Granted, the circumstances of the Fugate-Starkweather killings were a bit bizarre. The body of Marion Bartlett, Caril's fifty-seven-year-old step father, was found wrapped in newspapers and stuffed in a chicken coop out behind the Bartletts' one-story house where Caril lived. He'd been shot and stabbed. The body of Caril's mother, Velda Bartlett, thirty-five, was wrapped in what looked like bedclothes and stashed in the outhouse. Shot and stabbed. The body of Caril's little half sister, Betty Jean, only two-and-a-half years old, reporters said, was found near Velda's, stuffed into a card board box. Betty Jean hadn't been shot. She'd been clubbed to death and her throat slashed: skull fractures and lacerations, the paper called it.
Weirder yet, Caril and Charlie had sat a strange sort of wake with the bodies, staying with them for at least two days. Maybe six. Warding off relatives who came to inquire, shooing away a lady who stopped to buy eggs, calling in sick to the Watson Bros. trucking company for Mr. Bartlett so nobody would suspect.
Still, when you added the details up, what had Caril and Charlie done, really, but lopped off a few of her kin? Big deal.
How could I know that these family deaths were only the beginning of a chain of murders that would make Caril and Charlie a Legend in Their Own Time? How could I foresee that a young movie producer, Terence Malick, would fictionalize them sixteen years later in a movie called Badlands? That NBC-TV would feature Caril's prison life in an hour-long documentary which, in turn, would spawn a book, Caril, that draws heavily on this TV footage? Or that the New York Daily News, running a series about “liberated” women criminals, would bill Caril as a predecessor of a long line of female terrorists, the latest sensation being Patty Hearst?
Today, Caril and Charlie seem well on their way to becoming my generation's Bonnie and Clyde. Born on the heels of the Depression, suckled on World War II, isolated and alienated without the words to express it, Caril and Charlie shared more with my generation than we, perhaps, were willing to admit. At that time, in 1958, in Lincoln, Nebraska, we were prone to magnify the differences. There seemed to be many.
For one thing, I was literate. A junior at the University, I was busy stuffing myself on Shakespeare and the classics, and squabbling with my parents who said that classics wouldn't feed me, that I should study teaching instead. Or nursing. That way, when my husband died, I could support the kids. Caril, who wore her dark brown hair in a ponytail and fancied white baton boots, was still in high school. She was considered a spunky kid with a “certain elfish charm” who could pass for eighteen. Charlie was an out-and-out high-school dropout with red hair, bandy legs, and bad eyesight. At five foot two, he stood an inch taller than Caril. He worked on a garbage route, shouting obscenities at people, telling old guys how to drive, and generally acting surly. “Nobody knowed better than to say nothin' to me when I was a-heavin' their goddam garbage,” he wrote of himself later. Illiterate. As his writing showed.