When 17-year-old Beryl Hovious met John Dillinger at a party, she described him as a perfect gentleman who went out of his way to make her smile — a far cry from the infamous criminal he would become.
Beryl Hovious was an ordinary girl — apart from her marriage to one of America’s most infamous gangsters. At only 17 years old, Hovious married John Dillinger and began her life with him in 1920s Indiana.
Only a couple months into the couple’s union, the police arrested Dillinger for a failed robbery plot. While her husband was in prison, Hovious would eventually seek a divorce. Her former husband would become one of the most notorious criminals in American history — and she lived out the rest of her life as the ex-wife of America’s “Public Enemy Number One.”
This is her story.
The Early And Rather Ordinary Life Of Beryl Hovious
Beryl Hovious was born in Stinesville, Indiana, on August 6, 1906. The Hovious family included Stephen Hovious and his second wife, Cora Vandeventer Hovious, as well as their daughters, Beryl and Mary.
The Hovious family moved to Martinsville, Indiana, in the early 1920s. Stephen’s father, William, had lived in the area for quite some time, and the family felt it was a good place to put roots.
The Hovious family did not come from money, and Stephen Hovious worked hard as a farmer and hunter to provide for them.
Thankfully, the family had enough resources to send Beryl and her sister to school. As a student, Beryl made a name for herself as a diligent learner who was quick to make friends.
While living in Martinsville, Beryl Hovious, then 17, met John Dillinger, 20, at a party hosted by one of her friends in late 1923.
The two were instantly attracted to one another.
Beryl’s great nephew, Tony Stewart, recounts in his piece about their relationship how Beryl was drawn to John’s politeness and good manners.
“She described him as a perfect gentleman who made her feel special. He would open doors for her, lend her his handkerchief when she needed it and always seemed to find a way to make her laugh,” Stewart wrote.
By December 1923, the two were going steady.
Life As The Wife Of John Dillinger
On April 12, 1924, Beryl Hovious married John Dillinger in a small ceremony in Martinsville.
Despite only being 17 at the time of her wedding, Beryl had the approval of her family to marry Dillinger. They considered him a kind and dedicated young man, a far cry from what the future newspaper headlines would detail about him
After the wedding, the couple moved into a small bedroom at the Dillinger farm but later moved into the Hovious home after the space became too cramped.
By 1924, Dillinger found a job as a furniture upholster, providing the couple with enough income to rent a home on Main Street in Martinsville.
Beryl recalled her time with Dillinger in their home fondly. She stated that he would always bring her gifts and other trinkets upon returning from work. In their day-to-day life, Beryl would enjoy quiet evenings with Dillinger, listening to the radio, reading, playing card games, and having conversations.
Later, Dillinger got a job at an Indianapolis machine shop 80 miles away, and Beryl made dinner for him every night.
The two seemed to live in domestic bliss, but that all changed with one bad drunken decision.
John Dillinger’s Fateful Night Out
On September 6, 1924, John Dillinger told Beryl Hovious that he planned to spend the night shooting pool with some friends.
Beryl, who was used to Dillinger playing billiards with friends, had no objections. So Dillinger left home to meet William Singleton, a man who had served time in jail for armed robbery.
The two celebrated their night out with a jug of corn liquor, becoming increasingly intoxicated as the night progressed.
At some point, Singleton began explaining his plan to rob a 65-year-old grocer named Frank Morgan. Singleton painted the event as a quick and easy way to make some money, and Dillinger wanted in.
Together, the pair attacked Frank Morgan outside a church but attracted unwanted attention in the process. Singleton reportedly jumped into a car and left Dillinger at the scene.
Police arrested Dillinger, and despite it being his first offense, the judge gave him an aggressive sentence to serve time at the Indiana Reformatory in Pendleton, Indiana, and later in the state prison.
The End Of A Marriage And The Start Of A Life Of Crime
Despite being separated by prison bars and hundreds of miles, Beryl Hovious and John Dillinger remained married and tried to stay in frequent contact.
In the first few years of Dillinger’s incarceration, the couple sent each other love letters. In one such letter, documented by PBS, Dillinger wrote:
Dearest we will be so happy when I can come home to you and chase your sorrows away and it wont take any kids to keep me home with you allways. For sweetheart I love you so all I want is to just be with you and make you happy. I wonder if I will get an interview Monday, I sure hope so for I am dying to see you. Darling have some pictures taken, every time I see you, you look dearer and sweeter to me so I want late pictures. Now say rassberries but honey it’s the truth. I sure am crazy about you. . . . Write soon and come sooner.
Evidently, the separation was tough on Beryl. For a woman in the 1920s, she was largely unable to work to provide for herself, and the financial burden of being a woman with an incarcerated husband was starting to become too much to bear.
Despite not believing in divorce, Beryl filed for it in 1929, only five years into Dillinger’s sentence. Dillinger was furious. While incarcerated, he earned the reputation of a problem prisoner.
In 1933, Dillinger was released from prison and began his brutal life of crime that included robbery, prison breaks, and murder.
Beryl Hovious’ Life In The Shadow Of Dillinger’s Crimes
Following her divorce, Beryl Hovious married her lawyer, Harold McGowen. This marriage only lasted two years, however.
Then, in 1932, Beryl met and married Charles Byrum, a divorcee from Martinsville. During their marriage, the couple adopted a daughter as Beryl could not carry children of her own.
The two lived peacefully together until Charles died in 1968. After this, Beryl lived the rest of her life as a widow.
Despite divorcing Dillinger at a young age, Beryl never seemed able to rid herself of him.
Throughout the 1930s, Dillinger rose to fame as America’s “Public Enemy Number One.” The Federal Bureau of Investigation wanted him dead or captured more than anything, and his likeness plastered on every wall made him somewhat of a celebrity.
Back in Indiana, Dillinger and his gang would frequently stay at the home of Beryl’s brother, William. There, the gang would rest in between bank heists and practice their shooting.
When Dillinger spoke to William, he often asked about Beryl. According to Stewart, Dillinger was still in love with her and had attempted to reconcile with her on several occasions.
With her death at age 87 on November 30, 1993, Beryl took many details of her short relationship with Dillinger to the grave. And whether out of shame, anger, or pain, Beryl has only publicly spoken about her relationship with Dillinger once, leaving the public with only snippets of what it was like to be married to America’s “Public Enemy Number One.”
After reading about Beryl Hovious, discover the story of Maria Victoria Henao, the wife of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Then, read the story of Paula Dietz, the wife of serial killer Dennis Rader, otherwise known as BTK.