John Dillinger was an infamous gangster and bank robber during the Great Depression. He was known as “Jackrabbit” and “Public Enemy No. 1.”
John Dillinger was born on June 22, 1903, in Indianapolis, Indiana. As a boy, he committed petty theft. In 1924, he robbed a grocery store and was caught and jailed. He escaped, and he and his gang headed to Chicago, Illinois, to put together one of the most organized and deadly bank robbing groups in the country. The group continued on a crime spree in various states until they were arrested, with Dillinger eluding authorities for months and receiving major media attention. In 1934, Dillinger was shot and killed in a setup by the FBI outside of a movie theater in Chicago.
John Herbert Dillinger was born on June 22, 1903, in Indianapolis, Indiana. As a child, he went by “Johnnie.” As an adult, he was known as “Jackrabbit” for his graceful moves and quick getaways from the police. And as a public figure, he was declared the United States’ first “Public Enemy No. 1.” His exploits during the Great Depression made him a headline news celebrity as well as one of the most feared gangsters of the 20th century.
As a boy, Dillinger committed small time pranks and petty theft with his neighborhood gang, the Dirty Dozen. Many of his neighbors would later say he was a generally pleasant kid who didn’t seem to get into any more mischief than his peers. But there were also accounts of juvenile delinquency and malicious behavior as a teen. To a degree, both of these perceptions can be seen as correct and were evident in his adult life. Like any celebrity, accounts describing his early life were overshadowed by his later exploits and many of the circulating stories on Dillinger have become that of legend.
John Dillinger was the youngest of two children born to John Wilson Dillinger and Mary Ellen “Molly” Lancaster. The elder Dillinger was a somber churchgoer who owned a neighborhood grocery store and some rental houses. He was an abusive force at times who would hit his son for perceived insubordination and then give him money for treats.
Dillinger’s mother, Molly, died of a stroke when he was only 3 years old. His sister, Audrey, who was significantly older, raised him until her own marriage a year later, with John Sr. remarrying in 1912. Dillinger quit school at age 16, not due to any trouble, but because he was bored and wanted to make money on his own. He was said to have a talent for working with his hands and was a good employee at an Indianapolis machine shop.
In 1920, hoping a change of venue would provide a more wholesome influence on his son, John Sr. sold his grocery store and property to retire to a farm in Mooresville, Indiana. Ever defiant, John Jr. kept his job at the Indianapolis machine shop and made the commute there via his motorcycle.
Early Crimes and Conviction
Having been involved in illicit nighttime activity during his work trips, matters reached a head on July 21, 1923, when the young Dillinger stole a sedan outside of a church, perhaps reacting to a failed romantic relationship. He was later found roaming aimlessly through Indianapolis streets by two police officers, who, after questioning Dillinger and becoming suspicious of his vague explanations, placed him under arrest. Dillinger managed to slip loose from the officers, however, and ran. Knowing that he couldn’t go back home, he joined the United States Navy the next day.
While Dillinger made it through basic training, he quickly realized that the regimented life of military service was not for him. While assigned to the U.S.S. Utah—the same U.S.S. Utah that was sunk at Pearl Harbor in 1941—he jumped ship, ending his five-month military career. He was eventually dishonorably discharged.
Upon his return to Mooresville in April 1924, Dillinger met and married teenager Beryl Ethel Hovious in nearby Martinsville and attempted to settle down. With no job or income, the newlyweds stayed both at the Dillinger farm house and the home of Hovious’s parents. Dillinger eventually got a job in an upholstery shop.
During the summer of 1924, John Dillinger played shortstop on the Martinsville baseball team, where he met and befriended Edgar Singleton. He told Dillinger about a local grocer who would be carrying his daily receipts on his way from work to the barbershop. The plan was that Dillinger could easily rob the elderly grocer for the cash he would be carrying while Singleton waited in a getaway car down the street.
Dillinger was allegedly armed with a .32 caliber pistol and a large bolt wrapped in a handkerchief, with some conflicting reports on whether he or Singleton initiated the attack. Dillinger is said to have come up behind the grocer and clubbed him with the bolt, but the grocer turned and grabbed his attacker and the gun, forcing it to discharge. Believing that he had shot the grocer, John Dillinger took off running down the street toward Singleton’s getaway car. Singleton wasn’t there, however, and Dillinger was soon caught by police.
The local prosecutor convinced Dillinger’s father that if his son pleaded guilty to the armed robbery charges, the court would be lenient. That was the extent of his legal assistance, however. Dillinger appeared in court without a lawyer and without his father, and the court threw the book at him: He was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison, even though it was his first conviction. Singleton, who had a prison record, was also caught but would serve less than two years of his two- to 14-year sentence due to legal representation.
Dillinger was imprisoned at the Indiana State Reformatory in Pendleton, playing on the institution’s baseball team and doing seamster work. Dillinger’s remarkable skill with his hands came into play just as it had during his time at the machine shop. He frequently completed twice his quota in the prison factory and secretly helped fill other men’s quotas. As a result, he gained an array of friends and allies, including Harry Pierpont and Homer Van Meter, two men who would eventually join Dillinger in his life of crime.
Dillinger’s wife and family initially visited him frequently. He often penned correspondences to Beryl full of romantic sentiment, with letters like: “Dearest, we will be so happy when I can come home to you and chase your sorrows away … For sweetheart, I love you so all I want is to just be with you and make you happy …” But Beryl was not doing well with the separation. She officially divorced Dillinger on June 20, 1929, two days before his birthday. He was distraught, later admitting that the split had left him crestfallen.
That same year Dillinger was denied parole, becoming consumed by bitterness. In a letter he later wrote to his father in October 1933, after several robberies, he confided,
“I know I have been a big disappointment to you but I guess I did too much time, for where I went in a carefree boy, I came out bitter toward everything in general … if I had gotten off more leniently when I made my first mistake this would never have happened.”
John Dillinger asked to be sent to Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, Indiana. Dillinger told prison officials that he wanted to be transferred because the Michigan City prison had a better baseball team, but in actuality, he wanted to rejoin Pierpont and Van Meter, who’d been transferred there earlier.
John Dillinger found prison life in Michigan City much more rigid, and his spirits became increasingly low. He didn’t join the baseball team but instead buried himself in shirt factory labor.
It was during this time that John Dillinger learned the ropes of crime from seasoned bank robbers. In addition to reconnecting with Pierpont and Van Meter, he became friends with Walter Dietrich, who had worked with the notorious Herman Lamm. Previously part of the German military, Lamm had moved to America and was known for planning his bank robberies with a high degree of precision and strategic thought. Dietrich had studied the man’s method well and instructed others on how to investigate the layout of a bank and surrounding establishments.
Pierpont and Van Meter had longer sentences than John Dillinger, but they weren’t planning on serving their full terms, and had already begun planning bank heists for when they were out. Upon leaving prison, they would bribe a few key guards, get a few guns and grab a place to lay low for awhile. But they would need money to finance their jail break. Knowing that Dillinger would be freed the soonest, Pierpont and his colleagues brought him in on their scheme.
In May 1933, the plan got an unexpected boost. Dillinger, who by this time had been in the state pen for almost four years, was notified by his family that his stepmother was near death. He was granted parole, but she died shortly before his return home. Seizing the moment, John Dillinger joined a few of Pierpont’s men and began a string of robberies. With the aid of two female accomplices, Pearl Elliott and Mary Kinder, Dillinger put the escape plan in motion. He arranged for several guns to be placed in a box of thread and smuggled the package into the shirt factory. The prison break was set for late September.
Having some time on his hands, John Dillinger decided to visit a lady friend he’d met earlier that year, Mary Longnaker, in Dayton, Ohio. Unfortunately for them, the police were following him as he gathered funds for the prison break. After receiving a tip from a landlady, they stormed into Longenecker’s room and arrested Dillinger. He was sent to Allen County Jail in Lima, Ohio. In the meantime, Pierpont and his men escaped from Indiana State and made their way to a hideout in Hamilton, Ohio.
Dillinger was incarcerated under the care of Sheriff Jess Sarber and his wife, who lived at the Lima facility. The jail was about 100 miles away from Pierpont’s hideout, and he soon realized that with some cash and a few guns, he would be able to spring Dillinger. Pierpont and two other men knocked over a local bank and later, armed with pistols, the three men approached the jail house just as Sheriff Sarber and his wife were finishing dinner.
Pierpont knocked on the door and announced that they were officials from the state penitentiary and needed to see Dillinger. When Sarber asked for their credentials, they showed him their guns. When Sarber reached for his weapon, Pierpont panicked and shot him, later clubbing the downed officer as well. Mrs. Sarber then gave the men the jail keys and they sprang Dillinger. Sarber died a few hours later—making all members of the gang accessories to murder.
Once John Dillinger was free, the gang headed to Chicago to put together one of the most organized and deadly bank robbing gangs in the country. To pull many of the big jobs they had planned, Pierpont and Dillinger knew they needed heavy fire power, ammunition, and bullet-proof vests. To get the equipment, they headed to the police arsenal in Peru, Indiana. After casing the joint, Pierpont and Dillinger entered the arsenal, overpowered personnel and stole a variety of weapons.
The Dillinger Gang
After the bold prison escape and bank heist, the killing of Sarber and the attack on the police arsenal, the Pierpont Gang was gaining substantial notoriety. Newspapers wrote sensational stories of the group’s exploits. Members were described as shadowy figures, wearing dark overcoats with hat brims pulled down to hide their identities. The thieves would make swift movements and bark out sharp, crisp orders to “Get down and nobody gets hurt!” Victims were described as helpless and grateful to have their lives spared, and the law was portrayed as inept.
All the gang members were well aware of their publicity, particularity Dillinger, who read the stories and saved press clippings. While most men in their line of work possessed big egos, there seemed to be little struggle for leadership within the gang. Whether the newspapers made reference to the “Pierpont Gang” or the “Dillinger Gang” didn’t seem to make much difference. Each man had a role to play and the planning of robberies was more egalitarian, with all members providing input.
When they weren’t working, the men lived quietly and conservatively in expensive Chicago apartments. They dressed like any other respectable businessmen and didn’t draw much attention to themselves. Nearly all members had girlfriends, some had wives, but the attachments were episodic. The men drank only on off-hours, typically beer. Pierpont had a strict rule that planning and committing a crime had to be done without alcohol or drugs. For the most part, all members agreed that if any gang members couldn’t or wouldn’t adhere to the rules, they were let go.
From late 1933 into next year, the gang committed several Midwest bank robberies. Always meticulously planned, the heists often had a theatrical flair. It was rumored that once several gang members posed as alarm system sales reps to get into a bank’s vault and have access to the security system. Another time they allegedly pretended to be a film crew scouting locations for a bank robbery movie. It was during this period that stories began to circulate in newspapers of interesting oddities and even humorous incidences that occurred during the bank robberies, all enhancing the thieves’ reputations. Despite stories of Dillinger being a Robin Hood type and a glamorization of the gangster persona, the FBI later countered that he and his cohorts were dangerous gunmen primarily looking to line their own pockets.
In December 1933, the gang decided to take a break in Florida. Shortly before they left, one of the gang members fatally shot a police officer while picking up a car at a repair shop. The Chicago Police Department established an elite group of officers dubbed the “Dillinger Squad.” The gang spent the holidays in Florida and, shortly after New Years, Pierpont decided they should head for Arizona. On his way out West, Dillinger collected his girlfriend, Billie Frechette, and one other gang member, Red Hamilton. He and Hamilton decided to rob a First National Bank in East Chicago for some quick cash to fund their trip. The robbery went badly; Hamilton was wounded and Dillinger allegedly killed police officer William Patrick O’Malley during their escape.
Other members of the gang arrived in Tucson and were experiencing difficulties of their own. A fire at the hotel where they were staying tipped off police to their whereabouts. Dillinger and Frechette arrived a day or so after the fire and registered at a motel nearby. The next day, Tucson police rounded up all members of the group, including Dillinger and Frechette, in a few hours. Over the ensuing days officials from the Midwest bartered for extradition of the prisoners, with each state representative claiming supreme jurisdiction. In time, matters were sorted out and various gang members were assigned to different locales for trial. Dillinger was to go back to Indiana with Police Captain Matt Leach to stand trial for the murder of O’Malley.
The New Dillinger Gang
Dillinger was taken to the office of Lake County Sheriff Lillian Holley, who was serving out the term of her late husband who’d been killed in the line of duty. The sheriff’s office had become command central as reporters and photographers jammed into the cramped room to get a picture and quick quote from the famed desperado. At one point, a photographer asked Dillinger to pose with law enforcement officials. He obliged and placed his elbow on the shoulder of Indiana state prosecutor Robert Estill. The highly controversial picture was printed in many newspapers, with Estill eventually losing his job for taking an image that evoked camaraderie with such a notorious figure.
While awaiting trial, John Dillinger was placed in Crown Point Prison, a facility that was deemed inescapable. On March 3, 1934, Dillinger proved them wrong by slipping out of the prison on his own without a shot fired. Legend has it that Dillinger carved a wooden gun, blackened it with shoe polish and used it to escape. Other accounts speak of corruption from within the facility and that someone slipped him a real gun, with yet another theory being that Dillinger’s attorney Louis Piquett bribed prison staff. In any case, Dillinger was able to elude his captors, steal Sheriff Holley’s police car and make his getaway back to Illinois. But in the process he crossed state lines with a stolen car—a felony—and drew the attention of the FBI, headed by J. Edgar Hoover.
Once arriving in Chicago, John Dillinger quickly put together another gang. In this iteration, members weren’t as carefully chosen as the previous gang, being composed of a few misfits and psychopaths, including Lester Gillis, also known as “Baby Face Nelson.” Dillinger also teamed up with his friend from the Reformatory, Homer Van Meter. The new gang relocated to the St. Paul, Minnesota, area. During the month of March, the Dillinger Gang went on a crime spree, robbing several banks. Yet law enforcement continued to be hot on the group’s trail, as Dillinger and Frechette barely escaped the FBI while staying at an apartment building in St. Paul, Minnesota. With Frechette taken into custody after returning to Chicago, John Dillinger and some of his men were forced to hole up in a Wisconsin hideout called Little Bohemia.
Soon after their arrival, the lodge owner, Emil Wanatka, recognized his new guest as the famous John Dillinger. Dillinger assured Wanatka that there wouldn’t be any trouble, but to be sure, he monitored the lodge owner and his family closely. However, because the gang’s other members made Wanatka fear for his family’s safety, he wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney George Fisher revealing the identity of his guests. Wanatka’s wife, Nan, convinced Dillinger to let her go to her nephew’s birthday party. She was able to bypass Baby Face Nelson, who was following them and mail the letter. Soon after, Melvin Purvis, the local FBI agent, was contacted.
On April 22, 1934, agents drove to the Little Bohemia lodge. About two miles from the resort, they turned off their car lights and trekked on foot into the woods. The agents were attacked via gunfire upon approaching the lodge, and Nelson took hostages in a separate location. Ultimately the gang members once again made a getaway. An FBI agent and a civilian were killed in the melee, with additional men wounded.
Public Enemy No. 1
By the summer of 1934, John Dillinger had dropped out of sight. Because of his notoriety, life had become increasingly difficult. On Dillinger’s birthday, June 22, the FBI had labeled him America’s first “Public Enemy No. 1” and placed a $10,000 reward on his head. To avoid detection, Dillinger, along with Van Meter, had undergone a crude face lift in May at the abode of mob-affiliated Jimmy Probasco. Dillinger spent the following month at Probasco’s Chicago home, healing from the surgery and using the alias Jimmy Lawrence—the real name of a petty thief who had once dated Frechette as well.
On June 30, 1934, John Dillinger robbed his last bank. He was accompanied by Van Meter, Nelson, and one other unidentified individual. Shortly before noon, the gang arrived at the Merchant’s National Bank in South Bend, Indiana. In the resulting robbery, police officer Howard Wagner was shot and killed. A shop owner brandishing a pistol hit Nelson as he came out of the bank, but the bulletproof vest he was wearing saved him. Civilians, along with Van Meter, were wounded in yet another terribly violent exchange. The crew’s stolen funds totaled around $30,000.
It’s not known for sure how Dillinger met Anna Sage, also known as Ana Cumpanas. Some stories say their relationship went back several years. Others say they met in 1934 via his girlfriend, Polly Hamilton, who worked for Sage. Sage was born in Romania and moved to America with her husband, settling in East Chicago, Indiana. Soon after the birth of her son, her marriage ended and she supported herself as a prostitute for mobster “Big Bill” Subotica. Later, after his death, she took over the business and worked as a madam, opening up additional brothels.
For a time she was under investigation by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and facing deportation. At some point, she had become involved with one of the city’s detectives, Martin Zarkovich, either as a friend or love interest. After Sage told Zarkovich of her problems with the INS, he arranged a meeting with agent Purvis.
Purvis and Sage met on July 19, 1934, with Sage hoping that Purvis would be able to make a difference in her potential deportation in exchange for her help in nabbing Dillinger. With Sage as an informant, Purvis assembled a team of FBI agents and hired guns from police forces outside the area because he felt that Chicago authorities had been compromised and couldn’t be trusted.
Final Moments and Death
On Sunday, July 22, 1934, at 5 p.m., Anna Sage told FBI agents in a hushed voice that she and Dillinger were planning to go either to the Biograph or Marlboro theaters to see a film. Purvis decided to stake out the Biograph himself. Two other agents were posted at the Marlboro. Purvis was standing just a few feet away from the theater entrance when the Clark Gable movie Manhattan Melodrama let out.
As Dillinger passed, he looked Purvis directly in the eyes but made no indication of recognition of suspicion. Following the prearranged signal, Purvis lit a cigar. As John Dillinger and the two women walked down the street, an anxious Purvis quickly pulled out his gun, and yelled, “Stick’em up, Johnnie, we have you surrounded!” Dillinger began to run, reaching into his pants pocket to draw a gun. He entered an alley just as a volley of gunfire greeted him.
The fatal shot entered the base of Dillinger’s neck and traveled upward, hitting the second vertebra before exiting below his right eye. Gradually, a crowd formed around Dillinger’s lifeless body, with several people dabbing handkerchiefs into his blood for souvenirs. The police had to finally be called in to move people away so that federal agents could secure the scene and remove Dillinger’s body.
John Dillinger was taken to Alexian Brothers Hospital and was officially pronounced dead before being taken to the Cook County Morgue. The crowd had followed the body to the morgue and into the post-mortem room. Meanwhile, hundreds of spectators waited outside until late into the night, hoping to catch a glimpse of the slain outlaw. Throughout the next day, thousands of people had shuffled past Dillinger’s body before it was taken to the McCready Funeral Home. From there, he was placed in a hearse and given a police escort to the Indiana border for his journey back to Mooresville, Indiana. There, at Harvey Funeral Home, Dillinger’s sister, Audrey, identified the body. John Dillinger was buried on July 25, 1934, at the Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.