Considering how famous he became, it's surprising to note what a brief outlaw career John Dillinger had. Until June, 1933, he was virtually unknown outside of his hometown, Mooresville, Indiana, and the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City. That would change.

Today, 90 years after his death, he remains one of our most famous outlaws, thanks to several movie and television dramatizations of his life and crimes. He also is the subject of several books and websites.

To me, the most memorable thing about Dillinger happened in 1934, and it was not a bank robbery or a murder.

Syracuse Journal, March 3, 1934
CROWN POINT, Indiana (INS) — With a wooden toy pistol, John Dillinger, America’s most notorious killer and bank robber, cowed 24 heavily armed guards in the Lake County jail today and escaped, in broad daylight, with a fellow prisoner.

Seizing two machine guns from their jailers and forcing a deputy sheriff and a garage attendant to accompany them, Dillinger and his companion sped north out of Crown Point in a stolen car toward Chicago.

Dillinger’s escape was the second of his career and among the most spectacular breaks in the history of American crime.

Obtaining the machine guns, Dillinger and his companion, Henry Youngblood, cowed the guard and deputies, forced them into a cell and backed out of the jail house, locking the doors after them.

At the same time, it was reported Dillinger liberated three other prisoners, telling the three men to “scram.” The desperado then ordered George Blunk to go with him.

Early reports of the jailbreak, erroneous because of the hysteria of the guards and deputies who were victimized, said Youngblood had liberated Dillinger after walking into the cell house with a machine gun.

What actually happened was that as a guard approached his cell about 9:30 a.m., Dillinger covered him with what appeared to be a heavy pistol and ordered him to open his cell door, under threats of immediate death.

As the guard opened the door, Dillinger seized his sub-machine gun, dropped his wooden pistol to the floor and swung the gun to cover the entrance to the cell row where another guard stood.

Threatening death to the guard if he made a sound or move, Dillinger liberated the other prisoners, one of them Youngblood (being held on a charge of murder).

Dillinger’s escape came from what was reputed to be a foolproof jail, watched over by Mrs. Lillian Holley, sheriff of Lake County.

Crown Point and Lake County authorities had boasted of the “fool proof” qualities of their jail when Dillinger was locked up there a month ago, following his capture in Tucson, Arizona, on January 25.

Dillinger was awaiting trial for the murder of a policeman in a $24,000 holdup of an East Chicago bank on January 15.
A paroled convict from the Indiana state penitentiary in Michigan City, Dillinger had been seized in Dayton, Ohio, on September, 1933, on charges of participating in several bank robberies.

Sheriff Holley and Prosecutor Robert Estill were especially embarrassed about the escape. When Dillinger had arrived in Crown Point with a police escort a few weeks earlier, the sheriff and prosecutor, along with other local dignitaries, had been photographed with the outlaw. Estill seemed particularly friendly toward Dillinger, who also was in a chummy mood.

Mrs. Holley and Estill would both lose their jobs over this foolish mistake which made Crown Point and its city police and sheriff's deputies the laughing stock of the nation.

It is widely agreed the "gun" Dillinger used for his escape was made of wood. When I was a young boy, the more popular story was that Dillinger had fashioned the gun from a bar of soap and shoe polish.

Some newspaper editorials at the time of the escape insisted Dillinger must have used a real gun that had been smuggled into the prison by a female visitor. Apparently the writers did not want us to believe lawmen could be so easily fooled.

And perhaps they weren't. Common sense — and several who have researched Dillinger's escape — say the jail allowed a visitor who slipped the inmate a gun. That visitor would have been Evelyn "Billie" Frechette, Dillinger's girl friend during that period.

But it's a lot more fun to believe Dillinger used razor blades to carve his get-out-of-jail free gun from a piece of wood in his cell.

Photo: Chicago Tribune

The Chicago Tribune page which includes the above gun photo, and several other interesting Dillinger-related photos, does not claim this was the toy used. However, The John Dillinger Museum, located at the Crown Point Jail, has on occasion exhibited a wooden gun claimed to be the one the outlaw used to make his escape.

Two weeks after the escape, Henry Youngblood was found hiding in Port Huron, Michigan, across the St. Clair River from Canada. Police cornered him in a tobacco shop, and there was a gun battle. Youngblood was killed and Undersheriff Charles Cavanaugh also was fatally wounded.

Meanwhile, in Crown Point, Indiana, deputy Ernest Blunk, faced with a trial on a charge of aiding Dillinger's escape, claimed he could prove the outlaw had threatened him with a real gun, a .45-caliber automatic pistol, though Blunk admitted Dillinger showed him a wooden pistol when they were in the sheriff's car during the getaway.

(The story of the gun — wooden or real — was made confusing by newspaper accounts which indicated that when Dillinger confiscated a sheriff's department submachine gun, he discarded his weapon. Instead, he must have put it in his pocket ... because if he had left it behind, someone at the jail would have shown it to the press, either to prove the gun was real or to cash-in on the curiosity value of a fake gun. Deputy Blunk, by the way, would be found not guilty of aiding Dillinger.)


Information overload

I will not recount Dillinger's life. There are several websites that can tell you everything you want to know about him. Well, almost. The problem is there's a difference of opinion over the details, particularly concerning several bank robberies and whether Dillinger actually participated in them. Here are few sources for those who want to know more about the outlaw, who, more than any other in late 1933 and early 1934, struck terror in the hearts of Americans in the Midwest.

John Dillinger biography
Eat My Dust: The Story of John Dillinger
Wanted: John Dillinger
The Year of the Gangster
The Mystery of John Hamilton*
* Hamilton often worked with Dillinger


However, I am not finished with Dillinger, whose name, according to something I read while doing this, has been mispronounced all these years. We all say, DILL-inge-ur, right? One Dillinger expert says the outlaw's family pronounced it DILL-ing-ur. Hard G. Makes him sound like a character in a British sitcom.

Anyway, here are other things about Dillinger I would like to share:


Seeing double

It is often mentioned in detective books and TV's police dramas that eyewitnesses aren't exactly reliable. Those who witnessed the Dillinger gang's bank robbery, in Racine, Wisconsin, either were hysterical or badly in need of eye examinations. These confused witnesses included the city's police chief, Grover Lutter.

Or ... perhaps the only one confused is the anonymous reporter who wrote the story.

Buffalo Courier-Express, November 21, 1933
Chicago Tribune Wire
RACINE, Wisconsin, November 20 — A dozen bandits held up the American Bank and Trust Company in the center of the downtown business district this afternoon, shot a police sergeant and an assistant bank cashier, kidnapped Grover Weyland, president of the bank; Mrs. Ursula Patzke, general bookkeeper, and patrolman Cyril Bayard, and escaped with an undetermined amount of cash.

According to the story, Chief Lutter said at least twelve men participated in the robbery. Witnesses also told the reporter that when the robbers left town, "on the rear bumper of the hindmost automobile sat a bandit dressed in the uniform of a policeman. He menaced the crowd with a machine gun."

The Buffalo newspaper wasn't the only one to carry this version.

However ...

Truth was there were only five robbers, all dressed in business suits and hats, led by Harry Pierpont, who, on this day, was the leader of the gang, though Dillinger participated as well, along with Charles Makley, John "Red" Hamilton and Leslie Homer.

A day after the robbery, the following story appeared in the Milwaukee Journal. It's long, but worth reading, giving an interesting account of a bank robbery. I especially like the customer who probably kicked himself afterward for the question he posed to one of the robbers. And the quote from a visiting salesman who watched the robbers escape is priceless.

Milwaukee Journal, November 21, 1933
RACINE, Wisconsin — John Dillinger, notorious Indiana criminal and prison breaker, was named in a warrant here this afternoon as the leader of the five machine gun bandits who robbed the American Bank & Trust Company yesterday and escaped with $28,000 cash.

Other warrants named Charles Makley and Harry Pierpont, members of Dillinger’s gang. All the warrants charge robbery while armed.

Chief of Police Grover C. Lutter said the warrants were prepared after a dozen robbery witnesses scanned police pictures of the men involved in a jail delivery [escape] from the Michigan City (Indiana) prison and the slaying of the sheriff at Lima, Ohio, where Dillinger was delivered (freed) from the county jail by a gang of desperadoes.

Pictures used in the identifications were obtained from the Milwaukee bureau of identification. Photographs also were obtained of Russell Lee Clark, 33, and Joseph Burns, 40. They were among the convicts who fled the Indiana penitentiary in September. Burns was serving a life sentence for murder. Pierpont also escaped at that time. He was serving 10 to 21 years for robbery.

Dillinger in recent weeks has been one of the nation’s most sought fugitives. Only last week Chicago police trapped him when he went to see a doctor for treatment of a skin disease, but he escaped their fire in a bulletproof car.

Racine bank officers determined today that the loot was about $28,000 cash and some securities, mostly non-negotiable. Before fleeing, the gunmen wounded Officer Wilbur Hansen of the Racine department and assistant cashier Harold J. Graham.

As hostages, the five desperadoes abducted Grover C. Weyland, president of the bank; Mrs. Ursula Patzke, head bookkeeper, and policeman Cyril Bayard. For a while they were made to stand on the running boards of the fleeing car to act as shields against possible pursuers’ shots.

Weyland said that on the ride the robbers engaged in friendly conversation and called one of their number “Mack.” Chief Lutter said that is the nickname of Makley.

Officer Bayard was shoved off the running board of the robbers’ car at Sixth and Lafayette streets, and there Weyland and Mrs. Patzke were hauled into the back seat of the car alongside three bandits. Two other gunmen sat in the front seat.

Later, over in Waukesha County on a dirt road and a half-mile from a farmhouse, Weyland and Mrs. Patzke were shoved from the car, tied rather loosely to a tree with shoestrings, and told to remain there 10 or 15 minutes. They did, then released themselves and walked to the farm home of William Klusendorf, who identified the place of their release as a woods road between Highway 59 and Highway X near Saylesville.

At 4:45 p.m. Weyland telephoned his wife and told her that he and Mrs. Patzke were safe. They were driven home by Mr. and Mrs. Klusendorf.

Garrett Venstra, a Racine building contractor, was one of the first persons encountered by the robbers when they entered the bank. The leader ordered all employees to put up their hands.

There were four customers at the cages. One of them, besides Venstra, was Barney Cowen, who had a machine gun thrust in his back. Venstra, who was making a deposit, asked if they were going to take his money, too.

“Sure, we’re going to take your money, too,” said one of the robbers. “Give it to us.”

L. C. Rowan, assistant cashier, stepped on the bank alarm button. This sounded a call in police headquarters two blocks away, setting off the big gong outside of the bank building. It was then that the shooting started. Graham was shot because one of the gunmen thought he had set off the alarm.

In response to the burglar alarm, officers Bayard, Hansen and Franklin Worsley left headquarters in a squad car.

“I was in the middle going in,” said Sergeant Hansen afterward, “and had the machine gun at ready. Bayard entered the bank first and Worsley brought up the rear.

“ ‘Get the cop with the gun,’ one of the bandits shouted.”

A moment before one of the armed men had thrust a gun in the ribs of policeman Bayard. They they fired at Hansen. He dropped to the floor of the bank. He felt a burning sensation in his right hip.

“My head was buzzing as I lay there on the floor and all I could think of was when is the next shot coming,” he said later.

Two bandits drove Mr. Weyland and cashier Loren S. Bowen back to the vault to clean it out. After snatching up what loose change was in the various cages, they marched Weyland, Mrs. Patzke and Helen Cespkes, a bookkeeper, and Jane Williams, stenographer, down the corridor of the bank and out through the front door.

Meanwhile, the robber who had policeman Bayard in charge marched him out. Miss Cespkes and Miss Williams managed to disappear into the crowd that had gathered in front of the place, but Mrs. Patzke, Weyland and Bayard were walked down Fifth Street along the bank for 120 feet to the car.

The car was in a parking space back of the bank. It wasn’t even headed outwards. After putting their hostages on the running board, the gunners backed out, turned around in the street while a score of persons gaped at them, drove east to Lake Avenue, turned south to Seventh, and then headed west through the heart of the city.

Police Lieutenant A. W. Muhlke was standing at Fifth Street and Lake Avenue. Weyland waved at him and Muhlke waved back.

“I wasn’t trying to attract Muhlke’s attention to the bandits,” Weyland said later, “but I didn’t want him to shoot at us with the three of us standing on the running board that way.”

The car sped west on Seventh Street at 40 miles an hour, across Main Street and past the sheriff’s office, with Mr. Weyland and Mrs. Patzke clinging on one running board and policeman Bayard on the other.

“I was wondering what they were advertising,” said a Milwaukee salesman who saw the car go by as he stood in front of the Hotel Racine.


Even Purvis was nervous

The longer Dillinger and his associates remained free, the more police and bystanders were shot, sometimes fatally. Police became more determined to nail them, but they also became increasingly skittish, and they began to shoot first, ask questions later.

On December 14, 1933, Dillinger pal John Hamilton killed Chicago police sergeant William Shanley at a parking garage. Six days later 20 state and local police gathered outside the France Hotel in Paris, Illinois, awaiting Edward Shouse, an on-again, off-again member of the Dillinger gang. They opened fire as soon as Shouse parked his car, even though he had two female companions.

Patrolman Eugene Teague of the state police impetuously dashed toward the car and was killed by a bullet fired by another officer. The shooting stopped, and Albert Stepp, a Paris policeman, reached through the shattered driver's side window and poked the cowering gangster with his revolver. Shouse's gun was still in his holster. Neither he nor his female passengers was injured

Just when it seemed things couldn't get any crazier, they did:

Gloversville and Johnstown Morning Herald, December 22, 1933
CHICAGO, December 21 (AP) — A police detail searching for members of the John Dillinger band of outlaws, one of whom recently killed a Chicago cop, stormed an apartment tonight and shot to death three men. All of them were identified as escaped convicts, but in no way were connected with the Indiana outlaw gang.

Captain John Stege and his special detail rushed to the apartment in fashionable Rogers Park on information the bandits were hiding there. They charged into the buildings, only to be met with a blast of fire.

Immediately, the officers leveled their machine guns and raked the place with a round of slugs. Seconds later the detail found three bodies crumpled on the floor of the ornate suite.

While throngs of startled residents gathered in the quiet street outside, Captain Stege searched the rendezvous and announced he had found 20 bullet-proof vests, three machine guns, half a dozen shotguns and a full panoply of pistol and ammunition.


On New Year's Day, 1934 came the news that the Dillinger gang invaded a roadhouse called The Beverly Gardens in the Chicago suburb of Evergreen Park, terrorized 300 patrons, took $500 in cash and lots of jewelry, and then shot two county highway policemen who responded to a holdup alarm. Two members of the Dillinger gang reportedly were wounded in a shootout.

My favorite paragraph appeared in the Associated Press account:

As the man identified as Dillinger beat Walter Ahern, the owner, over the head with a pistol butt, the owner’s dog leaped at the bandit. Coolly turning, Dillinger shot the animal through the head, killing it.

Except Dillinger and his gang were vacationing in Florida at the time. The mix-up was caused by patrons of The Beverly Gardens who told police one of the robbers resembled John Dillinger. They had no clue who the others were. At this point in his crime spree, Dillinger had spread so much panic that folks were seeing him everywhere. Meanwhile, a dog killer was running loose.

There's also confusion over a robbery in East Chicago, Indiana, on January 16, 1934, which resulted in the only murder attributed to Dillinger, who later claimed he was still in Florida when it happened. Maybe, maybe not.

Not long after that, Dillinger took his girl friend, "Billie" Frechette to Tucson, Arizona, with some of their pals tagging along. There they were outsmarted and arrested by the local police. Dillinger was soon back in Indiana, locked up in the "foolproof" Crown Point jail. Which is where I started this piece.

After his escape and a few more robberies, which had him working alongside the loose cannon known as "Baby Face" Nelson, Dillinger returned to Chicago, where he had to find new female companionship because "Billie" Frechette had been arrested and was in prison for aiding him months earlier.

Meanwhile, J. Edgar Hoover, whose organization wasn't yet known as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was obsessed with capturing or killing Dillinger, whose reputation among other outlaws was nowhere near as strong as it was with Hoover's agents.

Unfortunately for the feds, they looked like the Keystone Kops on April 22, 1934, when they converged on a Wisconsin resort known as Little Bohemia, after receiving a tip Dillinger and friends were there.

Melvin Purvis set up his men out front, but once more they abruptly began firing at nothing in particular. If they had shouted a warning beforehand, it wasn't heard.

Dillinger and most of the others slipped out of the unguarded rear entrance. Meanwhile, a Civilian Conservation Corp employee was gunned down on his way to his car. "Baby Face" Nelson, who wasn't with the other outlaws, took it upon himself to fire a few shots, and killed a federal agent. When Hoover received the news, he reportedly was set to can Purvis, his chief Chicago agent.

But two months later Purvis had the last laugh.

Buffalo Courier-Express, July 23, 1934
CHICAGO, Illinois, July 22 (AP) — John Dillinger, arch criminal of the age, was shot dead tonight by a group of department of justice representatives as he walked out of a Chicago movie theater.

He whipped an automatic pistol out of his pocket and had it half raised when the operatives loosed a withering blast of revolver fire that dropped him mortally wounded. He died a few minutes later.

Fifteen operatives had surrounded the theater after information had reached Melvin H. Purvis, Chicago agent for the department of justice, that Dillinger would attend the theater. Not a word was spoken as the outlaw ran into the cordon of officers.

Dillinger knew what was coming. He gave a hunted look, reached quickly into his pocket, and the guns roared.

The end of the greatest manhunt in contemporary criminal annals came in the swift tempo in which the notorious outlaw had lived.

The federal men watched him buy his ticket, and then for more than two hours — “the longest two hours I have ever spent,” Purvis said — kept the theater surrounded.

“It was late yesterday when I received undercover information that Dillinger would attend the movie, ‘Manhattan Melodrama,’ at the Biograph Theater,” Purvis said. “I hurriedly made arrangements to surround the theater with picked men from among my investigators. They were armed only with pistols. No shotguns or machine guns were issued, for I wished no general firing that might endanger passersby.”

The theater faces on Lincoln Avenue, on Chicago’s northwest side. Dillinger was walking south on Lincoln when he ran into the group of federal operatives.

Scores of persons, drawn by the vigil, witnessed the dramatic shooting, and despite Purvis’ precautions, two women spectators were wounded when caught in the fire from the federal men’s revolvers. They are Miss Theresa Paulus, 29, slightly wounded in the left side, and Mrs. Etta Natelski.

Dillinger was shot through the back of the neck, the bullet coming out just under his right eye. That shot proved fatal. Another bullet crashed through his left breast. A third bullet was found in the left breast.

At the Cook County morgue, attempts were made to identify Dillinger by his fingerprints, but the ends of his fingers were scarred, apparently having been treated with acid. Purvis had definitely identified him before the body was taken to the morgue.

Examination at the morgue disclosed a recent wound in Dillinger’s chest, about two inches long, which had recently healed. It was believe received in a bank robbery earlier this year. Purvis said Dillinger’s last known robbery was the Peoples Trust and Savings Bank at South Bend.

Dillinger’s hair was dyed coal black and cut very short. His eyebrows appeared to have been plucked to a fine line. He had a small, black mustache.

Hundreds of spectators crowded, pushed and jostled after the bleeding body of the outlaw was removed. Souvenir hunters madly dipped newspapers in the blood that stained the pavement. Handkerchiefs were whipped out and used to mop up the blood.

Traffic became so jammed that streetcars were rerouted, police lines established and traffic blocked out of the area.
Frustrated souvenir hunters hurried to the county morgue.

Police estimated 2,000 persons rushed to the morgue for a view of the body, and shouted and fought with police to gain entrance. Stringent lines were drawn there also.

Dr. Charles D. Parker, coroner’s physician, said Dillinger’s face apparently had been “tampered with.” The outlaw had tried to have scars “lifted” in the beauty parlor manner. He had a scar on each cheek.

“Dillinger evidently had been the subject of some expert plastic surgery,” said Purvis “His nose was originally a pronounced ‘pug,’ but it was nearly straight, I noticed, in a hasty examination of the body. I imagine his hair had been dyed in Chicago. He remained here, in spite of the search for him, because he had friends here to shelter him.”

Four policemen from East Chicago, Indiana, fellow officers of two patrolmen allegedly slain by Dillinger recently on an Indiana highway, were in Purvis’s office when word as to Dillinger’s whereabouts was received. They took part in the trapping of the outlaw, but Purvis declined to say who fired the shots that dropped Dillinger.

The outlaw wore gray trousers, that were well pressed, a white shirt, open at the collar, a wine-colored tie, black socks, white low shoes, and a black belt with a plain silver buckle.

There is at least one person convinced the man shot in Chicago on July 22, 1934 was NOT John Dillinger.

Jay Robert Nash has written two books on the subject, and the late Roger Ebert allowed Nash to present his argument on the website, Roger Ebert's Journal.

Nash makes an interesting case, though his tendency to pat himself on the back somewhat undermines his argument. (He claims he talked to a man who may have been Dillinger.) Also, Nash's description of the body taken to the Cook County morgue differs significantly from what we can see for ourselves in newspaper photos.

But, hey, people said Jesse James really wasn't shot by Bob Ford and that Adolf Hitler really didn't die in the bunker.

Fortunately, Ebert's page includes a rebuttal from the late Rick Mattix, also the author of books about Dillinger. I thought Mattix was more convincing, but when it comes to gangsters from the 1920s and '30s, you can never be completely sure what your reading is true.