the 1930s Depression, many Americans, nearly helpless against forces they didn't
understand, made heroes of outlaws who took what they wanted at gunpoint. Of all
the lurid desperadoes, one man, John Herbert Dillinger, came to evoke this
Gangster Era, and stirred mass emotion to a degree rarely seen in this country.
Dillinger, whose name
once dominated the headlines, was a brutal thief and a cold-blooded murderer.
From September, 1933, until July, 1934, he and his violent gang terrorized the
Midwest, killing 10 men, wounding 7 others, robbing banks and police arsenals,
and staging 3 jail breaks -- killing a sheriff during one and wounding 2 guards
John Herbert Dillinger
was born on June 22, 1903, in the Oak Hill section of Indianapolis, a
middle-class residential neighborhood. His father, a hardworking grocer, raised
him in an atmosphere of disciplinary extremes, harsh and repressive on some
occasions, but generous and permissive on others. John's mother died when he was
three, and when his father remarried six years later, John resented his
In adolescence, the
flaws in his bewildering personality became evident and he was frequently in
trouble. Finally, he quit school and got a job in a machine shop in
Indianapolis. Although intelligent and a good worker, he soon became bored and
often stayed out all night. His father, worried that the temptations of the city
were corrupting his teenaged son, sold his property in Indianapolis and moved
his family to a farm near Mooresville, Indiana. However, John reacted no better
to rural life than he had to that in the city and soon began to run wild again.
A break with his
father and trouble with the law (auto theft) led him to enlist in the Navy.
There he soon got into trouble and deserted his ship when it docked in Boston.
Returning to Mooresville, he married 16-year-old Beryl Hovius in 1924. A
dazzling dream of bright lights and excitement led the newlyweds to
Indianapolis. Dillinger had no luck finding work in the city and joined the town
pool shark, Ed Singleton, in his search for easy money. In their first attempt,
they tried to rob a Mooresville grocer, but were quickly apprehended. Singleton
pleaded not guilty, stood trial, and was sentenced to two years. Dillinger,
following his father's advice, confessed, was convicted of assault and battery
with intent to rob, and conspiracy to commit a felony, and received joint
sentences of 2 to 14 years and 10 to 20 years in the Indiana State Prison.
Stunned by the harsh sentence, Dillinger became a tortured, bitter man in
His period of infamy
began on May 10, 1933, when he was paroled from prison after serving 8 1/2 years
of his sentence. Almost immediately, Dillinger robbed a bank in Bluffton, Ohio.
Dayton police arrested him on September 22, and he was lodged in the county jail
in Lima, Ohio, to await trial.
In frisking Dillinger,
the Lima police found a document which seemed to be a plan for a prison break,
but the prisoner denied knowledge of any plan. Four days later, using the same
plans, eight of Dillinger's friends escaped from the Indiana State Prison, using
shotguns and rifles which had been smuggled into their cells. During their
escape, they shot two guards.
On October 12, three
of the escaped prisoners and a parolee from the same prison showed up at the
Lima jail where Dillinger was incarcerated. They told the sheriff that they had
come to return Dillinger to the Indiana State Prison for violation of his
When the sheriff asked
to see their credentials, one of the men pulled a gun, shot the sheriff and beat
him into unconsciousness. Then taking the keys to the jail, the bandits freed
Dillinger, locked the sheriff's wife and a deputy in a cell, and leaving the
sheriff to die on the floor, made their getaway.
Although none of these
men had violated a Federal law, the FBI's assistance was requested in
identifying and locating the criminals. The four men were identified as Harry
Pierpont, Russell Clark, Charles Makley, and Harry Copeland. Their fingerprint
cards in the FBI Identification Division were flagged with red metal tags,
indicating that they were wanted.
and his gang pulled several bank robberies. They also plundered the police
arsenals at Auburn, Indiana, and Peru, Indiana, stealing several machine guns,
rifles, and revolvers, a quantity of ammunition, and several bulletproof vests.
On December 14, John Hamilton, a Dillinger gang member, shot and killed a police
detective in Chicago. A month later, the Dillinger gang killed a police officer
during the robbery of the First National Bank of East Chicago, Indiana. Then
they made their way to Florida and, subsequently, to Tucson, Arizona. There on
January 23, 1934, a fire broke out in the hotel where Clark and Makley were
hiding under assumed names. Firemen recognized the men from their photographs,
and local police arrested them, as well as Dillinger and Harry Pierpont. They
also seized 3 Thompson submachine guns, 2 Winchester rifles mounted as machine
guns, 5 bulletproof vests, and more than $25,000 in cash, part of it from the
East Chicago robbery.
sequestered at the county jail in Crown Point, Indiana, to await trial for the
murder of the East Chicago police officer. Authorities boasted that the jail was
"escape proof." But on March 3, 1934, Dillinger cowed the guards with what he
claimed later was a wooden gun he had whittled. He forced them to open the door
to his cell, then grabbed two machine guns, locked up the guards and several
trustees, and fled.
It was then that
Dillinger made the mistake that would cost him his life. He stole the sheriff's
car and drove across the Indiana-Illinois line, heading for Chicago. By doing
that, he violated the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, which made it a Federal
offense to transport a stolen motor vehicle across a state line.
A Federal complaint
was sworn charging Dillinger with the theft and interstate transportation of the
sheriff's car, which was recovered in Chicago. After the grand jury returned an
indictment, the FBI became actively involved in the nationwide search for
Makley, and Clark were returned to Ohio and convicted of the murder of the Lima
sheriff. Pierpont and Makley were sentenced to death, and Clark to life
imprisonment. But in an escape attempt, Makley was killed and Pierpont was
wounded. A month later, Pierpont had recovered sufficiently to be executed.
In Chicago, Dillinger
joined his girlfriend, Evelyn Frechette. They proceeded to St. Paul, where
Dillinger teamed up with Homer Van Meter, Lester ("Baby Face Nelson") Gillis,
Eddie Green, and Tommy Carroll, among others. The gang's business prospered as
they continued robbing banks of large amounts of money.
Then on March 30,
1934, an Agent talked to the manager of the Lincoln Court Apartments in St.
Paul, who reported two suspicious tenants, Mr. and Mrs. Hellman, who acted
nervous and refused to admit the apartment caretaker. The FBI began a
surveillance of the Hellman's apartment. The next day, an Agent and a police
officer knocked on the door of the apartment. Evelyn Frechette opened the door,
but quickly slammed it shut. The Agent called for reinforcements to surround the
While waiting, the
Agents saw a man enter a hall near the Hellman's apartment. When questioned, the
man, Homer Van Meter, drew a gun. Shots were exchanged, during which Van Meter
fled the building and forced a truck driver at gunpoint to drive him to Green's
apartment. Suddenly the door of the Hellman apartment opened and the muzzle of a
machine gun began spraying the hallway with lead. Under cover of the machine gun
fire, Dillinger and Evelyn Frechette fled through a back door. They, too, drove
to Green's apartment, where Dillinger was treated for a bullet wound received in
At the Lincoln Court
Apartments, the FBI found a Thompson submachine gun with the stock removed, two
automatic rifles, one .38 caliber Colt automatic with twenty-shot magazine
clips, and two bulletproof vests. Across town, other Agents located one of Eddie
Green's hideouts where he and Bessie Skinner had been living as "Mr. and Mrs.
Stephens." On April 3, when Green was located, he attempted to draw his gun, but
was shot by the Agents. He died in a hospital eight days later.
Dillinger and Evelyn
Frechette fled to Mooresville, Indiana, where they stayed with his father and
half-brother until his wound healed. Then Frechette went to Chicago to visit a
friend--and was arrested by the FBI. She was taken to St. Paul for trial on a
charge of conspiracy to harbor a fugitive. She was convicted, fined $1,000, and
sentenced to two years in prison. Bessie Skinner, Eddie Green's girlfriend, got
15 months on the same charge.
and Van Meter robbed a police station at Warsaw, Indiana, of guns and
bulletproof vests. Dillinger stayed for awhile in Upper Michigan, departing just
ahead of a posse of FBI Agents dispatched there by airplane. Then the FBI
received a tip that there had been a sudden influx of rather suspicious guests
at the summer resort of Little Bohemia Lodge, about 50 miles north of
Rhinelander, Wisconsin. One of them sounded like John Dillinger and another like
"Baby Face Nelson."
From Rhinelander, an
FBI task force set out by car for Little Bohemia. Two of the rented cars broke
down enroute, and, in the uncommonly cold April weather, some of the Agents had
to make the trip standing on the running boards of the other cars. Two miles
from the resort, the car lights were turned off and the posse proceeded through
the darkness. When the cars reached the resort, dogs began barking. The Agents
spread out to surround the lodge and as they approached, machine gun fire
rattled down on them from the roof. Swiftly, the Agents took cover. One of them
hurried to a telephone to give directions to additional Agents who had arrived
in Rhinelander to back up the operation.
While the Agent was
telephoning, the operator broke in to tell him there was trouble at another
cottage about two miles away. Special Agent W. Carter Baum, another FBI man, and
a constable went there and found a parked car which the constable recognized as
belonging to a local resident. They pulled up and identified themselves.
the other car, "Baby Face Nelson" was holding three local residents at gunpoint.
He turned, leveled a revolver at the lawmen's car, and ordered them to step out.
But without waiting for them to comply, Nelson opened fire. Baum was killed, and
the constable and the other Agent were severely wounded. Nelson jumped into the
Ford they had been using and fled.
When the firing had
subsided at the Little Bohemia Lodge, Dillinger was gone. When the Agents
entered the lodge the next morning, they found only three frightened females.
Dillinger and five others had fled through a back window before the Agents
surrounded the house.
In Washington, FBI
Director J. Edgar Hoover assigned Special Agent Samuel A. Cowley to head the
FBI's investigative efforts against Dillinger. Cowley set up headquarters in
Chicago, where he and Melvin Purvis, Special Agent in Charge of the Chicago
office, planned their strategy. A squad of Agents under Cowley worked with East
Chicago policemen in tracking down all tips and rumors.
Late in the afternoon
of Saturday, July 21, 1934, the madam of a brothel in Gary, Indiana, contacted
one of the police officers with information. This woman called herself Anna
Sage, however, her real name was Ana Cumpanas, and she had entered the United
States from her native Rumania in 1914. Because of the nature of her profession,
she was considered an undesirable alien by the Immigration and Naturalization
Service, and deportation proceedings had been started. Anna was willing to sell
the FBI some information about Dillinger for a cash reward, plus the FBI's help
in preventing her deportation.
At a meeting with
Anna, Cowley and Purvis were cautious. They promised her the reward if her
information led to Dillinger's capture, but said all they could do was call her
cooperation to the attention of the Department of Labor, which at that time
handled deportation matters. Satisfied, Anna told the Agents that a girlfriend
of hers, Polly Hamilton, had visited her establishment with Dillinger. Anna had
recognized Dillinger from a newspaper photograph.
Anna told the Agents
that she, Polly Hamilton, and Dillinger probably would be going to the movies
the following evening at either the Biograph or the Marbro Theaters. She said
that she would notify them when the theater was chosen. She also said that she
would wear a red dress so that they could identify her.
On Sunday, July 22,
Cowley ordered all Agents of the Chicago office to stand by for urgent duty.
Anna Sage called that evening to confirm the plans, but she still did not know
which theater they would attend. Therefore, Agents and policemen were sent to
both theaters. At 8:30 p.m., Anna Sage, John Dillinger, and Polly Hamilton
strolled into the Biograph Theater to see Clark Gable in "Manhattan Melodrama."
Purvis phoned Cowley, who shifted the other men from the Marbro to the Biograph.
Cowley also phoned
Hoover for instructions. Hoover cautioned them to wait outside rather than risk
a shooting match inside the crowded theater. Each man was instructed not to
unnecessarily endanger himself and was told that if Dillinger offered any
resistance, it would be each man for himself.
At 10:30 p.m.,
Dillinger, with his two female companions on either side, walked out of the
theater and turned to his left. As they walked past the doorway in which Purvis
was standing, Purvis lit a cigar as a signal for the other men to close in.
Dillinger quickly realized what was happening and acted by instinct. He grabbed
a pistol from his right trouser pocket as he ran toward the alley. Five shots
were fired from the guns of three FBI Agents. Three of the shots hit Dillinger
and he fell face down on the pavement. At 10:50 p.m. on July 22, 1934, John
Dillinger was pronounced dead in a little room in the Alexian Brothers Hospital.
The Agents who fired
at Dillinger were Charles B. Winstead, Clarence O. Hurt, and Herman E. Hollis.
Each man was commended by J. Edgar Hoover for fearlessness and courageous
action. None of them ever said who actually killed Dillinger. The events of that
sultry July night in Chicago marked the beginning of the end of the Gangster
Era. Eventually, 27 persons were convicted in Federal courts on charges of
harboring, and aiding and abetting John Dillinger and his cronies during their
reign of terror. "Baby Face Nelson" was fatally wounded on November 27, 1934, in
a gun battle with FBI Agents in which Special Agents Cowley and Hollis also were
killed. Dillinger was buried in Crown Point Cemetery in Indianapolis, Indiana.
-- Text and Photo Courtesy of the
events leading up to the death of John Dillinger on July 22, 1934, when he
grabbed for his gun and was shot by FBI Special Agents as he left the Biograph
Theater in Chicago, Illinois.
Courtesy of the FBI - Freedom
of Information Act
John Dillinger, Chicago, and the FBI ... John Dillinger (full name: John Herbert Dillinger),
was born on June 22, 1903, in
the Oak Hill section of Indianapolis, a middle-class residential neighborhood
John Dillenger The best-known American bank robber of the 20th century
was John Dillinger. ...
Dillinger was born in Indianapolis, Ind., on June 28, 1902. ...
John Dillinger ... Public Role (Equivalents of "John Dillinger"). ...
For example, George S. Patton (one
of the greatest generals of World War II) was born on 11/11/1885. ...
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