John Herbert Dillinger (June 22, 1903 – July 22, 1934) was an American bank robber, considered by some to be a notorious and dangerous criminal, while others considered him a Robin Hood-like hero. He gained this reputation for his graceful movement during bank heists, e.g. leaping over the counter, and narrow getaways from police. His exploits, along with those of other criminals of the 1930s Depression era, such as Bonnie and Clyde and Ma Barker, dominated the attentions of the American press and its readers during what is sometimes referred to as the public enemy era, between 1931 and 1935, a period which led to the further development of the modern and more sophisticated FBI.
Dillinger, the son of a grocer, was born on June 22, 1903, in Indianapolis, Indiana, and grew up in nearby Mooresville. In 1923, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, but deserted within a few months. Dillinger returned to Indiana where he married and attempted to settle down. But things did not go well. He had difficulty holding a job and his marriage disintegrated. One night in 1923, while out on a drinking binge, Dillinger assaulted and robbed a well-known local citizen. He was soon captured, convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison, despite having no prior criminal record.
The experience embittered Dillinger. He embraced the criminal lifestyle behind bars, learning the ropes from seasoned bank robbers like Harry Pierpont. The two planned heists that they would commit just as soon as they were released. Others in the Dillinger gang would include Charles Makley, Homer Van Meter, John "Red" Hamilton, and even Lester Gillis (a.k.a. George Baby Face Nelson), who joined the gang late in their year-long robbery spree. Together they would rob about a dozen banks in that time and steal over $300,000, an enormous sum in the Depression era.
Dillinger served time in Indiana prisons until 1933, when he was paroled. Within four months, he was back in prison in Lima, Ohio. His gang sprang him, killing the jail sheriff Jessie Sarber, but he was captured again by the end of the year in Tucson, Arizona, and sent back to prison in Crown Point, Indiana. He was to face trial for the suspected killing of Officer William O'Malley during a bank shootout in East Chicago, Indiana, some time after his rescue from jail. During this time on trial, the famous photograph was taken of Dillinger putting his arm on prosecutor Robert Estill's shoulder when suggested to him by reporters.
On March 3, 1934, Dillinger escaped from "escape-proof" (as it was dubbed by local authorities at the time) Crown Point, Indiana county jail which was guarded by many police and national guardsmen. Newspapers reported that Dillinger had escaped using a wooden gun blackened with shoe polish. However, a real gun might have been smuggled into the jail instead. In any case, Dillinger, along with fellow inmate named Herbert Youngblood, captured and locked up several guards, disabled vehicles in the motor pool, and escaped in the sheriff's car. Driving across the Indiana-Illinois state line in a stolen vehicle, Dillinger violated a federal law and thus caught the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. An investigation concerning the facts of the escape was carried out some time later by the Hargrave Secret Service of Chicago, Illinois on the orders of the Illinois Governor. The governor and Illinois state Attorney General Philip Lutz eventually chose not to release information because they did not want Dillinger to know of the informants with whom they spoke. As a result the findings about the gun in the escape were never made public, and this, coupled with Dillinger himself actively perpetuating the wooden gun story as an ego boost, is a reason many believe the "wooden gun" escape was real. The truth behind the infamous gun may never be known.
Once out of prison, he continued to rob banks and was eventually named Public Enemy Number One by the FBI. The United States Department of Justice offered a $10,000 reward on June 23 for Dillinger's capture, or $5,000 for information leading to his apprehension.
In April, the gang settled at a lodge hideout called Little Bohemia owned by Emil Wanatka, in the northern Wisconsin town of Manitowish Waters. The gang assured the owners that they would give no trouble, but the owners monitored the gang whenever they left or spoke on the phone. Emil's wife Nan and her brother managed to evade Baby Face Nelson, who was tailing them, and mailed a letter of warning to a U.S. Attorney's office in Chicago, which later contacted the FBI. Days later, nearly a score of FBI agents led by Hugh Clegg and Melvin Purvis approached the lodge in the early morning dark. Two barking watchdogs announced their arrival, but the gang was so used to Nan Wanatka's dogs that they did not bother to inspect the disturbance. It was only after the FBI mistakenly gunned down 3 innocents thought to be members of the gang as they were about to drive away in their car that the Dillinger gang awoke. Gunfire between the groups lasted only momentarily, but the whole gang managed to escape in various ways despite the FBI's efforts to surround and storm the lodge.
Dillinger's last day of freedom was July 22, 1934. Dillinger attended the film Manhattan Melodrama at the Biograph Theater in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago with his girlfriend, Polly Hamilton, and brothel owner Ana Cumpanas (.a.k.a. Anna Sage), who was facing deportation charges. Sage worked out a deal with Purvis and the FBI to set up an ambush for Dillinger and drop the deportation charges against her. When they exited the theater that night, Sage tipped off the FBI who opened fire into the back of Dillinger, killing him. Sage had identified herself to agent Melvin Purvis by wearing an agreed-upon orange and white dress, which despite the coloring, led to the enduring notion of the "Lady in Red" as a betraying character. Though she had delivered Dillinger as promised, Sage was still deported to her home country of Romania in 1936, where she remained until her death 11 years later.
To this day, loyal fans continue to observe "John Dillinger Day" (July 22) as a way to remember the fabled bank robber. Even at the scene of his death outside the theater, several witnesses soaked their handkerchiefs in his blood as a sort of souvenir of the legend. Members of the "John Dillinger Died for You Society" traditionally gather at the Biograph Theater on the anniversary of Dillinger's death and retrace his last walk to the alley where he died, following a bagpiper playing "Amazing Grace".
Was it Dillinger?
To this day, there are doubts whether Dillinger actually died on July 22, 1934. Some researchers (chief among them famed Chicago crime writer Jay Robert Nash) believe that the dead man was in truth a petty criminal from Wisconsin named Jimmy Lawrence, who had dated Dillinger's sometime girlfriend Billie Frechette and bore a close resemblance to the famed bank robber. Some people who knew him said they did not recognize the body; in fact, Dillinger's father had suddenly exclaimed when first seeing his son's corpse, "That's not my boy!" After all, John Dillinger did receive rather crude plastic surgery some time before his death. Moreover, if indeed the agents did mistake Lawrence for Dillinger, the FBI would have had a strong incentive to cover up such a blunder, since J. Edgar Hoover was on the verge of being fired as Bureau director in the wake of the extensive public outrage over the earlier Little Bohemia incident. An autopsy contained information that was controversial, such as:
- None of his scars were mentioned in the report. (Actually, the dead man was positively identified as John Dillinger by his sister Audrey, by a scar on his leg received in childhood.)
- The corpse had brown eyes. Dillinger's were grey, according to police files. (This may have been an error on the part of the coroner, resulting from eye discoloration caused by a traumatic head wound.)
- The body showed signs of some childhood illness, which Dillinger never had. (This may be another error. The dead man had a rheumatic heart condition. So did John Dillinger, according to the later testimony of Dr. Patrick Weeks, who had been Dillinger's physician at Indiana State Prison.)
However, one disturbing fact does remain. The small Colt semiautomatic pistol that Dillinger had allegedly drawn on the approaching FBI agents outside the Biograph (and was for years shown in a display case at FBI Headquarters along with Dillinger's death mask) was not his; it in fact had been manufactured five months after Dillinger's death, which supports the claim that the FBI agents, without warning, shot and killed an unarmed Dillinger.
In 1969 the newspaper The Indianapolis Star received a letter from a person called "John Dillinger". The letter contained a photo of a man who looked like a more aged Dillinger. The letter was bogus. The FBI has at least two sets of post mortem fingerprints of the dead man. Though scarred by acid, the prints were clearly identifiable as those of John Dillinger.
A lot of legends surround John Dillinger. One of the rumors that followed his death was that he had a very large penis. This legend is the result of the photograph of his corpse; the bulge caused by his arm, stiff from rigor mortis, covered with a sheet; some who saw grainy newsprint copies of the photo mistakenly believed it to be his unnaturally large erect penis.
While considered a great bank robber, he was not the most successful of that era. Harvey Bailey is credited as being the greatest bank robber of the 1920s and 1930s, but is largely forgotten today.
John Dillinger is one of the main characters in the science fiction series of books, The Illuminatus! Trilogy, which plays off the rumor that Dillinger was not the man gunned down outside the Biograph.
Stephen King also wrote a short story called "The Death Of Jack Hamilton", in which Dillinger was a main character. It also plays off the rumor that Dillinger was not gunned down.
- FBI's famous cases: "John Dillinger"
- Pictures of postmortem Dillinger, including that featuring the arm in rigor mortis