Original publish date: October 17, 2019
There have been some changes to my “Bonnie and Clyde” story series in the years since I first wrote it. Some nationally, others personally. This past September, my wife and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. For our milestone anniversary we visited Las Vegas, Nevada. Which is an odd choice since neither of us gamble. Oh sure, we visited many casinos, but mostly just to say we did it. The casinos on the strip are slick and flashy and a must see but our favorites were the old casinos on Fremont Street where the Vegas legend was born. They ooze with historic personality and, in my opinion, are the real attraction for history loving visitors to “sin city”.
One of those “must see” old timey casinos is located about 30 miles southwest of the Vegas strip in a desert town called Primm, Nevada not far from the California border. Known as “Whiskey Pete’s”, the casino covers 35,000 square feet, has 777 rooms, a large swimming pool, gift shop and four restaurants. The casino is named after gas station owner Pete MacIntyre. “Whiskey Pete” had a difficult time making ends meet selling gas, so he resorted to bootlegging and an idea was born. When Whiskey Pete died in 1933, he was secretly buried standing up with a bottle of whiskey in his hands so he could watch over the area. Decades later, his unmarked grave was accidentally exhumed by workers building a connecting bridge from Whiskey Pete’s to Buffalo Bill’s (on the other side of I-15). According to legend, the body was reburied in one of the caves where Pete once cooked up his moonshine.
Oh, I forgot to mention that Whiskey Pete’s is also home to the Bonnie and Clyde death car. As detailed in part III of this series, the car has had a long strange trip to Primm. The bullet-ridden car toured carnivals, amusement parks, flea markets, and state fairs for decades before being permanently parked on the plush carpet between the main cashier cage and a lifesize caged effigy of Whiskey Pete himself. According to the “Roadside America” website, “For a time it was in the Museum of Antique Autos in Princeton, Massachusetts, then in the 1970s it was at a Nevada race track where people could sit in it for a dollar. A decade later it was in a Las Vegas car museum; a decade after that it was in a casino near the California / Nevada state line. It was then moved to a different casino on the other side of the freeway, then it went on tour to other casinos in Iowa, Missouri, and northern Nevada. Complicating matters was the existence of at least a half-dozen fake Death Cars and the Death Car from the 1967 Bonnie and Clyde movie (which was in Louisiana and then Washington, DC, but now is in Tennessee).” Just in case of any remaining confusion, the Primm car is accompanied by a bullet riddled sign reading: “Yes, this is the original, authentic Bonnie and Clyde death car” (in all caps for emphasis).
The car is encased in a glass cage and guarded by reconstituted department store mannequins dressed as the famous outlaw couple. And, after 85 years, the bullet holes, shattered glass and torn interior are just as shocking to our eyes as they were to those of our Great Depression ancestors. The doors are permanently shut (so there’ll be no more sitting), the bloody upholstery is long gone and covered by plastic and the steering wheel’s bakelite outer casing has been torn to pieces by long dead souvenir hunters . The car’s Swiss cheese exterior is still impressive and cringeworthy, even if you can’t stick your fingers in the holes. The walls surrounding the death car are festooned with authentic newspapers detailing the outlaw lover’s demise and letters vouching to the vehicle’s authenticity. Cases contain other Bonnie and Clyde relics like a belt given by Clyde to his sister and classic candid photos of the star-crossed lovers and their families.
The car is a must see, but my interest was equaled by the presence of Clyde’s shredded death shirt, peppered by innumerable ragged holes both front and back. A nearby placard proclaims: “Marie Barrow [Clyde’s sister] has personally signed the inside hem of the shirt to attest to the garment’s authenticity,” while another reads: “Bloodstains are evident throughout the shirt,” it continues, although time has faded them considerably. A closer examination of Clyde’s blue shirt (adorned by a repeated pattern of white snowflake flourishes) attests that the diminutive desperado wore a size 14-32. Sadly, try as I might, I was unable to view the object of my search: the Indianapolis H.P. Wasson’s department store tag. Amazingly, the shirt remains mostly intact. Although cut at the shoulders (giving the shirt a rather macabre looking superhero cape appearance) only a few of the buttons are missing and the single pocket that once covered the law breakers heart is unscathed. The exit hole in the back of Clyde’s collar is sure to elicit a gasp when the viewer realizes that this was the death shot, the one that severed Barrow’s spinal cord.
A movie, obviously created many years ago, recreates the event using newsreel footage, landscape photography and contemporary interviews with family members and eyewitnesses. Here, it is revealed that the shirt was found, decades after the outlaw’s death, secreted away in a sealed metal box along with Clyde’s hat. The film itself has become a piece of Americana and the images of Bonnie’s torn and tattered body left twitching in the car, resting silently mere yards away, are equally breathtaking. Nearby, although not nearly as shocking as the Bonnie and Clyde death car, another bullet-scarred automobile is on display. This one first belonged to gangster Dutch Schultz and later, Al Capone. Signs around the car proclaim that the doors are filled with lead and, judging by the pockmarks of the bullets denting the exterior, it is true. Although, like every casino, Whiskey Pete’s job remains separating gamblers from their money, both cars are on display 24 hours a day for free.
Just in case you find yourself in Las Vegas and want to take a side trip to see the death car, there is another stop along the way that is a must see for history-loving Hoosiers. In between Primm and Vegas lies a mostly abandoned mining town (population 229) known as Good Springs. The town is home to, according to legend, the oldest saloon in the state: The Pioneer Saloon (built in 1913). This is the saloon where Clark Gable spent 3 days slamming beers after receiving word of the plane crash and while awaiting confirmation of the death of his beautiful wife, Fort Wayne native Carole Lombard. The 33-year-old actress was the highest-paid star in Hollywood in the late 1930s. She died while returning from a war bond tour in Indianapolis on board TWA Flight 3 when the plane slammed into Mount Potosi, which is easily seen in the distance.
The interior of the Pioneer Saloon remains unchanged. It is easy to imagine Gone with the Wind star Gable drowning his sorrows at a rickety table or bracing himself against the cowboy bar and it’s brass boot rail. Ask and the bartender will point out the cigarette burn holes in the bar caused by Gable when he passed out from a mixture of grief and alcohol during his somber vigil. The tin ceiling remains as do the ancient celing fans (it gets HOT in the desert) and the walls are peppered with bullet holes left by cowboys who rode off into the sunset generations ago. The bar’s backroom is a shrine to the Lombard / Gable tragedy but sadly most of the relics on display there are modern photocopies and recreations. Locals claim that Carole Lombard’s ghost haunts the saloon in a desperate attempt to contact her grieving husband. The saloon is also reportedly haunted by the ghost of an old “Miner 49er” who appears drinking alone at the far end of the bar before vanishing into thin air. Millennials flock to the bar as the birthplace of the game “Fallout: New Vegas” which also has a small shrine located there.
Ironically, in the years since I wrote this series and during the month of our 30th anniversary visit, Bonnie and Clyde have populated the headlines once more. On September 20, 2019 several personal items related to 1930s Texas outlaw were sold by a Boston auction house for nearly $186,000. The Bulova watch that Clyde wore when he and Bonnie Parker were killed sold for $112,500 (it had given to his father, Henry Barrow, after he retrieved his son’s body). A sawed-off shotgun that was used by the Barrow gang in 1933 sold for $68,750. A draft of a Dallas police “wanted” poster for Barrow sold for $4,375, a bullet-proof vest used by the gang sold for $ 30,000 and a bloodied bandage from the Barrow Gang sold for $3,000.
The Western Field Browning Model 30 shotgun had been found after a gun battle that left two lawmen dead. On April 13, 1933, five lawmen assembled outside 3347 ½ Oakridge Drive in Joplin, Missouri to confront what they believed were bootleggers operating out of an apartment above the garage. Instead, they quickly discovered that they were up against the Barrow gang. While Bonnie, Clyde, and their associates escaped, they left behind almost everything they owned at the time: Bonnie’s poems, a bevy of weapons, and several rolls of undeveloped film. Those photos, featuring images of the nattily dressed couple clowning for the camera by pointing various weapons at each other, hit the newspapers and firmly established the myth of Bonnie and Clyde as star-crossed lovers on the run. The couple would be killed a year later.
After the shootout, Detective Tom DeGraff found the shotgun in the Joplin garage, and took it home as a souvenir. When he registered it under the National Firearms Act in 1946, he included an affidavit noting its origins. What’s more, the same shotgun can be spotted in images printed from the film rolls left behind at Joplin. In one photograph, it leans against one of the Barrow Gang’s cars. In 2012, the same auctionhouse sold several of Clyde’s guns for hundreds of thousands of dollars, including a 1911 Army Colt 45 Pistol for $240,000. This pistol was removed from Clyde’s waistband after the duo was gunned down by lawmen in 1934. Frank Hamer, the leader of the ambush that killed Bonnie and Clyde, kept it as a trophy.
That September 2012 auction also included Bonnie Parker’s Colt Detective Special .38 revolver, carried by her at the time of her death. A notarized letter, dated December 10, 1979, spectacularly identified this gun by stating, “My father removed this gun from the inside thigh of Bonnie Parker where she had it taped with white, medical, adhesive tape. My father said that one reason she had the gun taped to the inside of her leg was that, in those days, no gentlemen officer would search a woman where she had it taped.”
Included with this gun and mentioned in this letter is a framed handwritten note from Frank Hamer, written on the back of an old Texas Ranger Expense Account form, reading “Aug/1934 Davis hold onto this. Bonnie was ‘squatting’ on it. Frank.” Many of the guns carried by Bonnie and Clyde ended up in the possession of Texas Ranger Captain Frank Hamer as an unexpected bonus for his service. Hamer was promised that he could take anything the outlaws had in their possession at the time of their capture.
Other auction items included five original items collected off the floor of Bonnie and Clyde’s car: a woman’s silk stocking stained with blood on the foot and leg area, an unused .45 caliber bullet and casing from the Peters Cartridge Company with the date of 1918, a side temple from a pair of eyeglasses, a small wood-handled flathead screwdriver measuring 4 1/2″ long and an empty Bayer Aspirin tin; all of which sold for $11,400. This lot was accompanied by a notarized affidavit from the woman whose grandfather originally acquired these relics directly from the ‘death car’ after receiving permission to take them. Letter reads, in part: “My grandfather, Zell Smith, was a traveling hardware salesman who traveled that area of north Louisiana. He was also a friend of Sheriff Henderson Jordan. My grandfather was in Arcadia in 1934 on the day that the ambushed car was pulled into Arcadia. He, like many others, rushed to see the shot up car, and Sheriff Henderson let him and others that he knew ransack the car for souvenirs. My grandfather grabbed a handful of stuff off of the floor of the car, which the outlaws had been living in. He said the car was full of trash.”
Last month’s auction included a little black book of 10 poems that Bonnie wrote in 1932 while jailed in Texas for a bungled hardware store robbery. Five of the poems were original compositions drawn from her life on the run with the Barrow Gang. The titles reflect the female outlaw’s life at that time: “The Story of ‘Suicide Sal,’” “The Prostitute’s Convention,” “The Hobo’s Last Ride,” “The Girl With the Blue Velvet Band,” and “The Fate of Tiger Rose.” Bidding for Bonnie’s poetry book reached about $25,000 before the lot was withdrawn by the consignor.
During the Great Depression, some viewed the duo as near folk heroes, like Robin Hood and Maid Marian. And, although Hoosier outlaw John Dillinger reportedly once told a reporter that Bonnie and Clyde were “a couple of punks”, he and his fellow gang member Pretty Boy Floyd reportedly sent flowers to their funeral homes. The Barrow gang killed a total of 13 people, including nine police officers. They finally met their match on May 23, 1934, when six police officers ambushed them and shot some 130 rounds into the car. Dillinger outlasted Bonnie and Clyde by about two months – he met his maker on July 22, 1934. Truth is, proceeds from auctions of items associated with these outlaws over the past two decades (which number in the millions of dollars) far outdistance the proceeds of all of their robberies combined.
For my part, when we told our 25-year-old son about our anniversary trip to Las Vegas, he remained nonplussed by saying, “I would only want to go out there to see a town called Primm.” To which we said “been there, done that.” His reply, “I’d also like to go to a little town called Good Springs.” We answered, “Been there too.” He concluded by saying he’d like to see an old dive bar named the “Pioneer Saloon.” He was shocked when we said we went there too. Of course, the reason he wants to venture out there is video game related, not history related. Nonetheless, he was chagrined by our answers. I guess we old folks aren’t so square after all.