Murder in the Red Barn: The Crime Solved by a Dream

William Corder
William Corder
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ann Marten was tired of the awful dream. Twice now she’d woken after terrible visions of her stepdaughter, Maria, dead and buried under the dusty floor of a barn a half-mile from the cottage Ann shared with her husband, Thomas, in Polstead, England. At first, Ann believed that it was just a bad nightmare—to interpret it otherwise was irrational claptrap—but when the dream returned, she started to have second thoughts.

One day, she approached Thomas and asked him to bring her some peace of mind. “I think, were I in your place, I would go and examine the Red Barn,” she suggested.

Bewildered, Thomas asked why.

“I have very frequently dreamed about Maria,” Ann said, “and twice before Christmas, I dreamed that Maria was murdered, and buried in the Red Barn.” She would have told him sooner, Ann explained, but was afraid he’d think she was superstitious.

The Red Barn was a prominent landmark in Polstead, a quaint corner of England’s Suffolk County countryside. Named for a unique red brick roof, the building on Barnfield Hill was the last known meeting place between Maria Marten and her lover, William Corder. The pair had used the barn as a rendezvous point before apparently eloping to Ipswich on May 18, 1827.

Maria’s family hadn’t heard from her in the 11 months since. The Martens often wrote letters to the couple, but Maria never responded. Whenever Corder returned to Polstead, he always offered a slew of excuses explaining why Maria wasn’t writing: She was busy, her mail must have gotten lost, she had injured her hand and couldn’t write back. He reassured them, however, that Maria was happy and basically fine.

But when his wife began having bad dreams, Thomas Marten decided to dutifully check the Red Barn for any indication of foul play. He puttered around the structure and carefully removed litter from the floor—and then noticed an unusual slump in the dirt. According to one account, Thomas, a mole-catcher by trade, began loosening the ground with a mole-catching spike and, upon lifting the tool, dredged up a chunk of rotting human flesh.

Thomas didn’t have to dig more than two feet to discover that his wife’s prophecy might be true: In a shallow hole lay a decomposed human skeleton wrapped in a sack. It had long hair and a green handkerchief around its neck.

Upon seeing the body, Thomas refused to dig any further. He started for home.

When he found his wife, Thomas asked if she recalled Maria wearing a handkerchief the day she ran off to elope—and, if so, what color it was.

Ann searched her memories and nodded. Maria had been wearing a bandana that William Corder had given her. “A green one,” she said.

 

William Corder was a troublemaker. The son of a wealthy farmer, the sly lady’s man (who went by the nickname Foxey) was known to forge checks and steal animals from neighboring farms. On one occasion, he kidnapped his father’s pigs and pocketed the money from the sale.

By some accounts, that was not the life the young man aspired to: Corder purportedly wanted to become a teacher or journalist, but when his father refused to financially support those endeavors, Corder instead sustained his bank account with the fruits of petty crime.

Whatever Corder’s motivations, none of that mattered to his paramour Maria Marten, a 24-year-old single mother. Her first child (whose father was Corder’s older brother) had died early, but her second child (born to a member of the gentry who had no interest in marrying the daughter of a lowly mole-catcher) was still alive. This second father regularly sent money to help the child, but was otherwise absent from Maria’s life. So when William Corder returned to Polstead to help his family’s farm in 1825, Maria quickly fell for the wily smooth-talker.

After all, Corder showed that he could handle some responsibility. The same year he came back to town, his father died and two of his brothers became permanently hobbled by tuberculosis, leaving young Corder as one of the last able-bodied men in the family capable of running the farm. Around the time he assumed these duties, a romance between him and Maria began to blossom.

William Corder, his lover Maria Marten, and Marten's son Thomas Henry Marten, circa 1827
William Corder, his lover Maria Marten, and Marten's son Thomas Henry Marten, circa 1827
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

At first, the couple tried to keep their relationship secret, but life had other plans. In 1826, Maria became pregnant for a third time. Corder proposed that they marry shortly after the infant was born.

Tragically, only two weeks after its birth, the baby died in Maria’s arms. Maria’s father and stepmother carefully placed the lifeless infant in a box and wrapped it in a napkin. Corder promised to bury it somewhere safe.

Corder also promised that he still wanted to marry Maria, child or not. There was just one stipulation, he said: It had to happen soon. According to Corder, rumors were floating that the constable was going to punish Maria for having a third child out of wedlock. Called bastardy, the crime was punishable by public whipping.

In other words, they had to elope.

Around noon on May 18, 1827, Corder ran to the Marten cottage and told Maria that it was time to go. The constable, he said, was prepared to arrest her at any moment. Maria began to sob. Meanwhile, Maria’s sister, Ann, noticed that the young man was carrying a gun. “[He] told me not to meddle with it, as it was loaded,” she’d recall.

To avoid capture, Corder told Maria to dress in disguise and handed her a men’s waistcoat, a hat, a pair of trousers, and a green bandana. He placed the rest of her clothes in a bag and told her to meet him at the Red Barn down the road, where she could get dressed in her own clothing. Afterward, they’d flee to Ipswich and get married.

Corder then slipped out the front door, and Maria—in male costume—left out the back. She was never seen again.

Eleven months after she left, the police found William Corder married to a different woman and running a boarding school for girls in west London. When the police accosted him, they asked if he had ever known a woman by the name of Maria Marten.

“I never knew any such person even by name,” he responded.

 

Immediately, the crime captured people’s attention and imaginations: Here was the story of a poor country girl, a single mother no less, who was seduced and fooled by a wealthy cad who lured her to her death with the promise of marriage. No less amazing was the fact that the poor woman’s body was purportedly discovered thanks to a dream. For newspapers, the story was pure catnip.

“I never knew or heard of a case in my life which abounded with so many extraordinary incidents as the present,” M. Wyatt, a magistrate, explained at the time. “It really appears more like a romance than a tale of common life.”

Within days of the body’s discovery, Polstead became a bustling place “literally crowded with strangers from all parts of the adjacent country, for the news of this appalling discovery had ere this reached the remotest parts of the kingdom,” the journalist J. Curtis reported in his contemporaneous book, An Authentic And Faithful History of the Mysterious Murder of Maria Marten.

In fact, as Corder sat in jail, Polstead would hold its most well-attended summer fair in ages, with amusements that included roving ballad singers and theatrical productions, all telling sensationalized versions of the Red Barn murder story.

By the start of Corder’s trial in early August, the whole country was familiar with the twisted story. Thousands of people flocked to Polstead to witness the proceedings, and nearly all of the inns and public houses in the county ran out of rooms. (The day before the trial, many visitors had no beds to sleep in at all.) Demand to watch the proceedings was high enough that tickets were required.

A circa 1828 pamphlet containing details of the "horrid murder" of Maria Marten committed by William Corder in the ‘Red Barn’ at Polsted, Suffolk
A circa 1828 pamphlet containing details of the "horrid murder" of Maria Marten committed by William Corder in the ‘Red Barn’ at Polsted, Suffolk
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The crowd outside the courthouse numbered in the thousands. The scene was so jammed that the ticket-taker—even members of the court—had trouble reaching the front door. When the sheriff’s carriage arrived, it couldn’t squeeze through the crowd. The Lord Chief Baron had to be “carried off his legs on his way from his carriage to the bench,” Curtis writes. It was mayhem.

“Counsellors, magistrates, jurors, &c. &c. were wedged together, and two of the former gentlemen had their forensic wigs hooked off, and one was actually ungowned. Some lost their hats, some their pocket-books, and others their money—and not a few the lappets of their coats," according to Curtis.

Once everybody who could fit in the courthouse was settled, the counts against William Corder—all 10 of them, which included shooting, stabbing, and strangulation—were read. A model of the Red Barn was placed on a table in the courtroom and the Counsel for the Crown began to make its case against the young farmer.

The evidence certainly seemed damning. Maria’s stepmother was in the room when Corder and Maria had made plans to meet at the Red Barn. At the coroner’s inquest held shortly after the body was discovered, the constable denied ever telling Corder he had a warrant out for Maria’s arrest. Corder had waffled constantly whenever asked about Maria’s whereabouts. And in Corder’s London residence, police had found a French passport—a suspicious indication that he might have been planning to flee the country.

In a trembling voice, Corder defended his name and blamed the press for slandering his reputation and sealing his fate. Reading from a written statement, he declared: “By that powerful engine, the press, which regulates the opinion of so many persons in this country, and which is too often, I fear, though unintentionally, the slanderer and destroyer of innocence, I have had the misfortune to be depicted in the most humiliated and revolting characters! I have been described by that press as the most depraved of human monsters.”

Corder went on to claim that he had indeed argued with Maria in the Red Barn, but he did not kill her—rather, she had shot and killed herself. The young man claimed he had panicked and had “buried Maria as well as I was able.”

The jury deliberated for just 35 minutes before returning a verdict of guilty. Corder nearly wilted to the floor as the judge read his sentence.

The execution of William Corder at the gallows in Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk
The execution of William Corder at the gallows in Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“My advice to you is, not to flatter yourself with the slightest hope of mercy on earth …” the judge said. “That you be taken back to the prison from whence you came, and that you be taken from thence, on Monday next, to a place of Execution, and that you there be Hanged by the Neck until you are Dead; and that your body shall afterwards be dissected and anatomized; and may the Lord God Almighty, of his infinite goodness, have mercy on your soul!”

Days later, on August 11, 1828, a crowd of at least 7000 people gathered around the gallows and watched a visibly weak Corder step upon the scaffold. Earlier that week, he had confessed to a prison chaplain, claiming that he and Maria had gotten into an argument—possibly about their dead baby, who had never received a proper Christian burial—and had accidentally shot her in the face during a scuffle.

As Corder stared out at the crowd, the air fell still. “I am guilty—” he said, quivering. “My sentence is just—I deserve my fate—and may God have mercy upon me!”

A cap was then draped over his face, a rope was tied around his neck, and gravity did the rest.

 

William Corder’s corpse swung gently in the wind for an hour before being taken down and placed in a nearby hall, where the county surgeon sliced into the chest and folded back the skin to display the muscles of the chest. Then the doors were opened to the public. Thousands of spectators marched single-file to gawk at Corder’s remains.

The following day, the body became the centerpiece of an autopsy attended by doctors and medical students from across the county. Corder’s organs were removed and inspected and his body stripped of its skin, which was tanned and wrapped around the cover of a book chronicling his misdeeds.

In 1846, Punch magazine would cynically joke that “Murder is, doubtless, a very shocking offence; nevertheless, as what is done is not to be undone, let us make our money out of it.” Indeed, over the next century, the Red Barn murder continued to fascinate the public, becoming a profitable cottage industry for artists and entertainers, who wrote songs, poems, plays, and cheap penny-dreadfuls about the incident. One particular broadside, published by the printer James Catnach, sold more than a million copies.

A bust of William Corder
A bust of William Corder
St Edmundsbury Heritage Service, Moyse's Hall

Polstead would become a macabre pilgrimage site, where tourists—some 200,000 people are said to have visited the town in 1828 alone—eventually stripped the Red Barn bare. (The wood was reportedly sold as toothpicks.) Even poor Maria Marten’s Polstead resting place suffered from the grubby hands of souvenir-hunters, who mercilessly chipped away at her gravestone until it was little more than a stump.

Interest in the murder was so great that little physical evidence of the grisly happening remains. The book bound in Corder’s skin, however, is still stored at Moyse’s Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. And the Cock Inn, where Polstead’s coroner carried out his inquest to identify the skeleton of Maria Marten, is still in operation. If you visit and grab a pint, you just may hear people singing an eerie ballad that is now canon.

Come all you bold young thoughtless men, a warning take by me;
And think of my unhappy fate, to be hanged upon the tree.
My name is William Corder, to you I do declare
I courted Maria Marten, most beautiful and fair.
I promised I would marry her upon a certain day,
Instead of that, I was resolved to take her life away.
I went into her father’s house the 18th of May,
Saying, my dear Maria, we will fix the wedding day.
If you will meet me at the Red Barn, as sure as I have life,
I will take you to Ipswich town, and there make you my wife;
I then went home and fetched my gun, my pickaxe and my spade,
I went into the Red Barn, and there I dug her grave.

Killing Fields: The Town That Got Away With Murder

iStock.com/river34
iStock.com/river34

The townspeople who had gathered near the D&G Tavern in the small farming community of Skidmore, Missouri, that July morning could feel the shift in the atmosphere. The fear that once hung over the town's 440 residents had been replaced by something else. Anger—a deep, long-simmering anger—was part of it, but so was a sense of obligation. Men stood near vehicles that held rifles and shotguns inside. Bank employees and grocery clerks watched from nearby windows. Dust hovering over the sparsely developed main road through town helped lend that moment in 1981 the tension of a Wild West showdown.

The tavern door opened, and out stepped Ken Rex McElroy, 47, a bulky man with a ragged pair of sideburns and a piercing stare. To someone passing through town, McElroy may have looked like a strong farmhand, a callused good old boy. But to locals, McElroy was a vengeful bully, a thief, and an attempted murderer who eluded any and all attempts to put him behind bars. He terrorized the rural town of Skidmore (which had no police force of its own), taking point-blank aim at those who crossed him, and was routinely charged with three to four crimes a year.

McElroy was not ignorant of the town's hostility. He simply didn't care. That morning, he was out on bond, once again free to walk Skidmore's streets. As he moved from the tavern and opened the driver's side door to his Chevy Silverado, he said nothing to the 30-odd residents who stood nearby or watched from a gas station just up the hill. His wife, Trena, climbed into the passenger’s seat.

Trena looked around, then behind them. She was the first to see the rifle as one of the gathered men hoisted it to shoulder-level. She heard the rear window of the Silverado shatter, and saw her husband slump over the steering wheel.

In seconds, Ken McElroy would be dead, and the people of Skidmore—who had seen everything—would claim to have seen nothing at all.

 

If anyone could drive a normally peaceful community to cover up a murder, it was Ken McElroy. As one of over a dozen children raised under modest financial means in and around Kansas and the Ozarks, McElroy appeared to consider a proper education frivolous at best. According to In Broad Daylight, a comprehensive account of the Skidmore saga by author Harry N. MacLean, McElroy dropped out of school in the eighth grade. Having never learned to read or write, he set about a life of labor, eventually winding up in Nodaway County, Missouri.

It became apparent to McElroy fairly early on that an honest living would fail to provide the material possessions and leisurely lifestyle he desired. So he began stealing. Mostly, it was the livestock in and around Skidmore, a small town roughly 90 minutes north of Kansas City. In the dead of night, he'd pull up next to farmers' hog pens and make off with animals he could sell at auction or to third parties who knew better than to ask too many questions. He also leased his own land and trafficked in hunting dogs, which he had a talent for training. Through means legitimate and illicit, he was usually flush with cash—money that would come in handy when he inevitably lost his temper.

A shotgun barrel is pictured
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McElroy was rarely without a firearm of some kind, either on his person or mounted in his vehicles. Possessing a weapon was not unusual in Missouri, but brandishing it was. McElroy had no reservations about stuffing a shotgun in someone's face or belly to make a point. When a farmer named Romaine Henry had an encounter with McElroy on Henry's land in July 1976, McElroy shot him in the stomach. Henry survived and expected some measure of justice. But in court, McElroy produced witnesses who swore he was home at the time the shooting took place. A jury subsequently found McElroy not guilty.

Sliding out of trouble was a McElroy specialty. In addition to allies—often his hunting-dog cohorts—who would guarantee he was some place other than the scene of a crime, he had the money to hire Richard McFadin, a skilled defense attorney, to represent him. McFadin would use every legal maneuver at his disposal to get hearings postponed or delayed on the premise that the longer it took to go to trial, the colder the case against McElroy would get. Suddenly, defendants who had been assaulted or witnesses who had seen McElroy's impropriety would spot a pick-up truck parked outside their house or hear a shotgun going off in the middle of the night. Sometimes McElroy would confront them face-to-face and explain in a measured tone that he'd kill anyone opposing him in court.

Perhaps they could have held out for a month or two. Faced with extended periods of McElroy's harassment, many of them recanted their statements. Time and again, McElroy would simply walk away from serious charges with nothing more than a dent in his wallet.

 

As McElroy aged, his behavior grew more audacious, and the town of Skidmore grew more apprehensive. After two marriages, he wed Trena McCloud, whom he had met when she was just 14 years old. She accused him of raping her but—like many of McElroy's victims—later withdrew her statement. When McElroy was all but confirmed to have burned her parents' house down in a fit of rage, Trena blamed it on "faulty wiring." She became his accomplice, accompanying McElroy on several of his nocturnal visits to people he had targeted for harassment. As McElroy ranted, she would stand nearby, a firearm in her hands.

In 1980, Trena entered a grocery store in Skidmore with one of Ken's daughters from a previous marriage, Tonia. Before long, an argument ensued between Trena and shopkeepers Ernest "Bo" Bowenkamp and his wife, Lois, over whether Tonia had taken candy without intending to pay for it. For McElroy, the misunderstanding turned into an accusation that his daughter was a thief. He began to haunt the Bowenkamps at their store and at home, parking outside for hours at a time. Knowing McElroy's reputation, the couple feared it wouldn't be long before his harassment turned violent.

One evening in July 1980, McElroy approached Bo Bowenkamp near the loading area of the grocery store. After a brief verbal exchange, McElroy raised a shotgun and fired. Bowenkamp flinched as the buckshot tore through his neck. The 70-year-old was lucky to survive.

A cornfield is seen under a full moon
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McElroy peeled off in his truck. A highway patrol corporal named Richard Stratton was alerted to the incident and gave chase. Having had run-ins with McElroy before, he knew the man would attempt to get out of the county via an alternative route going through neighboring Fillmore. He found and arrested McElroy, but not before considering he might just get shot. McElroy had previously threatened that he was capable of gunning down police, and at that point there was no reason to doubt him.

 

In what was becoming a routine occurrence, McElroy enlisted McFadin to represent him in the resulting criminal case. McFadin asked for and received a change of venue—this time to Harrison County—and prepared a defense that portrayed Bowenkamp as the aggressor. The store owner, McElroy claimed, had approached him menacingly with a knife. McElroy had no choice but to defend himself.

In the interim, McElroy stuck to his usual strategy of intimidating victims, driving by the Bowenkamp household and making harassing calls. This time, his words fell on deaf ears. The Bowenkamps never lost their nerve, and McElroy was convicted of second-degree assault. He received a two-year jail sentence.

Anyone in Skidmore rejoicing at the news McElroy had finally been cornered by the law found their relief short-lived. A judge allowed McElroy out on a $40,000 bond pending an appeal of the conviction.

McElroy remained a looming presence in town, and the sentence did nothing to curb his behavior. At the D&G Tavern, he brandished a rifle with a bayonet attached to it, vowing to finish the job on Bowenkamp. Such a display was a clear violation of his bond, and eyewitnesses found the courage to testify against him in the hopes he would finally be locked up. But a crafty McFadin got the hearing delayed again. On the morning of July 10, 1981, when McElroy should have been answering to charges of wielding a firearm, he was in the tavern.

To the people of Skidmore, McElroy's continued presence was inexplicable. Time and again, the law had failed to protect them from a violent, abusive man who had stolen from them, raped them, terrorized them in their homes, and fired guns in the hopes of killing them. There was no predicting what kind of pain he could inflict before he was sent to jail. And that assumed he'd wind up there at all.

A windshield with a bullet hole is pictured
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A town meeting was convened at the American Legion Hall up the road from the tavern. Many of the same people who once cowered from McElroy now discussed the best way to protect their town from another rampage. Someone voiced the idea of trailing McElroy in a pack to prevent him from acting out—a kind of roving neighborhood watch. Others simply couldn't believe McElroy had once again sidestepped punishment for his actions.

The meeting dispersed, and the residents walked toward the tavern. Many walked inside and surrounded McElroy, a silent statement that there was solidarity among the townspeople.

McElroy said nothing. He exited the building and climbed into his Silverado. His wife, Trena, would later tell investigators she saw a man behind them raise a rifle before the shooting began. A shot shattered the car window and ripped through McElroy, leaving glass everywhere. Then one of the men opened the passenger-side door and ushered Trena out of the line of fire.

She was led into the nearby bank. The shooting continued for 20 seconds or so and then stopped. The only remaining noise was the Silverado’s rumbling engine.

A few residents walked up to the truck to peer inside. But when the ambulance arrived, it was obvious no one had tried to help.

 

From the time she was brought in for questioning, Trena was unwavering in her assertion that she knew who the killer was. She identified a man People magazine later named as Del Clement as the one who had held up the rifle and shot McElroy. Clement had motive—he was part-owner of the tavern where McElroy idled, driving away customers, and was also victimized by his livestock heists—and was known to have a quick temper.

Trena told Nodaway County's prosecuting attorney, David Baird, that it was Clement. She told FBI investigators and three separate grand juries. But she was the only one talking. Local law enforcement and federal officials tried every approach possible to gather information from residents. They tried playing nice. Then they played a heavy hand, demanding to know what had happened. They insisted no one would be getting away with murder—certainly not in broad daylight and in front of dozens of witnesses. FBI vehicles crawled through town, stopping in front of houses. Agents sat in kitchens, hoping to pry even the tiniest bit of detail from locals.

A close-up of a man's eye is pictured
iStock.com/Yuji_Karaki

Nothing worked. Skidmore's population had little else to say other than that they heard shooting and hit the ground to avoid being struck by a bullet. They didn't see who started it, if there had been one shooter or several, or if anyone was fleeing the scene. One witness mentioned seeing Clement and a passenger speeding down a road after the shooting but later recanted.

None of it was enough for Baird to bring a case. Trena's testimony would wither without anyone to corroborate it. After a year, the FBI announced they would be closing their investigation.

The town was deluged by reporters intoxicated by the idea of frontier justice. They composed headlines like "Town Bully is Dead" and "Woman Says Husband Killed by Vigilante." They knocked on doors and sat down in the tavern. But they couldn't loosen the tongues of the locals.

Highway patrolman Stratton, who knew of McElroy's sinister reputation first-hand—McElroy once terrorized his wife outside of their home with a shotgun—seemed resigned to the town's silence. "They did what they did because we didn't do our job," he said in 2010. "Then they went home and kept their mouths shut and kept them closed all these years. There wasn't much David Baird could do about that."

No one was ever charged with the murder of Ken McElroy. Clement, the man Trena named as the shooter, died in 2009. Baird moved to private practice. Trena managed to get a $17,000 settlement in a wrongful-death civil suit against the county sheriff, Skidmore's mayor, and Clement, and nothing more.

Skidmore's population continues to dwindle. And as its residents age, it grows even less likely that anyone will come forward with information that could solve the case.

McFadin summarized his feelings in a 2010 New York Times interview. "The town," he said, "got away with murder."

13 Infamous Facts About Bonnie and Clyde

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were two of the most popular celebrity criminals of the 1930s (and they had a lot of competition in that decade). More than 30 years later, America fell in love with them all over again through Bonnie and Clyde, a zeitgeist-capturing movie that spoke to the dissatisfaction and unrest that people (especially young people) felt in 1967. And hey, it was the first major film appearance for Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, and Gene Wilder, and featured a future Duke of Hazzard (Denver Pyle, a.k.a. Uncle Jesse). Get to know your favorite movie about your favorite outlaws a little better with these behind-the-scenes tidbits.

1. Before it was made in the style of the French New Wave films, it almost was a French New Wave film.

Like many young cinephiles of their day, Bonnie and Clyde's screenwriters, Robert Benton and David Newman, were enamored of the French New Wave, the influential movement that included films like The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, and Breathless. These movies tended to have young, iconoclastic, sexually liberated protagonists and unhappy endings, making the true story of Bonnie and Clyde a perfect fit. Director Arthur Penn wound up using some of the New Wave's aesthetic techniques, too—like quick cuts, zooms, stylized photography, and abrupt changes in mood—making Bonnie and Clyde the first major American film to imitate the style. But before Penn came onboard, the screenwriters pursued two actual French New Wavers: François Truffaut (The 400 Blows) and Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless). Each filmmaker eventually passed on the project, but both offered suggestions that were incorporated into the final product.

2. Faye Dunaway's star-making performance almost didn't happen.

Warren Beatty, doing double duty as star and producer, and director Arthur Penn considered many other actresses first, including Tuesday Weld, Jane Fonda, Natalie Wood, Sharon Tate, Leslie Caron, and Ann-Margret. (Back when he was only producing it and not starring in it, Beatty had also considered his sister, Shirley MacLaine, for the role.) Beatty said they were turned down "by about 10 women," though he would later say Weld was the only one they made a firm offer to. When Beatty met Dunaway, he didn't think she was right for the part, but he told her to meet with Penn, who he thought would think she was perfect. Beatty was right.

3. The writers had no idea what they were doing.

Benton and Newman worked at Esquire (as editor and art director, respectively), and had no screenwriting experience whatsoever. But they loved the story of Bonnie and Clyde, which Benton, growing up in the Dallas area, had heard his entire life as part of local folklore. (Benton's father had actually attended Bonnie and Clyde's funeral in 1934.) Benton and Newman didn't have experience writing movies, but they did have a well-connected friend of a friend who put them in touch with the French filmmakers and offered some working capital. It was through these connections that the script fell into the hands of Warren Beatty, who immediately contacted them and set the project in motion.

4. The first drafts had Clyde swinging both ways.

Newman and Benton worked closely with Beatty and Penn in fine-tuning the screenplay, which all four men later described as a positive, low-conflict collaboration. The only major problem had to do with sex. Newman and Benton's version had Bonnie and Clyde having a threesome with C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), a composite character based on several members of Bonnie and Clyde's gang, the idea being that Clyde couldn't perform without a third party. Beatty claimed he had no problem playing a bisexual character, but he and Penn were both concerned that the audience would view Clyde as a sexual deviant and ascribe his lawbreaking to that. But Penn thought the idea of there being some kind of sexual dysfunction in the group was important. Eventually the four collaborators settled on Clyde being impotent.

5. Whatever you think the film "really" means, you're probably wrong.


Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

Some viewers interpreted Bonnie and Clyde as a commentary on other issues, but Newman and Benton said they didn't intend it that way. As they wrote in an introduction to a published version of their screenplay, "[People] have told us that Bonnie and Clyde was REALLY about Vietnam, REALLY about police brutality, REALLY about Lee Harvey Oswald, REALLY about Watts. After a while, we took to shrugging and saying, 'If you think so.'"

6. The studio thought it was going to flop and treated it accordingly.

Jack Warner, who measured films according to how well they convinced him not to leave the screening room to use the bathroom, hated Bonnie and Clyde. "That's the longest two hours and 11 minutes I've ever seen!" he reportedly said after seeing an early cut. "That was a three-piss picture!" (Also: "This gangster stuff went out with [James] Cagney!") Thinking they had a turkey on their hands, and despite a warm reception at a film festival in Montreal, Warner Bros. dumped the movie in drive-ins and second-run theaters in August of 1967.

7. The studio's lack of faith made Warren Beatty very, very rich.

Thinking the film wouldn't make any money, Warner Bros. offered Beatty a ridiculous deal: a $200,000 salary, plus 40 percent of the gross. Yes, 40 percent. Of the gross, not the net. The film made more than $50 million.

8. Film critics killed the film—then saved it.

Warner Bros.' wariness was validated by the early reviews. Variety was lukewarm, and The New York Times' Bosley Crowther, then the most influential critic in America, hated it. HATED it. He wrote about it more than once, and would drop scathing references to it in reviews of other movies. To him, the film’s wanton violence represented everything that was wrong with modern cinema. (It's worth noting that Crowther was 62 years old and had been the Times' chief critic since 1940.)

Early box office reflected the bad reviews. But then came Pauline Kael, a vocal champion for the film who wrote 9000 words about it for The New Yorker. She was soon followed by Newsweek's Joseph Morgenstern, who gave the film a bad review, then retracted it a week later with a new, glowing appraisal. TIME magazine, which had also panned it, recanted and put the film on the cover of its December issue. Word began to spread. Warner Bros. re-released the film into more theaters and, by the end of 1967, it was on its way toward becoming one of the top-grossers of the year. It made most of its money, however, in early 1968, when Warner Bros. put it in wide release to take advantage of its 10 Oscar nominations. (Post-script: Bosley Crowther was removed as the Times' lead film critic in early 1968.)

9. It turned an old song into a new hit.

Flatt & Scruggs' banjo-heavy bluegrass tune "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" serves as the film's theme music, even though it was recorded in 1949 and is anachronistic for a movie set in the 1930s. Even more anachronistic, though, is the fact that when the song was re-released in conjunction with the movie, it became a hit, reaching number 55 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. It's now a standard in the bluegrass genre, and is often used in movies and TV when there's a chase scene set in a rural area.

10. It inspired songwriters as well as filmmakers.


Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

As Americans fell in love with Bonnie and Clyde the movie, they also became captivated by Bonnie and Clyde the outlaws, and the nation's troubadours took to the airwaves to sing about the tragic lovers. Merle Haggard, Georgie Fame, Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot, Mel Tormé, and Bonnie's sister Billie Jean Parker all recorded new songs in the wake of the movie's success, and the aforementioned Flatt & Scruggs wrote an entire album.

11. It inspired a fashion fad, too.

Faye Dunaway's period costumes caught the attention of the fashion-minded, and soon berets (which hadn't been popular since the '30s) were back in vogue. The trend coincided with French designers wanting to move from mini-skirts to maxi-skirts, and gave women an appealing example of how great a maxi could look.

12. The cinematographer quit midway through filming.

Burnett Guffey, a respected veteran in the industry who'd shot close to 100 movies and had served as president of the American Society of Cinematographers, was frequently at odds with Penn (who was fairly new to film) and with production designer Dean Tavoularis. Not only was Guffey older than most of the crew (he was born in 1905), but the "new Hollywood" visual style that Penn and Tavoularis wanted for the film didn't mesh with his old-school sensibilities.

After butting heads with the director one too many times, Guffey quit and was replaced by another old-timer, Ellsworth Fredericks. But this lasted only a few days, as Fredericks' competent-but-uninspired work made Penn realize how hard Guffey had been trying to capture his vision. He wooed Guffey back to finish the film, for which Guffey would win his second Oscar.

13. It contains a reference John F. Kennedy's assassination.

When Bonnie and Clyde are pumped full of lead in the film's bloody climax, you can see a fragment of Clyde's scalp flying off. Penn and editor Dede Allen both confirmed that this was a deliberate reference to the Zapruder film of JFK's death, which had happened in Dallas, not far from where Bonnie and Clyde grew up.

Additional sources:
Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, by Mark Harris

This article originally ran in 2016.

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