The Joplin shootout that propelled Bonnie and Clyde to national notoriety
A fateful encounter
The five lawmen approaching the modest Carthage stone house in the old Freeman Grove neighborhood on Joplin’s south side 90 years ago thought they might be dealing with bootleggers.
The warrant they were carrying authorized a search for liquor inside the dwelling at 34th Street and Oak Ridge Drive, according to a news account of the day based on testimony at a subsequent inquest.
State troopers had been tipped to the presence of a car with no license plates in the garage beneath the living quarters of the house that matched the description of one involved in a burglary at a milling company in Neosho.
Patrolmen W.E. Grammer and G.B. Kahler were joined by Joplin Detectives Harry McGinnis and Tom DeGraff and Newton County Constable J.W. “Wes” Harryman in a second police vehicle as they pulled up to the address.
A deadly encounter
Little did they know they were about to run into the famed gang of brothers Clyde and Buck Barrow in the midst of their four-year crime spree and that it would cost McGinnis and Harryman their lives.
A man later identified as Buck Barrow was closing the garage doors as the lawmen arrived. Harryman jumped out and ran toward the garage, only to be felled by a blast from a sawed-off shotgun. Moments later, as McGinnis attempted to knock the glass out of the garage door to return fire, he was dropped by a second blast from a shotgun stuck through a crack in the door that practically severed his arm.
DeGraff, Grammer and Kahler sought cover behind some trees and unleashed a barrage of gunfire into the garage until DeGraff finally shouted to Grammer: “For God’s sake, call the station.”
Grammer ran to a nearby residence to call for help as the occupants of the address responded with a fusillade of automatic weapon fire. A car that had been backed into the garage to facilitate a quick escape burst out minutes later, knocking a police car aside as it headed east on 34th Street and turned south down Main to make a getaway.
An eyewitness account
“It looked like it was a Model A Ford with a rumble seat,” eyewitness Clarence Day recalled many years later of the fleeing vehicle that came whizzing by a nearby residence where he and his kid brother watched the April 13, 1933, shootout with the Barrow gang, despite their mother’s pleas that they step back from their window vantage point.
Day recalled how the owner of a service station in Redings Mill told how the car was traveling so fast it almost overturned negotiating the S curve just before the bridge there.
Blood drops discovered at the scene indicated that one of the gang members may have been wounded, a suspicion corroborated to some extent by the account of a witness who reported seeing at least one man driving the car and a second man and a woman in the backseat, with that man hunched forward as if he were injured.
Kahler later said that the state troopers had received prior reports of three men and two women staying at the address, with two or three vehicles there with different states’ license plates. He also believed that he may have shot one of the men during the exchange of gunfire because he saw him drop his gun.
Investigators came to believe that those staying at the house in Joplin at the time, besides the Barrow brothers, included Clyde’s girlfriend, Bonnie Parker; Buck’s wife, Blanche; and the gang’s 17-year-old sidekick, W.D. Jones.
Parker left her camera behind in their haste to leave. Film recovered from that camera and developed by the Globe contained, among other widely published photos, the iconic shot of Parker posed with one foot up on the front bumper of a car, gun in hand and a cigar in her mouth.
Up to then, the Barrow gang was not that well-known outside of Texas and Oklahoma. They had been using Missouri as something of a hideout and vacation spot. It was not until after the shootout that local law enforcement came to realize that they were responsible for a robbery in December 1932 of a bank in Oronogo by bandits armed with shotguns and submachine guns during which shots were exchanged with a cashier.
The Joplin shootout and shootouts in Platte City and Dexter, Iowa, raised their exploits to a level of notoriety commensurate with other outlaws of the period, from “Pretty Boy” Floyd to John Dillinger.
Buck Barrow and his wife had joined up with his brother, Parker and Jones less than a month before the Joplin shootout. They were both wounded in the shootout in Platte City in July of the same year. Buck Barrow’s wound was mortal, and he died a few days later when shot again several times in Iowa.
His wife recovered from her wounds and ended up serving a 10-year sentence in Missouri for the attempted murder of a sheriff in the Platte City shootout.
Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker died on May 23, 1934, in a hail of bullets fired by law enforcement officers from Texas and Louisiana on their car during an ambush south of Gibsland, Louisiana.
They had killed 11 people, including the two lawmen in Joplin, in a little more than two years’ time.
About the Author
Jeff Lehr is a reporter for The Joplin Globe.
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