John Dillinger had everything it took to be famous in the 1930s: good looks, charisma, and a personality that made him a natural leader. He also chose to live his life on the wrong side of the law, which led to the FBI naming his as their “Public Enemy Number One.”
In the 1920s and 1930s, America was in the grips of the Great Depression. People were out of jobs, penniless, and desperate. Because of this hopelessness, many Americans viewed gangsters, outlaws, and other criminals as folk heroes who railed against an unfair system. No one embodied this phenomenon as much as John Dillinger. Although Dillinger and his gang killed 10 people and wounded more than half a dozen others, the American public looked at Dillinger as a Robin Hood of sorts.
Dillinger was born in Indianapolis in 1903. From an early age, he exhibited a wild streak and left school early to get a job in a machine shop. Dillinger’s father thought the city temptations of Indianapolis would be too tempting for the teenager, so he moved the family to rural Mooresville, Indiana. However, the relocation did nothing to dampen Dillinger’s rebelliousness.
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Dillinger was paroled on May 10, 1933. Released in the midst of the Great Depression, Dillinger never bothered looking for a job, and instead embarked on a year-long crime spree that would make him a household name. He robbed his first bank in Ohio in June 1933, fleeing with $10,000. Just two months later, in August, he hit another bank in Ohio, but by September he had been taken into custody and was sent to Lima, Ohio to await trial.
When frisking Dillinger, the Lima guards found escape plans to break out of the Indiana State Prison. The convict refused to talk about the plans, but he had been working on a scheme to smuggle guns into the prison and bust a number of his accomplices out.
While he was still in custody in Lima, Ohio, a group of his men successfully pulled off the elaborate escape plan at the Indiana State Prison conceived by none other than Dillinger himself. Then, on October 12, 1933, four men posed as Indiana State Police officers arrived at the Lima Sheriff’s department and broke Dillinger out of jail, killing the sheriff in the process. The Dillinger Gang was now back on the open road, ready to roam from town to town committing robberies.
The gang hit banks across the Midwest, taking lives along the way. They also raided two different arsenals in Indiana, stealing guns, ammunition, and bulletproof vests. In December 1933, gang member John Hamilton killed a Chicago Police Detective, and then another officer in Indiana in January 1934. The gang was netting thousands of dollars with their heists and the police stayed hot on their trail. After robbing a bank in East Chicago, Indiana on January 15, 1934 (where another officer was killed), the Dillinger Gang decided to lay low, and several members, including Dillinger, took refuge up in Tucson, Arizona.
On January 21, 1934, the hotel where the gang was staying in Tucson caught fire. The gang fled their rooms through windows and scampered down fire rescue ladders to escape the blaze, leaving their luggage behind. Two of the criminals paid Tucson firefighters to retrieve their bags from their rooms, but, shortly after, a firefighter recognized one of the men in a magazine article and tipped off local police.
Police traced the luggage to an address in Tucson, where they then descended on the house and arrested Russell Clark. A short time later, they nabbed two other gang members. Finally, John Dillinger was captured when he returned to the house where Clark had been apprehended.
Dillinger was taken back to Indiana and imprisoned in Crown Point, where he was to be tried for the killing of a police officer in East Chicago on January 15. While in jail, the now-infamous outlaw spent his time planning yet another escape, and on March 3, 1934, Dillinger broke out with an ingenious plot. The convict whittled a fake gun out of wood and threatened his captors with it, allowing Dillinger the chance to flee. The FBI’s “Public Enemy Number One” was on the loose again.
Dillinger met up with his girlfriend, Evelyn Frechette, in Chicago, and the two ventured to St. Paul, Minnesota. Dillinger quickly formed a new gang and the group went back to the business of robbing banks in South Dakota, Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa. Dillinger and Frechette escaped a police shootout in St. Paul on March 30 and headed back to Dillinger’s hometown of Mooresville, Indiana to visit his father and half-brother. Frechette made the mistake of returing to Chicago, where she was arrested by the FBI and charged with harboring a fugitive.
Dillinger knew he was likely to be captured sooner or later if he stayed around Mooresville, so he too headed to Chicago in early April. Dillinger had enlisted a soon-to-be-notorious gangster, Baby Face Nelson, into his gang, and they committed what turned out to be John Dillinger’s final bank robbery on June 30, 1934 in South Bend, Indiana.
After the South Bend robbery, FBI agents and other law enforcement officials had all but entirely lost Dillinger’s trail. But, as it turned out, he was hiding in plain sight back in Chicago under the assumed name Jimmy Lawrence. To be sure of his anonymity, Dillinger enlisted a doctor in Chicago to perform plastic surgery on his face, so that no one might notice him from the many Wanted posters and magazine articles featuring his likeness.
It appeared for a brief moment as if Dillinger’s new life under an alias and with an altered appearance might allow him to escape the reach of the law forever, but ultimately the law caught up. A woman named Ana Cumpanas who ran a brothel in Gary, Indiana contacted the federal agency with information about Dillinger in July 1934. Cumpanas, a FBI informant, was an illegal resident from Romania and in danger of being deported.
She told agents that Dillinger was dating a woman named Polly Hamilton and that she would be joining the couple at a movie at one of two Chicago theaters, either the Biograph or the Marbro, on July 22. Cumpanas agreed to wear an orange dress so that she would stand out to law enforcement.
FBI and police personnel staked out both locations on the evening of July 22. FBI Agent Melvin Purvis recognized Dillinger and the two women as they left the Biograph Theater after the film Manhattan Melodrama had finished. Dillinger knew something wasn’t right, and so he fled the theatre to a nearby alley where agents pursued him and opened fire. Dillinger was shot and killed, and the FBI’s Public Enemy Number One’s short and violent life abruptly ended face down in an alley.
John Dillinger’s corpse was put on display at the Cook County morgue in Chicago and over 15,000 people viewed his body. Dillinger is buried in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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