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Signs of Trouble in Dillinger’s Youth

John Dillinger in his youth

 John Herbert Dillinger was born in a suburb of Indianapolis, Indiana on June 22, 1903. His father, a grocer, was a man who ran hot and cold, sometimes being extremely strict with his son while at other times being very generous. Dillinger’s mother died when he was just 3 years old. Six years later, his father re-married, but John resented his stepmother and often lashed out at her. It was at about this time that Dillinger’s father began to notice the troubling signs in his young son.

In his adolescence, Dillinger often got into trouble at school. He soon got fed up with school and eventually quit so he could work as a machinist in Indianapolis. Although he was quite intelligent and hard-working, he grew bored with his job and began to stay out late at night, getting into even more trouble.  Dillinger’s father moved the family from Indianapolis to a farm in a small town called Mooresville, Indiana, in an attempt to get his son to settle down and to keep him out of trouble. The plan backfired though, as Dillinger continued to cause problems.

Constant fights with his father along with trouble with the law (auto theft) spurred Dillinger to join the Navy. His time in the Navy was no better than at home, and Dillinger soon deserted his ship in Boston so he could return to Mooresville.  In 1924, he married his childhood sweetheart Beryl Horvius, who was just 16 years old at the time. The young couple decided to move back to the bright lights of Indianapolis. Once they got there, Dillinger fell on hard times, and was not able to find work. He joined up with a local criminal named Ed Singleton and the two of them tried to rob a local grocer, but their plan failed and they were both arrested. Singleton plead not guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison. Dillinger, on the other hand, confessed to the crime but was still sentenced to up to 34 years in prison.

Dillinger Leaves Prison to Begin Crime Spree

A “Wanted” poster for Dillinger

During his time in prison, John Dillinger became a bitter and angry man. He also made numerous criminal connections and learned more about how to perpetrate crimes. On May 10th, 1933 he was paroled from prison after serving eight-and-a-half years. Dillinger returned to his life of crime soon after he was released, robbing a bank in Bluffton, Ohio. He was arrested almost immediately and sent to a prison in Lima, Ohio to await his trial.

On October 12th, 1933, several members of Dillinger’s gang, who had just escaped from prison themselves, showed up at the prison in Lima. They told the sheriff that they were police officers and they had come to bring Dillinger back to Indiana. Suspicious, the sheriff asked the men for proof of I.D. In response, the members of Dillinger’s gang shot the sheriff and then beat him until he was unconscious. They then took his keys, released Dillinger and locked the sheriff and his wife in Dillinger’s jail cell, leaving the sheriff bleeding and dying on the floor.

From this point, Dillinger and his gang embarked on a crime spree that spanned the mid-west of the United States and went as far as Florida and Arizona. All in all, they killed 10 people and wounded seven, robbed numerous banks and police weapons armories, and made three jail breaks.

From their escape in Ohio, Dillinger and his gang made their way to Chicago, robbing police armories in Auburn and Peru, Indiana along the way. One of Dillinger’s gang members shot and killed a Chicago police officer during a bank robbery. One month later, Dillinger’s gang killed another police officer during a robbery in East Chicago, Indiana. Feeling the heat from Chicago police, Dillinger and his gang fled first to Florida and then to Arizona.  They were captured soon after a fire at their hotel in Tuscon, Arizona. Along with the criminals, police also seized $25,000 in cash, three Thompson sub-machine guns, two Winchester rifles, and five bulletproof vests.

Dillinger himself was brought to a prison in Crown Point, Indiana to await trial for the murder of the East Chicago Police officer. The local police officials boasted that this prison was “escape proof.” Nevertheless, on March 3, 1934 Dillinger threatened police with a fake gun that he later said he made from wood while in prison. He locked up the officers in cells, stole a sheriff’s car and drove from Indiana across the state border to Chicago. Stealing the car and driving it across the state line would prove to be a big mistake for Dillinger. Because he had driven a stolen car in two different states, Dillinger got the attention of the FBI. Now federal agents were hunting him along with police from Chicago and Indiana.

Dillinger’s Death Hits National Spotlight

John Dillinger’s death riveted the nation’s attention in 1934

In spite of many close calls, the FBI and police could not capture and keep Dillinger. Finally, J. Edgar Hoover, who was the head of the FBI, assigned Special Agent Samuel A. Cowley to track and attempt to capture Dillinger. Cowley set up shop in Chicago (where Dillinger was living along with his girlfriend Evelyn Frechette), joining a task force that included Melvin Purvis, who was in charge of the FBI’s Chicago office. Crowley and Purvis worked to track down all tips regarding Dillinger and his activities.

Finally on Sunday, July 22 a woman who called herself Anna Sage contacted Purvis’ office to say that she had information about Dillinger. Anna was actually the madame of a local brothel and her real name was Ana Cumpanas. She was an emigrant from Romania and she was facing deportation from the U.S. because of her part in illegal activity. She wanted cash and protection against being deported in exchange for her information.

Anna told Purvis and Crowley that she had met Dillinger and Frechette at her brothel. They were supposed to go to the theater the next evening, but they weren’t sure yet if they were going to the Biograph or the Marbro theater. Thus, on the evening of July 23, Cowley set up police officers at both theaters. At 8:30 p.m. Anna Sage, John Dillinger, and a woman named Polly Hamilton strolled to the Biograph. Crowley shifted his police force from the Marbro to the Biograph in response.

When the movie finished at 10:30,  Dillinger, Sage and Hamilton walked past Purvis, who lit a cigar as a signal for his men to close in on Dillinger.  Dillinger however recognized the signal immediately. In response, he drew his gun from his pants and ran to a nearby alleyway. Police opened fire, with five shots hitting Dillinger, who fell face-first onto the pavement. At 10:50 p.m. on July 22nd, 1934, John Dillinger was pronounced dead at a little hospital room surrounded by police and locals.

The Legacy of Criminal Celebrity John Dillinger

Dillinger became famous during the Great Depression. This was an era of great economic hardship during the 1930’s. Many Americans struggled to survive and couldn’t understand why they were having such a hard time. Thus, many people viewed gangsters like Dillinger, who took what they wanted with force, with admiration.

By the time of his death, Dillinger had become quite famous. When word of his death spread, people flocked to the crime scene, soaking up his blood with towels. Thousands of people crowded into the morgue where Dillinger lay, hoping to catch a glimpse of the gangster’s lifeless body. Pictures of Dillinger’s body covered the front pages of newspapers across the country.

Although perhaps not the most notorious criminal in American history, John Dillinger is certainly among the most famous, particularly of America’s gangster era.

Fun Facts About John Dillinger

  • In his younger days, Dillinger was a minor league baseball player in Martinsville, Indiana before an injury ended his career.
  • He had facial surgery in an attempt to hide from the police.
  • In all, Dillinger and his gang made $500,000 (about $7 million today) from their robberies.
  • The government spent roughly $2 million dollars to capture Dillinger.


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