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Monday, April 21, 2014

The Revolver of Clyde Barrow

Clyde Barrow, the latter half of the infamous 'Bonnie & Clyde,' is one of most recognizable names from the Depression Era's list of unsavory characters.  As remembered for his relationship as his life of crime, Barrow began a humble Texas boy, but in his short 25 years on this earth, he grew into a part of American history.  One of Clyde Barrow's guns will be sold at Rock Island Auction Company's May 2014 Premiere Firearms Auction.  This Colt Army Special double action revolver is chambered in 38 Special and comes with three documents of provenance all signed by Texas lawmen.

Lot 1206: Historic Documented Colt Army Special Double Action Revolver Belonging to Public Enemy Era Outlaw Clyde Barrow

As mentioned Clyde Chestnut Barrow (whom the FBI labels "Clyde Champion Barrow," an alias provided by the outlaw himself) didn't exactly have the most illustrious of beginnings.  He was born on March 24, 1909, the fifth of seven children on a poor Texas farm.  The family allegedly lived under their wagon in a move to an impoverished area known as West Dallas, and had to save money just to buy a tent.  He and his brother would help provide for the family by stealing.  His life of crime began rather comically: his first arrest coming for failing to return a rental car on time (charges were dropped, but remained on his record) and his second arrest was for stealing a truckload full of turkeys with his brother Marvin.  He would eventually find gainful employment beginning at 18, but would supplement that income with robbery and stealing cars.  In an attempt to turn his life around, young Barrow attempted to enlist in the Navy, but was rejected for medical reasons, likely the aftereffects of a childhood disease.  This would have been devastating for the young man who had already tattooed "USN" on his left arm.

This Dec. 3, 1926, mug shot from the Dallas Police Department files shows a dashing teenage Clyde Barrow. He was charged with auto theft, but according to later records the indictment was dismissed.

1930 was an interesting year in the life of Clyde Barrow. While sources vary on the specifics, it is credible that Barrow met one Ms. Bonnie Parker early that year. Unfortunately for the "star-cross'd lovers" their romance was almost doomed from the start. Clyde's life of crime would continue and eventually catch up with him, landing him a 14-year stretch in Eastham Prison Farm in April of 1930.  It was a notoriously rough prison, not only for its "guests," but also for its brutal work load on prisoners.  Prison changed Barrow, allegedly due to a sexual assault (or several) at the hands of Ed Crowder, who was serving a 99-year sentence for bank robbery. Barrow would have his revenge by splitting Crowder's head open with a pipe wrench - his first homicide.  The story that went to the outside was that Crowder had gotten in a home-made knife fight with a man named Aubrey Scalley, a friend of Barrow's who was already going to be inside for a long time and had little to lose.

Knowing he had to get out of prison, Barrow elects to cut off two of the toes on his left foot with an ax - the big one and part of the second.  Self mutilation and amputation was a surprisingly popular way to get out of work in that prison; sometimes with as many as fourteen men having "accidents" in a single week.  It could be self-performed, but most men knew certain inmates who would perform the task for them.  This mutilation would leave Barrow with a limp the rest of his life.  Unfortunately, Barrow had no idea that his mother Cumie had been petitioning for his early release.  His mutilation would be in vain as Barrow would be paroled days later by Governor Ross Sterling on February 2, 1932.  He would leave the prison on crutches.

The sexual assault, the murder, the horrible conditions, the work, the desperation so great that a man would have his own toes cut off, all changed Clyde Barrow.  Those who knew him best, his family and fellow inmates, say that he changed, "from a schoolboy to a rattlesnake."  He immediately resumed his life of crime, but his end game was much different.  It was no longer the money, guns, and cars he had sought before, although he certainly still needed those.  Now Barrow was after those items so that he could launch a raid on Eastham Prison.  After all, he owed a big favor to Scalley who took the fall for his murder while he was still doing time.  But helping Scalley was just the icing on the cake.  Barrow wanted revenge on the institution he felt had wronged him and to reunite with Ms. Bonnie Parker.

However, life had a way for not going as planned for Barrow.  His early string of robberies, more often gas stations and stores than banks, resulted in several murders and from April to August in 1932 the gang of Barrow, Bonnie Parker, and several other individuals had killed five people including two law men.  As the murder of innocent people and law men continued, public opinion began to turn against Bonnie & Clyde.  Once the darlings of a daring romance who defied the banks and big businesses (a popular notion during the Depression), even their most fawning admirers could no longer turn a blind eye to their violent ways.  This is not to say the gang was always violent.  In fact, several scholars of Bonnie & Clyde believe that the gang only used violence when necessary to avoid capture.  Several victims, including law men, were kidnapped as opposed to killed and would be eventually let go, sometimes with money to get home.  An interesting disparity against the myth that surrounds them as nothing but cold-blooded killers.

However, killers they were, and even with the law well aware of their life of crime, the Barrow Gang seemed incapable, or apathetic, to avoiding the law.  Raucous behavior, gun play, drinking, and more all captured the attention of locals who would contact the law.  Many times the gang would get itself cornered and shoot its way out courtesy of Clyde's appreciation for the BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle).  Even with Thompson sub-machine guns and armored cars, the law was outgunned.  The Barrow Gang's firepower combined with Clyde's skill behind the wheel of the new Ford V8 engine was a combination that permitted them several miraculous escapes, despite being surrounded and often heavily outnumbered.

From 1932 to 1934, Bonnie and Clyde had changed from petty thieves with a goal to murderers who would never be taken alive.  The couple knew that if they were captured they would certainly be executed, which lead to a desperation to always escape.  Clyde had no intentions on returning to any prison.  The group circled the Midwest and southern states, traveling from one member's family to another and performing robberies along the way.  This appreciation and love of family, even while ruining so many others, is another unexpected contradiction posed by the Barrow Gang.  This predictable method of travel would prove to be their end.

Their ways would turn steadily more violent, removing any remaining romance they may have had with the public and attracting even more attention from the law.  On April 13, 1933 Joplin, Missouri police responded to what they thought were noisy bootleggers.  They got more than they bargained for.  One lawman was killed and another wounded as the gang made their escape. Having been caught by surprise, the gang left behind many of their belongings including a small arsenal, several legal documents belonging to members of the gang, some of Bonnie's poetry, and a several rolls of undeveloped film.  It's from this cache of personal belongings that we have many of today's existing photos of Bonnie & Clyde.  The pictures show a more playful, whimsical, and loving side of the two killers and when they were plastered on newspapers everywhere it rekindled the public's affection and catapulted their notoriety from the Dallas area to across the nation.

That year, more robberies and kidnappings led to being even more wide spread notoriety and forced the gang to more extreme measures to avoid capture. Seldom could they rent houses and cabins. Now they were often forced to stay in campgrounds, cooking their meals over campfires and bathing in rivers. To make matters even worse, while driving on June 10, Clyde had missed some "Bridge Out" signs, smashed through the barricades at 70 mph, and crashed their car into a ravine. Sources differ on whether or not Bonnie was trapped under the car, or whether the third-degree burns on her leg that went down to the bone were caused by a gasoline fire or from leaking battery acid, but the result was the same. The gang would have to lay low while Bonnie healed. Some say that she could never walk again after that day, but more likely she walked with a terrible limp, alternated by hopping around on her good leg or being carried by Clyde.

The downward spiral continued for the Barrow Gang.  On July 29, Clyde's brother Buck, a member of the gang, was mortally wounded during one of Clyde's miraculous esacpes.  Buck's wife Blanche was captured that same day. In August, the gang managed to burgle the armory in Plattville, IL, giving them a fresh supply of ammo, handguns, and three new BARs.  In November, police also captured Clyde's protege and Barrow Gang member W.D. Jones in Houston.  The couple was now on their own.  They managed to escape yet another trap set for them by the Dallas sheriff and his deputies on November 22 and continued carjacking and robbing.  Even with all this heat on the duo, Clyde had not forgotten about his time at Eastham and on January 16, 1934 five prisoners escaped with help from Barrow.  He had planted two pistols in a ditch that the prisoners used to kill two guards (not enough in Barrow's mind) and then escape under bursts of BAR fire from Barrow.  Clyde finally got some pay back, but it came at a huge cost,  The escape was a huge embarrassment for the law and in response, they would turn on the heat higher than ever.

In 1934 things became even more increasingly desperate for the pair - killing two young highway patrolmen on April 1, before killing another constable and kidnapping/wounding a police chief on April 6.  Forever after the prison breakout and these killings, Bonnie & Clyde would be pursued by former Texas Ranger Captain Frank A. Hamer.  He had retired, but accepted the special assignment of hunting down the Barrow Gang.  It was Hamer's idea not to chase the gang, as so many had done before, but to use their predictable travel patterns to surprise them.  Using the family of escaped convict and gang member Henry Methvin, Hamer and his posse of 5 men waited for the gang just outside Methvin's parent's residence.  Sure enough, Barrow's Ford quickly approached, yet slowed upon seeing Methvin's father's (Iverson or "Ivy") truck in the road.  It had been planted there to force Barrow to one side of the road, but also to slow Barrow who would be looking for Ivy Methvin.  The Methvin's cooperation with the authorities would end the lives of Bonnie & Clyde.

At approximately 9:15 on May 23, 1934, the posse, who had allegedly been waiting concealed for two days, opened fire on the Ford with an undetermined number of rounds.  Some sources say as few as 80 and others say no fewer than 168 rounds were fired.  Two of the posse gave the following quote to the Dallas Dispatch,

"Each of us six officers had a shotgun and an automatic rifle and pistols. We opened fire with the automatic rifles. They were emptied before the car got even with us. Then we used shotguns ... There was smoke coming from the car, and it looked like it was on fire. After shooting the shotguns, we emptied the pistols at the car, which had passed us and ran into a ditch about 50 yards on down the road. It almost turned over. We kept shooting at the car even after it stopped. We weren't taking any chances."

In footage taken at the time, Bonnie can be seen in the passenger seat slumped on Clyde.

After members of the posse went into town to call their bosses and tell them the gruesome news, word spread fast and a crowd quickly formed at the scene.  Many members of the crowd were scrounging for souvenirs; one woman cut a piece of Bonnie's bloody hair and dress (these were later sold), others scooped up shell casings, pieces of broken glass, and one man was caught trying to cut off Clyde's ear and another man was stopped from amputating Barrow's trigger finger.

The car was an arsenal itself, containing a dozen guns including several shot guns, three BARs, and  several thousand rounds of ammunition which included 100 20-round BAR magazines.  Hamer and his posse would later take some criticism over not giving the couple a chance to surrender, but the car's deadly payload made it clear to all the men there that day that they had made the right decision.

Only some of the firearms and ammo recovered from the vehicle.

The couple wished to be buried side-by-side, but Mrs. Parker would have none of it, insisting that her baby girl be brought home.  She is quoted as saying, "He had her for two years. Look what it got her. He's not going to have her anymore. She's mine now."

"They don't think they're too smart or desperate
 they know that the law always wins. 
They've been shot at before;
 but they do not ignore, 
that death is the wages of sin. 

Some day they'll go down together
 they'll bury them side by side. 
To few it'll be grief, 
to the law a relief 
but it's death for Bonnie and Clyde."

- Final stanza's of "The Trail's End" by Bonnie Parker

The revolver appearing in Rock Island Auction Company's May 2nd, 3rd, & 4th Premiere Auction was formerly the property of Clyde Barrow.  It was found by Navarro County, Texas Sheriff Rufus Pevehouse on May 6, 1930.  Now for those of you paying attention, you'll know that Barrow was in prison at the time the gun was found.

However, the revolver was found inside a car previously impounded by the sheriff's office and the pistol was overlooked in the vehicle's glove compartment.  In fact, the stolen vehicle had been left at the home of Frank barrow, Clyde's uncle, who called Sheriff Pevehouse to come pick up the vehicle.  Later, when the gun was on display, it was recognized by Texas Ranger M.T. "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas, who stated that the gun had been stolen from his car and that its modifications had been made while it was in Gonzaullas' possession.  Long story short, when Clyde left this stolen car at his uncle's, he forgot the stolen gun in the glove box.  This revolver is accompanied by a contemporary case and three documents which attest to its provenance, two signed by Pevehouse himself and one signed statement from another Texas Ranger attesting to its authenticity.

The gun is a Colt Army Special double action revolver with several distinct features.  It has been customized in the Fitzgerald Special style, which includes a short barrel, bobbed hammer, and cutaway trigger guard.  The nickel finish remains excellent with only minor indicators of wear.  The revolver has also been fitted with finger grooved, yellow phenolic grips.

This revolver will provide some lucky collector a fantastic opportunity to own a piece of "Public Enemy" era history.  Bonnie & Clyde remain one of the most famed outlaw couples of all time, spawning movies, literature, and countless documentaries.  Though before you know it, this historic firearm will be just like Clyde's succinct epitaph, "Gone, but not forgotten."

This revolver is just one example of the many history-laden items in Rock Island Auction Company's May 2014 Premiere Firearms Auction.  There is also signed correspondence from George Washington, two letters signed by Richard Jordan Gatling, the inventor of the Gatling gun, a Civil War autograph book filled with autographs from Union Generals that were acquired by Spencer Meade, son of Gen. George Meade, many Civil War photographs from the same collection, Samuel Colt's Henry rifle, a LePage shotgun given from the President of France to the President of Mexico, an 1897 Gatling gun with Spanish-American War history, plus firearms belonging to William Loeb Jr., Ed McGivern, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Heinrich Himmler, and Fritz Sauckel.  Browse our catalog by clicking here and see what historic artifacts you can find to add to your collection.

-Written by Joel Kolander


1 comment:

  1. All pictures are nice and pistol is looking antique and beautiful. Now days it is difficult to find this type of pistols.