Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Gibsland Louisiana

At 9:15 on the morning of May 23rd 1934 a Ford V-8 came rolling down the Louisiana Highway 154 from Gibsland, where the occupants, two outlaws, had bought a BLT and a fried baloney sandwich for breakfast. The car was coming at speed until they saw a familiar pulp-wood truck parked on the side of the road, so they slowed to speak to the owner Ivy Methvin, the father of their accomplice Henry. The details get mixed up here but it seems that Ivy himself was not present in the most reliable accounts and the truck was parked simply as a decoy. It worked. Prentiss Oakley, Deputy Sheriff of Bienville Parish stepped out of the ambush and opened fire first. He hit the driver, Clyde Barrow, and before the other five officers could open fire in turn they heard a loud scream from the passenger, Bonnie Parker before she too was shot. They loosed off around 120 rounds and the two outlaws reportedly were hit fifty times each. It all happened here;

When I was sitting at my desk on long night shifts waiting for the 911 phone to ring I used to wander the Internet all over the place. Sometimes I would read a headline and chase down the details looking at Street views on Google or checking the history of an incident or place that caught my eye. I have trudged all over the most remote settlement in the world, Pitcairn Island on Google Street View. I have studied the last climb of Mallory and Irvine on Mount Everest in 1924. I got caught up in the life and death of Bonnie and Clyde and found myself surprised by the complexity of an apparently simple piece of banditry. I always wanted to include this post on our drive across country. We drove the back roads of Louisiana to get here and I am grateful to Layne for her indulgence.

Gibsland is the Parish seat of Bienville Parish, a town of of about a thousand people and though it claims to be the daffodil capital of Louisiana I don't think they would get too many visitors were it not for the garishly named "Ambush Museum."

The gift shop is the location of the coffee shop where the bandits stopped to buy sandwiches for their final drive, and they say Bonnie Parker had hers in her hand when she died. This whole Bonnie and Clyde thing is garish and weird and detailed and profoundly odd to me. Despite the many years I worked for the police in Key West I am not an aficionado of true crime stories nor am I much inclined to describe robbers and killers as "Robin Hoods" so for me crime is something I'd rather not deal with in any capacity in retirement. Yet, here I was and not by accident.

If this story doesn't interest you, - and why should it? - feel free to look away. If you want to know more and disagree with the conclusions I have reached feel free and there is lots online on these two characters and the men who took their lives for you to peruse. Below you see the car that was used in the movie with Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty to depict the life and death of the gang. In my opinion they got the sense of the crime spree but the details were woefully inadequate. 

If you want to see more artifacts, the actual car and Barrow's blood stained clothes (!) they are in a casino in Nevada, the kind of institution that can pay the absurd prices asked for these macabre relics. They have some in the small town museum but most of this place is dedicated to photographs, articles and re-creations. And they are dog friendly though Rusty was terrified of the cat that actually owns the place.

Like I said the cat is in charge and keeps a close eye on the mannequins and displays:

Bonnie and Clyde were on the run for four years and by the time they were caught and killed they had dispatched fully nine law enforcement officers and four other people. She was 23 and he was 25.

1934 was a time when photography was in full swing and there is a ton of pictures online surrounding the last day of Parker and Barrow but I was surprised by the number of pictures in the museum that I had not seen online. We were going down the road to the spot itself which was of much greater interest to me and I noticed how the road looked back then.Gibsland was seven miles behind the photographer and the hill on the horizon is where the markers are now. 

Three law enforcement agencies were involved, two former Texas Rangers, two Louisiana state police and two locals. They were armed to the teeth and set up their ambush with some care. The details once again are disputed as to how the ambush actually went down but the preparations aren't in dispute. They were led by ex Ranger Frank Hamer who was determined to catch them. He followed their trail, learned their methods and came to the conclusion that he could get ahead of the repetitive pattern their journeys took them on. 

They made a deal with Ivy Methvin to go easy on his son Henry and were ready when Clyde Barrow was supposed to be visiting the the Methvin home in Sailes Louisiana. We drove through Sailes south of the ambush site and it's a crossroads and two mobile homes along the highway. This is a remote area.

Some accounts say the ambushers waiting two days, others say they arrived the night before and waited. It is also said they were ready to give up when at last they heard the car coming down the road. There isn't much traffic today on the road and I wonder if there were much back then. In any event the ambush worked out. You have to think the lawmen were scared rigid of the two killers who had evaded the law for years and been utterly ruthless is pursuit of their freedom. I think that explains the 120 or more rounds fired into the car at close to point blank range.

We parked around the corner form the Ambush Museum and I spent some time on a rather cool afternoon checking the tire pressure on the van as we had had the tires rotated after we had our flat repaired in Ruston. The tire guy had rotated the tires but did not reset the pressure so I got busy and made sure the pressures were accurate front and back. It happened we were parked next to the town hall and police station which were both, oddly enough, closed for the day. I have no idea how a town sustains itself with just a thousand residents.

We left town to drive to the spot I really wanted to see, two small monuments on Louisiana Highway 154, I have no idea why, but I hoped that standing there I might get some idea why Bonnie and crude are such myth makers in American history. 

As we drove the seven miles down the road we were both silent. Later Layne said she felt a creepy vibe, melancholic even as we approached the spot. The road is surprisingly scenic, dipping and curving, breaking out on a hill top just past the "Historic Marker One Mile" sign giving views across the rolling tree covered hills. We came around the corner at the top of the next hill and in the distance I could see the markers next to the telephone poles.

The road as seen in the original photo was not nearly as clear of brush on the sides as it is now to accommodate the telephone poles. There were bushy ferns growing to give cover to the lawmen  who hid in the ditch for a very long time. They were determined not to fail. Lest we forget...they were the good guys in this story.

I wonder if in another life and with other opportunities and certainly a better sense of the morality of life Clyde Barrow might not have made a great salesman. He knew how to feed his outlaw life to the press for maximum positive publicity. He even wrote a letter to Henry Ford a month before he died in praise  of his best getaway car. The Ford Museum has it on display!

Handwritten on paper: Tulsa, Okla 10th April Mr Henry Ford Detroit, Mich. Dear Sir: - While I still have got breath in my lungs I will tell you what a dandy car you make. I have drove Fords exclusively when I could get away with one. For sustained speed and freedom from trouble the Ford has got ever other car skinned and even if my business hasen't been strickly legal it don't hurt enything to tell you what a fine car you got in the V8 - Yours truly Clyde Champion Barrow
Below I have added photographs taken by the pair and found abandoned by law enforcement as the chase closed in on them. I have read speculation that the torrid love affair between them inspired public interest and admiration. Perhaps their occasional acts of mercy, letting hostages go, made them folk heroes. But still they gunned down nine lawmen, people with families and who were as much merely state employees earning a wage, as the hard core G men of the "Bureau of Investigation" in Washington. Interstate crime laws were toughened up after the Bonnie and Clyde affair came to a conclusion, making the job of the G men that much easier to pursue criminals across state lines.

I enjoy being on the road and not being wanted and not having to camp out because I am so notorious restaurants will call the police rather than serve me. Faced with a life of drudgery they made the choice to become notorious, to play to the crowd, in the only way they knew. And they did it appallingly well. Even now these monuments to crime and law enforcement cannot be left well enough alone. The signatures and scribbles and crap attached to the criminals makes me wonder. Do you get glamor from associating yourself with the Bonnie and Clyde Death Spot, as Google maps labels it?

The life they avoided is still on display along the roads in the back country. I can't help but think a life of misery in poverty riddled, Depression era America could have been handled better than a murder spree. I suppose by the time the glamor wore off and the reality of their crimes penetrated the public, who turned their back on them, for them it was too late and they were trapped in the life. It's easy for us to put the glamor back into their myth as we are so far away from the reality of their awfulness. The desire for fame overrides all else in some people and they don't care who they drag down with them. After I saw the spot I celebrated the lawmen who did their duty and apparently suffered their own trauma after the experience, and I still wonder how we can celebrate fame unglued from morality. It still happens today all the time. We humans are weird.