John Herbert Dillinger was born on June 22, 1903, in the Oak Hill section of Indianapolis, Indiana, the younger of two children born to John Wilson Dillinger (July 2, 1864 – November 3, 1943) and Mary Ellen "Mollie" Lancaster (1860–1907). According to some biographers, his grandfather, Matthias Dillinger, emigrated to the United States in 1851 from Metz, in the region of Alsace-Lorraine, then under French sovereignty. Matthias Dillinger was born in German-Prussian Gisingen, near Dillingen, Saarland. Dillinger's parents had married on August 23, 1887. Dillinger's father was a grocer by trade and, reportedly, a harsh man. In an interview with reporters, Dillinger said that he was firm in his discipline and believed in the adage "spare the rod and spoil the child".
Dillinger's older sister, Audrey, was born March 6, 1889. Their mother died in 1907 just before his fourth birthday. Audrey married Emmett "Fred" Hancock that year and they had seven children together. She cared for her brother John for several years until their father remarried in 1912 to Elizabeth "Lizzie" Fields (1878–1933). They had three children, Hubert, born c. 1913, Doris M. (December 12, 1917 – March 14, 2001) and Frances Dillinger (born c. 1922).
Initially, Dillinger disliked his stepmother but reportedly eventually came to love her.
As a teenager, Dillinger was frequently in trouble with the law for fighting and petty theft; he was also noted for his "bewildering personality" and bullying of smaller children. He quit school to work in an Indianapolis machine shop. Although he worked hard at his job, he would stay out all night at parties. His father feared that the city was corrupting his son, prompting him to move the family to Mooresville, Indiana, in about 1920. Dillinger's wild and rebellious behavior was resilient despite his new rural life. He was arrested in 1922 for auto theft, and his relationship with his father deteriorated. His troubles led him to enlist in the United States Navy where he was a Fireman 3rd Class assigned aboard the battleship USS Utah, but he deserted a few months later when his ship was docked in Boston. He was eventually dishonorably discharged. Dillinger then returned to Mooresville where he met Beryl Ethel Hovious. The two were married on April 12, 1924. He attempted to settle down, but he had difficulty holding a job and preserving his marriage. The marriage ended in divorce on June 20, 1929.
Dillinger was unable to find a job and began planning a robbery with his friend Ed Singleton. The two robbed a local grocery store, stealing $50. Leaving the scene they were spotted by a minister who recognized the men and reported them to the police. The two men were arrested the next day. Singleton pleaded not guilty, but after Dillinger's father (the local Mooresville Church deacon) discussed the matter with Morgan County prosecutor Omar O'Harrow, his father convinced Dillinger to confess to the crime and plead guilty without retaining a defense attorney. Dillinger was convicted of assault and battery with intent to rob, and conspiracy to commit a felony. He expected a lenient probation sentence as a result of his father's discussion with prosecutor O'Harrow, but instead was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison for his crimes. His father told reporters he regretted his advice and was appalled by the sentence. He pleaded with the judge to shorten the sentence but with no success. En route to Mooresville to testify against Singleton, Dillinger briefly escaped his captors but was apprehended within a few minutes.
Dillinger had embraced the criminal lifestyle behind bars in the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City. Upon being admitted to the prison he is quoted as saying, "I will be the meanest bastard you ever saw when I get out of here." His physical examination upon being admitted to the prison showed that he had gonorrhea. The treatment for his condition was extremely painful. He became embittered against society because of his long prison sentence and befriended other criminals, such as seasoned bank robbers like Harry "Pete" Pierpont, Charles Makley, Russell Clark, and Homer Van Meter, who taught Dillinger how to be a successful criminal. The men planned heists that they would commit soon after they were released. Dillinger studied Herman Lamm's meticulous bank-robbing system and used it extensively throughout his criminal career.
His father launched a campaign to have him released and was able to get 188 signatures on a petition. Dillinger was paroled on May 10, 1933, after serving nine and a half years. Dillinger's stepmother became sick just before he was released from prison, she died before he arrived at her home. Released at the height of the Great Depression, Dillinger had little prospect of finding employment. He immediately returned to crime and on June 21, 1933, he robbed his first bank, taking $10,000 from the New Carlisle National Bank, which occupied the building which still stands at the southeast corner of Main Street and Jefferson (State Routes 235 and 571) in New Carlisle, Ohio. On August 14, Dillinger robbed a bank in Bluffton, Ohio. Tracked by police from Dayton, Ohio, he was captured and later transferred to the Allen County jail in Lima to be indicted in connection to the Bluffton robbery. After searching him before letting him into the prison, the police discovered a document which appeared to be a prison escape plan. They demanded Dillinger tell them what the document meant, but he refused.
Dillinger had helped conceive a plan for the escape of Pierpont, Clark and six others he had met while previously in prison, most of whom worked in the prison laundry. Dillinger had friends smuggle guns into their prison cells, with which they escaped, four days after Dillinger's capture. The group, known as "the First Dillinger Gang," comprised Pete Pierpont, Russell Clark, Charles Makley, Ed Shouse, Harry Copeland, and John "Red" Hamilton, a member of the Herman Lamm Gang. Pierpont, Clark, and Makley arrived in Lima on October 12, where they impersonated Indiana State Police officers, claiming they had come to extradite Dillinger to Indiana. When the sheriff, Jess Sarber, asked for their credentials, Pierpont shot him dead, then released Dillinger from his cell. The four men escaped back into Indiana where they joined the rest of the gang. Sheriff Sarber was the gang's first police killing of an estimated 13 lawmen deaths by Dillinger gang members.
The Bureau of Investigation was a precursor of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Bureau of Investigation was renamed the "Division" in 1933 until in the 1935 Department of Justice budget appropriation, Congress officially recognized the Division as the "Federal Bureau of Investigation". The name became effective on March 22, 1935, when the President signed the appropriation bill. The newly designated FBI was brought into the investigation to help identify the criminals, although the men had not violated any federal law. Bank robbery was not yet a federal crime, so police officers were powerless to pursue robbers across state lines. It was one of the first cases in which the FBI intervened in matters outside its jurisdiction. Using their superior fingerprint matching technology, they successfully identified all of the suspects and issued national bulletins offering rewards for their capture.
Among Dillinger's more celebrated exploits was his pretending to be a sales representative for a company that sold bank alarm systems (and then "testing" the bank's security by carrying out an actual rob). He reportedly entered a number of Indiana and Ohio banks and used this ruse to assess security systems and bank vaults of prospective targets. Another time, it was alleged, the men pretended to be part of a film company that was scouting locations for a "bank robbery" scene. Bystanders stood and smiled as a real robbery ensued and Dillinger's gang fled. There seems to be little evidence to back up any truth to these claims. In fact, it is not mentioned in any normal accounts of Dillinger researchers that these ruses were used. If untrue, these stories are likely just another product of criminal folk-lore. Dillinger was believed to have been associated with gangs who robbed dozens of banks and accumulated a total of more than $300,000 in one dollar bills.
To obtain more supplies, the gang attacked the state police arsenals in Auburn and Peru, stealing machine guns, rifles, revolvers, ammunition and bulletproof vests. On October 23, 1933, the gang robbed the Central National Bank & Trust Company in Greencastle, Indiana. They then headed to Chicago to hide out. On December 14, 1933, CPD Detective William Shanley was killed. The police had been put on high alert and suspected the Dillinger gang of involvement in the robbery of the Unity Trust And Savings Bank of $8,700 the day before. Shanley was following up on a tip that one of the gang's cars was being serviced at a local garage. John "Red" Hamilton showed up at the garage that afternoon. When Shanley approached him, Hamilton pulled a pistol and shot him twice, killing Shanley, then escaped. Shanley's murder led to the Chicago Police Department's establishment of a forty man "Dillinger Squad".
The gang then spent several weeks in Daytona Beach, Florida during the holidays. While Makley, Clark, and Pierpont extended their vacation by driving west to Tucson, Arizona, Dillinger and Hamilton left Florida on January 14, driving through the night to get to Chicago the next day. That same afternoon, they robbed the First National Bank in East Chicago. Hamilton took the bank president, Walter Spencer, hostage, while Dillinger did the same to a responding police officer, Hobart Wilgus. Upon leaving the bank, Dillinger and Hamilton were confronted by seven policemen who had arrived while the robbery was in progress. One officer, Patrick O'Malley, shouted to Wilgus, who twisted, giving O'Malley a clean aim. He fired four shots at Dillinger's bulletproof vest. Dillinger turned on him, and fired a return burst. O'Malley was killed instantly, struck eight times. Hamilton was wounded during the shootout that resulted. Dillinger was officially charged with Officer O'Malley's murder although the identity of the actual killer was debatable, and it is in question whether Dillinger participated in the robbery at all.
As police began closing in again, the men left Chicago to hide out first in Florida; later at the Gardner Hotel in El Paso, Texas, where a highly visible police presence dissuaded Dillinger from trying to cross the border at the Santa Fe Bridge in downtown El Paso to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico; and finally in Tucson, Arizona.
On January 21, 1934, a fire broke out at the Hotel Congress in Tucson where members of the Dillinger gang were staying. Forced to leave their luggage behind, they were rescued through a window and down a fire truck ladder. Charles Makley and Russell Clark tipped a couple of firemen $12 to climb back up and retrieve the luggage, affording the firefighters a good look at several members of Dillinger's gang. One of them, William Benedict, later recognized Makley, Pierpont, and Ed Shouse while thumbing through a copy of True Detective and informed the police, who tracked Makley's luggage to a second hideout. Makley was the first to be arrested. Clark was the next one to be arrested at the hideout. To arrest Pierpont, the police staged a routine traffic stop and lured him to the police station, where they took him by surprise and arrested him. Dillinger was the last one to be arrested. They found them in possession of over $25,000 in cash and several automatic weapons. Tucson celebrates the historic arrest with an annual "Dillinger Days" festival, the highlight of which is a reenactment.
The men were extradited to the Midwest after a debate between prosecutors as to where the gang would be prosecuted first. The governor compromised, and ordered that Dillinger would be extradited to the Lake County Jail in Crown Point for Officer O'Malley's murder in the East Chicago bank robbery, while Pierpont, Makley and Clark were sent to Ohio to stand trial for Sheriff Sarber's murder. Shouse's testimony at the March 1934 trials of Pierpont, Makley and Clark led to all three of the men being convicted. Pierpont and Makley received the death penalty, while Clark received a life sentence. Makley would be shot dead by guards while attempting to escape. Pierpont, wounded during the same attempt, would recover from his wounds in time for his trip to the electric chair. Clark would ultimately be released in 1968, dying of cancer a few months later.
The police boasted to area newspapers that the Crown Point jail was escape-proof and posted extra guards to make sure. What happened on the day of Dillinger's escape is still up to some debate. Deputy Ernest Blunk claimed that Dillinger had escaped using a real pistol, but FBI files make clear that Dillinger carved a fake pistol from a piece of wood. How he acquired such a thing is still the subject of controversy. Sam Cahoon, the janitor that Dillinger first took hostage in the jail, believed that Dillinger had carved the gun with a razor and some shelving in his cell. However, according to an unpublished interview with Dillinger's attorney, Louis Piquett and his investigator, Art O'Leary, it was later revealed that O'Leary claimed to have sneaked the gun in himself. As there has been very little evidence to corroborate any one story, it seems that the truth may never fully be revealed. What is known is that Dillinger's wooden pistol was modeled after a Colt .38. He tricked a guard into opening his cell, took seventeen men hostage, used Deputy Blunk to lure the guards back to the cell block one at a time, locked them in his cell, and fled with another inmate, Herbert Youngblood. Before leaving, Dillinger ran the wooden pistol along the bars of the cell in which the people were held and laughed that he had broken their escape-proof jail with nothing but a wooden gun.
Dillinger stole Sheriff Lillian Holley's new Ford car, embarrassing her and the town, and traveled to Chicago. Because he crossed a state line in a stolen car, he violated the federal Motor Vehicle Theft Act. Some Dillinger historians have remarked that this was simply an excuse for the Bureau to want to get involved in the case after Hoover had calculated the chance of success if they became involved. It seems that Dillinger's crimes before this were severe enough to merit federal interaction into the case. The crime was under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Investigation who immediately took over the Dillinger case after the car was found abandoned in Chicago. Dillinger's fellow escapee, Youngblood, went on his way, but was killed in a police shootout two weeks later.
Dillinger was indicted by a local grand jury, and the BOI organized a nationwide manhunt for him. After escaping Crown Point, Dillinger began living with his girlfriend Evelyn "Billie" Frechette. They proceeded to Saint Paul, Minnesota, met up with Hamilton (who had been recovering for the past month from his gunshot wounds in the East Chicago robbery), and mustered a new gang, and the two joined Baby Face Nelson's gang, composed of Homer Van Meter, Tommy Carroll and Eddie Green. Three days after Dillinger's escape, the six men robbed the Security National Bank and Trust Company in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. During the robbery, a traffic cop, Hale Keith, was severely wounded when Nelson spotted him, jumped onto a teller's desk, and gunned Keith down through a plate glass window.
A week later, on March 14, the new gang robbed the First National Bank in Mason City, Iowa, intending to get $250,000 but only making off with $50,000 due to the bank manager stalling Hamilton. Dillinger and Hamilton were both shot in their right shoulders and wounded, but were treated shortly thereafter. A deaf local resident was shot in the leg by Nelson.
The landlord of the apartment Dillinger rented in St. Paul became suspicious and on March 30, 1934, reported his suspicions to a federal agent. The building was placed under surveillance by two agents, Rufus Coulter and Rusty Nalls. The next day, Nalls remained with his car while Coulter and a local St. Paul Police detective, Henry Cummings, went up to the apartment. They came face to face with Billie, who alerted Dillinger to the police presence. Dillinger immediately started assembling his submachine gun while the two detectives waited. Van Meter showed up during this time, and sensed trouble. After exchanging brief words with Coulter, he headed back downstairs to his car, which he had parked next to Nalls. Coulter followed him down to the ground floor, when Van Meter pulled out a pistol and opened fire on him. Coulter ran for the car and fired several shots before Van Meter retreated inside. Dillinger fired through the apartment door upstairs at Cummings, then fled out of a back entrance with Frechette and Van Meter before back-up could arrive. They commandeered a truck and drove to Eddie Green's home. Dillinger was hit in the leg by a ricochet from his own gun and required medical attention. Federal agents later closed in on the building, and the gang opened fire as they escaped and split up. Eddie Green was shot in the head when agents captured him. Green subsequently died a week later on April 10th.
Meanwhile, Dillinger and Frechette traveled to visit Dillinger's father in Mooresville, where they remained until Dillinger's wound healed. When Frechette returned to Chicago to visit a friend, she was arrested but refused to reveal Dillinger's whereabouts. Unknown to the agents, Dillinger was waiting in his car outside the bar where Frechette was arrested, and drove off unnoticed.
Dillinger reportedly became despondent after Billie was arrested. The other gang members tried to talk to him out of rescuing her, but Van Meter knew where they could find bulletproof vests. That Friday morning, late at night, Dillinger and Van Meter took Warsaw, Indiana police officer Judd Pittenger hostage. They marched him at gunpoint to the police station, where they stole several more guns and bulletproof vests. After separating, Dillinger picked up Hamilton, who was recovering from the Mason City robbery. The two then traveled to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where they visited Hamilton's sister Anna Steve. Upon his return to Chicago, Dillinger again ran into the police in Port Huron, Michigan following a tip that he was checking in on one of his bootlegging operations. Dillinger received a bullet to the left shoulder while avoiding capture. Dillinger received a tip that federal agents were headed there and left just days before they arrived.
In April, the Dillinger gang settled at a lodge hideout called Little Bohemia Lodge, owned by Emil Wanatka, in the northern Wisconsin town of Manitowish Waters. The gang assured the owners that they would give no trouble, but they monitored the owners whenever they left or spoke on the phone. Emil's wife Nan and her brother managed to evade Baby Face Nelson, who was tailing them, and mailed a letter of warning to a U.S. Attorney's office in Chicago, which later contacted the Division of Investigation. Days later, a score of federal agents led by Hugh Clegg and Melvin Purvis approached the lodge in the early morning hours. Two barking watchdogs announced their arrival, but the gang was so used to Nan Wanatka's dogs that they did not bother to inspect the disturbance. It was only after the federal agents mistakenly shot a local resident and two innocent Civilian Conservation Corps workers as they were about to drive away in a car that the Dillinger gang was alerted to the presence of the BOI. Gunfire between the groups lasted only momentarily, but the whole gang managed to escape in various ways despite the agents' efforts to surround and storm the lodge. Agent W. Carter Baum was shot dead by Nelson during the gun battle.
The next day, Dillinger, Van Meter and Hamilton were confronted by authorities in Hastings, Minnesota, in a rolling gunfight. Hamilton was mortally wounded in the encounter. He was taken by Dillinger and Van Meter to see Joseph Moran, though Moran refused to treat Hamilton. He died in Aurora, Illinois, three days after the shooting in Hastings. Dillinger, Van Meter, Arthur Barker, and Volney Davis, a member of the Barker-Karpis gang, buried him. Dillinger and Van Meter then met up with Carroll.
One week after Hamilton's death, Dillinger, Van Meter, and Tommy Carroll robbed the First National Bank of Fostoria, Ohio. Van Meter wounded the local police chief, Frank Culp, during the robbery. Dillinger and Van Meter spent most of May living out of a red panel truck with a mattress in the back. On May 24, it is alleged that Van Meter killed two East Chicago police detectives who had tried to pull them over. On June 7, Tommy Carroll was shot and killed by police in Waterloo, Iowa. Dillinger and Van Meter reunited with Nelson a week later and went into hiding.
On June 30, Dillinger, Van Meter, Nelson, and an unidentified "fat man" robbed the Merchants National Bank in South Bend, Indiana. The identity of the "fat man" has never been confirmed, although who it was has been suggested to be one of Nelson's associates, or, as suggested by Fatso Negri to the BOI, Pretty Boy Floyd. What is known is that in the robbery, Van Meter shot and killed police officer Howard Wagner as he walked towards the bank from a nearby intersection after being drawn by the sound of gunfire inside the bank. Van Meter would be shot in the head during a shootout with police that followed the robbery.
By July 1934, Dillinger had dropped completely out of sight, and the federal agents had no solid leads to follow. He had, in fact, drifted into Chicago and went under the alias of Jimmy Lawrence, a petty criminal from Wisconsin who bore a close resemblance to Dillinger's real self. Taking up a job as a clerk, Dillinger found that, in a large metropolis like Chicago, he was able to lead an anonymous existence for a while. What Dillinger did not realize was that the center of the federal agents' dragnet happened to be in Chicago. When the authorities found Dillinger's blood spattered getaway car on a Chicago side street, they were positive that he was in the city.
Dillinger attended the film Manhattan Melodrama at the Biograph Theater, in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood. Dillinger was with Polly Hamilton and Ana Cumpănaş. Once they determined that Dillinger was in the theater, the lead agent, Samuel P. Cowley, contacted J. Edgar Hoover for instructions, who recommended that they wait outside rather than risk a gun battle in a crowded theater. He also told the agents not to put themselves in harm's way and that any man could open fire on Dillinger at the first sign of resistance. When the film let out, Purvis stood by the front door and signaled Dillinger's exit by lighting a cigar. Both he and the other agents reported that Dillinger turned his head and looked directly at the agent as he walked by, glanced across the street, then moved ahead of his female companions, reached into his pocket but failed to extract his gun, and ran into a nearby alley. Other accounts state Dillinger ignored a command to surrender, whipped out his gun, then headed for the alley. Agents already had the alley closed off, but Dillinger was determined to shoot it out.
Three men fired the fatal shots: Clarence Hurt fired twice, Charles Winstead fired three times, and Herman Hollis fired once. Dillinger was hit from behind and he fell face first to the ground. Two female bystanders took slight flesh wounds in the legs and buttocks from flying bullet and brick fragments. Dillinger was struck three (or four, according to some historians) times, with two bullets entering the chest; one of them nicked his heart, and the fatal shot - which entered Dillinger through the back of his neck, severed his spinal cord and tore through his brain before exiting out the front of his head just under his right eye. Although three agents shot Dillinger, Winstead was believed to have fired the fatal shot, and he received a personal letter of commendation from Director Hoover. An ambulance was summoned, though it was clear Dillinger had quickly died from his gunshot wounds. At 10:50 p.m. on July 22, 1934, Dillinger was pronounced dead at Alexian Brothers Hospital. According to the investigators, Dillinger died without saying a word. There were also reports of people dipping their handkerchiefs and skirts into the blood pool that had formed as Dillinger lay in the alley in order to secure keepsakes of the entire affair. Dillinger's body was displayed to the public at the Cook County morgue after his death.
Dillinger was buried at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis. His gravestone has had to be replaced several times because of vandalism by people chipping off pieces as souvenirs.
In The Dillinger Dossier, author Jay Robert Nash maintains that Dillinger escaped death at the Biograph Theater simply by not being there. In his stead was a "Jimmy Lawrence", a local Chicago petty criminal whose appearance was similar to Dillinger's. Nash uses evidence to show that Chicago Police officer Martin Zarkovich was instrumental in this plot. Nash theorizes that the plot unraveled when the body was found to have fingerprints that didn't match Dillinger's (the fingerprint card was missing from the Cook County Morgue for over three decades), it was too tall, the eye color was wrong, and it possessed a rheumatic heart. The F.B.I., a relatively new agency whose agents were only recently permitted to carry guns or make arrests, would have fallen under heavy scrutiny, this being the third innocent man killed in pursuit of Dillinger, and would have gone to great lengths to ensure a cover up.
In shooting the Dillinger stand-in, F.B.I. agents were stationed on the roof of the theater and fired downward, causing the open cuts on the face which were described through the media as "scars resulting from inept plastic surgery". The first words from Dillinger's father upon identifying the body were, "that's not my boy." The body was buried under five feet of concrete and steel, making exhumation less likely. Nash produced fingerprints and photos of Dillinger as he would appear in 1960 that were allegedly sent to Melvin Purvis just prior to his 1960 alleged suicide (more probably an accident). Nash alleged Dillinger was living and working in California as a machinist, under what would have been an early form of the witness protection program.
This work released through CC 3.0 BY-SA - Creative Commons