In the aftermath of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker’s bloody two-year crime spree, the U.S. government put more than a dozen of their family members and friends on trial for helping the couple out. During his closing argument, prosecutor Clyde O. Eastus made a surprising allegation.
Pointing at Clyde’s mother, Cumie Barrow, Eastus roared: “She is the ringleader in this conspiracy!”
As the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas, Eastus likely was embellishing his point for the Dallas jury. He put Cumie front and center because she admitted meeting regularly with the fugitives and was known to provide them with food, clothing and other comforts.
But Eastus was on to something.
A new look at the Bonnie and Clyde’s history suggests that Cumie truly was the woman behind Clyde Barrow. Participant accounts and news stories from the time, including those saved in scrapbooks of the Dallas County sheriff, depict a mother who carefully managed her son’s image, winning his release from prison with little lies, spinning news reporters and likely making payoffs that helped extend his long run of robbery and murder.
To be sure, Cumie has always been a key character in the Bonnie and Clyde drama. But the typical narrative, as detailed by crime buffs, portrays her simply as a loving and protective mother who would do anything for her children. She was almost certainly more complicit than that.
Born Cumie Walker near Swift, Texas, in 1874, she married Henry Barrow just after she turned 17. She was far more literate than her husband, who had been sickly and never went to school. The couple spent most of their life farming, or trying to. Making a living off the soil was a challenge, especially as their family grew from one child in 1894 to seven by 1918. Cumie became savvy in survival skills.
A depression in farm prices after World War I forced Henry and Cumie to move in 1922 to Dallas, where Henry scraped out a living peddling scrap. By the time Clyde Barrow was in his mid-teens, he had given up on school and was working in a series of factory jobs. The low wages weren’t enough for the lifestyle he wanted. Before long, he added stealing to his skills—first metal items to help his father and then turkeys before advancing to car theft and break-ins. When the police in Dallas began to haul him to the station regularly for questioning, he took his trade to other Texas cities.
In early 1930, he met and fell head over heels for Bonnie Parker, an animated, petite blond who was separated from her teen husband. Just a few weeks later, though, Clyde was arrested and eventually sent to Waco, Texas, where he was quickly tried and convicted for several thefts and burglaries. Authorities in Houston then blamed him for a murder several months before.
With Clyde facing 14 years in prison and a murder charge, Cumie gave an interview to the Waco News-Tribune, insisting he was in Dallas, not Houston at the time of the murder. She attributed his troubles to falling in with a bad group of young men and noted, correctly, that he had previously been charged, but never convicted, of a crime.
She also told a whopper: “Clyde was just 18 last Monday.”
In fact, her baby-faced son was at least two years older than that—but she surely knew that the state tended to be more lenient with teens. (By most accounts, Clyde was born in 1909, meaning he had just turned 21. But the family Bible listed his birth year as 1910, which some claim is correct.)
The murder charge was dropped when another suspect emerged. But when Clyde arrived at the state penitentiary to serve his sentence, he listed his age as 18.
Cumie would keep up the age myth as she worked diligently to get Clyde released from prison.
She hired lawyers with money provided by her son Buck, Clyde’s older brother, who apparently got the cash by holding up filling stations and stealing company payrolls. Those lawyers wove a heart-rending tale, arguing that Clyde’s mother was a widow who truly needed his earnings. Cumie, however, wasn’t a widow; she and Henry had moved their tiny hand-built house to a West Dallas lot where Henry ran a modest filling station from a front room.
Either Cumie or her lawyers also collected recommendation letters from the sheriff who held Clyde in the Waco jail, the judge who sentenced him and other officials who supported his release. The state pardon board concurred, recommending his parole because “Barrow was only 18 years old when he got into his trouble,” and he would go home to support and care for his mother.
After his release in early 1932, Clyde did support his mother—though not in the way the state expected.
Within a year, Clyde was linked to at least four murders, some kidnappings, and all kinds of robberies. But his mother was quick to defend him. In an interview with Dallas’ Daily Times Herald, she portrayed him as a kind son who came by the gas station just after Christmas to give her a hug and kiss. She worried aloud that “We may hear any minute that he’s dead.”
Though he and Bonnie were known to stop by frequently, she denied he had participated in bank robberies or that he was a murderer. Tearily, she told the reporter about their conversation: “’Son, I said, did you do what they say in the papers?’ And he said, Mother, I haven’t never done anything as bad as kill a man.”
She said she didn’t know the young woman, “Bonnie,” who supposedly helped with the robberies, and she didn’t know if the young woman had been with Clyde.
“Everybody likes Clyde, you know,” she went on, sharing some family photos of her son. Looking at one of them, she sobbed. “Clyde…isn’t a… murderer,” she insisted.
A few months later, when her son was accused of new killing and kidnappings, she was weepy again when the sheriff, a deputy and a reporter dropped by. By then, both Clyde and Buck were “living on borrowed time,” she said, wiping her eyes. She prayed for their safety: “May God spare my boys!”
By July 1933, her son Buck was dying from injuries suffered in two shootouts, including a bullet that went through his skull. Cumie was bereft, driving to Iowa with several family members to be at his bedside. Even then, she stood by Clyde, refusing to urge him to turn himself in.
If Clyde surrendered, he would almost certainly be executed, she said, and if he didn’t, officers would likely shoot to kill. “So,” she told the Des Moines Register, “I’m going to let him live his last few days the way he wants to.”
Clyde and Bonnie would live almost another year—and Cumie may have been one reason why. The couple met regularly with her, calling occasionally, dropping by the station to chat and arranging meetings by tossing a soda bottle in front of the station with a note inside. At one point, Cumie kept a log of their visits on the wall of her tiny home, recording about 20 meetings between December 1933 and March 1934.
Perhaps Cumie’s most crucial role was as Clyde and Bonnie’s likely banker. Law officers believed that at least some of the couple’s ill-gotten gains were shared among the poor of West Dallas, both winning loyalty and silence when officers tried to interview them. Clyde didn’t hang around West Dallas long enough to pass around cash. But there is evidence Cumie had funds.
A manuscript written by Blanche Barrow, Buck’s wife, and published after her death details a family gathering in May 1933, after Clyde, Buck, Bonnie and Blanche had robbed a bank. Blanche and Bonnie both shared some money with their mothers, but the biggest amount by far—“a few hundred dollars,” equivalent to several thousand dollars today—went to Cumie.
Cumie and other family members purchased nice clothes for Bonnie and Clyde, but neither Cumie nor Henry showed signs of prosperity, staying in the small house and driving an old truck.
Some of the money may also have been used to pay off law enforcement. Though there is no hard evidence of that, buying police protection was common during the Bonnie and Clyde era, which overlapped with both Prohibition and the Great Depression. Officers had little formal training and were poorly paid.
Dallas police and the county sheriff’s office were especially inept in trying to catch the fugitives during their two-year run, only occasionally watching the Barrow station, despite Bonnie and Clyde’s routine visits, and once, failing miserably in an attempt to ambush them.
After Buck died, the Barrow family waited to buy a headstone for his grave, knowing that Clyde would soon join him in death. In an ambush on a dusty rural road in northeast Louisiana, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow violently met their end on May 23, 1934.
In early 1935, federal officials indicted a number of their family members and gang members for harboring the criminals. Cumie was charged, but not Clyde’s father Henry. After closing arguments, the all-male jury found everyone guilty. Even though prosecutor Eastus had condemned Cumie Barrow, Judge William Atwell struggled to sentence her, an indication of her influence.
“Perhaps sixty days in jail will suffice,” the judge told Cumie. Then, he asked, “What do you think of the sentence? Is it fair?”
Her eyes red from crying, Cumie looked at him, her hands clasped together.
“Judge,” she implored, “won’t thirty days be long enough? I am needed at home.”
“Thirty days in jail,” the judge replied.