outlaws could run. (And murder.)

Without Bonnie, Clyde would have undoubtedly been just another criminal outlaw on a crime spree that the police would catch up to soon. Bonnie made the difference between folk heroes and outlaw scum.

The way that their crime spree ended had a huge effect on society as well.

Bonnie and Clyde were tracked down by Frank Hamer in just 3 months after Hamer was hired to find them. This was pretty fast for the time.

Frank Hamer tracked Bonnie and Clyde down to Sailes, Louisiana on May 23, 1934, and set up a trap on a road leading out of town. In the early hours of the morning as Bonnie and Clyde drove off, they drove into the ambush.

Clyde knew that if he was arrested he would be facing life in prison, and had vowed to never get caught. It is unsure whether police officers gave them the warning to exit the car, or if they had opened fire the moment they saw the car. Either way, Clyde was not going to get arrested.

actual photo of bonnie and clyde's car with gun shots
Actual photo of Bonnie and Clyde’s car with gunshots

The police officers shot up the car, later called the “death car,” and later opened fire again to ensure that Bonnie and her lover were dead.

The death car is riddled with bullet holes from the hood to the back bumper. The car became an image of law enforcement power and the ending of the “outlaw era.”

The death car was swarmed with people when the car, and its dead inhabitants, were paraded through the town as a show of the power held by police officers.

People across the country mourned for Bonnie and Clyde, which was unheard of.

Actual Bonnie and Clyde Car Displayed in Buffalo Bill Casino
Actual Bonnie and Clyde Car Displayed in Buffalo Bill Casino

The death car is still on display in Nevada, full of the original bullet holes and bloodstains.

One interesting thing is the survivors of the gang. Blanche Barrow, Clyde’s sister in law, was captured by police and put in prison, while Henry Methvin, a gang member, was abandoned when he went into a shop to get food and a police car drove past, spooking the couple who fled.

Blanche Barrow
Blanche Barrow

Blanche lived to be 77, landing her in 1988. We tend to think that these events were ages ago when in reality, the relatives and descendants of the couple alive during their reign only passed less than 40 years ago.

Crazy how time passes, huh?

Why Were Bonnie and Clyde Idolized?
Why Were Bonnie and Clyde Idolized?
What made Bonnie and Clyde such symbols of love and wildness? Why were they idolized and 100 years later we still reference them? Let's find out!
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