Clyde Chestnut Barrow was born in Ellis County, Texas, near Telico, a town just south of Dallas, Texas. He was the fifth of seven children of Henry Basil Barrow (1874–1957) and Cumie T. Walker (1874–1943), a poor farming family that emigrated, piecemeal, to Dallas in the early 1920s as part of a wave of resettlement from the impoverished nearby farms to the urban slum known as West Dallas. The Barrows spent their first months in West Dallas living under their wagon. When father Henry had earned enough money to buy a tent, it was a major step up for the family.
Clyde was first arrested in late 1926, after running when police confronted him over a rental car he had failed to return on time. His second arrest, with brotherMarvin “Buck” Barrow, came soon after, this time for possession of stolen goods (turkeys). Despite having legitimate jobs during the period 1927 through 1929, he also cracked safes, robbed stores, and stole cars. After sequential arrests in 1928 and 1929, he was sent to Eastham Prision Farm in April 1930. While in prison, Barrow beat to death another inmate who had repeatedly assaulted him sexually. It was Clyde Barrow’s first killing.
Paroled in February 1932, Barrow emerged from Eastham a hardened and bitter criminal. His sister Marie said “Something awful sure must have happened to him in prison, because he wasn’t the same person when he got out.” A fellow inmate, Ralph Fults, said he watched him “change from a schoolboy to a rattlesnake.”
In his post-Eastham career, he focused on smaller jobs, robbing grocery stores and gas stations, at a rate far outpacing the mere ten to fifteen bank robberies attributed to him and the Barrow Gang. Barrow’s favored weapon was the M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle (called a BAR). According to John Neal Phillips, Barrow’s goal in life was not to gain fame or fortune from robbing banks, but to seek revenge against the Texas system prision for the abuses he suffered while serving time.