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Public Enemy #1 | Article

John Dillinger (1903-1934)

William J. Helmer

In April 1934 Warner Brothers released a newsreel showing the Division of Investigation manhunt of John Dillinger, one of the nation's most notorious criminals. The newsreel showed footage of Dillinger's father, an elderly farmer, and the residents of Mooresville, Indiana, Dillinger's hometown. Movie audiences across America cheered when Dillinger's picture appeared on the screen. They hissed at pictures of D.O.I. special agents. When he heard the news, D.O.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover was outraged . He put the town of Mooresville under surveillance, and threatened to prosecute the Dillinger family unless they cooperated with the D.O.I. Hoover was dissuaded from the latter, but members of the family, out of concern for their safety, did agree to be interviewed by federal agents. 

John Herbert Dillinger was born on June 22, 1903, in Indianapolis. His father, John Wilson Dillinger, owned a small grocery store and four houses. His mother, born Mollie Lancaster, died when little Johnnie was three. His sister, Audrey, who was fourteen years older, took care of him until she married a year later. His father remarried when Johnnie was nine. 

The senior Dillinger alternated between disciplining and spoiling his son. He beat Johnnie with a barrel stave, yet gave him enough money for candy. On some days his father would lock Johnnie in the house all day; on others he would let him roam the neighborhood until dark.

Johnnie was constantly getting into trouble. He led a neighborhood gang called the Dirty Dozen, and pilfered coal from railroad freight cars. Most neighbors did not know about Johnnie's exploits, and described him as a cheerful, likable youngster, who dressed neatly and was no more mischievous than any other boy.

At 16, Dillinger dropped out of school and began working at a machine shop, where he did very well. At night he always returned home late, creating tension with his father.

In 1920 the senior Dillinger sold his property in Indianapolis to retire to a farm in Mooresville, Indiana. He was also hoping that the country would provide his son with a wholesome environment. Instead Dillinger kept his job in Indianapolis by commuting 18 miles on his motorcycle. He refused to tell his father about his nightly escapades, which included drinking, fighting, and visiting prostitutes.

After five months in the Navy, Dillinger went AWOL, and married Beryl Hovious on April 12, 1924. He was 20 and she was 16.

On September 6, 1924, Dillinger and his friend, Edgar Singleton, robbed a Mooresville grocer. Frank Morgan was returning home with the week's receipts when the two men assaulted him. Although Dillinger beat Morgan with a cloth-wrapped iron bolt, the grocer was not severely hurt. Dillinger was arrested; his father sternly advised him to plead guilty and take his punishment, which turned out to be quite harsh. Young Johnnie was given the maximum penalty of 10 to 20 years in prison, even though he had no previous criminal record. Singleton, who was much older and did have a prison record, served less than two years of his 2-to-14-year sentence, thanks to his lawyer.

Years later, in October 1933, Dillinger wrote his father a letter from jail:

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.

Dillinger was sent to the Indiana State Reformatory in Pendleton. Although he was occasionally disciplined for disorderly conduct, he was not considered dangerous. He played on the prison baseball team and worked in the shirt factory as a seamster. With his impressive manual dexterity, Dillinger frequently completed twice his daily quota. He secretly helped other men meet their quotas, and made many friends, his closest ones being Harry Pierpont and Homer Van Meter.

Dillinger's wife and family visited him frequently. He wrote often, and his letters were full of warmth and affection. In a letter to his wife, dated August 18, 1928, Dillinger wrote:

Dearest we will be so happy when I can come home to you and chase your sorrows away (...) For sweetheart I love you so all I want is to just be with you and make you happy. (...) Write soon and come sooner.

But Beryl Hovious's heart was not growing fonder. Shortly after receiving this letter, Beryl filed for a divorce, which she obtained on June 20, 1929. Dillinger was devastated. Six years later, while hiding in Chicago, he said, "I began to know how you feel when your heart is breaking. For four years I had looked forward to going back home, and now there wasn't going to be any home to go back to."

The second blow came a month later when Dillinger was denied parole. After achieving exemplary behavior for two years, he was angry. He asked to be sent to the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City. Dillinger told officials the penitentiary had a better baseball team. The truth was that he wanted to leave Mooresville behind and join his old friends Pierpont and Van Meter, who had been transferred there.

At Michigan City, the discipline was harsher, and Dillinger was surprised to see many men his father's age. He became depressed, and did not bother joining the baseball team. Dillinger worked in the shirt factory again, where he once again produced double quotas and assisted less skillful men.

At the penitentiary, Dillinger learned all he could from older inmates. He met Walter Dietrich, who had worked with Herman K. Lamm. A former officer of the German army, Lamm emigrated to the United States. He became successful by applying his military training to bank robbery. He would carefully investigate a bank's layout, and assign each associate a role. The driver of the getaway car would plan the escape route down to tenths of a mile, and practice it several times. Lamm's method worked for thirteen years, until he was killed in a shoot-out with police.

After nine years, Dillinger was paroled on May 22, 1933. He felt that he had paid his debt to society by spending his youth in prison. He and his family later claimed that it was prison and the law which turned him into a desperado, but in truth, his record before going to prison was pretty bad. It is clear that prison did nothing to rehabilitate him. At this point in his life, Dillinger was determined to become a professional bank robber. In his memoirs, government agent Melvin Purvis wrote, "there is probably no one whose career so graphically illustrates the inadequacies of our system as does that of John Dillinger."

Using guns smuggled in by the newly freed Dillinger and arrangements made by Harry Pierpont's girlfriend, Mary Kinder, ten men escaped from the Indiana State Prison on September 22, 1933. Among them were Harry Pierpont, Charles Makley, John Hamilton, Walter Dietrich, and Russell Clark, who formed the Dillinger gang. They were joined by Homer Van Meter, who had been released on parole.

Four days before his friends escaped, Dillinger had been arrested in Dayton, Ohio. One of the gang's first missions was to free Dillinger, who was being held at the Allen County Jail in Lima, Ohio. In the process, Pierpont shot and killed Sheriff Jesse Sarber.

The Dillinger gang raided police stations for guns and ammunition, and used the Lamm method to rob banks. One or two men would visit a bank during business hours. They would memorize the interior layout, and note the distance from the nearest police station.

Pat Cherrington, Hamilton's girlfriend, described how Dillinger and Van Meter "cased" one bank. "they identified themselves as being officials of the NRA [National Recovery Administration] in Washington. ...they advised the bank president they were calling on all banks throughout the state in a survey, and they were very much interested in how the various codes were operating."

Gang members would drive through an escape route three or four times. The men drew maps showing towns, landmarks, and the number of miles between various points. These were marked on a chart which the "navigator" read to the driver. The men even hid cans of gasoline in haystacks along the escape route.

Most of the gang members had girlfriends. Dillinger dated Evelyn "Billie" Frechette, who was of mixed French and Native American ancestry. While the other girlfriends drank hard liquor, Dillinger refused to give Frechette any, because of her Native American background and his belief that she might become an alcoholic. The men themselves rarely drank, because Pierpont would not allow a robbery to be committed, or even planned, under intoxication. He maintained that because they lived in constant danger of being caught, the men had to be alert at all times.

Police departments and newspapers attributed many crimes to the Dillinger gang that they did not commit. While vacationing in Florida in December 1933, the gang was accused of crimes throughout the Midwest. One Chicago newspaper accused Dillinger of shooting a dog. He said, "Hell! This is going too far. How could I shoot a dog in Chicago from down here in Florida. I wonder if the dog's name was Matt [Leach]." (Leach, Dillinger's nemesis, was chief of the Indiana State Police.)

During a bank robbery on January 15, 1934, a police officer was killed. He later told his lawyer, "I've always felt bad about O'Malley getting killed, but only because of his wife and kids. ...He stood right in the way and kept throwing slugs at me. What else could I do?"

On January 25, 1934, Dillinger, Pierpont, Makley, and Clark were arrested in Tucson. The latter three were extradited to Lima, Ohio. Dillinger was extradited to Indiana for the murder of Officer O'Malley, and transported by extravagant and, for the time, quite unusual means: an airplane. Because he put up a struggle, police had to shackle him and virtually drag him to the plane. When they chained him to a post inside it, he said, "Hell, I don't jump out of these things."

Dillinger, by now a folk hero to Americans disillusioned with failing banks and the ineffective federal government, arrived at the jail in Crown Point, Indiana, on January 30, 1934. But he would never be tried for the murder of Officer O'Malley. On March 3, he escaped by threatening guards with a wooden gun he claimed to have carved out of a washboard. (Later, evidence emerged that his lawyer had arranged for Dillinger's escape with cash bribes.) Dillinger stole the sheriff's car and drove to Chicago. D.O.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover was ecstatic, because driving a stolen vehicle across state lines was a federal crime, making Dillinger eligible for a D.O.I. pursuit. 

From April 5 to 8, 1934, Dillinger and Frechette visited his family in Mooresville. The gathering was a happy one that included a Sunday dinner. The following day, Dillinger and Frechette drove to Chicago, where she was arrested by D.O.I. special agents. 

Because of his fame, life was becoming increasingly difficult for Dillinger. He and Van Meter underwent plastic surgery on May 27, 1934, at the home of Jimmy Probasco, a bar owner with connections to the Chicago Syndicate. The two men spent the following month recuperating at Probasco's house.

During his recovery, Louis Piquett, Dillinger's lawyer, and Arthur O'Leary, Piquett's legal investigator, visited Probasco's house frequently, and got to know Dillinger well. They said he dressed neatly and conservatively, and kept his fingernails perfectly manicured. Dillinger liked to read, and enjoyed talking about current events and baseball. He was usually friendly and good-natured, and rarely used profanity. Dillinger had an outstanding ability to remain calm in an emergency, and to act quickly and rationally. Piquett and O'Leary said he did not have a killer instinct.

On his 31st birthday, June 22, 1934, Dillinger was declared America's first Public Enemy Number One. The following day the federal government promised a $10,000 reward for his capture, and a $5,000 reward for information leading to his arrest.

Dillinger moved into Anna Sage's apartment on July 4, 1934. Originally from Romania, she was facing deportation proceedings for operating several brothels. Sage was working a double game, though; by turning Dillinger over to the D.O.I., she thought she would not be deported. On July 22, 1934, Dillinger invited Sage and Polly Hamilton, his current girlfriend, to the movies. They saw Manhattan Melodrama with Clark Gable. When the movie was finished, Dillinger walked out of the theater between Sage and Hamilton. He had walked into a D.O.I. ambush. John Dillinger was shot twice, and died instantly.

Dillinger's family gave him a Christian burial on July 25, 1934. He was laid to rest in the family plot at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis. A week after Dillinger's death, his family signed a contract with a vaudeville show. In between acts at the Lyric Theater in Indianapolis, they talked about Dillinger's life. 

Although Dillinger never repented for his crimes, he did regret his chosen lifestyle. Before undergoing plastic surgery, he told O'Leary, "I want to live like other people. Billie and I would like to be married and settle down somewhere." 

In spite of his outwardly reckless behavior, Dillinger had no illusions about his situation. He told O'Leary, "I'm traveling a one-way road, and I'm not fooling myself as to what the end will be. If I surrender, I know it means the electric chair. If I go on, it's just a question of how much time I have left."


One story about Dillinger long outlasted the famous outlaw: the claim that his male organ was unusually large, and that he possessed extraordinary sexual prowess. A morgue photograph of Dillinger under a sheet helped promote this story; his arm, under the sheet, created a bulge that some viewers misinterpreted as his genitalia. At the time of Dillinger's death, newspapers ran the photo only after retouching it to remove the scandalous bulge. Though an autopsy revealed his physical endowment to be normal, the legend persisted, with some claiming the Smithsonian had kept the organ for its collections.

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