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Bonnie and Clyde gang gunned down lawmen 75 years ago

By: By Wally Kennedy

Someday they’ll go down together

And they’ll bury them side by side.

To few it’ll be grief,

To the law a relief

But it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde.

From the poem “Trails’ End’’

by Bonnie Parker

Buck Barrow had just been freed from prison.

He and his wife, Blanche, wanted to rendezvous at a secluded place with his brother, Clyde, and Clyde's girlfriend, Bonnie Parker. They chose a newly constructed apartment at 34th Street and Oak Ridge Drive as the place where the brothers would reunite.

On April 1, 1933, Paul Freeman, the developer of the Freeman Grove addition in south Joplin, was approached by a man who wanted to rent the apartment. The man introduced himself as W.I. Callahan, an engineer from Minneapolis, Minn.

The apartment, at that time, was on the outskirts of town, but it was two blocks from South Main Street.

For 12 days and nights, Bonnie and Clyde, the Barrows and an accomplice by the name of William Deacon “W.D.’’ Jones lived peacefully in the two-bedroom apartment. A delivery boy brought them groceries. The boy would later say the occupants of the apartment seemed like ordinary folks.

On April 13, their tranquil respite was shattered when a patrol car pulled up in front of the apartment’s garage doors. Five lawmen, tipped to the possibility that outlaws might be in the apartment, approached the dwelling. That would be a mistake.

Without warning, the outlaws opened fire. Harry McGinnis, 53, a Joplin detective, and John Wesley Harryman, 41, a Newton County constable, were shot. Harryman died instantly. McGinnis would die later. The other lawmen, Walter E. Grammar and George B. Kahler, both with the Missouri State Highway Patrol, and Thomas DeGraff, a Joplin detective, would survive the shootout.

The gang emerged from the garage in Clyde Barrow’s 1932 V8 Ford, but the patrol car was blocking the gang’s exit. One of them got into the patrol car and tried to get it to roll down the hill in front of the apartment, but couldn’t. They then rammed the Ford into the patrol car to move it out of the way. After that, they fled south on Main Street and eventually escaped through Spring City.

The 75th anniversary of the shootout was observed Sunday. Brad Belk, director of the Joplin Museum Complex, said the tragic deaths of McGinnis and Harryman will forever link Joplin and the apartment to two of the nation’s most notorious outlaws.

“What happened here on that day was front-page news across the country,’’ said Belk. “The horrific antics of Bonnie and Clyde provided readers a dialogue for conversation and an alternative to other topics of the day, including the despair and economic hardships of the Great Depression.’’

But it is the apartment that remains. It is one of the last existing sites that can be linked to the gang’s two-year reign of terror across the Midwest.

The apartment has an exterior of limestone rock. The garage below is concrete covered by limestone. An interior stairwell connects the apartment to the garage. The apartment has 19 windows that give elevated views of every direction. The garage has five windows. The garage doors had windows as well.

“Nobody was going to sneak up on you in this place,’’ said Belk. “It was a perfect place for them to hide out. The neighbors said they would back their cars into the garage so that they could make a quick getaway if they needed to.’’

Belk said the furnished apartment was a huge step up for the gang, which essentially had been living out of cars.

Historians now know the apartment was the rendezvous point for the Barrow brothers after Buck was released from prison. Buck’s pardon papers were found in the apartment after the gang fled Joplin.

The gang left behind most of their belongings, including guns, jewelry and a camera with two rolls of film shot by Blanche Barrow. When the film was developed by The Joplin Globe, all five gang members were pictured.

Among the photos was a snapshot of Bonnie with a cigar clenched in her teeth. She was holding a gun. It became the identifying photo of Bonnie, which she hated. She sent letters to several newspapers, noting that she had posed for the photos and did not smoke cigars.

Said Belk, “Blanche Barrow said she (Bonnie) was a hell of a loader, but never fired a shot.’’

Bonnie and Clyde continued their killing spree across several states before they were brought down on May 23, 1934, in a barrage of 167 bullets near Arcadia, La.

If you wanted to be a criminal in the United States, the era of Bonnie and Clyde in the early 1930s was the time to be one, Belk said.

“They had all of the offense, and there was no defense,” he said. “They stole V8 Fords, and they had better weaponry, like Browning automatics. They could outmaneuver and outgun the lawmen, who were handicapped by poor communication and restrictions about crossing county and state lines.’’

Belk said fascination with Bonnie and Clyde runs deep in the national psyche. Belk was invited to speak last September at a symposium on the gangsters in Platte City, where another infamous shootout took place.

“The man who invited me to speak said there would be 30 to 40 people there,” he said. “More than 600 people showed up.’’

Belk said two books are being released this year about Bonnie and Clyde. One of them, written by Pulitzer-prize-winning author Jeff Gwen, already has had advance sales of 100,000 copies.

The books will complement a series of 75th-anniversary events planned for this year. Joplin will stage such an event next month when Gwen will be invited to Joplin for a book signing. The apartment will be opened for public tours. Also during the event, a plaque will be placed at the apartment as a memorial tribute to McGinnis and Harryman.

Wally Kennedy writes for The Joplin (Mo.) Globe.