Depression-Era Bank Robber John Dillinger Will Rise From His Grave — For A History Channel Documentary

Published July 31, 2019
Updated August 15, 2019

“The only good thing about it is it keeps Dillinger’s name in the news.”

John Dillinger Mugshot

FBIThe reason behind John Dillinger’s exhumation remains a mystery, just like the man himself.

Some live on in infamy even from beyond the grave, and John Dillinger is one of them. Now, 85 years after his headline-making death, Dillinger’s body will be exhumed from his grave in the Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis — for a History Channel documentary.

According to the IndyStar, the infamous bank robber’s remains will be dug up and reinterred at the request of Dillinger’s nephew, Michael C. Thompson. The family has declined to comment on the exhumation to the press.

While Thompson’s permit request didn’t cite a reason for the exhumation, a spokesperson for the History Channel confirmed to the Star that it was part of a new documentary project.

Fittingly, the notorious gangster is still cloaked in mystery even in death. The Indiana State Department of Health agreed to allow Dillinger’s body to be disinterred, as long as it’s returned to its burial place by September 16.

Crown Hill General Manager Aaron Seaman told the Indy Star that the cemetery hasn’t been contacted by the funeral home regarding details of the exhumation — a date hasn’t even been set.

John Dillinger In The Morgue

George Rinhart/Corbis/Getty ImagesJohn Dillinger in the morgue, after he was fatally shot by the FBI. July 1934.

“We have no information, absolutely none,” a woman who answered the phone at the cemetery reaffirmed to the New York Times. She did mention, however, that Dillinger’s grave remained a popular attraction. Fans of the gunned-down gangster regularly stop by the cemetery office to ask where his gravestone is.

Dillinger’s visitors often leave items at the tomb of one of America’s greatest criminals, including flowers, coins, and — of course — bullets.

Indiana’s Department of Health spokeswoman Jennifer O’Malley said she did not know the exact plans for Dillinger’s remains but that the single date listed on the exhumation permit suggested “all actions related to this event will occur the same day.”

This isn’t the first time Dillinger’s body has been the object of public fascination.

After he was gunned down by FBI agents outside a Chicago movie theater on July 22, 1934, the public lined up to see his corpse at the city morgue.

John Dillinger's Corpse

Bettmann/Getty ImagesPeople examining Dillinger’s corpse at a morgue in Chicago. July 1934.

Thirty years later, the New York Times reported that a Wisconsin showman had offered Dillinger’s father $10,000 so he could “borrow” his son’s body for a while. The family had to fortify Dillinger’s grave with three feet of concrete so the body wouldn’t get stolen.

John Dillinger was a special breed: a convicted criminal whom the public adored.

He was often likened to a Great Depression-era Robin Hood, the clever outlaw who robbed from the rich (in this case the banks) and outwitted the cold-hearted authorities.

After his release from his first prison stint in May of 1933, he planned and successfully carried out a series of bank heists with a few bandits of his choosing.

John Dillinger Grave

justin_theartist/Instagram“Nerding out and leaving money for notorious bank robber and America’s first Public Enemy No. 1” writes one fanatic after visiting the grave.

Dillinger was finally caught by the police and charged for the bank robberies in September of that same year, but he escaped from prison a month later. He was caught again, escaped again, and in the summer of 1934 was finally done in by his girlfriend’s brothel madam who had snitched on his whereabouts to the feds. He was killed in a shoot-out with the FBI outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater.

Dillinger was the first true “celebrity criminal,” worshipped by the public for his charm and looting skills at the height of the Great Depression, when public resentment against banks hit its 20th-century peak.

“Why should the law have wanted John Dillinger?” a man once wrote to a newspaper in Indianapolis. “He wasn’t any worse than the bankers and politicians who took poor people’s money. Dillinger did not rob poor people. He robbed those who became rich by robbing the poor. I am for Johnnie.”

John Dillinger FBI Mugshot

Wikimedia CommonsJohn Dillinger sporting his signature grin.

The bank robber even inspired this kind of sympathy from people who he held hostage during his heists on account that he treated them very well during the stick-ups.

“Johnnie’s just an ordinary fellow,” a girlfriend of one of his squad members argued. “Of course, he goes out and holds up banks and things, but he’s really just like any other fellow, aside from that.”

Much like the man himself, rumors about his grave swirled among the public. In the months before his assassination, he got some minor plastic surgery (smoothing out his chin cleft, removing some moles) to help avoid detection). Some claimed that the elusive robber had somehow cheated death by using a double on the night he was murdered, which meant that the body inside John Dillinger’s grave was not his.

But biographer Bill Helmer, who wrote the book Dillinger: The Untold Story, has cast these theories as “total nonsense.” Helmer argues that there might not be anything new to learn from the exhumation of his remains since his death was so well-documented.

“The only good thing about it,” Helmer said, “is it keeps Dillinger’s name in the news.”

Just as it was when he was alive.

Now that you’ve caught up on the news about John Dillinger’s mysterious exhumation, read the story of another famous robber, Cowboy Bob, who successfully evaded the FBI. Next, learn why America’s first serial killer, H.H. Holmes, was also exhumed.

Natasha Ishak
A former staff writer for All That's Interesting, Natasha Ishak holds a Master's in journalism from Emerson College and her work has appeared in VICE, Insider, Vox, and Harvard's Nieman Lab.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Ishak, Natasha. "Depression-Era Bank Robber John Dillinger Will Rise From His Grave — For A History Channel Documentary.", July 31, 2019, Accessed May 18, 2024.