Friday, October 30, 2020

American Gangster


John Herbert Dillinger was born in Indianapolis on June 22, 1903.  He was the youngest of two children born to German immigrants.  Shortly before his fourth birthday, Dillinger's mother passed away, and the job of raising him went to his older sister, who was by then 18, married, and starting a family of her own.

By the time he was a teenager, Dillinger was already being arrested for petty theft.  He had no interest in his education either, dropping out of school to work in a machine shop.  In an attempt to turn his son's life around, Dillinger's father, recently remarried, moved the family to the more rural town of Mooresville, Indiana.  The country setting didn't have any affect on Dillinger's behavior however, as his crimes and arrests continued.

After a few years in the country, Dillinger took a bride, marrying Beryl Ethel Hovious when he was 21.  In a bid to support his new wife, and unable to hold a job, Dillinger and an accomplice, Ed Singleton, robbed a local grocery store, netting all of $50.  Unfortunately for them, they were recognized at the scene by a local minister who reported their identities to the police.  The two were arrested the following day.

By this time, Dillinger's father was deacon at Mooresville Church.  In this role, he discussed his son's crime with the local prosecutor, and based on this discussion, convinced his son to plead guilty in the case.  Dillinger did just that, and was promptly sentenced to ten to twenty years in prison.  His father later told reporters he regretted his part in the sentencing.  Singleton had better legal representation however (Dillinger had none), and was sentenced to 2 to 14 years.  He died shortly after his release however, when he fell down drunk on the railroad tracks.

Dillinger was sent to Indiana State Prison (right).  At the start of his sentence, he defiantly told his jailors "I will be the meanest bastard you ever saw when I get out of here."  A man of his word, he spent his prison years refining his criminal behavior, studying under a string of professional bank robbers.  He put that knowledge to good use upon his release nine years later, when he began robbing banks for a living.

Two months after his release, Dillinger was arrested for robbing two banks in Ohio.  The timing couldn't have been better for him, as he had already put a plan into motion to bust eight of his cellmates out of Indiana State Prison.  Their escape was successful, and the group returned the favor by busting Dillinger out in Ohio.  The group returned to Indiana, where they became known as "The First Dillinger Gang."  Over the next year, they robbed 12 different banks.

The gang was arrested in Arizona in January 1934.  Dillinger was escorted back to Indiana, where he promptly escaped from a jail in Crown Point.  He reunited with his girlfriend Evelyn Frechette (left), and the two made their way to Minneapolis, where Dillinger formed his second gang, who's members included Baby Face Nelson.  Just three days after his escape, the gang robbed their first bank together in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Then in April, agents at what would later be known as the FBI got word that Dillinger and several gang members were hiding out in Wisconsin.  The agents surrounded a lodge in Manitowish Waters that the gang had been using as a hideout.  A shootout ensued when the agents fired on three gang members attempting to drive off, who in their drunken state, were not even aware of the agents.  Alerted to their presence, Dillinger and the remaining members successfully fled the area.

Shortly thereafter, J. Edgar Hoover created a special task force to locate Dillinger, which was headquartered in Chicago.  In July, they were contacted by a brothel owner in Gary, Indiana who was willing to trade information on Dillinger's whereabouts.  In exchange, she sought freedom from deportation back to her native Romania.  The FBI agreed to her terms.

The madam, Ana Cumpanas (below right), told agents that Dillinger had taken up with one of her prostitutes, a woman by the name of Polly Hamilton.  The three had become close and would often spend time together, including nights out at the theatre.  Cumpanas alerted agents that the three would be together at Chicago's Biograph Theatre on the evening of July 22nd.

That night, agents joined by local police, awaited Dillinger's arrival.  At around 8:30, he was seen entering the theatre with his party, having purchased tickets for the crime drama Manhattan Melodrama, starring Clark Gable and Myrna Loy.  The agents did little to conceal their presence however, as the manager believed them to be criminals planning to rob the theatre.  Dillinger himself wasn't as observant.

When the movie was over, the agents made their move.  Dillinger, now aware of their presence, abandoned his female companions and retreated to an alley behind the theatre.  He didn't realize however, that they had already sealed it off.  

Agents started firing, striking Dillinger four times.  The fatal shot was fired through the back of his neck.  It severed his spinal cord, passed through his brain and finally exited through his right eye.  He died on the scene.

Dillinger's body was put on display at the Cook County Morgue.  More than 15,000 people stood in line to view the remains.  At least four death masks of his face were made, many of which have made their way into various museums throughout the U.S. (see Trivia below). 

He was eventually buried in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.

Crown Hill Cemetery
Indianapolis, Indiana
The Dillinger Family Plot.

Section #44, Lot #94.

  • The headstone seen above is actually Dillinger's fifth.  The other four were chipped apart through the years by souvenir collectors.

  • Despite her cooperation with authorities, Ana Cumpanas was deported anyway.

  • When Dillinger was 20, he enlisted in the Navy, where he served as a petty officer aboard the battleship U.S.S. Utah.  A few months after he enlisted however, he went AWOL.  As a result, he was dishonorably discharged.

  • Several books have been written on Dillinger's life and exploits.  Here are a few to choose from:
      * John Dillinger: The Life and Death of America's First Celebrity Criminal, by Dary Matera
      * Dillinger: The Untold Story, by G. Russell Girardin and William J. Hemler
      * The Dillinger Days, by John Toland

  • Dillinger was a long-time fan of the Chicago Cubs.  While hiding out in the windy city in 1934, he often attended games at Wrigley Field.  On June 8th of that year, as Dillinger watched the Cubs lose to Cincinnati 4-3, Captain John Stege of the Dillinger Squad was also in attendance at Wrigley Field, though the two never crossed paths.

  • Dillinger died just two months after Bonnie and Clyde were killed in a similar manner.  The criminal couple were themselves profiled here at Six Feet Under Hollywood, and you can re-visit their story here.

  • Dillinger's car is currently on display at Alcatraz East: The American Crime Museum, in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.  It is featured in a display of other notorious vehicles, including O.J. Simpson's white Ford Bronco and Ted Bundy's Volkswagen Beetle.  The museum also houses one of Dillinger's death masks, as well as several of his personal items.

    Photo courtesy of the internet.

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