Bonnie and Clyde in Springfield: Kidnapping, Robbery, and Tangible History
The Depression Era of the early nineteen-thirties is home to many enduring American stories. One of the most famous is that of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, the infamous criminal couple who robbed, kidnapped, and murdered their way across the central United States for several consecutive years before their eventual death at the hands of police. What many in Greene County may not know is that Bonnie and Clyde committed high-profile crimes in the area not once but twice during their years-long game of cat and mouse with law enforcement.
Both Bonnie and Clyde were Texans, and their brushes with criminality came early; Bonnie was married (not to Clyde) when she was 15, and her husband was frequently in and out of prison. Clyde began engaging in robbery and auto theft with his brother at age 17. However, it was not until after Clyde’s first serious stint in prison four years later that their serious criminal escapades began. He suffered intense abuse in prison and was motivated to get revenge on the Texas criminal justice system. They began to become more involved in robbery and eventually formed a gang with several other members including Clyde’s brother and his wife.
It was shortly before this that the criminal couple, accompanied by W.D. Jones, made their first notable visit to Springfield. Because of restrictions that prevented state law enforcement from pursuing criminals into other states, they favored state border regions such as the Ozarks. While they were in Springfield, a local police officer named Tom Persell pulled them over along the Benton Ave. Viaduct, now Martin Luther King Jr. Bridge. After stopping, Clyde responded by taking Officer Persell hostage at gunpoint and forcing him into the gang’s car.
For the entire day of January 26th, 1933, Persell accompanied the gang unwillingly, often serving as their navigator. They traveled around the Missouri Ozarks via backroads, visiting many of the towns around Springfield looking for cars to steal and filling up on gas, eventually ending up in Joplin. Persell described Clyde as a “dark-faced desperado,” Bonnie as “not the least bit beautiful” and their sidekick Jones as “a chunky thug.” He also said that they made use of constant profanity, carried large amounts of firearms and ammunition, and bummed cigarettes off of him.
In Joplin, after midnight, the gang finally let Persell go free. He contacted the Joplin police department and arranged a return to Springfield. His story made headlines, and he later went on to assist in the identification of Bonnie and Clyde after photos of them were discovered in a Kansas City hideout. He was also interviewed about his experience multiple times in the years after, until his death in 1989. His story has even been recounted by Springfield News-Leader as recently as 2020.
This memorable, though thankfully nonlethal crime was quite different from the couple’s second notable appearance in Greene County. On February 12th, 1934, Bonnie and Clyde stole a car from George Thompson on Walnut Street and drove out of town. The police began pursuit from Galena, Stone County, and the gang was stopped in Reeds Spring. The resulting shootout continued until the police, not the gang, ran out of ammunition, and the couple escaped.
This would be their last notable foray into the Greene County area. Around the same time, they began to be tracked by Texas Ranger Frank Harner, who led a group determined to kill or capture Bonnie and Clyde. A little over two months later, on the morning of May 23rd, they would be successful; Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were ambushed by six law enforcement officers from both Texas and Louisiana on the highway southeast of Shreveport. Here, the criminal couple finally met their end, not in a dramatic shootout but in a one-sided ambush. Their Ford V-8 was completely shot through and they both suffered numerous gunshot wounds without having a chance to fire back.
The story of Bonnie and Clyde is relatively short and quite bloody. However, it captured (and still captures) the imagination of the American public. There is a drama to the story of the destructive romance that bound Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow together in their crime spree and eventual self-inflicted death at the hands of law enforcement, so much so that there is still an ongoing effort to have them buried together.
However, Bonnie and Clyde were not only a story, they were also human beings, as were the people they killed, robbed, and abducted. The effects and artifacts of their activities live on right here in Springfield, Missouri. Tom Persell’s son still lives in town, and was interviewed about the story in 1999. George Thompson, whose car was stolen by Clyde Barrow, owned the Thompson Tire Company, which is now the Thompson Sales Company. With some dedicated research, you can visit the places where Persell attempted to pull the gang over, or the residence where Thompson’s car was stolen.
The ability to learn history not only as a series of facts and narratives but as a living part of our community is essential to the History Museum on the Square’s mission. Springfield is not just a place where history has happened, but its history is an integral part of the community. Come visit us, become a member, or sign up for our Haunted History tours to learn more about the criminal history of Springfield!
Endnote: While in historical writing, individuals are usually referred to by their last name, not first, in this article Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker are referred to by their first names because they are much more famous and easily recognized by most people than their last names.
Written by Catherine Kearbey, 2022.
Guinn, Jeff. Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde. Simon & Schuster, March 9th, 2010.
Pokin, Steve. “Ever heard about that time Bonnie & Clyde kidnapped a Springfield cop?” Springfield News-Leader, July 24th, 2020.
Wood, Larry. Lynchings, Murders, and Other Nefarious Deeds: A Criminal History of Greene County, MO. Hickory Press, 2021. pp. 178–187.
Photo courtesy of the Joplin Globe.