At a time when banks were screwing over Americans right and left, outlaw-bank robber John Dillinger became an unlikely hero across the United States.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Parole didn’t last long. To raise funds to help Pierpont and Van Meter break out of prison, Dillinger joined Pierpont’s associates in several robberies. Before police arrested him, he managed to pack a few guns in a box of thread to smuggle into the shirt-making factory at the prison, and Pierpont and Van Meter used them to escape.
Dillinger was held at the Lima, Ohio jail. Pierpont and Van Meter broke him out; Pierpont shot the sheriff (but he did not shoot the deputy) in charge of the jail. They were all accessories to murder.
This is when Dillinger’s whirlwind year began. He put together his gang, vetting all members carefully. They kept a low profile, dressed like businessmen, and lived relatively quiet lives with their wives or girlfriends. That is, when they weren’t robbing banks.
That summer, they robbed a few banks in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. The gang was singular in their flair and would case the joint using a ruse. At one point, they told a bank manager they were looking at locations to shoot a movie. Then, they’d return and perform a well-timed act.
Stories began to circulate about their gentlemanly robberies. Once, a farmer was at a teller window, making a cash deposit. Dillinger asked him if the cash belonged to him or the bank. When the farmer said it was his, Dillinger replied, “Keep it. We only want the bank’s.”
The gang scored nearly $153,000 in 1933 alone. In the midst of the Great Depression, their antics piqued the public’s interest. The gang got a kick out of the publicity; Dillinger kept newspaper clippings. He read about himself in a Dubuque, Iowa newspaper; it was found in a car he had stolen and abandoned.
On January 15, the gang robbed a bank in East Chicago. Their haul was $20,000, but a cop was gunned down in the process, probably by Dillinger. He is arrested on January 30, and put back in the Crown Point jail.
The wife of the sheriff Pierpont had killed was completing his term; she had jurisdiction over the Crown Point jail. According to eyewitnesses, in the film below, she is boasting that he’d never break out on her watch. Dillinger laughs and says he would.
And on March 3, he did escape. He carved a piece of wood into the shape of a pistol and colored it black with shoe polish. With this fake gun, he got past several guards and stole the sheriff’s car, bringing a garage attendant with him for a while as a hostage:
He broke federal law when he drove the car over state lines, so the case fell to J. Edgar Hoover and his Deptartment of Investigation, which we know today as the FBI. In June 1934, Hoover named Dillinger the very first Public Enemy #1.
On July 22, 1934, Dillinger went to see a movie with two lady friends, not aware that one of them had sold him out. When they exited the Biograph theater, DOI agents led by Melvin Purvis shot him in the face. The rock star bank robber was dead.
Judy Garland meets John Dillinger:
That’s when the morgue circus began. Thousands of people lined up in the muggy Chicago heat–so extreme that 23 people died from it in Chicago on July 22 –for hours to see his body.
There’s a conspiracy theory that has been circulating ever since, that the DOI shot the wrong man and Dillinger is really still alive. The DOI explains that the differences between the corpse’s face and photos of the man are due to plastic surgery he’d had that year. He was the most wanted man in the country–and highly recognizable. It seems possible, but who knows?
Here’s a shot of him in life:
And in death.
Dillinger was the most talked about person in the nation in 1934. The public rooted for him. The banks had screwed them over, causing the Great Depression, so they had no sympathy for the institutions’ losses. Dillinger became a Robin Hood figure, even though he didn’t give his loot away.