DECATUR, Ill. — Running public relations interference for Bonnie and Clyde sounds like a bit of a long shot.
But Decatur man Charles Flynn is very well-armed: A fascination with the bloody story of the first couple of crime and an encyclopedic knowledge of every aspect of their tragic trajectory makes him a fearsome advocate.
He starts out by making no apologies for Bonnie Elizabeth Parker and Clyde Chestnut Barrow. From 1932 to 1934, they were part of an ad hoc gang of outlaws that robbed and shot its way from Texas to Minnesota in a crime spree involving stores, gas stations and, surprisingly, not many banks.
The tally of deaths attributed to them numbers about 12, cops and civilians, plus various kidnappings.
"They were criminals, there is no arguing to that," says Flynn, 53. "And people died at their hands. But Bonnie and Clyde didn't do near as much as the police and media wants to say they did. And it was the Depression, people had nothing, they were starving to death. Bonnie and Clyde gave away money to help people pay for food, money to pay their mortgages. They supported a lot of people and, if you can't put food on the table, you might do desperate things, too."
Flynn begins his tour of the softer side of mayhem by carefully pointing out that there is no evidence Parker ever shot anybody. The police would later find pictures of her posing with guns while chomping a cigar and the prospect of a pretty, 4-foot-10 and 90-pound gun-toting femme fatale made the newspapers of the day hyperventilate.
"But whenever there was a robbery, she was either in the getaway car or back at the hideout," Flynn says. "There is word, however, that she was one helluva good gun reloader."
For Barrow, who began his crime career stealing poultry as a kid, it's clear he did kill people, including policemen. The best Flynn can do here is to say that Barrow only tended to shoot his way out when cornered, which he was several times but escaped, and that other gang members were responsible for several killings later laid at his door.
"He didn't enjoy killing, he hated it, and would go to great lengths to keep from shooting," Flynn adds.
He talks of these things while showing visitors around the "man cave" in his home on Decatur's southern edge: The walls are filled with pictures of the outlaws and the interior space dotted with period items such as police-style cameras, a melted-down piece of a confiscated Thompson submachine gun, models of vehicles the couple drove and lurid newspaper accounts of their bloody demise in a hail of bullets in 1934.
A stickler for detail, Flynn even commissioned a dressmaker to sew an exact, to-scale replica of a dress Parker is seen wearing in some of the most famous photographs of her. Nearby in another glass case is a small square of dark cloth with a certificate of authenticity signed by Barrow's sister, Marie Barrow. "This woolen swatch was cut from the trousers worn by Clyde Barrow at the time of his death, May 23, 1934, in an ambush near Gibsland, Louisiana," the certificate states. Flynn paid about $200 for it in 1995 and says he's seen others go for more than $500 on eBay.
He also explains that he has read just about every book, more than 40, and just about anything ever written about Bonnie and Clyde and can answer any trivia question you can dream up. Other questions aren't so easy. "Why am I so fascinated with them? I still really don't know," he says. "Just something about them."
But he does know when the fascination started. At the tender age of 10, he was visiting the Illinois State Fair and there, as a traveling step-right-up-folks-and-take-a-long-look exhibit, was the bullet-riddled "Death Car," the 1934 Ford FordorV8 that Barrow was driving while his true love rode shotgun, but not literally, when they were shot to pieces in that May 23 ambush by police.
"I stood there and I looked at that car for about an hour," Flynn says. "They fired 167 bullets at the vehicle and Bonnie actually took more of them than Clyde; he took 50 and she took 53. I couldn't stop staring at that car, and my mom had to drag me away."
He talks on and the conversation gradually circles back to the inescapable conclusion that Bonnie and Clyde robbed for a living and people died as a result. But Flynn's background narrative about the Depression and its deprivations and miseries, and the sometimes shameless keenness of law enforcement, aided by a salivating media, to give the public an evil crime dragon worth the slaying, keeps blurring the edges of the official black and white history of cops and robbers, good guys and bad guys.
David Lewis is a friend of Flynn who has seen his memorabilia collection, heard his arguments and been persuaded there is a lot more to the truth behind Bonnie and Clyde than we usually hear.
"I don't think Bonnie and Clyde would have existed without the Depression and what that did to people," Lewis says. "Charles just wants people to know the truth about them; he has no ulterior motive, it's just a kind of truth-will-set-you-free sort of a thing. I mean, he says there were 25,000 people at Bonnie Parker's funeral; if you think about it, that's an incredible number."
Why did they come? Flynn says some were sightseers, the same type of people who were stripping souvenirs from the "death car" within hours of the killings, including one man who even tried to hack Barrow's trigger finger off until he was stopped by police. But many others at the funerals (Barrow's attracted a crowd of 15,000) felt genuine emotion, Flynn says, for a couple who rose up out of hard-scrabble Depression deprivation and acted on impulses many understood and appreciated, even if they could not condone.
As for the couple themselves — he was 25 when he was killed, she 23 — fathoming why they stayed together in their life of crime is no easier than defining Flynn's fascination with it. Living on the run was often miserable, and there were rumors Parker was 2½ months pregnant when she comingled her blood with her lover's on the front seat of that bullet-riddled '34 Ford. Flynn says Barrow had tried to persuade her to quit and go home several times, but she never left his side. Perhaps love conquered all, even as she must have known inevitable doom was all that awaited them in the form of police gunfire or the electric chair.
"Their life was what it was; they were trapped," Flynn says. "It had long since escalated into a situation they couldn't get out of."
Information from: Herald & Review, http://www.herald-review.com