Tuesday, June 22, 2010

June 22: John Dillinger, Public Enemy #1

John Dillinger, Johnnie Dillinger
The G-Men will chop you down
Some of the things that you've done done
Have been makin' the government frown.
Your numbers up, the words gone round
You won't be goin back to jail
You'll be a bull's eye for the police
And they'll throw the lead like hail.

This first stanza of a song refers to a man that America loved or hated, viewed as a killer or a Robin Hood, and who even today stirs controversy on whether he really died on that night of July 28, 1935, in a hail of bullets that reportedly struck him down in an alley next to the Biograph Theater in Chicago, Illinois.

John Herbert Dillinger, Jr., was born at 2 P.M. on Monday, June 22, 1903, in a middle-class residential neighborhood in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was the younger of two children – his sister, Mildred, was fourteen years his senior – whose parents were John Wilson Dillinger and Mary Ellen “Mollie” Lancaster.

As a child, Dillinger was beset by a litany of social issues that combined to – in the eyes of some – force him into a life of a rebel and criminal. His father earned his living as a grocer and was inconsistent in his application of discipline. His father went from being harsh, repressive, and physical at times to being generous and permissive at other times. Dillinger’s mother, Mary, died when he was three, and he would show resentment and rebellion when his father remarried seven years later. Basically he was raised by his older teenage sister until his father remarried.

His father would have three more children by his second wife, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Fields.

Dillinger often found himself in trouble as an adolescent. He was a bully in school and had his own group of followers when he was ten years old. Impatient, intelligent with no interest in academics, he finally quit school and went to work in a machine shop in Indianapolis. However, Dillinger – who was very intelligent and a good worker – became bored with his job and often stayed out all night. In a desperate attempt to provide a healthier atmosphere for his children, Dillinger’s father sold his property in Indianapolis and moved to a farm near Mooresville, Indiana. Seventeen-year old Dillinger would commute to work in Indianapolis – and never grew to enjoy farm life.

In 1923 Dillinger got into trouble with the law because of auto theft (he was caught by police officers, but escaped before being booked) and did what many young men in his situation did - enlisted in the Navy. After his basic training was complete, he was assigned to the battleship Utah as a Fireman, Third Class – which meant his spent his work shift shoveling coal in the bowels of the ship – and went AWOL when the ship docked in Boston. He returned a day later, was fined and sentenced to the brig by a court marshal, and four months later deserted.

When he returned to Mooresville he claimed that he had received an honorable discharge because of a heart murmur, then wooed and married sixteen-year-old Beryl Ethel Hovious on April 12, 1924. They ultimately settled in Indianapolis, where Dillinger had worked briefly at a variety of jobs. He joined Ed Singleton in a bid for ‘easy money’ and tried to rob a grocer. They were apprehended and Dillinger was sentenced to prison for up to 30 years. Beryl would divorce Dillinger in 1929 – and a month after the divorce Dillinger requested to be transferred from the Indiana State Reformatory to the Indiana State Prison, where he could associate with a

On May 10, 1933, Dillinger was paroled because his step-mother was dying, only to discover that she had died by the time he got home. Although at first his relations with her had been strained, he had grown to respect and love her. After the various emotional upheavals in his life, with the Great Depression at its depths, with little prospect or inclination for steady employment, he began his rise to infamy.

John Dillinger, Johnnie Dillinger
The finger will be laid on you
And the G-Man watchin' with his gun
Is goin to get you too.
When he stops you Johnnie
He's gonna stop you dead
And head you out for the golden gate
Packin a load of lead.
He started a crime spree of robbing several banks in Ohio that lasted from June 10, 1933 until his arrest Sept. 22, 1933. When the authorities searched Dillinger they found plans for what looked like a prison break. While Dillinger denied any knowledge of it, a number of his Indiana State Prison cellmates broke out of prison, shooting two guards with guns that had been previously smuggled in by Dillinger - and using plans very similiar to those found on Dillinger. On October 12, 1933, they arrived at Lima, Ohio, and broke Dillinger out of the county jail, killing Sheriff Jessie Sarber. Dillinger had his “gang”.

The Dillinger gang travelled through Indiana, robbing several banks and plundering two police arsenals – equipping themselves with rifles, Thompson submachine guns, pistols, bulletproof vests, and ammunition. They also killed several police officers in Indiana and Illinois.

Deciding to let things ‘cool off’, they vacationed in Florida, and then travelled to Tucson Arizona. On January 23, 1934 a fire broke out in the hotel the men were staying in while in Tucson – and the police arrested four of the men, including Dillinger, after firemen recognized them from their photographs.

Dillinger was sent to the ‘escape proof’ county jail at Crown Point, Indiana to await trial for robbery and murder. While there Dillinger was interviewed by several reporters who were impressed with his charisma and sense of humor. They added his escapades by relating the mortgages he destroyed while robbing banks, and even contributions his gang made to the poor. He even had his picture taken with prosecutor Robert Estill – a picture that would ruin Estill’s career.

On March 3, 1934, he tricked his guards with a wooden gun he had whittled and painted black with shoe polish. After forcing his guards to open his cell door, he grabbed two Thompson submachine guns, locked up the guards and several trustees, and left the jail. He stole Sheriff Lillian Holley’s car, and crossed the Indiana-Illinois state line as he headed to Chicago.

The act of transporting a stolen vehicle across state lines brought the precursor of the FBI - the United States Bureau of Investigation - into the case.

Dillinger formed a new gang and began robbing banks again, and hide out in Little Bohemia, Wisconsin. By this time Dillinger is front-page news, and locals in the area report an unusually high number of tourists to the United States Bureau of Investigation. United States Bureau of Investigation agents surround the Little Bohemia Lodge, only to discover that Dillinger and five of his gang members fled out of a back window to freedom.

The heat was on. Dillinger now made Chicago his hideout, and on May 27, 1934, had minor plastic surgery to alter his features. He spent several weeks recovering from the surgery in the home of a local bar owner, Jimmy Probasco.

Dillinger was able to celebrate his 31st birthday by reading U.S. Attorney General Homer Cummings’ declaration that Dillinger was Public Enemy #1. Dillinger took his current sweetheart, Polly Hamilton, out to dinner. A few days later the Justice Department offered a $10,000 reward the arrest of Dillinger. A week later, on June 30, 1934, Dillinger showed his lack of concern by robbing a bank in South Bend, Indiana.

Back in Chicago, Dillinger moved into an apartment owned by Anna Sage – an illegal immigrant who owned several brothels, and was Polly Hamilton’s landlady. In order to broker a deal to stay in the country, Sage promises to turn over Dillinger to the federal agents.

On July 22, 1934, Dillinger had dinner at Seminary Restaurant, went to a Cubs game, and then took Sage and Hamilton to a movie at the Biograph Theater – which offered an “air-cooled” environment that was especially appealing on a hot summer day in Chicago.

Sage made a quick phone call to the federal agents, telling them of Dillinger’s movie plans. When Dillinger and the two women left the movie theater at 10:30 PM over twenty federal agents were waiting for them.

O Billy the Kid and the Dalton Boys
And others of their kin
Were bad gun
men outside the law
But they were brave gun men within
Now you know the
old time story
How Billy met his end
It's too late to change you now
So long, old friend.
Dillinger sensed the ambush, turned, and fled into an alley. A hail of bullets followed, four hitting him, and one of these entering Dillinger’s neck and exiting through his right eye, instantly killing him.

Three days later the remains of John Dillinger were laid to rest at the Crown Hill Cemetery, Mason County, Indiana. He had come home.


Chicago Tribune
Find A Grave
Google books: John Dillinger
John Dillinger
John Dillinger Museum
Tru Crime Library

Library of Congress: John Dillinger (song title)


John Dillinger, FBI
Dillinger and Estill, True TV
Dillinger’s Wooden Gun, Examiner
Arrest Warrant for Dillinger, National Archives
Wanted Poster, National Archives
The Biograph Theater, Chicago Tribune
The Dillinger Grave Site, Find A Grave

No comments:

Post a Comment