Dillinger, John (1903-1934)

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Dillinger, John (1903-1934)

During the Great Depression, many Americans, nearly helpless against forces they didn't understand, made heroes of outlaws who took what they wanted at gunpoint and stole from the institutions that they felt were oppressing them. Of all these lurid desperadoes, John Dillinger came to evoke this Gangster Era, and stirred mass emotion to a degree rarely seen in this country.

In truth, Dillinger was not the leader of a crime syndicate but was merely a brutal thief and a cold-blooded murderer. From September, 1933, until July, 1934, he and his violent gang terrorized the Midwest, killing 10 men, wounding seven others, robbing banks and police arsenals, and staging three memorable jail breaks, killing a sheriff during one and wounding two guards in another. He became something of a folk hero for successfully thwarting his pursuers for a time.

John Herbert Dillinger was born on June 22, 1903, in the middle-class Oak Hill section of Indianapolis. His father, a hardworking grocer, raised him in an atmosphere of disciplinary extremes, harsh and repressive on some occasions, but generous and permissive on others. John's mother died when he was three, and when his father remarried six years later, John resented his stepmother.

In adolescence, Dillinger was frequently in trouble. Finally, he quit school and got a job in a machine shop in Indianapolis. Although intelligent and a good worker, he soon became bored and often stayed out all night. His father, worried that the temptations of the city were corrupting his teenaged son, sold his property in Indianapolis and moved his family to a farm near Mooresville, Indiana. However, John reacted no better to rural life than he had to that in the city and soon began to run wild again.

After being arrested for auto theft, Dillinger was given the opportunity to enlist in the Navy. There he soon got into more trouble and deserted his ship when it docked in Boston. Returning to Mooresville, he married 16-year-old Beryl Hovius in 1924 and moved to Indianapolis. Dillinger, finding no work in the city, joined the town pool shark, Ed Singleton, in his quest for easy money. They tried to rob a Mooresville grocer, but were quickly apprehended. Singleton pleaded not guilty, stood trial, and was sentenced to two years. Dillinger, following his father's advice, confessed, was convicted of assault and battery with intent to rob and conspiracy to commit a felony, and received joint sentences of 2-to-14 years and 10-to-20 years in the Indiana State Prison. Stunned by the harsh sentence, Dillinger became a tortured, bitter man in prison.

Dillinger's notoriety grew when he made a successful prison break. On May 10, 1933, he was paroled from prison after serving 8-1/2 years of his sentence, and almost immediately Dillinger robbed a bank in Bluffton, Ohio. Dayton police arrested him on September 22, and he was lodged in the county jail in Lima, Ohio, to await trial. In frisking Dillinger, the Lima police found a document outlining a plan for a prison break, but the prisoner denied knowledge of any plan. Four days later, using the same plans, eight of Dillinger's friends escaped from the Indiana State Prison, using shotguns and rifles that had been smuggled into their cells and shooting two guards.

On October 12, three of the escaped prisoners and a parolee from the same prison, Harry Pierpont, Russell Clark, Charles Makley, and Harry Copeland, showed up at the Lima jail where Dillinger was incarcerated. They told the sheriff that they had come to return Dillinger to the Indiana State Prison for violation of his parole. When the sheriff asked to see their credentials, one of the men pulled a gun, shot the sheriff, and beat him into unconsciousness. Then, taking the keys to the jail, the bandits freed Dillinger, locked the sheriff's wife and a deputy in a cell, and, leaving the sheriff to die on the floor, made their getaway.

Dillinger and his gang pulled several bank robberies and also plundered the police arsenals at Auburn, Indiana, and Peru, Indiana, stealing several machine guns, rifles, and revolvers, a quantity of ammunition, and several bulletproof vests. On December 14, John Hamilton, a Dillinger gang member, shot and killed a police detective in Chicago. A month later, the Dillinger gang killed a police officer during the robbery of the First National Bank of East Chicago, Indiana. Then they made their way to Florida and, subsequently, to Tucson, Arizona. There on January 23, 1934, a fire broke out in the hotel where Clark and Makley were hiding under assumed names. Firemen recognized the men from their photographs, and local police arrested them, as well as Dillinger and Harry Pierpont. They also seized three Thompson submachine guns, two Winchester rifles mounted as machine guns, five bulletproof vests, and more than $25,000 in cash, part of it from the East Chicago robbery.

Dillinger was sequestered at the county jail in Crown Point, Indiana, to await trial for the murder of the East Chicago police officer. Authorities boasted that the jail was "escape proof," but on March 3, 1934, Dillinger cowed the guards with what he claimed later was a wooden gun he had whittled. He forced them to open the door to his cell, then grabbed two machine guns, locked up the guards and several trustees, and fled in the sheriff's car, hightailing it to nearby Illinois. The stunt earned headlines around the world and put Dillinger as a top priority on FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's hit list.

By stealing the sheriff's car and driving it across a state line, Dillinger had violated the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, which made it a Federal offense to transport a stolen motor vehicle across a state line. A Federal complaint was sworn charging Dillinger with the theft and interstate transportation of the sheriff's car, which actively involved the FBI in the nationwide search for Dillinger.

Meanwhile, Pierpont, Makley, and Clark were returned to Ohio, convicted of the murder of the Lima sheriff, with Pierpont and Makley being sentenced to death, and Clark to life imprisonment. But in an escape attempt, Makley was killed and Pierpont was wounded. A month later, Pierpont had recovered sufficiently to be executed.

Hoover protégé Melvin Purvis was put in charge of capturing Dillinger, and in late April, "Nervous" Purvis received a tip-off that the bandit was holed up at Little Bohemia, a lakeside resort in Wisconsin. Purvis and his team blundered onto the resort grounds and blazed away indiscriminately at what proved to be innocent customers leaving a restaurant.

While an agent was telephoning about the debacle, the operator broke in to tell him there was trouble at another cottage about two miles away. FBI Special Agent W. Carter Baum, another FBI agent, and a constable went there and found a parked car which the constable recognized as belonging to a local resident. They pulled up and identified themselves. Inside the other car, "Baby Face" Nelson, a member of Dillinger's gang, was holding three local residents at gunpoint. He turned, leveled a revolver at the lawmen's car, and ordered them to step out. But without waiting for them to comply, Nelson opened fire. Baum was killed, and the constable and the other agent were severely wounded. Nelson jumped into the Ford they had been using and fled.

For the second time in three weeks, Dillinger had made the Feds look like fools. Hoover appointed a trusted Washington inspector, Sam Cowley, to take thirty handpicked men and form a special Dillinger squad in Chicago, though Purvis remained Agent in Charge. Dillinger was rated Public Enemy Number One and was featured on Wanted posters all over the United States. Eliminating him had become a public relations imperative, despite the lack of proof that he personally had ever killed anyone.

Late in the afternoon of Saturday, July 21, 1934, the madam of a brothel in Gary, Indiana, contacted one of the police officers with information. This woman called herself Anna Sage; however, her real name was Ana Cumpanas, and she had entered the United States from her native Rumania in 1914. Because of the nature of her profession, she was considered an undesirable alien by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and deportation proceedings had started. Anna was willing to sell the FBI some information about Dillinger for a cash reward, plus the FBI's help in preventing her deportation.

At a meeting with Anna, Cowley and Purvis were cautious. They promised her the reward if her information led to Dillinger's capture, but said all they could do was call her cooperation to the attention of the Department of Labor, which at that time handled deportation matters. Satisfied, Anna told the agents that a girl friend of hers, Polly Hamilton, had visited her establishment with Dillinger. Anna had recognized Dillinger from a newspaper photograph.

Anna told the agents that she, Polly Hamilton, and Dillinger probably would be going to the movies the following evening at either the Biograph or the Marbro Theaters. She said that she would notify them when the theater was chosen. She also said that she would wear a red dress so that they could identify her.

On Sunday, July 22, Anna Sage called to confirm the plans, but she still did not know which theater they would attend. Therefore, agents and policemen were sent to both theaters. At 8:30 p.m., Anna Sage, John Dillinger, and Polly Hamilton strolled into the Biograph Theater to see Clark Gable in Manhattan Melodrama. Purvis phoned Cowley, who shifted the other men from the Marbro to the Biograph.

Cowley also phoned Hoover for instructions, who cautioned them to wait outside rather than risk a shooting match inside the crowded theater. Each man was instructed not to unnecessarily endanger himself and was told that if Dillinger offered any resistance, it would be each man for himself.

At 10:30 p.m., Dillinger, with his two female companions on either side, walked out of the theater and turned to his left. As they walked past the doorway in which Purvis was standing, Purvis lit a cigar as a signal for the other men to close in. Dillinger quickly realized what was happening and acted by instinct. He grabbed a pistol from his right trouser pocket as he ran toward the alley. Five shots were fired from the guns of three FBI agents. Three of the shots hit Dillinger and he fell face down on the pavement. At 10:50 p.m. on July 22, 1934, John Dillinger was pronounced dead in a little room in the Alexian Brothers Hospital.

The agents who fired at Dillinger were Charles B. Winstead, Clarence O. Hurt, and Herman E. Hollis. Each man was commended by J. Edgar Hoover for fearlessness and courageous action. None of them ever said who actually killed Dillinger. The events of that sultry July night in Chicago marked the beginning of the end of the Gangster Era. Eventually, 27 persons were convicted in Federal courts on charges of harboring and aiding and abetting John Dillinger and his cronies during their reign of terror. "Baby Face" Nelson was fatally wounded on November 27, 1934, in a gun battle with FBI agents in which Special Agents Cowley and Hollis also were killed.

Dillinger was buried in Crown Point Cemetery in Indianapolis, Indiana. It has long been rumored that his supposedly generously endowed member was kept in storage at the Smithsonian. In his 1970 book The Dillinger Dossier, Jay Robert Nash, citing flaws in the autopsy evidence and detailed testimony, even offers the thesis that Dillinger did not die in Chicago at all, but rather an underworld fall guy sent to take his place.

In 1945, former bootleggers turned filmmakers, the King Brothers, Frank and Maurice, produced a low budget, largely non-factual biography of Dillinger called Dillinger, which starred Lawrence Tierney and was scripted by famous front Philip Yordan. It surprised the film industry by turning a tidy profit. A third of the film consisted of stock footage lifted from other classic gangster films, from Howard Hawks' Scarface to Fritz Lang's You Only Live Once. The film's non-stop action set a pattern for future gangster epics from the 1960s onward, but was unique for its time.

Writer-director John Milius made his film debut with another biography of Dillinger called simply Dillinger (1973) and starring Warren Oates, though it too owes little to the actual facts of Dillinger's life. Dillinger's noted demise also inspired Lewis Teague's film The Lady in Red (1979; also known as Guns, Sin and Bathtub Gin), scripted by John Sayles with Robert Conrad playing the famed bank robber. Other treatments of Dillinger on film include Young Dillinger (1965), Dillinger and Capone (1995), and a documentary, Appointment with Death: The Last Days of John Dillinger (1971).

Dillinger's legacy continued to be enshrined in song and story. Hoover put a plaster cast of the gangster's face on display at FBI headquarters and for years Hoover's reception room contained a.38 automatic that was purported to be Dillinger's gun, even though the particular make of Colt did not leave the factory until December 1934, five months after the Dillinger shooting. Dillinger had been inflated from a simple bank robber into a legend, and remains one to this day.

—Dennis Fischer

Further Reading:

Cromie, Robert, and Joseph Pinkston. Dillinger: A Short and Violent Life. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1962.

Girardin, G. Russell. Dillinger: The Untold Story. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1994.

Nash, Jay Robert. The Dillinger Dossier. Highland Park, Illinois, December Press, 1983

Nash, Jay Robert, and Ron Offen. Dillinger: Dead or Alive? Henry Regnery, 1970.

Summers, Anthony. Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover. New York, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1993.

Toland, John. The Dillinger Days. New York, Random House, 1963.

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