John Dillinger: The Making Of A Rock Star Bank Robber

Published August 7, 2014
Updated September 18, 2014
John Dillinger Smirk

Evolution of Dillinger’s trademark smirk: Dillinger as a teen with his father on the left, and on the right in what is perhaps his most famous mug shot Sources: Wikipedia and Blogspot

July 22 was the 80th anniversary of John Dillinger’s violent death. During the Great Depression, due to his many bank robberies and escapes from prison, he became the burgeoning FBI’s Public Enemy #1.

Dillinger entered the crime world early on in his life. To impress a girl on a date, a young John Dillinger stole a car. When he was caught and the policeman didn’t believe his vague answers, Dillinger ran. Knowing it wouldn’t be safe to return home, he joined the Navy. Being an outlaw at heart–he soon went AWOL for good.

John Dillinger Navy

John Dillinger, far left, with some Navy buddies Source: Google

That didn’t last too long, though. Dillinger deserted the vessel some months after joining, and was eventually dishonorably discharged from the Navy. He then went back home to Mooresville, Indiana, where he then met a sixteen-year-old girl named Beryl Hovious. He married her in April 1924.

For extra cash that summer, he played shortstop for the Martinsville Athletics; he had the team’s highest batting average. On the ball field he met Edgar Singleton, an umpire and ex-con who helped plan Dillinger’s first robbery.

John Dillinger Baseball

John Dillinger (back row, second from right standing next to the manager) with his baseball team, the Athletics Source: Old Time Family Baseball

Singleton knew a local grocer who carried the day’s deposit down the street at the same time every day. Dillinger planned to grab the cash and run to Singleton’s car around the corner. Dillinger was packing a pistol and a handkerchief that held a large bolt.

He whacked the grocer on the head with the bolt, but to Dillinger’s chagrin it didn’t knock the fellow out. Instead, the elderly grocer grabbed for Dillinger’s gun; it went off in the scuffle. Dillinger was certain he’d shot the grocer (he hadn’t); he fled to Singleton’s getaway car, but it wasn’t there.

Both men were arrested. Singleton’s lawyer got him two to four years. Dillinger faced the judge alone and wound up with ten to twenty years in the Indiana State Reformatory.

This outsized sentence changed him. Years later, he wrote his father: “I know I have been a big disappointment to you but I guess I did too much time, for where I went in a carefree boy, I came out bitter toward everything in general … if I had gotten off more leniently when I made my first mistake this would never have happened.”

John Dillinger Indiana Reformatory

John Dillinger’s first taste of life behind bars, Indiana State Reformatory in Clarksville Source: Harry Pierpont

Despite his many love letters to her, Beryl divorced him while he was imprisoned, on the grounds that he was a convicted felon. He was heartbroken. That feeling drove him to make a life-altering decision.

To join two friends who’d been moved there, Harry Pierpont and Homer Van Meter, Dillinger requested a transfer to Indiana State Prison, where he learned the ropes of crime from experienced criminals. Especially important was Walter Dietrich, later a member of the Dillinger gang, who instructed him in a precisely timed style of bank robbery. Dillinger was released on parole in May 1933. By July 1934, he was dead.

John Dillinger Tommy Gun

This photo of Dillinger posing with a tommy gun was signed by his father, John Dillinger, Sr., who toured the country after his son’s death with a show called “Crime Doesn’t Pay” Source: iCollector

Leslie Maryann Neal
Leslie Maryann Neal is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. She received her BA in English from California State University, Long Beach.
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