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Learn our History Today — The Opelousas Connection to Bonnie and Clyde

Featured Photograph: Bonnie and Clyde photo that was widely circulated across the US in the early 1930s.

Carola Lillie Hartley
Publisher and Contributing Author

May 23 – Learn Our History Today: On May 23, 1934, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, a.k.a. Bonnie and Clyde, were killed on a rural road near Arcadia in Bienville Parish, Louisiana, by a posse of Texas and Louisiana law officers led by former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer. (Did you know the pair had a connection to Opelousas?)

The two outlaws had come into contact with one another years earlier when Bonnie’s husband was serving time in jail for murder, and they quickly developed a close relationship. When Barrow was later arrested for robbery, Parker came to visit him at every available moment. Later, she even helped smuggle a gun into the jail for him to use in an escape. Unfortunately for Barrow, that escape would prove unsuccessful.

When Barrow was released in 1932, he and Parker teamed with a group of relatives and old friends to form what was collectively known as the Barrow gang. Together this gang robbed a string of banks and stores across the South and Southwest. They were known by the police to be cold blooded killers who wouldn’t hesitate to kill anyone who got in their way, especially law enforcement.

In contrast, to the public the Barrow gang’s reputation as dangerous outlaws was infused with a romantic view of the group as Robin Hood-esque heroes of the people. However, as more and more bodies began piling up in the robbers’ wake, the public began to see them for what they really were, criminals.

Experienced Texas Ranger Frank Hamer was called out of retirement and tasked with tracking down the outlaws. Hamer used his skills to track Bonnie and Clyde to rural Louisiana, where the relatives of one gang member resided. Hamer and a posse of law officers waited in ambush along a country road where they knew Bonnie and Clyde would pass. They were armed to the teeth with automatic rifles, pistols, and shotguns. They would take no chances.  As the outlaws’ car sped toward them, the lawmen opened up – spraying the duo’s car with more than 150 bullets, killing them both instantly. The two reportedly had as many as fifty bullet holes each.  (From Learn our History – This week in history.)

Bonnie and Clyde’s Connection to Opelousas
Did you know Bonnie and Clyde had a connection to Opelousas? Yes, and this is how that story goes:

It was early May 1934, a pleasant morning in Opelousas, and the town seemed calm and peaceful.  As the story goes, when Mr. Welch approached the Shute’s Drug Store building, where his Star Barber Shop was located, on the corner of Landry and Court streets, a car drove up.

Star Barber Shop to the right in the Shute Drug Store Building during the early 1940s in downtown Opelousas.

The 1934 Ford parked on Landry Street right in front of the barber shop. A young man jumped out and asked if he was the barber. Mr. Welch replied yes. The man demanded a shave.  Mr. Welch was very surprised at the request, and glancing towards the car he spotted a small, petite woman sitting in the passenger seat with a machine gun on her lap. She picked up the gun and told the barber the man meant what he said. Fumbling for his keys, Otis opened the door to oblige his first customer of the day.

As the barber prepared to give the man a shave, he looked out the window to see what the woman was doing.  By then she was standing in front of the car, holding the gun, keeping lookout.  Welch began shaving her companion.  No words were spoken.  With a lot of care, he hurried to get the job done.  Soon, it was over.  The man reached in his pocket to pull out money to pay.  Mr. Welch told him not to bother, the shave was on the house. With that, the stranger walked out the door. He yelled to his women friend to get going. The car, with wheels squealing, sped off, turning onto Court Street and headed north.

Mr. Welch just scratched his head. He was sure he knew those two people. He had seen their pictures on a wanted poster in the post office, just across the street, and read about the two in the newspapers. He could not believe that he had just shaved outlaw Clyde Barrow, as his girlfriend Bonnie Parker stood watch.  And he survived the ordeal!

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were an interesting pair. The two were wanted for murder, kidnapping and robbery. They had been the subjects of a nation wide manhunt by the Bureau of Investigation, today called the FBI, since May of 1933.

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow

Bonnie Parker, born on October 1, 1910 in Rowena Texas,  stood 4’11″, weighed 90 pounds, had strawberry-blond hair, was freckle-faced and, according to those who knew her, was very pretty. She was a good student in school, excelled in creative writing, and interested in the arts. She loved hats of all kinds, and her favorite color was red; a color that dominated her wardrobe. Her father died young and her mother moved the family to Cement City, Texas. At age 16 she married an immature, uneducated man who went to jail a year later, tried and convicted of murder. In order to survive she became a waitress. Bored and poor, she felt life had something more to offer.

Clyde C. Barrow stood 5’7,” weighed 130 pounds, had slicked back brown hair, which he parted on the left. His eye color matched his hair. He was one of many children born to dirt-poor parents barely making a living on the cotton fields of Teleco, Texas.  His family eventually moved to the Dallas area, where his father ran a gas station, He and his large family all lived in a crowded tiny back room of that station. Clyde quickly learned to hate poverty. Bored and poor, he too knew life had more to offer.

It seems Bonnie and Clyde were meant for each other. The pair met in Texas in January 1930. Bonnie was 19 and married, but her husband was in prison. Clyde was 21 and unmarried. Soon after they met, Clyde was arrested for burglary and sent to jail.  He escaped, using a gun Bonnie smuggled to him.  He was recaptured, and sent back to prison.  When he was paroled in February 1932, he rejoined Bonnie and resumed a life of crime. Their crime spree took them to several states.  By 1934, Bonnie and Clyde were believed to have committed 13 murders and several robberies.

On April 13, 1934, a federal agent obtained information that the pair was in a remote area in North Louisiana. Federal agents along with state and local law enforcement authorities worked together to apprehend the couple spotted at different places around the state during April and May.  According to the story, it was during this time that they ventured to the Opelousas area, ending up at Otis Welch’s barbershop, where Clyde received what was probably his last shave.

Soon after, on May 21, 1934, Bonnie, Clyde and some friends had a party at Black Lake, Louisiana.  Two days later as the couple were returning to their hide out, federal agents ambushed them.  Before dawn on Wednesday, May 23, 1934 the pair was killed in a shoot out on a dusty road near Arcadia, Louisiana.

News of the death of Bonnie and Clyde soon reached Opelousas, and stories of the pair dominated the conversation at the Star Barber Shop during the weeks that followed.

Otis Welch often recalled his encounter with Bonnie and Clyde. The Star Barber Shop, which he opened soon after he came to Opelousas in 1926, remained in business for many years following that much talked-about visit. After Welch retired in 1975, the barbershop finally closed in 1989.

And through all those years, over half a century of haircuts and shaves, many a tale was swapped between barber and clients, but none as intriguing as the story of the day Bonnie and Clyde came to Opelousas. It was the talk of the town!

Otis Welch pictured with a client in the Star Barber Shop in Opelousas in 1939. (Photo identified and dated by Mrs, Helen Welch, the wife of Otis Welch.)