John Dillinger


June 22, 1903 Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S.


July 22, 1934 (aged 31) Chicago, Illinois, U.S.





Cause of death

Shot 3 Times

Resting place

Crown Hill Cemetery

"All my life I wanted to be a bank robber. Carry a gun and wear a mask. Now that it's happened I guess I'm just about the best bank robber they ever had. And I sure am happy." - John Dillinger

John Herbert Dillinger Jr. (June 22, 1903 – July 22, 1934) was a gangster, murderer and bank-robber in the Depression-era United States. A dozen victims—prison officers, police, federal agents, gangsters, and civilians—were killed in his rampage. His gang robbed two dozen banks and four police stations. Dillinger escaped from jail twice.

In 1933-34, among criminals like Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Bonnie and Clyde, Dillinger was the most notorious of all. Media reports were spiced with exaggerated accounts of his bravado and daring. The public demanded federal action and J. Edgar Hoover developed a more sophisticated Federal Bureau of Investigation as a weapon against organized crime.

After evading police in four states for almost a year, Dillinger was wounded and returned to his father's home to heal. He returned to Chicago in July 1934 and met his end at the hands of police and federal agents who were informed of his whereabouts by a madam. On July 22, the police and Division of Investigation closed in on the Biograph Theater. Federal agents, led by Melvin Purvis, moved to arrest him as he left the theater. He pulled a weapon and attempted to flee but was shot three times and killed.

Early LifeEdit

Family and backgroundEdit

John Herbert Dillinger Jr. was born 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, Mathias Dillinger, immigrated to the United States in 1851 from Metz, in the German-speaking region of Alsace-Lorraine, then under French sovereignty. His parents had married on August 23, 1887 in Marion County, Indiana. Dillinger's father was a grocer by trade and, reportedly, a harsh man. In an interview with reporters, he said that he was firm in his discipline and believed in the adage (from poet Samuel Butler) "spare the rod and spoil the child". Dillinger's older sister, Audrey, was born March 6, 1889. Dillinger's mother died in 1907 just before his fourth birthday.

Audrey married Emmett "Fred" Hancock in April 1924 and had seven children. Dillinger was cared for by his sister during his early life until his father remarried on May 23, 1912 in Morgan County, Indiana, to Elizabeth "Lizzie" Fields (1878–1933). Initially, Dillinger disliked his stepmother, but reportedly eventually came to love her. Dillinger's father and stepmother had three children, Hubert Dillinger, born c. 1913, Doris M. Dillinger, (December 12, 1917 – March 14, 2001) (married surname Hockman) and Frances Dillinger (born c. 1922).

Formative years and marriageEdit

As a teenager, Dillinger was frequently in trouble with the law for fighting, petty theft, and was noted for his "bewildering personality" and bullying the 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 U.S. Navy, 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 (born August 6, 1906). The two were married in Martinsville 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 remained 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 Dillinger's father convinced him to confess to the crime and plead guilty. Dillinger was convicted of assault and battery with intent to rob, and conspiracy to commit a felony. He 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 met with no success. En route to the prison, Dillinger briefly escaped his captors but was apprehended within a few minutes.

Criminal CareerEdit

Prison timeEdit

Dillinger 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 Pierpont of Muncie and Russell "Boobie" Clark of Terre Haute, who taught Dillinger how to be a successful criminal. The men planned heists that they would commit soon after they were released.

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 eight and a half years. Dillinger's stepmother became sick just before he was released from prison and 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 September 22 robbed a bank in Bluffton, Ohio. Tracked by police from Dayton, Ohio, he was captured and jailed in Lima. 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 rifles into their prison cells which they used to escape, killing two guards, four days after Dillinger's capture. The group known as the "first Dillinger gang" included Pierpont, Clark, Charles Makley, Edward W. Shouse, Jr. of Terre Haute, Harry Copeland, James "Oklahoma Jack" Clark, Walter Dietrich and John "Red" Hamilton. Three of the escapees 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 asked for their credentials, they shot him and beat him unconscious, then released Dillinger from his cell. The four men escaped back into Indiana where they joined the rest of the gang.

Bank robberiesEdit

The Bureau of Investigation (BOI, a precursor of the FBI) was brought into the investigation to help identify the criminals, although the men had not violated any federal law. It was one of the first cases in which the BOI 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.

Dillinger and his gang, in the meantime, began a streak of bank robberies across Indiana, although the first bank he ever robbed was in New Carlisle, Ohio on June 10, 1933. Among Dillinger's more celebrated exploits involved his pretending to be a sales representative for a company that sold bank alarm systems. 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, the gang 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 and friends escaped with the loot. Stories such as this only served to increase Dillinger's burgeoning legend. Dillinger was believed to have been associated with gangs who robbed dozens of banks and accumulating a total of more than $300,000. Banks allegedly robbed by Dillinger and his associates included the Commercial Bank, Daleville, Indiana of $3,500 on July 17, 1933; Montpelier National Bank, Montpelier, Indiana of $6,700 on August 4, 1933; Bluffton Bank, Bluffton, Ohio, of $6,000 on August 14, 1933; Massachusetts Avenue State Bank, Indianapolis, Indiana, of $21,000 on September 6, 1933; Central National Bank and Trust Co., Greencastle, Indiana, of $74,000 on October 23, 1933; American Bank and Trust Co., Racine, Wisconsin, of $28,000 on November 20, 1933; Unity Trust and Savings Bank, Chicago, Illinois, of $8,700 on December 13, 1933; First National Bank, East Chicago, Indiana, of $20,000 on January 15, 1934; Securities National Bank and Trust Co., Sioux Falls, South Dakota, of $49,500 on March 6, 1934; First National Bank, Mason City, Iowa, of $52,000 on March 13, 1934; and Merchants National Bank, South Bend, Indiana, of $29,890 on June 30, 1934.

To obtain more supplies, the gang attacked the state police arsenals in Auburn and Peru, stealing machine guns, rifles, revolvers, ammunition and bulletproof vests. They then headed to Chicago to hide out. On December 14, 1933, gang member John "Red" Hamilton murdered a police detective. A month later, Dillinger led the gang in another bank robbery, holding up the First National Bank in East Chicago and killing police officer William O'Malley. Dillinger was officially charged with the 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 Gardener 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 The RunEdit

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 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. The firemen later recognized Makley and Ed Shouse while thumbing through a copy of True Detective and informed the police who promptly arrested Harry Pierpont, Charles Makley, Russell Clark, Ed Shouse, and Dillinger. 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 Indiana, where Dillinger was held in the Crown Point jail, while the others were then sent to Ohio to stand trial for the murder of Sheriff Jess Sarber. Testimony by Shouse identified the five men as members of the Pierpont gang. Dillinger was charged with the murder of a police officer in East Chicago, while Pierpont and Makley were charged with the murder of Sheriff Jesse Sarber. The police boasted to area newspapers that the jail was escape-proof and posted extra guards to make sure. Louis Piquett, John Dillinger's attorney, was able to sneak a wooden gun within the prison and into the hands of Dillinger. Using it, he was able to trick a guard into opening his cell. He then took two men hostage, rounded up all the guards in the jail, locked them in his cell, and fled. Before leaving, Dillinger said to the guards he locked up, "See what I locked all of you monkeys up with? Nothing but a little piece of wood. Well, so long, boys. I'll have to be moving on." Dillinger stole Sheriff Lillian Holley's new Ford car, embarrassing her and the town, and traveled to Chicago. In so doing, he crossed the state line in a stolen car, breaking the federal Motor Vehicle Theft Act. The crime was under the jurisdiction of the BOI who immediately took over the Dillinger case after the car was found abandoned in Chicago. Dillinger was indicted by a local grand jury and the BOI organized a nationwide manhunt for him.

In Chicago, Dillinger began living with his girlfriend Evelyn "Billie" Frechette. They proceeded to Saint Paul, Minnesota, met up with "Red" Hamilton, and mustered a new gang, adding Lester "Baby Face Nelson" Gillis, Homer Van Meter, Tommy Carroll, Joseph Fox, Joe Burns, James Jenkins, John Paul Chase, Charles Fisher, and Eddie Green. The landlord of their apartment became suspicious and on March 30, 1934, reported his suspicions to a federal agent. The building was placed under surveillance by the federal agents who soon determined Dillinger was in the apartment. When one gang member, who was attempting to enter the apartment, was questioned, he opened fire on the agents before escaping behind a closed door. The entire gang then opened fire on the agents and fled out of a back entrance before back-up could arrive. They commandeered a truck and drove to Eddie Green's home. Dillinger was wounded in the escape 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 killed in the escape. Dillinger and his girlfriend traveled to the home of Dillinger's father in Mooresville, where they remained until the wound healed. When Frechette returned to Chicago to visit a friend, she was arrested but refused to reveal Dillinger's whereabouts. Dillinger was watching from a side street and wanted to rescue her, but he was stopped by the girlfriend of John Hamilton, who convinced him he would die in the attempt. Yet he still drove along the block several times and entered a police station to see if it was possible.

Dillinger returned to crime again. He and Homer Van Meter robbed the police station in Warsaw, Indiana, stealing guns and bulletproof vests. After separating, Dillinger picked up Hamilton, who was recovering from a wound obtained in a heist in Mason City, Iowa. The two then traveled to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where they remained for a short time. Dillinger received a tip that federal agents were headed to the town, and left just days before they arrived.

Final MonthsEdit

Little Bohemia LodgeEdit

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 "Baby Face" Nelson during the gun battle. Barney G. Louis Boeding accompanied him during the robberies. At this time Nelson would separate from the gang for a while.

The next day, Dillinger, Van Meter and Hamilton were confronted by authorities in Hastings, Minnesota. 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 on April 30, 1934. Dillinger, Van Meter, and members of the Barker-Karpis gang buried him. Dillinger and Van Meter then met up with Carroll and the three would spend all of May in hiding. On June 7, the three had a shootout with authorities and Carroll died in the encounter. Dillinger and Van Meter reunited with Nelson a week later and went into hiding.

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 the bank robber. Taking up a job as a clerk, Dillinger also found a new girlfriend named Mary Evelyn "Billie" Frechette, who was aware of his true identity and even served two years in prison for harboring a criminal. In a large metropolis like Chicago, Dillinger was able to lead an anonymous existence for a while. What Dillinger didn't realize was that the center of the federal agents' dragnet happened to be in Chicago. When the authorities found Dillinger's bloodied getaway car on a Chicago side street, they were positive that he was in the city.

Lady in RedEdit

Division of Investigations chief J. Edgar Hoover created a special task force headquartered in Chicago to locate Dillinger. On July 21 a madam from a brothel in Gary, Indiana, Ana Cumpănaş, also known as Anna Sage, contacted the police. She was a Romanian immigrant threatened with deportation for "low moral character," and offered the federal agency information on Dillinger in exchange for their help in preventing her deportation. The agency agreed to her terms. Cumpănaş told them that Dillinger was spending his time with another prostitute, Polly Hamilton, and that she and the couple would be going to see a movie together on the following day. She agreed to wear an orange dress, which appeared red in the lights of the theater, so that police could easily identify her at the theater. She was unsure which theater they would be attending, but told the agency the name of the two theaters, the Biograph and the Marbro, in which they would potentially be. A team of federal agents and officers from police forces outside Chicago was formed. Chicago police officers were excluded because it was felt that the Chicago police had been compromised and could not be trusted. Not chancing another embarrassing escape, the police were split into two teams. On July 22, one team was sent to the Marbro Theater on the city's West Side, while another team surrounded the Biograph Theater at 2433 N. Lincoln Avenue on the North Side. During the stakeout, the Biograph's manager thought the agents were criminals setting up a robbery. He called the Chicago police who dutifully responded and had to be waved off by the federal agents, who told them that they were on a stakeout for an important target.

Biograph TheaterEdit

Dillinger attended the film Manhattan Melodrama at the Biograph Theater in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood. Dillinger was with his girlfriend, Polly Hamilton, and Ana Cumpănaş. Once they determined that Dillinger was in the theater, the lead agent (Samuel A. 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 movie let out, Special Agent Melvin Purvis stood by the front door and signaled Dillinger's exit by lighting a cigar. Both he and the 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.

Three agents opened fire, firing five shots. Dillinger was hit from behind and he fell face first to the ground. Two female bystanders were slightly wounded in the legs and buttocks by flying bullet and brick fragments. Dillinger was struck three times, twice in the chest, one actually nicking his heart, and the fatal shot, which entered the back of his neck and exited just under his right eye. An ambulance was summoned, though it was clear that Dillinger had quickly died from his gunshot wounds. At 10:50 p.m. on July 22, 1934, John 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 pools of blood 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 (Section: 44 Lot: 94) in Indianapolis. His gravestone has had to be replaced several times because of vandalism by people chipping off pieces as souvenirs.

In Popular CultureEdit

  • Lawrence Tierney played the title role in the first film dramatization of Dillinger's career; Dillinger (1945).
  • Director Don Siegel's 1957 film Baby Face Nelson, starred Mickey Rooney as Nelson and Leo Gordon as Dillinger.
  • In 1959's "The FBI Story" starring James Stewart, Jean Willes plays Anna Sage and Scott Peters plays Dillinger. Peters, a small-time actor, went uncredited in this role.
  • Director Marco Ferreri's 1969 film Dillinger Is Dead includes documentary footage of real John Dillinger as well as newspaper clips.
  • 1973's Dillinger, directed and written by John Milius with Warren Oates in the title role, presented the gang in a much more sympathetic light, in keeping with the anti-hero theme popular in films after Bonnie and Clyde (1967).
  • Lewis Teague directed the 1979 film The Lady in Red, starring Pamela Sue Martin as the eponymous lady in the red dress. However, in this film, it is Dillinger's girlfriend Polly in red, not the Romanian informant Anna Sage (Louise Fletcher). Sage tricks Polly into wearing red so that FBI agents can identify Dillinger (Robert Conrad) as he emerges from the cinema.
  • A TV film Dillinger was released in 1991, starring Mark Harmon.
  • Director Michael Mann's 2009 film Public Enemies is an adaptation of Bryan Burrough's book Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-43. The film features Johnny Depp as John Dillinger and Christian Bale as FBI agent Melvin Purvis, but is inaccurate in some major historical details, such as the timeline of deaths of key criminal figures including Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson.