Clyde Barrow knew Eastham prison farm well, and considered it to be a “hell hole.” With some of his partners in crime, including Bonnie Parker, the ex-convict hatched a plan to gain a measure of revenge against the hated facility.
by John Neal Phillips
Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow sat in their Ford V-8 coupe on a quiet Texas country road on Saturday evening, January 13, 1934. They were waiting for Floyd Hamilton and an ex-convict named Jimmy Mullens to return. The two men had slipped through the barbed wire perimeter surrounding Eastham prison farm, part of the Texas Prison System, to hide an old inner tube beneath a drainage culvert near the prison’s camp 1. Inside the tube were two Colt .45 automatics and several clips of ammunition, placed there in preparation for a jailbreak planned for January 16. At one point the camp dogs started howling and barking in their kennels, but the guards paid no attention. Hamilton and Mullens rejoined Bonnie and Clyde a few minutes later. Barrow then drove to Dallas and dropped off Hamilton, but he kept Mullens in the car so he could keep an eye on him. He didn’t trust Mullens.
Floyd Hamilton returned to Eastham the following day for his regular biweekly visit with his younger brother, Raymond, who was serving 266 years in prison for auto theft, armed robbery, and murder. During that visit, Floyd filled Raymond in on the details of the proposed prison break.
On Monday, an inmate named Aubrey Skelley set out to retrieve the weapons. Skelley was a building tender, a trusty position that allowed him to move about the prison with a certain amount of freedom. He managed to smuggle the inner tube into the camp 1 dormitory and deliver it to Joe Palmer. Palmer, serving 25 years for robbery, hid the inner tube and its contents in his mattress. (Other sources swear the guns were hidden in one of the brush piles Eastham work squads would clear the next day.)
Word that the break would take place the following morning reached the two other prisoners who would take part–Henry Methvin, serving 10 years for robbery and attempted murder, and a killer named Hilton Bybee.
Tuesday January 16 dawned damp and chilly. A thick fog rising from the nearby Trinity River blanketed the countryside. South of camp 1, Parker, Barrow, and Mullens waited in a thickly wooded area on the edge of a country road. By the dim filtered light of early morning, they could see a clearing in the trees to the north, just beyond a creek that cut across the road.
Barrow and Mullens got out of the car and walked toward the clearing. Parker stayed in the vehicle. Barrow carried a Browning automatic rifle capable of firing a 20-round clip of 30.06 armor-piercing shells in less than three seconds. The two men crouched along the creek bank and waited. Through the morning haze, they detected movement, followed by voices and the sounds of tools and horses. Two work crews of prisoners, combined because of staff shortages, slowly moved toward Barrow and Mullens, spreading out and getting down to the business of clearing the brush piles in preparation for spring planting and cutting wood to stoke the camp stoves. Among the workers were Hamilton and Palmer, both of them armed and dangerous, and both of them aware of who was waiting not far away–Bonnie and Clyde.
In the span of 18 months, starting in the summer of 1932, Bonnie and Clyde had become inseparable and somewhat legendary–not for their robberies, which were mainly petty thefts involving grocery stores and filling stations, but as dangerously tenacious and wily fugitives. By the time the couple arrived at Eastham on that January morning in 1934, Barrow had shot his way out of numerous confrontations and had been linked to the deaths of five lawmen and several civilians.
Texan Clyde Barrow was born near Telico in 1910, according to the Barrow family Bible. Bonnie Parker was born the same year in Rowena, Texas. The pair met in early 1930 at the home of a mutual friend in West Dallas. Bonnie– blue-eyed, small, and slim with reddish-blond hair and a good sense of humor–immediately caught Clyde’s eye. Bonnie, in turn, was attracted to the 5′ 6″, dark-haired, headstrong young man. They began seeing each other regularly. Barrow was already heavily involved in an interstate crime ring, and within a few weeks police arrested him at Bonnie’s home. He was subsequently sentenced to 14 years in the Texas State Penitentiary for two counts of burglary and five counts of auto theft. After a few months in Huntsville prison, Barrow was transferred to the 13,040-acre Eastham prison on the Trinity River 20 miles north of Huntsville.
Barrow called Eastham “that hell hole,” and for good reason. He saw prisoners beaten by guards, stuffed in tin sweat boxes under the blazing sun, and murdered, sometimes for the $25 reward for the capture of escaped prisoners, other times for revenge. It made Barrow so angry that he immediately began conspiring with another prisoner, 19-year-old Ralph Fults, to one day get out of prison, raise a gang, and return to Eastham. “I’d like to shoot all these damned guards and turn everybody loose,” he told Fults. Along the way, the two men decided to break out buddies Palmer and Methvin, who were also housed in Eastham. Bybee, who arrived later at Eastham, was added to the conspiracy as a favor to Fults. Raymond Hamilton wasn’t even in the picture initially. But that would soon change.
Due to prison overcrowding, Fults and Barrow received conditional pardons, in August 1931 and February 1932 respectively. They met up again in West Dallas and began recruiting a gang for the prison raid, first approaching a friend of Barrow’s, 18-year-old fugitive Raymond Hamilton. At first he agreed to take part, but after the men staged several successful robberies to finance the raid, Hamilton took his cut and backed out. “I don’t care about no cons on no prison farm,” he said.
On April 19, 1932, Fults was shot and captured during a gun battle in Kaufman County, Texas. Bonnie Parker was captured too, but Barrow escaped. Fults pleaded guilty to auto theft and armed robbery in exchange for Bonnie’s release. Bonnie, still an unknown, was set free and quickly rejoined Clyde. Fults once again returned to prison.
That summer Raymond Hamilton briefly rejoined Barrow. He was arrested in December and began serving a lengthy prison term at Eastham. Barrow held a grudge against Hamilton for backing out of the proposed Eastham raid, and the irony of Hamilton’s incarceration there no doubt struck the sometimes laconic Clyde as funny.
Several others floated in and out of the so-called Barrow gang throughout 1933, most notably Clyde’s older brother Buck, Buck’s wife, Blanche, and another character named W.D. Jones. Between April and July the five outlaws were involved in a number of widely publicized incidents, including four gun battles that resulted in the deaths of three police officers. Then Buck and Blanche were captured in Iowa, and Buck died just a few days later from wounds received in a previous gunfight. Jones left the Barrow gang in August, and police arrested him a few weeks later near Houston.
As Christmas came and went, Barrow’s thoughts turned again to the idea of raiding Eastham. Someone else was thinking about the raid too–Eastham inmate Raymond Hamilton.
A 48-year-old eight-time loser named Jimmy Mullens, about to finish a three-year sentence for burglary, bunked next to Hamilton at Eastham. Raymond promised Mullens $1,000, payable after his escape, if he would find Barrow and arrange to have a number of weapons planted in the prison farm compound. Once released on January 10, 1934, Mullens went immediately to Floyd Hamilton’s West Dallas home to ask for help locating Barrow. Floyd had a clean record at the time, but he listened to the plan. Later that same day he took Mullens to meet with Bonnie and Clyde.
Barrow hesitated about getting involved. Something bothered him–Jimmy Mullens. Barrow had known Mullens in prison and remembered him as an unreliable and unpredictable drug addict and stool pigeon. Looking at Mullens, Barrow could think of only one thing–he was being led into a trap. Finally he agreed to help with the raid–but only if Mullens took part. “I’ll help you out, but I want Mullens to plant the guns himself,” Barrow declared. Mullens stiffened. “I’m not doing it alone,” he said. Turning to Floyd, he demanded, “You’re coming with me.” Floyd reluctantly agreed.
Then late in the evening of January 13, 1934, Bonnie and Clyde dropped off Hamilton and a trembling Mullens less than a mile from the main prison compound of Eastham’s camp 1. Three days later Barrow and Mullens were waiting in the early morning fog for the prison break to begin.
The routine at Eastham was that a group of guards collectively called “the shotgun ring” oversaw each work squad, while a “long arm man,” a guard on horseback armed with a high-powered rifle, positioned himself at a distance from the detail. According to the instructions of Colonel Lee Simmons, general manager of the Texas Prison System, the mounted guard “had no duty except to stay well clear of the convicts and be in the background ready with his Winchester in case of excitement.” Should a convict break past the shotgun ring, the long arm man would pick him off. That’s the way it was supposed to work. Prisoners Raymond Hamilton and Joe Palmer knew that one of Eastham’s more notorious long arm men, Major Crowson (Major was his given name, not a title), routinely disregarded the policy. Crowson had a reputation for leaving his post to beat prisoners. In fact, Palmer had once received a severe beating from Crowson.
On the morning of the break, Raymond Hamilton “jumped squads,” meaning he left his 16-man work crew and joined the crew that included Palmer, Bybee, and Methvin. Guard Olan Bozeman, assigned to Palmer’s squad, noticed Hamilton’s presence even before the inmates started for the fields from camp 1. Hamilton and Palmer suspected that would happen but figured Bozeman would delay taking any action until he was in the field. Once there, out of earshot of the main camp, he would probably summon Crowson to help him deal with Hamilton. Sure enough, Bozeman called Crowson over as soon as the work crews arrived in the field. As the two guards conversed, Palmer strolled up to them as if he wanted to ask a question. Instead, he pulled out a weapon. “Don’t you boys try to do anything,” he said.
There are conflicting reports about what happened next. Some witnesses said Palmer deliberately shot Crowson for revenge; others claimed Crowson fired the first shot. Another source quoted Palmer as saying, “I told the guards to sit still. Don’t move and there won’t be no shooting. I really thought the guards would stick their hands up.”
Regardless, at some point Palmer shot Crowson in the stomach. Mortally wounded, the guard turned his horse around and rode back to camp 1 to sound the alarm. Palmer then fired at Bozeman but missed. Bozeman pulled a pistol and returned fire, but his bullet only creased Palmer’s temple. Palmer fired again. This time the bullet struck Bozeman’s holstered shotgun and sliced deep into his hip. Bozeman and his mangled weapon fell to the ground. Meanwhile, Raymond Hamilton was fumbling around in the mud. In the excitement he had accidentally ejected the clip from his own weapon.
At that point Clyde Barrow, still concealed in the nearby creek, stood up and fired a volley from his automatic rifle over the heads of everyone in the field. Guards and prisoners alike dived for cover. Back in the car, Bonnie Parker leaned on the horn to signal the escaping men. Palmer, Hamilton, Methvin, and Bybee began running south toward the sound.
Two guards ran away, completely deserting their posts and Bozeman. They were found hiding 500 yards from their squads. Only one guard, Bobbie Bullard, stood his ground, perhaps preventing a mass escape. “The first man to raise his head will have it blown clear off!” he shouted.
Nevertheless, one other convict managed to flee. J.B. French, serving time for robbery, attempted murder, and auto theft, ducked into the underbrush until things quieted down, then slipped into the woods. Guards recaptured him shortly after midnight. French knew nothing of the escape plan and didn’t even meet those responsible for his brief taste of freedom.
Police later recovered the escape car from a ravine 10 miles northeast of Hugo, Oklahoma, shortly after the robbery of a nearby filling station. By then, Crowson had died from his wound, and state officials were publicly questioning the prudence of placing convicts like Raymond Hamilton and the other escapees on a prison farm so accessible to the likes of Bonnie and Clyde.
Lee Simmons, profoundly embarrassed by the raid, responded by firing the two Eastham guards who fled under fire. He also told the dying Major Crowson that he would be “resettling accounts . . . . Those fellows had their day. We’ll have ours. I promise I won’t let them get away with it.”
It didn’t take officials long to decide that Bonnie and Clyde were behind the break. “It is just a natural conclusion that [it was] his [Raymond Hamilton’s] former partner,” said Simmons. “And if Barrow was there, then Bonnie could not have been far away.” And, of course, he was right.
Hilton Bybee was recaptured on January 30, 1934, two weeks after the break. In 1937, he escaped again from Eastham. Later that year an Arkansas posse shot and killed him.
Raymond Hamilton and Joe Palmer were recaptured separately and returned to prison. Palmer was tried and convicted of the murder of Major Crowson. Hamilton was tried as a habitual criminal. Both men were sentenced to death.
Jimmy Mullens was the state’s key witness against Palmer and Hamilton and received immunity from prosecution. But in 1938, a judge sentenced him to 75 years in prison for a $36 holdup.
On July 22, 1934, Hamilton and Palmer escaped from Huntsville’s death house, creating nationwide headlines and further embarrassing Lee Simmons and the Texas Prison System. The embarrassment was short-lived, however, for both fugitives were soon recaptured and returned to Huntsville. On May 10, 1935, they died in the electric chair.
Floyd Hamilton received two years in Leavenworth prison for harboring Bonnie and Clyde. After his release, he embarked on a bank-robbing spree, and in 1938 police captured him in Dallas. Floyd was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 55 years in prison. In 1940, he was transferred to Alcatraz, where he tried to escape. The attempted jailbreak cost him nine years in solitary confinement. In 1958, after being incarcerated for 20 years, Hamilton was released from prison.
For Bonnie and Clyde, the Eastham break meant the beginning of the end. On February 1, 1934, 17 days after Crowson’s death, Simmons met with Frank Hamer, a tough 49-year-old retired Texas Ranger. “I want you to put Clyde and Bonnie ‘on the spot’ and then shoot everyone in sight,” he told Hamer. Simmons then told the ex-lawman he had been commissioned as a state highway patrolman. Hamer took to the road within 10 days. Before long he was on his way to Bienville Parish, Louisiana, where Henry Methvin’s parents lived. There, Hamer met with the local sheriff, Henderson Jordan. The sheriff told Hamer that an intermediary named John Joyner had approached him on or about March 1 to let him know that, in exchange for a pardon from the state of Texas, Henry Methvin would deliver Bonnie and Clyde to the authorities. Sheriff Jordan soon delivered a pardon agreement to Joyner.
On May 21 Joyner contacted Hamer with the ambush details. Henry Methvin would find some pretext to part company with Bonnie and Clyde, knowing that the outlaws would plan to rejoin him at his parents’ home. Hamer and five other law enforcement officers would hide by the side of the graded road leading to the Methvin’s house and wait for Bonnie and Clyde to drive up. After two days of waiting–on May 23, 1934, at about 9:10 a.m.–Hamer’s team heard the steady roar of a rapidly moving vehicle. They knew that only Clyde Barrow would hurtle along a country road at such speed. As the tan Ford V-8 sedan approached, Bob Alcorn, the only officer who could identify Barrow on sight, called out quietly, “It’s him, boys. This is it–it’s Clyde.” As added insurance, Henry’s father also signaled his recognition of the fugitives. The officers opened up with a deadly fusillade. When the shooting stopped, Bonnie and Clyde were dead. Both had been shot more than 50 times.
An Oklahoma court later tried and sentenced Methvin to death for the killing of police officer Cal Campbell, a murder Methvin committed after making the pardon agreement. The court commuted his sentence to life, however, when officials disclosed Methvin’s part in the Bonnie and Clyde ambush. In April 1949, after Methvin’s release from prison, an unknown person knocked him unconscious and placed him on a Louisiana railroad track. A passing train cut the informer in half.
With the ambush of Bonnie and Clyde and the execution of Raymond Hamilton and Joe Palmer, Colonel Lee Simmons had fulfilled his promise to the dying Major Crowson. He had indeed “resettled accounts.”
John Neal Phillips is the author of Running with Bonnie and Clyde: The Ten Fast Years of Ralph Fults, University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.