Wednesday 8 March 2023
Currently on display at Moyse’s Hall Museum, and kindly loaned from the Scott collection as part of the Museum’s 'Conflict' exhibition, is this Baby Colt Slide-Action 'Lightening' Rifle. A gun more commonly associated with bringing down large game, this one has the dubious, but fascinating distinction of allegedly being one of the six issued to The Texas and Louisiana State Rangers in their ambushing and slaying of the notorious American criminals Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker on the morning of 23 May 1934.
Picture: Geoff Price
For tickets and to find out more about the exhibition, visit our Conflict exhibition page, and for a synopsis of the history of Bonnie and Clyde, read on…
Both in their early twenties and possibly more synonymous with Depression Era crime than the likes of Panzram or Capone, Bonnie and Clyde’s lives (and deeds) were very quickly immortalised by the ferocity with which those same lives were terminated. Graphic autopsy photographs, immediate aftermath news footage, and then romanticised (and glamourised, as true crime so often is) in the 1967 Oscar winning biopic with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. Their lives were the typically bleak ones of two working-class children growing up (separately) in post-World War One, working class American society. Bonnie seems to have eschewed something more than her married life and circumstances, possibly a victim of manic depression. On the other hand, the fifth born of seven slum-living children, Clyde easily adopted to a life of petty crime from his teenage years. By the time the two met in 1930 Clyde had a slew of petty crimes and criminal experience under his belt. Bonnie had experienced the neglectful monotony of married life (for three years) and the bleary prospects of the not so “Roaring Twenties” for a working-class woman in America.
The couple’s turning point from petty criminal and disaffected mistress would be Clyde’s imprisonment for car theft in 1930. This time his incarceration was marked by a failed escape attempt, repeated sexual assault (which led to his taking the perpetrator’s life), his first murder, and desperate self-mutilation to relieve his situation until he was granted parole in 1932. These experiences marked Clyde Barrow’s full conversion to a life of homicidal brutality and revenge, and Bonnie Parker liked it. It would be a lifestyle funded by murderous robberies.
By the time 'Unsanctioned' Lethal Force was determined against the pair, Clyde had 16 warrants, four of which were for murder across no less than four states.
The use of the word 'unsanctioned' here is crucial to the provenance of this gun. The rifles were issued to prison guards who unlike the police did not then need permission to take the life of criminals, because their targets would have already been convicted of their crimes (as opposed to untried and suspected). The eight Baby Colt Lightnings were issued to Texas Ranger Frank Hamer and his posse, at his behest, by prison chief Lee Simmons; gladly compliant with the request, so as to avenge the break-in and break-out of his Eastham prison in Texas by the Barrow gang. When the deed was done, probably due to this 'unsanctioned' element, the Governor refused to accept the guns’ return in order to absolve himself of his complicity. Therefore, all eight guns made their way to the English estate of Lord Iveagh in Elveden as part of his 'Duleep Singh' gun room (we all have one!), and ultimately into private ownership, as this one did.
Why did Hamer choose an unauthorised gun and an illicit amount of force to end the careers of Bonnie and Clyde? Firstly, any notion of a 'Robin Hood' perception of the two’s behaviour had publicly dissipated, if it had ever existed, because of their indiscriminate brutality. Secondly, some of their victims were Lawmen, and no Police Force anyway has ever accepted this. Thirdly this rifle, issued with .50 calibre armour-jacketed rounds could bring down elephants and stop motor cars. And perhaps finally, when your opponent’s favourite weapon of choice is a .30 calibre firing Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), supplemented by Thompson machine guns and pistols, some thought needs to be applied!
To ensure success, and to mask the bullet hole evidence of the use of these rifles, the six rangers were also issued with shotguns and pistols. On the morning of the 23 May, concealed in bushes along the Louisiana state highway, the six rangers lay in wait for their prey.
The subsequent autopsy reports are, like the rangers accounts, also a little obfuscating (to the extent that an unproven assertion that Bonnie Parker was pregnant at the time of her death is maintained, though not present in the report).
The result was conclusive, however.
With two bullet holes to his head, one penetrating the left side above the ear and exiting the right side, again above the ear, and one above the left eye, several in his shoulder, knee and ankle, the seven small bullet holes around the knee, most likely pistol fire, and a 'great hole' in his back, clearly indicates which weapon was responsible for which wound to Clyde Barrow. One ranger testified to his instant death from a head shot.
Bonnie, who allegedly was heard to scream as the car went past under the hail of fire, had bullet wounds to her head, chest, thighs and knees; one bullet entering the left side and exiting the right side of the jaw, both pellet (shotgun) and bullet shots in her back. Between an estimated (by the rangers present) of 130 and a 118 (independently revised) shots were fired by the lawmen. The victim’s faces lacerated by glass and metal, and fingers hanging off. There endeth the lives of Bonnie and Clyde.
Whilst you can make the trip to Primm Casino in Nevada and see for yourself the awesome result of such firepower on what remains of the couples’ Ford V8 (the 50. Calibre rounds were so powerful in some cases they passed through the two criminals and out of the other side of the car!). Or you can make the journey to their side-by-side burial in the Western Heights cemetery in Texas, for the brief period from now until 23 April you can see an alternative piece of associated ‘Criminalia’ at Moyse’s Hall Museum – A Baby Colt Lightening Rifle used in the demise of two of America’s once 'most wanted'.
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