In Robert Arrington’s review of The Highwaymen on this site, he laments the cult that idolized this murderous couple in their day, and wonders if much has changed.  There is more to the fascination, then and now, with these two than just the “Robin Hood” and “stickin’ it to the man” memes (which was also falsely attributed to the James & Younger gang of the previous century) and, as Eastwood’s character in The Unforgiven observed; “Deservin’s got nothin’ to do with it.”

First, there is the “star-crossed lovers” angle (though Bonnie was married to someone else serving time, and wore his wedding ring up to the day of her famous death). This was amplified by Bonnie’s poetry, which was discovered in one of their hideouts, and made public. They make sport of it in this movie – and she was no Whitman or Longfellow – but it ain’t half bad if we’re honest, especially for common folk:

Someday they’ll go down together, and they’ll bury them side by side;

To some it’ll be grief; to the law a relief,

But it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde.

There were also the photos of the couple larking about, with guns and cigars as props, which were also unfortunately released.

Then there is Clyde’s expertise with the latest technology, and his famous letter to Henry Ford thanking him for the production of the V8 engine – the fastest stock engine on the road at the time – also made public. It was not a good idea to engage in a car chase with this couple anyway; Clyde had customized a Browning automatic rifle (B.A.R.) for Bonnie. She was less than five feet tall and didn’t weigh a hundred pounds soaking wet, so he shortened the barrel and stock, and created a sling to help with mobility and recoil. While he drove, she could open up on full auto with a 20 round clip, firing long-range .30 ’06 ball cartridge rounds. Since it became clear Clyde would not go back to prison, had murdered law enforcement officers, and had such tools at his command, it is no wonder there would be no call to surrender. If the opportunity arose, they were to be shot on sight (not something law enforcement would get away with today).

As for the infamous Eastham Prison in Texas – often blamed for transforming Clyde from just a common petty thief to a hardened psychopathic killer – Clyde famously got his revenge by a raid on the facility that broke out two allies, one of whom would ultimately betray him. There are echoes here of Bob Ford’s betrayal and killing of Jesse James. Ford was “the dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard, and laid poor Jesse in his grave.” Betrayal is always grist for the popular imagination.

Finally we have the spectacular death of Bonnie and Clyde – “spectacular” in its literal sense, as spectacle. There were 107 bullet holes in that car by the time they were finished. Then they towed the car, bullet-riddled bodies and all, through a public place.

So how do we avoid, or at least mitigate, the idolization of today’s murderous psychopaths?  There are several ways, and we are seeing some of them in the latest Poway synagogue shooting in San Diego.  Keep the mention of the killer’s name and personal details to a minimum. Concentrate on the heroism of those who intervened (there are two very brave men who did so in this case, and a woman who laid down her life to save her rabbi). Focus on results of the shooting that are contrary to the killer’s demented purpose, such as the coming together of the community and acts of love towards his intended victims.  It does little good to focus upon the evil of the perpetrator; evil carries with it its own fascination.  Better to point out what a pathetic, cowardly loser he is.  The modern mass shooter has none of the excuses offered for Bonnie and Clyde (Great Depression and all that).  They have most often failed to make any kind of life for themselves in a society that has the greatest opportunities in human history. And for God’s sake, don’t make a spectacle of them.


Photo by QuesterMark

Photo by CheepShot