Monday, May 23, 2011

May 23, 1934 – Bonnie & Clyde Join Battle of Toledo

In a move that in some ways continued their murderous lives of crime and in others returned the air of Robin Hood with which they had surrounded themselves, notorious gangsters Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker joined the strike at the Auto-Lite factory in Toledo, Ohio. Their encouragement of heavy weaponry and fearlessness turned what was largely a riot into an unstoppable force that would firmly establish a federation of unions as the major political force in the United States.

Bonnie and Clyde reportedly first met at a mutual friend’s house in the slum of West Dallas in 1930. Bonnie, nineteen at the time, was staying with her friend who had broken an arm, making hot chocolate when twenty-year-old Clyde dropped by. He was the fifth child in a family of nine that had come to Dallas after their farm failed. Clyde routinely had minor altercations with the law, first being questioned over failing to return a rental car and stealing turkeys, but he seemed to pursue a life of crime only for fun, stealing and robbing even while holding legitimate jobs. The two instantly fell in love, despite Bonnie having an estranged husband, Roy Thornton, who himself was often arrested.

Four months after their meeting, Clyde was sentenced to a stint at Eastham Prison Farm. There, he was sexually assaulted and emotionally hardened by the prison system, returning home as a bitter criminal with a lethal chip on his shoulder. His sisters noticed the dark change in him, and fellow gang member Ralph Fults called him “a rattlesnake.” Historians would argue that Clyde’s resulting crime spree would be an act of vengeance on a system that had abused him so deeply.

Upon his release in February 1932, Clyde formed a loose gang that would add and dismiss members in an increasingly frantic trend of robberies, innumerable small jobs such as gas stations and grocery stores and around a dozen bank robberies, which would make him famous. While comrades such as Ralph Fults, Henry Methvin, and Clyde’s brother Buck were among the most popular joiners, the core of the gang would always be Clyde and his “gun moll” Bonnie. Rumors of her participating in the murders were later disproven, and Bonnie’s role was shown as following Clyde out of her love for him.

As their rampage across the central states continued over two years, their luck gradually began to run out. Buck was killed in a shootout, and Clyde’s strategies of using state lines as legal barriers were trumped by improved police communication and pursuit by Texas Rangers. In 1934, Clyde pulled his boldest move: a breakout from Eastham where Fults and Methvin were being held. Texas was booed in the press for its lackluster prisons, and Clyde finally felt some revenge against the system, but he could not be satiated. On Easter Sunday, Clyde and Methvin gunned down two highway patrolmen in Grapevine, TX, and public sentiment turned against the gang. In Commerce, OK, the gang struck again with the murder of a police constable and kidnapping of Police Chief Percy Boyd, whom they dropped off in Kansas with gifts of a clean shirt and money. Bonnie requested that Boyd tell the papers that she didn’t actually smoke cigars, referring to an old picture found in their Joplin hideout where Bonnie had taken a humorous pose.

When Boyd issued warrants for Clyde as well as Bonnie, the reality of their negative press struck her. She begged Clyde to reconsider his increasing madness and instead use his rage against the corrupt system for good. Finally, instead of visiting Methvin’s parents outside of Shreveport, LA, Bonnie and Clyde broke with the rest of their gang and headed toward another item in the papers: the ongoing strike at the Auto-Lite plant in Ohio, where they hoped to do some good or at least hide out among the crowds.

The Great Depression had gutted Toledo with massive layoffs and increasing frustration by workers as banks collapsed and factories closed. When the Auto-Lite management refused to sign the contract they had promised recognizing Federal Labor Union 18384 and a 5% wage increase after a five-day strike in February, a much larger strike began in April. Picketers from the American Workers Party joined in, and the strikers effectively laid siege to the factory. Auto-Lite began bringing in strikebreakers, which only prompted the union to fight harder.

On May 23, police arrested five strike-leaders, and a deputy strike an elderly man, which set off the temper of the 10,000-strong crowd to full riot. Rocks were thrown and fire hoses attempting to cool the riot were captured and turned on police. Gunfire soon began as police tried to take out the legs of the rioters, and Clyde Darrow’s ears perked at the familiar sound. Arriving on the scene in a stolen Ford V8, he collected his favored Browning Automatic Rifle and joined the fight. Handing out extra weapons from his arsenal to men he had never met, Clyde led the charge that allowed the rioters to break into the factory and seize control. Young National Guardsmen arrived early the next morning, and the use of tear gas quickly escalated to bayonets and then raw gunfire, but the strike could not be broken.

Much of the crowd fled the battlefield, spreading the word of Clyde’s unexpected and heroic appearance. Bonnie, who had excelled in writing in school, wrote her famed poem “Take a Stand” and soon fell in with union leadership. The two had swung public opinion from being cold-blooded killers back to roguish thieves standing against corruption. After the successful Battle of Toledo, union power surged in the United States, dismissing FDR’s plan of labor boards and instead creating the non-socialist American Labor Party that would sweep elections in 1936 and become the dominant of the three political parties in America for the next twenty-five years.


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In reality, the gang did not turn north. Outlaws Bonnie and Clyde were ambushed near Methvin’s parents’ home by former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer and a posse that unloaded 130 rounds from BARs, shotguns, pistols, and assorted other rifles into them. Meanwhile, the five-day “Battle of Toledo” raged with the rioters unable to take the factory until finally 1,350 National Guard with additional police and private security managed to calm the city by mass arrest and large-scale gassing. Agreements finally came underway as FDR intervened and Toledo settled its general strike, today still standing one of the strongest unionized cities in the country.

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