Last week’s case covered Joseph Christopher. Between September and December 1980, eleven Black men and one boy died in Christopher’s racially motivated attacks. This week, I’m tackling one of my favorite subjects, the infamous depression-era gangster John Dillinger. Dillinger is perhaps America’s most famous bank robber. A proper telling of his saga would take more space than would fit in a single blog post. But he also possessed a talent for getting out of jails and tight spots. So, I will tell you about some of his spectacular escapes instead of the whole story.
The Advent of John Dillinger
The popular image of John Dillinger is a farm boy who became a criminal, but he grew up in the city. He was born in 1903 in Indianapolis, where his father (also John) owned a grocery store. Mollie Dillinger, his mother, passed away before Johnnie’s fourth birthday. Audrey Dillinger, his older sister, helped raise him until the elder Dillinger remarried in 1912. Young John showed a rebellious streak, so John senior decided to move to the rural community of Mooresville, southwest of Indianapolis.
One of Dillinger’s new pals in Mooresville was an ex-con named Ed Singleton. Together, the two planned to rob Frank Morgan, a local grocer, on Saturday, September 6, 1924. Writer Brian Burrough described the caper as “fueled by stupidity and alcohol,” and both men soon found themselves in jail. Following his father’s advice and the prosecutor’s suggestion, Dillinger entered a guilty plea, expecting leniency. He drew an eye-popping sentence of ten to twenty years instead. His partner hired a lawyer, pleaded not guilty, and served only two years.
Dillinger spent nine and a half years incarcerated, many of them in the Indiana State Penitentiary in Michigan City. His prison pals all happened to be hardened career criminals, and he learned a lot at the feet of these masters. Indiana paroled Dillinger in 1933, and he started forging his path as a bank robber.
John Dillinger at the Indiana State Penitentiary
Dillinger didn’t break out of the Penitentiary himself; he orchestrated the escape of the friends he left behind after his parole. Using stolen money, he procured guns and somehow got them into the hands of his convict buddies. On September 26, 1934, ten inmates used them to overpower guards and run. The escapees included Harry “Pete” Pierpont, Charles Makley, John “Red” Hamilton, and Russell “Boobie” Clark. All later became core members of the Dillinger gang.
Dillinger, however, landed back in jail. Police in Dayton, Ohio, arrested him at a girlfriend’s apartment for robbing a bank in nearby Bluffton. They lodged him in the Allen County Jail in Lima. While his friends enjoyed their newfound freedom, Dillinger appeared to be on his way back to prison.
Allen County, Ohio Jail
Allen County Sheriff Jess Sarber ran the county jail. Kind, roly-poly, and competent, Sarber nevertheless had no previous law enforcement experience. He sold used cars before the Depression forced him out of business.
On Thursday, October 12, Dillinger played pinochle in the jail’s bullpen while Sheriff Sarber read the newspaper. At 6:25 in the evening, the jail’s outer door opened. Three men in suits announced they had come to extradite Dillinger to Indiana. Sarber asked for their credentials, and the first man, Pierpont, shot him in the chest. Dillinger escaped, but Sheriff Sarber died, a murder that would return to haunt Pierpont, Makley, and Clark.
Office of Dr. Charles Eye
By now, Dillinger was a bank robber with a reputation and a pack of lawmen on his trail. Based on a tip, Chicago police planned a raid at the office of dermatologist Dr. Charles Eye. At 7:25 p.m. on November 14, Dillinger drove up in his Essex Terraplane with his girlfriend, Billie Frechette, in the passenger seat.
Emerging from Dr. Eye’s office, Dillinger spotted several cars parked heading the wrong way. Telling Billie to hold on, he slammed the car into reverse and backed into busy Irving Park Boulevard. A short chase followed, but Dillinger eluded his pursuers.
John Dillinger’s Famous Escape at Crown Point
After spending Christmas 1933 in Florida, Dillinger’s gang headed west to Tucson, Arizona. Clark and Makley booked into the Hotel Congress downtown. Things went well until a fire in the hotel led suspicious firefighters to tip off the police. The entire gang soon found themselves under arrest.
Makley, Clark, and Pierpont went to Ohio to stand trial for the murder of Sheriff Sarber in Lima. Dillinger went to the Lake County Jail in Crown Point, Indiana. There he faced a murder charge related to the death of a policeman killed during a robbery in East Chicago. Lake County Sheriff Lillian Holley claimed her jail was “escape proof.” It wasn’t. Dillinger escaped using a pistol he managed to acquire. He claimed he used a fake gun made of wood; jailers contended it was real. Whatever the truth, Dillinger bolted.
Lincoln Court Apartments
In March 1934, Dillinger and Billie, posing as Mr. and Mrs. Carl Hellman, moved into Apartment 303 of the Lincoln Court Apartments in St. Paul, Minnesota. Soon after the pair moved in, the suspicious landlady tipped off the Bureau of Investigation (precursor to the FBI). Two agents staked out the apartment. On March 31, they recognized and traded shots with Dillinger associate Homer Van Meter.
Hearing the shooting, Dillinger let loose a machine gun volley through the door and ran down the stairs and out the back door. One of the agents’ bullets hit him in the left calf, but Dillinger escaped again.
John Dillinger and the Battle of Little Bohemia
Dillinger and his new gang planned a quiet weekend holiday for April 20-22, 1934. They chose a remote lodge in the North Woods of Wisconsin called Little Bohemia. On Sunday morning, the nervous owner’s wife smuggled a message to the BI field office in Chicago. By evening, a posse of federal agents led by Hugh Clegg and Melvin Purvis gathered outside the lodge.
Three men came out of the lodge while agents prepared their raid. The men got into a car and started to drive off. Agents shouted for them to stop, but the car’s radio drowned out the order. The assembled lawmen opened fire, killing one of the men and wounding the others. The men all worked at a nearby Civilian Conservation Corps camp. None knew John Dillinger.
The gunfire alerted the gangsters, and they fanned out from Little Bohemia. Dillinger fled from Little Bohemia’s unguarded back side, hidden by a ridge separating the lodge from Little Star Lake.
During his getaway, Lester “Baby Face Nelson” Gillis shot and killed BI agent W. Carter Baum and wounded another agent and a local officer.
Dillinger’s luck finally ran out on the night of July 22, 1934. Dillinger and two women went to the movies. The three picked the Biograph Theatre on Lincoln Avenue, showing Manhattan Melodrama starring Clark Gable. Tipped off by one of his companions, the so-called “Woman in Red,” BI agents and East Chicago police gunned down the outlaw as he exited the theater.
Several excellent books chronicle the John Dillinger story. The best is Public Enemies by Bryan Burrough. The Dillinger Days by John Toland and Dillinger: The Untold Story by Russell Girardin and William J. Helmer are also excellent.
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