Japan had invaded China and captured the Great Wall. Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany was nearly complete. Revolt was raging in Spain. The Great Depression was in full swing. And Clyde Barrow was on the run with Bonnie Parker.
It was mid-January 1933 and Fort Smith was becoming a favored place of business for the Texas outlaws on the verge of national notoriety. In addition to stealing suits in Fort Smith, and later using a local tourist camp as a hideout, Clyde Barrow and his 17-year-old sidekick, W.D. Jones, also apparently robbed the Southern Cigar and Candy Co. at 814 Rogers Ave. while Bonnie Parker waited in the car on Jan. 18. A week before that, a newspaper article also reports suspects that resemble Barrow and Jones had robbed Sutton Chevrolet at 117 N. Seventh St. and the George H. Hickerson filling station at 19th Street and Grand Avenue.
Because of the relative anonymity of the duo outside of Texas at the time, historians are still connecting the dots of their crime spree between late December 1932 and late March 1933. They were known to be in west Dallas on Jan. 6 when Deputy Malcolm Davis was shot and killed by Barrow at Lillian McBride’s house in west Dallas. And on Jan. 26 they kidnapped officer Tom Persell in Springfield, Mo. But not much else is proven of their whereabouts in that time period until March 31 when they rented a house on Oak Ridge Drive in Joplin, Mo. for a two-week stay with Clyde’s brother Buck Barrow, having been recently released from prison, and his wife, Blanche, with her little dog, Snowball. The stay ended unexpectedly in a bloodbath and two more lawmen killed: Newton County constable John Wesley Harriman and Joplin detective Harry McGinnis.
With Fort Smith a hub of business for the region and a convenient location for border-hopping bandits, some of the breadcrumbs to Bonnie and Clyde’s location during that dark period can be found in local newspapers.
The morning of Jan. 19, readers of the Southwest American in Fort Smith woke up to read a rather inconspicuous front-page headline under a story about an animal trainer’s pet kitten saving him from a spider.
“Local Theft Nets Bandits $300 in Cash.” Subhead: “Employee of Southern Cigar and Candy Company Forced By Two Men and Woman To Open Safe of Concern.”
It wouldn’t necessarily stand out as a gripping story unless looking for clues to Bonnie and Clyde. But a few important details of the robbery stand out, including the fact the “woman, who, he said was about 19 or 20 years old, remained in an automobile parked at the curb,” the article says, quoting Southern Cigar and Candy Co. bookkeper Stanley E. Russell. He told police he was stopped by one of the two men at Carnall and Rogers avenues after he had closed the store on his walk back home to 2009 S. I St.
From the article: “Russell’s attempt to feign ignorance of the safe combination was met with a threat of death, he told officers. ‘We saw you when you closed up. You know it, and I’ll blow your brains out if you don’t open it,’ he quoted one of the men as saying.”
James R. Knight, an Alma native and author of “Bonnie and Clyde: A Twenty-First-Century Update” with historian Jonathan Davis, says this sounds a lot like the subjects of that book.
“The story says that the woman stayed in the car, which sounds right,” Knight wrote in an email. “Unlike the 1967 movie, Bonnie rarely if ever went inside on any of the robberies. She, and any of the other women who might be along, stayed in the car on a small ‘smash and grab’ job like the cigar store or outside of town with the real getaway car on a bigger, more planned bank job … The cigar store robbery itself sounds just like a spur of the moment ‘target of opportunity’ job that was Clyde's ‘bread and butter.’ Although they have been portrayed as bank robbers, for every small town bank that Clyde robbed, there were at least 10 more small jobs just like the cigar store that he did just to raise a few dollars to live on.”
The Southwest American article goes on to describe how Russell was followed closely by one of the men and called by name just before reaching Rogers and Carnall.
“He said he turned and saw a pistol pointed at him, and heard the man command him to return to the store,” the reporter writes. “At first, Russell said he attempted to convince the man he had no key and could not re-enter the building. Failing, he said he turned about and walked back to the store.”
The article goes on to report, “On the way back to the store, Russell said he saw the other man and the woman sitting in an automobile parked near the Fort Smith and Western railway tracks at the Rogers avenue crossing. They followed in the car, and the second man accompanied them into the store.”
The writer describes the cases of cigarettes being kept in a metal cage and Russell had to open it after “one of the robbers announced an intention of battering the locks off to open the door.” The five cases of cigarettes were valued at $50. After the robbery, Russell said the thieves hurried to the car and sped east on Rogers Avenue.
The morning of Tuesday, Jan. 10, about a week before the cigar-candy store robbery and four days after the shooting in west Dallas, the Southwest American reports of another robbery with details resembling traces of Barrow and Jones
“Bandits Busy In Fort Smith Monday Night: Two Young Robbers Hold Up Bookkeeper of Chevrolet Company and Take $1,816 In Currency and Checks.”
The article reports “Two debonair highwaymen” held up B.M. Moody at Sutton Chevrolet to get $500 in cash and checks totaling $1,200 the night before. The man carrying a nickel-plated automatic pistol was described as about 22 years old, 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds with a dark suit, gray hat, blue tie and black shoes. The bookkeeper was unable to describe the second man because he remained in the shadow near the door, the article states. Moody said he didn’t normally work at nights but had been sick and gotten behind in work.
Barrow’s October 1933 Wanted poster describes him as 5 feet, 7 inches 150 pounds.
The two escaped in small, black coupe parked at the curb outside the building.
“The robbers of the motor firm, both young and clad in fashionable clothing, strode into the company’s office while Moody worked over his books. No one else was in the building,” according to the article. “While one of the men stood guard near the door the other forced the bookkeeper to place the contents of the safe into a money sack. The safe was unlocked when the two entered.”
If it was Barrow and Jones, the bookkeeper certainly found them in a better mood than Russell at the Southern Cigar and Candy Co. Moody told police that although the robber at Sutton Chevrolet “kept him covered” he was “extremely polite.” It became well known that Barrow preferred Ford V-8s, which the company introduced in 1932, more than any car because they essentially allowed him to outrun police officers everywhere. So, if the robbery was being done by Barrow, it may come as no surprise that Moody saw him enjoying the crime a bit more than robbing a cigar and candy store.
At Hickerson’s filling station, the article reports of a “lone highwayman” armed with a revolver forcing the two sons of Hickerson to lie on the floor as he nabbed $13.50 from the register.
The Hickerson sons told police they were unable to see whether he was accompanied, but the loss of over eight gallons of gas from an outside pump led them to believe that a “confederate had filled the bandit car with gasoline while the robber was taking the money.”
In his search to substantiate Jones’ off-the-cuff comment to the FBI in 1933 that the suits he and Barrow wore in those famous photographs known as the “Joplin rolls” were stolen from a “tailor shop” in Fort Smith, local cross-country truck driver and Bonnie and Clyde sleuth Jeff Hill stumbled across an article about the Monroe Store at 803 Garrison Ave. in Fort Smith being robbed of eight men’s suits and many other items including nine pairs of shoes and several women’s dresses. However, the exact date of that article was not documented in his search. Attempts to locate the article in the microfilm archives have so far been unsuccessful. To line up with the timeline, it is thought the crime would have needed to happen late December 1932 and late March 1933 to be a legitimate claim to provenance. Jones told the FBI they took eight suits.
“Clyde took a blue suit which he used himself and gave Jones the suit with the wide stripe throwing the other six suits away,” the FBI report states.
A previous Times Record report on the suits theorized that the suits were stolen from a small tailor’s store downtown. But as noted by local historian Joe Wasson, small tailor shops usually only kept a small amount of suits that were done for their clients and these suits were most likely released to the customer soon after being completed.
The undated article found by Hill was headlined “Monroe Store Robbed By Skylight Burglars: $300 Worth of Merchandise Missing From Garrison Avenue Business After Closing Time Friday.” The thieves entered the building through the building’s skylight. H.A. Slack was the manager of the store and listed the items taken: Eight men’s suits; nine pairs of men’s shoes; several pairs of men’s underwear; nine women’s house dresses; nine silk dresses; and a quantity of women’s underwear.”
It was the second “skylight burglary” within a week, the other being at the Queen Quality Jewelry store, 920 Garrison Ave. when about $500 worth of merchandise was taken.