For the past few months the Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum has been featuring an exhibit entitled “The Story of the Death Car.” This exhibit tells the story of Charles Stanley, Abilene native, who traveled around the country exhibiting the Bonnie and Clyde Death Car for a number of years. This is an especially interesting story for those who have not heard it yet. If you have visited the museum since I set up this exhibit, you likely know this story. But who knows? Maybe you are not the type that reads all of the text in a museum exhibit, or perhaps you have forgotten. A large reason of why I am currently writing about this topic is that I want to have it on a page before I forget elements of the story. So let’s begin.
|Courtesy of the Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum.|
To set the stage, we need to know about Bonnie and Clyde so that we can see why the Death Car was important to Charles Stanley. There were several criminals during the Great Depression of the 1930s who were incredibly popular. John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly (the list goes on...) were big celebrities. Some people find it hard to believe that criminals like these were celebrities and were admired by the public, but no matter what time period you look at, you can find questionable people that were looked upon as heroes or were glorified. Jesse James is an obvious example (and coincidentally was one of Clyde Barrow’s childhood heroes). Several Depression era criminals were from the Great Plains region of the United States and were known to travel from town to town robbing banks. It being the Great Depression, the banks were not necessarily viewed in a sympathetic light by the public. Many people that were affected by hard times were seeing their homes foreclosed by the bank, so in some cases people thought of these robberies as something that the bank deserved.
Bonnie Parker was not an established criminal before meeting Clyde Barrow. She grew up in the Dallas, Texas area in a family that was certainly not wealthy. At the age of sixteen, she married a man named Roy Thornton. After three years of marriage, Thornton left Bonnie. Apparently Thornton was an abusive husband, but even though they separated, the couple never officially divorced. In fact, when Bonnie was gunned down in 1934, she was found still wearing her wedding ring.
While Bonnie was not an experienced criminal, Clyde Barrow most certainly was. He also grew up in the Dallas, Texas area. His family was very poor and had trouble making ends meet. This led Clyde to become a criminal during his teenage years. As a teenager, Clyde began stealing cars and selling them for profit. He later moved on to robbing gas stations and convenience stores. Soon after meeting Bonnie Parker, he was arrested and put in the Eastham prison work camp in 1930. Prison had to have an awful mental toll on Clyde; he was sexually assaulted during his time in Eastham. However, during this time the romance between himself and Bonnie grew and grew (as evidenced by their letters to one another.) Feeling that he could not last in the work camp much longer, Clyde cut off one of his toes in 1932 so that he might be transferred somewhere else. However, at about the same time, his mother negotiated his release. He was released on parole, and left the prison on crutches.
After getting out of jail, Clyde tried to go straight, but saw himself in a life of crime again, this time with Bonnie by his side. One thing was certain though; Clyde was not going back to prison. From 1932 to 1934, Bonnie and Clyde traveled throughout the Midwest with a small gang of crooks robbing banks and grocery stores. Generally speaking, they were not very successful, only making enough money to travel to the next town and rob another bank. During these two years, the criminals did leave a few dead bodies behind during run-ins with the police. While Clyde did shoot and kill a number of people, there is no concrete proof that Bonnie ever killed anyone.
|Bonnie and Clyde on the run. Courtesy of the Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum.|
On May 23, 1934 Bonnie and Clyde met their end. A number of law officers had been on their trail. The police ambush was carefully planned. Bonnie and Clyde were in Bienville Parish, LA so that a member of their gang, Henry Methvyn, could visit his family. Methvyn’s father, Ivan, betrayed the gang in exchange for amnesty for his son. Ivan’s automobile waited along a road, as Bonnie and Clyde’s car slowed down to approach the vehicle, Texas rangers and local sheriffs came out of the forest shooting at the Ford sedan that the pair of criminals were in. The law officers covered the car with over 160 bullet holes; at least 50 bullets hit Bonnie and Clyde. The car that the criminals were driving was a 1934 Ford V-8 DeLuxe Sedan. About a month prior to their deaths, they stole the car from a family in Topeka, Kansas. While Bonnie and Clyde were dead, the journey of this car was just about to begin.
|A close view of the damage that occurred to the car. Courtesy of the Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum.|
After the Death Car was returned to its original owners, Jessie and Ruth Warren of Topeka, the couple were confounded on what they should do with the car. A carnival operator named Charles Stanley who worked for the National Anti-Crime Association (NACA) in Topeka approached the couple and convinced them to let him rent the car. With the Death Car, Stanley would travel around the country offering a free exhibition. He would also give a presentation on why "crime does not pay."
|Charles Stanley with the Death Car in 1938. Courtesy of the Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum.|
|Stanley with displays advertising his exhibition. Courtesy of the Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum.|
Charles Stanley was born in Abilene, Kansas and grew up wanting to be an entertainer. He played in the school band throughout his youth and enjoyed going down to the Abilene depot to see theatrical performers arriving in town to put on their shows. Later, he and his wife Irene, a Chapman, Kansas native, would travel around with carnivals putting on shows for the public. After doing this for a few years, Stanley also found himself giving educational presentations with the NACA, which brings us back to late 1934 when Stanley began traveling with the Death Car.
Stanley first exhibited the Death Car in his hometown Abilene on September 18, 1934. After touring with the car for four years, Stanley purchased it from Ruth Warren in 1938. In Stanley's exhibitions, he would not only show the Death Car, but would also show slide-shows and motion pictures on Bonnie and Clyde and other famous criminals like John Dillinger. He was featured on the radio, and built himself quite a persona as the "Crime Doctor" since he was an expert on these famous criminals.
|Courtesy of the Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum.|
Stanley later took the exhibition off the road when he secured a job as the Director of Special Events at Coney Island Amusement Park in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1941. While he was working for Coney Island, the car was available to view until 1952. With declining public interest in Bonnie and Clyde, the Death Car sat in storage for a number of years. In 1960, Stanley sold the car to Ted Toddy, who would run an exhibition of his own. I am uncertain how much Stanley was paid for the car, I have found evidence that shows it was anywhere from $1,500 to $14,500. Either way, this was not much money considering the price that Toddy would sell it for in 1973.
|An advertisement for the Death Car while it was exhibited at Coney Island. Courtesy of the Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum.|
The movie Bonnie and Clyde starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway was released in 1967. Suddenly the two criminals were famous again. Due to this regained popularity, Toddy sold the car for $175,000 in 1973. At the time, it was the largest amount ever paid for an antique automobile. "If I had only known!" was Stanley's response when he heard this news.
Even after selling the Bonnie and Clyde Death Car, Charles Stanley continued to give presentations and entertain people. He continued working for Coney Island in Cincinnati until 1973. After his retirement, Stanley and his wife, Irene, moved back to Dickinson County and lived in Chapman. Stanley died on October 31, 1996.
The Death Car is still on display to the public, at the time of this writing, it can be found in a casino in Nevada. Also displayed with the car is the shirt Clyde Barrow was wearing when he met his end.