In the movie The Highwaymen, Bonnie and Clyde were surrounded by bystanders in a city and people were waving at them as if they were movie stars.

Is this historically accurate?

The narrative is that Bonnie and Clyde never robbed from the poor, only from the rich and banks, so that average Joes and Janes welcomed them and adored them. Given back that then social media and digital photos were not a thing, how would average Americans know what they looked like? And why would people adore them knowing they had murdered policemen as well?

  • 3
    Photography, newspapers and newsreels existed - Wikipedia "The Barrow Gang subsequently became front-page news throughout America."
    – Paulie_D
    Nov 9, 2023 at 12:34
  • 2
    Nothing has changed. "Outlaws" have always held a fascination to the public. Search Youtube for Ted Bundy, Jeff Dahmer, Richard Ramirez trials. The courtrooms were packed and they had groupies that adored them. They constantly received fan mail in prison. It doesn't matter their crimes. If they are in the public eye for a crime, they will fascinate the public and have a fan base. Nov 9, 2023 at 13:16
  • 1
    Mike Royko did a column about the real Bonnie & Clyde and the effect they had on people's lives. You can find it here or at some links about halfway down this page.
    – Kyralessa
    Nov 9, 2023 at 18:29
  • @steelersquirrel - public fascination with serial killers causes them to read books about them and watch documentaries, not cheer for them on the street. From Wikipedia about Richard Ramirez's capture: "he attempted to carjack an unlocked (car) but was pulled out by angry residents ... Ramirez ran across the street and attempted to take car keys from (a woman). (Her husband) witnessed the attempt and struck Ramirez over the head with a fence post. A group of over ten residents formed and chased Ramirez down Hubbard Street in Boyle Heights. They restrained Ramirez and relentlessly beat him." Nov 9, 2023 at 20:37
  • 1
    @steelersquirrel - the OP is asking about the accuracy of the scene in the film of Bonnie and Clyde being surrounded by (random) bystanders in a city who are waving at them as if they were movie stars. The fact that outlaws have always held a fascination to the public isn't the same thing as celebrating them. The fact that some sick people idolize modern serial killers doesn't make the depiction in the film of ordinary people cheering Bonnie and Clyde accurate. Nov 10, 2023 at 5:03

2 Answers 2


Bonnie and Clyde's fame was actually very short-lived and soon turned into infamy, but during a time of economic sorrow, the public's fascination with this duo, stimulated by the publication of photos of their extravagant lives and the unfolding of their provocative story, gained them considerable notoriety.

In 1933, after a police raid forced them to flee their hideout in Joplin, the police found, among other things,

a handwritten poem by Bonnie, and a camera with several rolls of undeveloped film. Police developed the film at The Joplin Globe and found many photos of [Clyde] Barrow, [Bonnie] Parker, and Jones posing and pointing weapons at one another. The Globe sent the poem and the photos over the newswire, including a photo of Parker clenching a cigar in her teeth and a pistol in her hand. The Barrow Gang subsequently became front-page news throughout America.

The photo of Parker posing with a cigar and a gun became popular. Jeff Guinn, in his book, Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde, noted:

[..] the Joplin photos introduced new criminal superstars with the most titillating trademark of all—illicit sex. Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were wild and young, and undoubtedly slept together.

In this Washington Post article, Guinn expands on this:

The photos were given to a local newspaper and used for a wanted poster. Once they hit the wire services — the pre-Internet in many ways — newspapers across the country printed them, as did true-crime magazines.

They wanted to cram as many Barrow Gang stories into their publications as possible before the cops inevitably caught the kids and ruined a good story line,” Guinn wrote.

This was because

Bonnie and Clyde’s exploits took place during the Great Depression, when people were beleaguered. Newspapers, themselves trying to survive, figured out that readers were tired of stories about the miserable economy.2

The fact that Bonnie and Clyde robbed banks during the Depression's bank panic garnered them some popularity:

Several criminals operating during the Great Depression, including Bonnie and Clyde, became famous as “Robin Hood” figures who struck back against the banks that many considered to be oppressive.3

But the "ten or so"1 banks they robbed were often small rural banks, and their gang actually preferred to rob funeral homes, shops, and gas stations along backwater streets, thus targeting small local businesses.

Eventually, the cold-bloodedness of their murders opened the public's eyes to the reality of their crimes, and led to their ends.

[..] the massive negative publicity increased the public clamor for the extermination of the Barrow Gang.1

In the film, in Coffeyville, Kansas, the car and its inhabitant, having parked behind a drug store, are being recognized by a young woman, who immediately fetches her friends. Soon the place is crowded with young people, a "goddamn fan club", who apparently want their picture taken with the famous couple. I believe this is the scene you refer to in your question.
While Bonnie and Clyde were, like any fad, popular for a while, there is no record of this or similar events happening, and the whole situation seems highly unlikely to me. The Highwaymen makes use of artistic freedom to dramatize the story, and Hamer and Gault never actually ran into Bonnie and Clyde until the very end.

On the 23rd of May, 1934, right after Parker and Barrow had been killed by the six lawmen that had fired around 130 shots (167 according to other sources) at the Ford V8 they were driving, the car wreckage at the side of a country road gathered a crowd:

Nearly everyone had begun collecting souvenirs such as shell casings, slivers of glass from the shattered car windows, and bloody pieces of clothing from the garments of Bonnie and Clyde. One eager man had opened his pocket knife, and was reaching into the car to cut off Clyde's left ear.1

The depiction towards the end of the film of the crowd surrounding the vehicle as it's being towed into the town of Arcadia, and picking at it like vultures would a carcass, is very credible.

But their demise kept attracting attention:

More than 20,000 attended Parker's funeral, and her family had difficulty reaching her gravesite.1

As for their 'Death Car':

Like the legend of Bonnie and Clyde, the car has survived as a grotesque symbol of fame.2

1: Bonnie and Clyde; Wikipedia

2: Bonnie and Clyde were Depression-era Kardashians: A source of public fascination; Washington Post

3: Bonnie and Clyde; Brittanica

  • You have presented evidence that much of the public was interested in hearing about Bonnie and Clyde, and we know that especially with Hollywood's help in 1967 they have been glamorized, but I don't see anything indicating that they were celebrated by the public during their crime spree. The Washington Post article is behind a paywall so I can't read the quote in context. Do you have any information that would help answer the OP's question, "Bonnie and Clyde were surrounded by bystanders in a city and people were waving at them as if they were movie stars. Is this historically accurate?" Nov 10, 2023 at 5:41
  • @StevePemberton Thank you for the feedback; I'll look into it more. But it might not go beyond simple recognition: people had seen them in papers, they were larger-than-life characters, and presented (themselves) as an inseparable couple despite their incessant persecution.
    – Joachim
    Nov 11, 2023 at 11:41
  • Joachim - it's an interesting question because I assume we don't have archival footage of Bonnie and Clyde moving past random bystanders, so the scene is an artistic interpretation. As is most of any docudrama, and we accept that. But the interpretation makes implications about how the public felt about B&C, and I am interested to know how much of the portrayal is based on factual data about public reaction at the time, and how much was influenced by current perceptions of B&C. Some films purposely shatter public preconceptions, others go along with it, telling the story that people expect. Nov 11, 2023 at 12:08
  • @StevePemberton I agree, and I wonder if this depiction was perhaps a little too much influenced by the 1967 film, which apparently romanticized them more than their real life accounts. Then again, I have actually yet to see the scene the OP is referring to, and I wonder if they misremember one of the last scenes, where the couple's car is towed into Arcadia.
    – Joachim
    Nov 11, 2023 at 12:31
  • 1
    Joachim - the additional research that you added definitively helps to answer the question, thanks. In a comment by @Kyralessa there was a link to an L.A. Times article when the 1967 movie came out, addressing the controversy about how the Barrows were portrayed. Doesn't give much additional info since it was all interviews with family of the victims, who naturally didn't agree with the film's portrayal. But the quotes by producer Warren Beatty (who of course also starred in the film) are interesting, if somewhat vague, as he dismisses the "old maids" who have a problem with it. Nov 12, 2023 at 13:34

How would average Americans know how they looked like?

At this time, newspapers were printed up to three times a day, with morning, midday and evening editions. They needed to tell stories, lenghty ones, stories that "average american people" would read and read again. Even if they had to twist events and truth, they wrote again and again to sell paper and ink, not quality. Tabloïds still do the same nowadays. And criminals are still very popular in the USA today.

There are few couples who have made headlines in quite the same way as Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. The two criminals are known for a series of bank robberies, murders, and kidnappings that took place between 1932 and 1934, the height of the Great Depression. Library of Congress

They became one of the first outlaw media stars after some photos of them fooling around with guns were found by police, and the myth-making machine began to work its transformative magic. Soon fame would turn sour and their lives end in a bloody police ambush, but their dramatic and untimely end would only add luster to their legend. Biography

And why would people adore them knowing they had murdered policemen as well?

As they were famous, hitting the headlines many many times, people started to view them as "heroes against the machine".

The legendary quality of Barrow’s and Parker’s careers is not difficult to understand, given the extreme desperation of the times. Their crime spree occurred at the height of the Great Depression, which hit particularly hard in states such as Oklahoma. Several bank robbers during this period became famous as “Robin Hood” figures who struck back against the banks, which many people viewed as oppressive. Britannica

Until the true nature of their crimes was revealed, they remained "heroes". Then, it slowly switched to rejection. Even after that, for some people, like serial-killers, they still had fans.

A complete digest of their story at The crime museum.

  • No question they were infamous, and the public was interested in hearing about them, but do you know of any historical sources indicating that the public saw them as heroes? Nov 10, 2023 at 5:13
  • @StevePemberton: there were more than 4.000 people going to the funeral, according to the sources I read/give. At that time, it seems like a good hint. You don't buy papers all the time, don't go to the funeral of people you dislike/hate.
    – OldPadawan
    Nov 10, 2023 at 5:53
  • OldPadawan - normally yes, for Elvis and Rudolph Valentino it meant they were adored by the public at the time of their death. But according to Wikipedia, "the massive negative publicity increased the public clamor for the extermination of the Barrow Gang", "Public hostility increased five days later, when Barrow and Methvin murdered (a) 60-year-old Constable, "The Dallas Journal ran a cartoon on its editorial page, showing an empty electric chair with a sign on it saying 'Reserved'...'Clyde and Bonnie'". The funeral attendance was likely because of the infamy, like visiting Lenin's tomb. Nov 10, 2023 at 6:31
  • Well, opinions vary. And quickly switch, like Chrissie Hynde sang, "it's a thin line between love and hate". They were first adored, then, when people realized the true nature of their crimes, were dispized. You'll still find people cheering and mourning them. Newspapers made them up to sell and invented their so called legend.
    – OldPadawan
    Nov 10, 2023 at 6:37
  • OldPadawan - photos of Bonnie and sensational stories of non-violent capers that appeared in the press generated interest and a somewhat non-judgmental public view of B&C. As you said this changed to disgust when B&C's violent cold-blooded nature became known. Yet as with Charles Manson 35 years later there was some public fascination. Hollywood films in 1958, 1967 and 2019 airbrushed out much of their sociopathic nature and added some charisma, which helped create a distorted perception of B&C as antiheroes, which morphed into a common belief that the public in the 1930's felt the same way. Nov 10, 2023 at 7:36

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .