John Dillinger Biography

John Dillinger

John Dillinger has gone down in history as a pseudo ‘Robin Hood’ character, a gangster with charm and style who was more idolised by the public than reviled. His life has been recounted in many movies, particularly the film-noir gangster films of the 40’s. In a case of life imitating art-imitating life, Dillinger, who is said to have modelled himself on Hollywood stars like Errol Flynn – for instance leaping over counters- was himself a character whose eventful life influenced the pictures, especially as the archetypal good-guy hood.

But the truth about Dillinger is more prosaic; that he was simply criminally intent on making as much money illegally rather than having been pre-occupied with Joe Public during the Depression years. Gunned down by the FBI while leaving a Biograph cinema, even his death has helped fuel a mythology about this good looking, charismatic crook, who is as famous for his love life as he is for the banks he fleeced.

John Herbert Dillinger was born on 22 June 1903, in Indianapolis. His parents John and Mollie, ran a small grocery store. Sadly, Mollie died when the infant John was just three. Older sister Audrey, who was 14 years John’s senior, took care of him. Eventually, Johnnie Dillinger re-married when the cheeky, cheerful boy was nine.

Dillinger’s father appeared to oscillate between being a caring father to one who regularly handed out corporal punishment. One moment he was disciplining his son with a barrel stave and the next spoiling him by buying him sweets. Despite Dillinger Jr appearing to be a generally law abiding and pleasant youngster, he had a darker side to him that revealed itself in his desire to roam around at night and get in with the wrong crowd. The young Dillinger was never too far from trouble and even led a neighbourhood gang called ‘The Dirty Dozen’.

The gang’s main criminal preoccupation was pilfering coal from railroad freight cars.

By the time he was 16, Dillinger dropped out of school and began working at a machine shop. He appeared to be a hard working by day, but played the dispossessed James Dean role to a father he seemed to despise. Returning home late, there would usually be scenes between him and his exasperated father.

When Dillinger Sr sold his Indianapolis property in 1920 to retire to a farm in Mooresville, Indiana, he was most likely hoping that life in the country would tame his wild boy. Instead, Dillinger kept his job in Indianapolis, commuting nearly 20 miles on his motorcycle. He also kept quiet about his night-time activities, which apart from drinking and fighting also included frequent visits to prostitutes.

In 1923, Dillinger enlisted in the Navy but, possibly not being the kind of guy to take orders, went AWOL. He was later dishonourably discharged. At age 20, he met and married a local girl, 16-year-old Beryl Hovious, with the intention of settling down. But the pressures of trying to hold down a job and keeping a young marriage together led to volatile arguments and the union eventually disintegrated.

Early Crimes

On 6 September 1924, Dillinger was with an older friend, Edgar Singleton, who allegedly introduced the young would-be gangster into a life of felony. Singleton, being more experienced and with considerable influence, coerced the younger man into robbing a local grocer, Frank Morgan. Returning home with the week’s takings, the two men assaulted him. Dillinger hit Morgan with a cloth-wrapped iron bolt and the victim fell to the ground. Both men were arrested and ironically, despite Dillinger being the younger of the two and with no criminal record, found himself facing a stiffer penalty when he was sentenced to between 10 and 15 years in prison.

The canny Singleton, despite actually having a criminal record, engaged the services of a lawyer and received a lesser two to 14 years behind bars. While in prison, the young Dillinger wrote a remorseful letter to 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.”

Although the letter demonstrated some regret at the way he treated his father, it also indicated that he was now a bitter man with an axe to grind. Inside the Indiana State Reformatory, he kept his head down and showed that he could be an industrious prisoner in the shirt factory working as a seamster. So industrious that he not only completed his own quota twice over but also did other prisoners’ work too.

Perhaps the crafty Dillinger knew what he was doing; ingratiating himself with powerful fellow cons such as Harry Pierpont and Homer Van Meter who quickly struck up a friendship with him.

Despite being estranged from his wife, Beryl and his family visited him frequently. He also wrote warm tender letters to his wife, signing himself as ‘Hubby’ but little knowing that Beryl was contemplating a divorce. Even though she received a letter asking to send pictures of herself and telling her how much he’d care for her when he got out, Beryl filed for divorce on 20 June 1929. Dillinger was devastated. It wasn’t to be the only blow, for a month later he discovered that his case for parole had been rejected.

If Dillinger was not the hardened criminal, intent on a life of crime when he first went into prison, there is no doubting that his experiences inside the Indiana State Prison did far from rehabilitate him. He was now a bitter, angry creature, and soon schooled up on the skills of robbing banks from the likes of Harry Pierpont, Homer Van Meter, Charles Makley, John Hamilton, Walter Dietrich and Russell Clark. All of who were to become members of the Dillinger gang when they finally broke out of prison.

On 22 May 1933, Dillinger was paroled. After having spent most of his youth incarcerated, the now hardened ex-con decided he was going to become a professional bank robber. On the outside, he was now in a position to help smuggle in guns to his mates via Harry Pierpont’s girlfriend, Mary Kinder. On 22 September, ten prisoners, Dillinger’s new disciples, escaped from the Indiana State Prison.

Bank Sprees

Just before their escape, Dillinger himself had been arrested and imprisoned at the Allen County Jail in Lima. Like a scene out of a Western, the escaped convicts, including best friend Harry Pierpont, sprang Dillinger from jail but in the process killed Sheriff Jesses Sarber. It is alleged that Dillinger was angered by the death, as he felt it unnecessary. But such regrets didn’t stop him from planning raids on several banks using rigorous methods that involved meticulous planning and trial-runs before undertaking the actual attack. Part of his master plan entailed memorising the interior and layout of a bank, also noting its distance from the local police station.

As Dillinger and his gang’s bank sprees went from state to state, their reputation with the public - enhanced by the fact the Depression had meant banks had foreclosed on millions of people – became almost Saint like. Unwittingly perhaps, Dillinger began to cultivate a ‘Robin Hood’ hero-like status, acting as avenger for the way millions of ordinary American citizens had been treated.

Public Enemy No 1

In April 1934, Warner Brothers studios released a newsreel showing the Division of Investigation (DOI) manhunt of John Dillinger, one of the nation's most notorious criminals. Movie audiences cheered when Dillinger's picture appeared on the screen. Conversely, they hissed at pictures of DOI special agents. When DOI Director J Edgar Hoover heard the news that movie audiences, particularly in Dillinger’s hometown of Mooresville, were applauding the mobster, he was outraged. Hoover put the town of Mooresville under surveillance, and threatened to prosecute the Dillinger family unless they cooperated with the DOI.

Aside from Dillinger’s busy schedule robbing banks, he wasn’t averse to letting his love life suffer and began a relationship with Evelyn Billie Frechette, a girl of mixed French and Native American ancestry. His fellow hoods had girlfriends too, but apart from sex there were few other indulgencies as Pierpont, a stickler for discipline believed that drink and drugs would make them less alert to the danger of being caught.

Although it is fair to say that few citizens were killed because of Dillinger’s exploits, that wasn’t to say that innocent people, either those working in banks or passers by, weren’t traumatised by the experience of being caught up in a raid.

On 15 January 1934, Officer Patrick O’Malley was shot and killed by Dillinger during a bank raid in East Chicago. Although there is some contention over who was actually responsible for the family man’s death, Dillinger is reported as saying "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?"

Ten days later, on 25 January 1934, Dillinger, along with Pierpont, Makley and Clark were arrested in Tucson. They were split up, Dillinger himself being extradited by plane to Indiana for the murder of Officer O’Malley, while the others went to Lima prison, Ohio. Dillinger didn’t go quietly, needing to be shackled and dragged to the aircraft. During this time on trial, the famous photograph was taken of Dillinger putting his arm on prosecutor Robert Estill's shoulder when suggested to him by reporters.

Jail Break

After residing in ‘escape-proof’ Crown Point prison in Indiana, Dillinger eventually absconded in an episode which has become part of gangland folklore, when he allegedly threatened guards with a wooden gun blackened by shoe polish. The mobster himself was quoted as referring to it as his ‘pea shooter’.

Later, evidence emerged that his lawyer had arranged for Dillinger's escape with cash bribes and the wooden gun was simply a cover story.

But it was still an audacious jailbreak, with Dillinger stealing the sheriff's car and racing off to Chicago. J Edgar Hoover was ecstatic, because driving a stolen vehicle across state lines was a federal crime, making Dillinger eligible for a pursuit by the FBI.

Continuing their spree, hitting banks in the Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Mason City and Iowa, Dillinger ended up wounded in the shoulder during the Iowa robbery. He then lay low with girlfriend, Billie Frechette, at the Lincoln Court Apartments in St Paul. However, the caretaker of the building was suspicious and, after reporting to the authorities, two FBI agents paid a call on Dillinger’s apartment.

Frechette opened the door and the agents asked to talk to ‘Carl Hellman’ - an alias Dillinger used. At first, Frechette told the agents he wasn't there, and when they then asked to speak with her, she told them to wait while she dressed. After a few minutes, Dillinger cleared the way with a machine gun, and he and Frechette escaped with an agent receiving a leg wound. After a brief recuperation, the couple decided to head to Mooresville, Dillinger’s home town, which they believed would be the least likely place the FBI would be searching for them.

But later events were to take a rather bizarre turn after Dillinger’s girlfriend was finally caught and arrested in Chicago. The then increasingly paranoid Dillinger decided to undergo plastic surgery with Van Meter on 27 May 1934.

Public Enemy No 1

After his jailbreak and continuation to rob banks across several states, Dillinger who turned 31 on 22 June 1934, became known as America’s first Public Enemy Number One by the FBI, with a $10,000 reward on his head and a lesser figure simply for information that could lead to an arrest.

It was around this time that a new member joined the Dillinger posse, the psychopathic George Nelson, otherwise known as ‘Baby Face Nelson’ due to his youthful features. It was while the gang were on the run and staying at a lodge called Little Bohemia in Wisconsin, that a shoot-out occurred between Dillinger’s mob and the FBI when the agents had been secretly contacted by the lodge owners. After FBI agents crept up on the lodge, Dillinger and his gang were alerted by barking dogs and soon gunfire was exchanged. The brief battle resulted in Baby Face killing 30-year-old agent W Carter Baum when he approached one of the mobsters’ cars that contained the violent gangster.

The incident also saw terrible mistakes committed by the FBI themselves when they mistakenly gunned down three innocent workers during the fire exchange. Gunfire did not last long and Dillinger and his gang managed to escape in a variety of ways.

On 4 July 1934, Dillinger moved into the apartment of Anna Sage, a Romanian ex-prostitute who was facing deportation charges for operating several brothels. Dillinger, not one to be without a woman for long, had a new girlfriend, Polly Hamilton, former waitress and employee of Sage. It’s not known whether Dillinger was aware that Sage was facing deportation charges but what he obviously wasn’t aware of was that she was prepared to play a double game with the mobster and the FBI in order to save her own neck.

Sage did a deal with Melvin Purvis, a young, well-respected FBI agent who was to later become famous for capturing more public enemies than any other FBI agent in history. The brothel owner believed that by turning Dillinger in she wouldn’t be deported. The arrangement wasn’t to turn out as she had envisaged.

On 22 July 1934, Dillinger invited Sage and girlfriend Hamilton to see the Clark Gable movie ‘Manhattan Melodrama’ at the Biograph cinema in Chicago. Sage had forewarned Purvis and, on that hot night, the trio went to see the film, while FBI agents including Purvis waited outside. The tense scene was like something from a gangster movie itself and no doubt made the Clark Gable gangster movie look pale in comparison. Sage, who had been asked to wear an orange skirt and white blouse to identify her and Dillinger, knew all along that agents were waiting outside.

As the trio exited the cinema, Purvis shouted ‘Stick ‘em up, Johnny’. Dillinger bolted, running down the street and struggling to take his gun out. He was shot six times in the back. Two female passers-by were also wounded by the exchange of gunfire. Hamilton fled to her workplace. Although she later claimed that she had nothing to do with Sage's plan, the DOI sent her with Sage to Detroit for two weeks to protect the women's identities. Sage was rewarded with $5000. However, she was eventually deported, but not before she had gone public with the story in order to try and embarrass the government and stop her extradition back to Romania. She died in 1947 from liver failure.

Purvis received great acclaim for his role in bringing Dillinger to book, despite the controversy surrounding the mobster’s final demise. It’s not known whether it was the fact that Dillinger wasn’t brought in alive, or the fact that the agent received so much coverage, that made J Edgar Hoover so extremely jealous of the young hero.

Years later, after having served in WW2, Purvis was to tragically shoot himself with the same gun he used on Dillinger, when the former agent was suffering from cancer.

To this day, loyal fans continue to observe "John Dillinger Day" (22 July) as a way to remember the fabled bank robber. Members of the "John Dillinger Died for You Society" traditionally gather at the Biograph Theatre on the anniversary of Dillinger's death and retrace his last walk to the alley where he died, following a bagpiper playing "Amazing Grace".

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