A Tale of Bonnie and Clyde: The Bank Robbery at Poteau, Oklahoma
After a long string of petty thefts that began in 1926, Clyde Chestnut Barrow was sent to the Eastham Prison Farm in April 1930. The Eastham Prison Farm was the first maximum-security prison in Texas. Because of its grueling work assignments, the treacherous conditions, and the difficulty of escaping the unit, even hard-core criminals dreaded being sent to this facility.
For Clyde Barrow, incarceration at the Eastham Prison Farm marked the beginning of life of rampage and destruction across the Midwest. While in prison, he was sexually assaulted repeatedly for over a year by a dominant inmate. Having had enough, Clyde fractured the man’s skull with a length of pipe, which lead to his death. This was Clyde Barrow's first killing.
His time in the Eastham Prison Farm also marked the beginning of the end for him, as well as for Bonnie Elizabeth Parker. The two met just four months before Clyde was arrested and sent to prison. According to old stories, Bonnie and Clyde met in January 1930 at a friend's house. Bonnie, who was only 19 at the time, was staying in West Dallas to assist a friend with her broken arm. Clyde dropped by the girl's house while Bonnie was supposedly in the kitchen making hot chocolate.
As they say, it was love at first sight. They were immediately attracted to one another, and over the course of the next few weeks, Bonnie became smitten with Clyde’s roguish behavior and charming demeanor. Throughout their crime spree and violent death, the two remained nearly inseparable.
Paroled in February 1932 from the Eastham Prison Farm, Clyde emerged a hardened and bitter criminal. Ralph Fults, an inmate that knew Clyde well, said he watched him "change from a schoolboy to a rattlesnake." In the "public enemy era" that ran between 1931 and 1934, Bonnie and Clyde quickly joined the ranks of John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd.
After Clyde was released from the Eastham Prison Farm, he immediately began recruiting a gang. His initial thought was to form a gang in order to storm the Eastham Prison, free all of the prisoners, and kill the guards that had assaulted him. He first recruited a close friend of his, an 18-year-old fugitive named Raymond Hamilton. While Raymond initially agreed to help Clyde, he was in it more for the money that could be made. Raymond worked with Clyde on most of their jobs, but once he had “earned” enough, he would leave the gang and go off on his own.
For the next two years, Bonnie and Clyde, along with other members of the “Barrow Gang” terrorized the Midwest. In all, twelve people would be murdered in cold blood during their crime spree, along with countless others who were injured or shot along the way. It seemed that the Barrow Gang was unstoppable. Every time the police thought they had the group cornered, Clyde would always find a seemingly easy escape.
The Eastham Prison Farm Break Out
In 1934, Clyde would get the revenge against the Eastham Prison Farm that he had always wanted. During the previous year, Raymond Hamilton briefly rejoined Bonnie and Clyde as part of the Barrow Gang. Shortly afterwards, in December 1933, Raymond was arrested began serving a lengthy prison term at Eastham. Raymond was serving 266 years in prison for auto theft, armed robbery, and murder.
After Raymond was imprisoned, Bonnie and Clyde raided the farm to free him and four other prisoners on January 16, 1934. The group succeeded in pulling off the escape. Among those involved in the jailbreak were Raymond Hamilton, Joe Palmer, Henry Methvin, and Hilton Bybee.
One of the escapees, Joe Palmer, killed a guard and caused a series of events which led to Texas Prison System chief Lee Simmons to issue a shoot to kill order against Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. Simmons hired Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, who formed a six-man posse in order to execute this order.
Bonnie and Clyde heads toward Poteau
A week after the Eastham Prison Farm breakout, the group began moving throughout the Midwest, robbing small town banks. The breakout had depleted all of the funds that the Barrow Gang had, so they began to “earn” money the best way they knew how.
The first bank they robbed after the breakout was in Rembrandt, Iowa. They stormed the bank on January 23rd and easily escaped with $3,800. Hilton Bybee took his cut and left the gang, leaving Bonnie and Clyde with Raymond Hamilton, Joe Palmer, Henry Methvin in the gang. Bybee was captured about a week later in Amarillo.
After the Rembrandt robbery, the Barrow Gang drove back to Oklahoma towards Poteau. The drive was nearly 46 hours, and over 500 miles away from the Rembrandt job. This was Clyde’s primary defense against capture. By putting as much distance between jobs as he could, it was less likely that the gang would be easily caught. It is said that they would live in their car for days and weeks on end. Clyde could easily average 50 miles an hour and could keep it up for hours at a time. In the 1930s, this was quite a feat. Many times, instead of stopping in a populated place, they would sleep in the car and wash in the creek. After a bank robbery or shootout, Clyde might not stop until he was 1,000 miles away.
Once they arrived in the Poteau area, the group stole a blue Plymouth sedan. This was another trick that Clyde would use. He would steal a common-looking car and then drive it to town. People would see the car and report it to police. Once out of sight, they would drive a few miles to where Bonnie and any other female gang members were waiting with the real getaway cars - usually new Ford V-8's. After they arrived, they would dump the old car and then be on the way in the new one.
The Robbery at Poteau
This was precisely what happened in Poteau, Oklahoma on Thursday, January 25, 1934.
Shortly before noon, Clyde and his gang drove the stolen blue Plymouth sedan down Dewey Avenue, turned right on to McKenna, and parked just outside and towards the rear of Central National Bank. Dressed in expensive-looking suits, Clyde Barrow and Raymond Hamilton got out and calmly walked through the front door of the bank. Joe Palmer remained in the car with the engine running, waiting for their return.
After entering the bank, Clyde and Raymond raised the shotguns they had concealed on the way in and pointed them at C. P. Little, a customer, and cashiers May Vasser and W. A. Campbell. Little and Campbell were immediately ordered to lie on the floor while Vasser was allowed to sit in a chair.
After quickly subduing the people inside, Clyde moved behind the counter, opened the bank drawers, and stashed all of the currency and silver into a bag. He then forced the employees to open the safe. He then took all of the cash that was inside.
While Clyde was busy emptying the drawers, another customer entered the bank. Pat Fulson was oblivious as to what was going on at first, but once they saw Raymond’s shotgun he quickly understood. He soon joined C. P. Little on the floor.
Outside, J. M. Butler became suspicious after seeing the mud-covered Blue Plymouth sedan parked along the side of the bank. The rear window of the car was knocked out. Butler thought that it was possible that a machine gun was probably concealed in the rear. This suspicion prompted Butler to grab a gun and enter the bank.
During this time, Clyde was busy emptying the vault, which left Raymond alone to guard the hostages. J. M. Butler entered the bank, but wasn’t prepared for what greeted him as he walked through the door. Raymond was waiting, and after promptly relieving Butler of his gun forced him to join the others on the floor.
In all, the robbery probably took less than fifteen minutes. Clyde and Raymond exited the front of the bank with $1,500 and ran down McKenna Street to the waiting car. Anticipating a lengthy chase and possible gunfight, they stopped briefly to put the front windshield down so they could shoot their guns if they needed to. Joe Palmer was already on the move when Clyde and Raymond jumped in the car.
Having been notified of the robbery, E. G. Goodnight, president of the bank at the time, accompanied officers as they chased the bandits. The chase lasted around ten minutes before the officers gave up chase. It soon became obvious that Clyde had lost them somewhere in the hills near Wister.
Several days after the robbery, Zadoc Harrison discovered the blue Plymouth one mile north of Page, about 300-400 yards from the road. In typical Bonnie and Clyde fashion, Bonnie was probably stationed outside of the town with the getaway car.
A week after the Poteau robbery, the group returned to Iowa where they robbed another bank in Knierim and got away with $307. For the next four months, Bonnie and Clyde would continue petrifying the Midwest.
Their final demise would come four months after the robbery in Poteau. Bonnie and Clyde’s reign of terror ended with a bloody shoot-out on May 24, 1934, when the couple were ambushed and gunned down in Gibsland, Louisiana.
Ted Hinton and Bob Alcorn were two officers that were involved in the ambush. According to their statements, "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."
Amidst the lingering gun smoke, the officers inspected the vehicle and discovered an arsenal of weapons including stolen automatic rifles, sawed-off semi-automatic shotguns, assorted handguns, and several thousand rounds of ammunition, along with fifteen sets of license plates from various states.
In August, 2013, Sugarloaf Mountain Productions began filming the "Clyde Project". The Clyde Project is a historical reenactment of the Bonnie and Clyde bank robbery in Poteau, Oklahoma. Beginning with their arrival in Poteau, the film starts out by portraying how life appeared in town during the early 1930s. This segment was filmed in front of the LeFlore County Museum at the Hotel Lowrey and only features a couple minutes worth to give the impression of downtown life. Following the introductory establishing shot, Sugarloaf Mountain Productions then directs the film towards the robbery in Poteau. The reenactment follows the events as close as possible with few artistic embellishments. In addition to the Bonnie and Clyde bank robbery reenactment, the movie also features different stories about Poteau's history.
The cast and crew are as follows:
Bonnie Parker......Sarah Bennett
Clyde Barrow.......Andrew Billy
Ray Hamilton.....in bank w/ clyde Buck Jordan
Joe palmer.........clydes driver/Brandon Michael Weaver
Pat Fulson....... .on floor w/little/Joseph Autry
J.M. Butler........armed enters bank/Harry Alvin Keaton Jr
E.G. Goodnight.....bank pres/Michael Davidson
Police Officers....David Evans/David Deaton/Bill Bennett
Zadoc Harrison.....Dave Sims/finds car abandoned
C. P. Little.......customer/on floor/Keith Clark
May Vasser.........cashier/Jennifer Fox Davidson (in chair)
W. A. Campbell.....cashier/on floor/Lance Hammon
Producer........Carolyn Sue Glover
Asst Director.......Donna Deaton
1st Camera/Jib..........Steven Sewell
2nd Camera.......Stephen Schneider
Gaffer/Best Boy............Scott Clark
2nd Assistant Director.....Abigail Davidson
Prod Assistant...........Eric Standridge/Location Mgr
Director's Assistant............Holly Hope/clapperboard
Art Director........................Billy Spearman
Clapperboard...............Justine Evans/tech assistant
Set Decorator(s)...........Poteau Main Street Matters (Eric Standridge), LeFlore County Museum at the Hotel Lowrey (Diane Wright, Randy Bridgman, Richard, Lorie Rutledge)
All props were designed and constructed by Sidewinder Signs.
To learn more about Poteau's history, visit the Passport to the Mountain Gateway.
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© 2011 Eric Standridge