John Dillinger - "Public Enemy No. 1" - lived up to the title bestowed upon him by J. Edgar Hoover's Division of Investigation and he cemented his national notoriety when on March 3, 1934, he broke out of the Lake County Jail in Crown Point, Indiana. Dillinger had been in Crown Point since his extradition from Arizona in January awaiting trial for murder. On that morning, using a gun which had been carved out of wood, he took two of his keepers hostage. After locking up the warden, Lou Baker, and getting the drop on the turnkey and one of the national guardsmen there to prevent such a breakout, he commandeered two machine guns. After freeing a fellow inmate, he ultimately made his way out a side door of the "heavily fortified" jail and proceeded to make his getaway in the sheriff's V-8 Ford.
Dillinger's bold escape set off a flurry of reports of sightings across the midwest in the days that followed. The escape caused a political uproar. In the escape he had made one vital mistake, in driving the stolen car across the state line toward Chicago, he had violated the one law that could involve federal agents at the time, the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act. It was an error that would set the stage for his ultimate demise outside of a Chicago theater four months later.
John Herbert Dillinger's career in crime had started inauspiciously enough with the botched robbery attempt of a grocer in his hometown of Mooresville, Indiana, on September 6, 1924. He had turned 21 years of age just three months earlier. John was sent to reformatory in Pendleton, Indiana, where he was to meet future colleagues Harry Pierpont and Homer Van Meter. After serving five years without parole, an embittered Dillinger requested and received a transfer to the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, Indiana, where Pierpont and Van Meter were already in residence.
By mid-1932 Dillinger had become part of a group of prisoners intent on escaping. This group included Harry Pierpont as leader, along with Charles Makley, John Hamilton, and Russell Clark, and later Walter Dietrich and James Jenkins. Since Dillinger's parole date was approaching he was selected to operate as their connection on the outside, carrying out robberies to raise funds for the escape.
Subsequent to his parole on May 22, 1933, he began a series of holdups. During this period Dillinger began to call attention to himself with his flamboyant style, which included wearing a fashionable straw hat, and a knack for athletic leaps over the teller's barrier into the cashier's cage. Not long after securing sufficient funds for the necessary bribes of guards and officials, along with arranging for the smuggling of weapons into the prison, he was once again arrested in Dayton, Ohio. The arrest took place on September 22, 1933, at the boarding house room of girlfriend Mary Longnaker, with whom he had visited the Chicago World's Fair that summer.
While lodged in the jail at Lima, Ohio, his companions carried out their escape on October 12. All ultimately getting away except for Joseph Jenkins, who after being thrown from the getaway car, managed to commandeer a vehicle driven by a youth who was able to escape after tricking Jenkins into checking the gas tank. Jenkins was later shot and killed by local posse members on alert in Beanblossom, Indiana.
Three of the escapees, Pierpont, Clark and Makley, soon broke Dillinger out of the Lima jail after badly beating and shooting Sheriff Jesse Sarber, who died that evening. The gang then proceeded to Chicago to avoid the intense manhunt throughout Ohio. In Auburn and Peru, Indiana, they robbed police arsenals acquiring a cache of weapons including machine guns and also bulletproof vests.
During the gang's stay in Chicago, several important events were to transpire. On November 15, Dillinger, with his new girlfriend, Evelyn "Billie" Frechette, narrowly escaped a police ambush set up when an informant had notified the police that Dillinger would be seeing a dermatologist named Dr. Charles Eye. Dillinger eluded his pursuers after having his vehicle shot up in a high speed chase.
The publicity mounting, on November 20, the gang carried out a daring robbery in Racine, Wisconsin. With shots being fired, they escaped behind a shield of hostages. Then on December 14, John Hamilton mortally wounded Sergeant William Shanley, when the detective tried to capture him in a garage where he had followed a lead on a gang vehicle being repaired there.
With the heat on and the development by the Chicago police of a special unit called The Dillinger Squad, it was decided by the gang that they should lay low for awhile. Dillinger reportedly dyed his hair red and grew a mustache. John and Billie joined Makley, Clark, and Hamilton in Daytona Beach, Florida. On Christmas Eve, Dillinger and Billie had a violent argument which culminated with Dillinger beating her and throwing her out the following morning, providing her with a $1000 and the keys to his car as a parting gesture.
Dillinger returned north two weeks later to go after Billie in her home state of Wisconsin. He and Hamilton decided to rob The First National Bank in East Chicago, Indiana, on January 15. During the getaway Patrolman William O'Malley fired shots at Dillinger only to have them bounce off the bulletproof vest the outlaw was wearing. In the exchange of fire that followed Dillinger shot and killed the officer. Hamilton was wounded by police fire and was helped by Dillinger to the getaway car.
On January 23,1934, Makley and Clark were forced out of hiding at the Hotel Congress in Tucson, Arizona, by a fire that broke out in the hotel that morning. One of the firemen, having recognized them from a crime magazine photo, notified the sheriff. The same day, Dillinger and Billie Frechette arrived in town for the reunion of the gang. They did manage to meet on the 25th, but acting on a tip, the police first arrested Makley, and then Clark, at the house they had been staying in since the hotel fire. Later, following leads, the police were able to capture Pierpont. Dillinger, unaware of these events, arrived at the house where Makley and Clark had been grabbed, and was arrested by officers just as they were setting up their stakeout.
Dillinger became a national news item during his incarceration in the Pima County jail. Newspapermen and photographers poured in from around the country. While Dillinger and his gang gave interviews, there was much legal wrangling behind the scenes over which state would win extradition. He was eventually extradited to Indiana to stand trial for the O'Malley killing. The other three were sent to Ohio to be tried for killing Sheriff Sarber in the Lima breakout. Billie Frechette, arrested with Dillinger, was released.
On January 30, the plane carrying Dillinger and his guards arrived at Chicago Municipal Airport. Waiting at the airport was a large contingent of police, in addition to the Dillinger Squad. With sirens wailing, the car carrying the outlaw was accompanied by a caravan of vehicles and motorcycle cops. Arriving at the sheriff's office in Crown Point, Indiana, he was greeted by numerous reporters with whom he cracked jokes. Photographers convinced Dillinger and Prosecutor Estill to pose, Dillinger cheerfully leaning his arm on his prosecutor's shoulder, with the sheriff looking congenially on.
The arraignment for the O'Malley killing took place on February 9, 1934. Louis Piquett, a Chicago attorney who specialized in representing underworld characters, acted as his lawyer. After some legal maneuvering, Judge William J. Murray, set the trial for March 3. During the succeeding weeks there was little concern about a jailbreak, for along with the escape-proof reputation of the county jail and the fifty guards employed there, the sheriff had added armed citizens and National Guardsmen. When Dillinger bluffed his way out with the wooden pistol on March 3, it left officials stunned and the public captivated.
By March 4, Dillinger, having rejoined Billie Frechette, arrived in St. Paul to add the final members of his new gang. This was to include John Hamilton and old prison friend Homer Van Meter (paroled from the Indiana penitentiary nine days after Dillinger in May 1933). Van Meter brought in fellow criminals, Eddie Green and his partner Tommy Carroll. To this group, was added underworld character Lester Gillis, better known as Baby Face Nelson, known for his reputation as a trigger-happy killer.
On March 6, the gangsters robbed The Security National Bank and Trust in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. As Dillinger and Van Meter collected $49,000 in cash and bonds from the vault, alarm blaring, a large crowd of onlookers gathered in the street. Nelson, spying off-duty policeman Hale Keith peering through the window, fired through the glass, wounding the man. To make their getaway, they took hostages to ride the running boards of their Packard, acting as a human shield. Once they arrived at the main highway they threw nails into the road in order to slow down any pursuing police. When the Packard overheated due to a police bullet hole in the radiator, the gang stole another car just as the police closed in. This led to a running gun battle, which nevertheless they were able to escape from, heading back to their Twin Cities hideout.
At about the same time, a panic arose in Lima, Ohio, at the trial of Pierpont and Makley, as word got out that Dillinger might try to break them out. The March 13th robbery of The First National Bank in Mason City, Iowa, netted only $52,000 of an anticipated $240,000. Both Dillinger and Hamilton received shoulder wounds and a bystander was wounded when fired on by Nelson. The gang once again escaped behind a shield of hostages, all of whom were released after about 45 minutes. Back in Minneapolis, both Dillinger and Hamilton were treated for their wounds. John's plans to use his share of the $240,000 to leave the country had to be abandoned.
In the weeks following Mason City, Dillinger was reported seemingly everywhere, by now having become a Robin Hood-like figure to the public. In fact, he was recovering from his wound, as he and Frechette were living as Mr. and Mrs. Cart T. Hellman at the Lincoln Court Apartments in St. Paul. When the manager of the apartments became suspicious of their behavior, she notified authorities. The FBI began surveillance on March 30. On the following morning, the agents and a local officer knocked on the door. Billie answered and identified herself as Mrs. Hellman. Upon being told that they were the police she stalled, saying that she needed to get dressed and closed the door. As the agents and officer waited, Homer Van Meter walked up the steps. Within a short time gunfire erupted between Van Meter and the officials. Dillinger opened fire with his machine pistol, shooting through the door. He next opened the door, spraying the hallway with machine gun fire before running down the back stairs. As he ran, he was hit by a police bullet in the leg. Once again he had escaped a law enforcement snare. On April 3, as a result of an intense manhunt, federal agents caught up with gang member Eddie Green. As he moved as though to draw, the agents cut him down.
John and Billie next moved on to the Dillinger farm in Mooresville, staying there while he recovered from his leg wound. Authorities soon learned that they had returned to Chicago and were quickly able to track down and arrest Billie Frechette as she entered a bar. On seeing the arrest of his girlfriend, Dillinger quickly drove away. She was taken to St. Paul to stand trial on harboring charges. She was sentenced in May 1934, receiving two years in jail at Milan, Michigan.
On April 13, Dillinger and Van Meter robbed the Warsaw, Indiana, police station, making off with guns and three bulletproof vests. This heist set off an intense manhunt and prompted hundreds of reports of sightings. In mid-April Dillinger and Hamilton stayed at Hamilton's sister's home in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. On April 20, having received a tip, the FBI arrived in town only to discover that the two outlaws had already moved on.
By an arrangement made in Chicago, the gang decided to meet in Northern Wisconsin, at the Little Bohemia Lodge near Mercer. The criminals took up residence beginning April 20. Along with them they brought Van Meter's girlfriend Marie Comforti, Nelson's wife Helen and Tommy Carroll's wife Jean. The Nelsons moved into a cabin next to the lodge, with the rest taking rooms on the second floor of the lodge itself. They immediately began to enjoy the rest, relaxing and playing cards.
Within a short time, the owner of the lodge, Emil Wanatka, had identified Dillinger from a newspaper photo. With his wife becoming increasingly nervous, and growing tired of the pushy gangsters, it was decided to find a way to contact the police. Passing the information on to Mrs. Wanatka's brother, he and her brother-in-law, Henry Voss, drove to the town of Rhinelander. That afternoon the local sheriff put him in contact with Melvin Purvis in Chicago. Purvis immediately chartered two planes to fly into the Rhinelander airport.
Fifteen agents were selected, eleven of whom would fly, the other four were to drive. Once there, they joined forces with another group who had flown in from St. Paul. The leader of this group, Assistant Director Hugh Clegg, assumed overall command of the operation. Expecting to begin the raid at 4 a.m., it was learned from Voss's wife that Dillinger and the others had moved their departure up to that evening. The agents located five vehicles and drew up plans to surround the lodge. Three agents in bulletproof vests were to come through the front door while others took up positions around the lodge.
On the trip to the lodge, two of the cars broke down requiring some of the agents to ride on the running boards of the remaining cars in the extreme cold. Just before 8 p.m., they arrived at their destination and immediately blocked the driveway with two of the cars. They then began to move in on foot.
As they neared the lodge, they were suddenly confronted by barking dogs, which Voss had failed to warn them of. The agents rushed into position, thinking that those inside had been alerted. At just this moment, three of the visitors to the lodge headed to their car, while two of the lodge employees came outside to check on the barking. As the three men began backing their car out, the agents opened fire believing it was gang members getting away. One of the occupants of the car was killed instantly.
Hearing the gunfire outside, the gang quickly moved into place and opened fire, Nelson shooting from the cabin. Within moments, as previously planned, Dillinger, Van Meter and Hamilton, followed by Carroll went out the back of the lodge. They headed down to the adjacent lake and escaped to the north on foot. Nelson soon escaped, heading the opposite direction along the shore. While he headed south, the others soon located vehicles to steal, and got away.
Forcing his way into a nearby lodge owned by a man named Koerner, Nelson was holding the occupants hostage when Emil Wanatka and his brother-in-law arrived in front with the two employees from Little Bohemia. Nelson commandeered their vehicle and prepared to leave with Emil and Koerner as hostages, unaware that Koerner had already called the FBI when he noted Nelson's suspicious arrival.
At this moment, Agents Jay Newman, W. Carter Baum and a local constable named Christiansen pulled into the driveway. As they pulled next to his car, Baby Face jumped out and ordered the agents and the officer out at gunpoint. He then proceeded to open fire on all three, killing Baum on the spot. The hostages dove for cover. After unloading his weapon at everything in sight, Nelson took the Ford the agents had been using and headed south at high speed.
Back at the lodge, the three gangster's women, who had been hiding in the basement, surrendered and were arrested. As Dillinger, Van Meter and Hamilton raced toward St. Paul after the battle, they were spotted by waiting lawmen, who began chasing the stolen Packard the gang was driving. As they exchanged fire one of the police bullets caught Hamilton in the back.
Eventually eluding their pursuers, they hijacked another car and headed for Chicago with the wounded Hamilton. Nelson holed up at the Lac Du Flambeau Indian Reservation until a few days had passed, then made his way to Marshfield, Wisconsin, and obtained a car. The women were jailed in Madison.
The entire raid came to be seen by the public as a disaster, bringing heavy criticism on the FBI and Hoover. As the controversy raged, five days later, Dillinger and Van Meter finally found medical attention for Hamilton, through Doc Barker of the equally notorious Barker gang. In the end, Hamilton died of his wound and was buried in a gravel quarry.
On May 5, 1934, spurred on in part by the lawlessness of the likes of Dillinger, The House Of Representatives passed numerous laws covering crimes typical of those committed by the motorized bandits of the time. While Dillinger went into hiding in Calumet City, Illinois, Bonnie and Clyde were killed by a posse outside Gibsland, Louisiana, on May 23, 1934.
In an attempt to evade the intensifying manhunt, John had his lawyer Piquett, and his investigator Arthur O'Leary, locate a plastic surgeon to alter his appearance. They arranged for a certain Dr. Loeser and his associate Dr. Harold Cassidy to operate. On May 27, at the home of James Probasco, they went to work on his face. Several days later, they worked on the tips of his fingers, attempting to remove his fingerprints. The end results of the work were highly debatable. Some friends on seeing John later, thought he looked like he had the mumps.
A short time later, the women arrested at Little Bohemia were released and placed on probation. Tommy Carroll, reunited with his wife, drove to Waterloo, Iowa. Acting on a tip, police looked for and then located their car parked in an alley. Later as the Carrolls emerged from a nearby restaurant, the police approached. Carroll went for his gun but one of the officers knocked it from his hand. As he began to run he was shot four times. He would later die in the hospital. The ranks of the Dillinger gang were thinning.
On June 30, still hoping to raise money to leave the country, Dillinger with Van Meter and another man who may have been Pretty Boy Floyd, robbed the Merchant's National Bank in South Bend, Indiana. During the robbery and it's aftermath, there was much gunfire with Van Meter shooting an officer, who later died. Van Meter himself suffered a severe head wound. The resultant take was a mere $4,800 between them.
The day after the robbery a man known as Jimmy Lawrence met his girlfriend, Polly Hamilton, for a date. He had been seeing her for two weeks. She was renting out a room from a Romanian immigrant named Anna Sage. Sage was currently facing deportation proceedings, stemming from her convictions resulting from charges related to her running brothels in Gary, Indiana, and East Chicago. Only Sage knew that Jimmy Lawrence, was in fact, John Dillinger. While living quietly in his new identity, the manhunt was continuing. Hoover had appointed Samuel Cowley to head up the investigation in Chicago.
On July 20, 1934, Anna Sage contacted acquaintance Martin Zarkovich, an East Chicago police sergeant, and offered to reveal the whereabouts of John Dillinger in return for both the reward money and help in blocking her deportation. Zarkovich contacted Melvin Purvis. At subsequent secret meeting with Purvis and Cowley she outlined her offer and received assurance that they would help with her deportation problem. She told them that she would be going with John and Polly to the movies at the Marbro the following evening.
On July 22, all available agents were briefed on the setup. At 5:30 p.m., Sage called and confirmed that they would attend a movie that night at either the Marbro, or the Biograph theater. Secondary plans were quickly made to have Purvis and Agent Ralph Brown stake out the Biograph. Spotting Dillinger and the women arrive at the Biograph, where Manhattan Melodrama featuring Clark Gable was showing, Agent Brown immediately called Cowley. Agents quickly surrounded the theater. Purvis was stationed left of the entrance.
At 10:30 p.m., Dillinger and his companions exited the theater. Purvis having identified him, lit his cigar, the prearranged signal. Purvis and Agent Herman E. Hollis closed in from behind with guns drawn. As he neared the alleyway down from the theater, glancing over his shoulder, he began to run into the alley. Agents Hollis, Charles Winstead, and C. Hurt fired five times. Three bullets hit Dillinger and he fell face down. One shot, probably fired by Winstead, had entered his neck and exited under his right eye, killing him.
Taken to the Alexian Bros. Hospital, he was pronounced dead at 10:30 p.m. From there his body was transported to the Cook County Morgue, where a huge crowd gathered and a number of photos were taken. The FBI checked his fingerprints, and in spite of his attempts to have them obliterated, were able to make a positive identification. An autopsy was then performed. The next day the body was put on display at the morgue and thousands came to look at the infamous John Dillinger. Newspapers were filled with stories of his betrayal by a "woman in red", soon identified by the press as Anna Sage.
The body was next transferred to McCready Mortuary. On July 24, the remains were taken to the E.F. Harvey Funeral Parlor in Mooresville. The casket was soon moved from there to his sister's home in Maywood. A crowd of thousands gathered outside the Crown Hill Cemetery, as the twenty car funeral procession arrived. Dillinger's body was then buried. Due to countless rumors that would go on for years, that it wasn't Dillinger's body in the ground, John Dillinger Sr. soon made arrangements to have 3 ft. of reinforced concrete poured into the ground above the grave, lest anyone attempt to dig up the coffin.
Of his surviving companions, Van Meter was trapped and killed a month later in St. Paul. Shortly thereafter, Makley was killed and Harry Pierpont wounded in a failed jailbreak. Pierpont would soon go to the electric chair. Russell Clark received a life sentence for his part in the Sarber killing. On November 27, 1934, Baby Face Nelson, while traveling with Helen Gillis and armed companion John Paul Chase, were spotted by Federal Agents Samuel Cowley and H.E. Hollis. During the gun battle that followed, Nelson killed Cowley and Hollis, but was himself mortally wounded. His body, having been dumped not far away, was discovered the next morning.
The passing of John Dillinger and his gang marked the beginning of the end of an era of lawlessness in American history. His short life had ended violently, but his legend would continue to grow with the passage of time. Little would he have imagined that, in the end, he would be remembered as the most notorious outlaw of his time.
Copyright © 1997 Bob Fischer
Essential Sources
Dillinger: a short violent life Robert Cromie and Joe Pinkston Chicago Historical Bookworks
The Dillinger Days John Toland Da Capo Press
Dillinger: the untold story G. Russell Girardin and William J. Helmer Indiana University Press
Dillinger Slept Here: a crooks tour of crime and corruption in St. Paul, 1920-1936 Paul Maccabee Minnesota Historical Society Press