John Herbert Dillinger (June 22, 1903 – July 22, 1934) was an American bank robber in the Depression-era United States. His gang robbed two dozen banks and four police stations.

Dillinger was the most notorious of all the Depression-era outlaws, standing out even among more violent criminals such as Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Bonnie and Clyde.

Media reports in his time were spiced with exaggerated accounts of Dillinger’s bravado and daring, and his colorful personality.

In the 2009 film “Public Enemies”, John Dillinger was played by Johnny Depp.

Video comes courtesy of YouTube:

Hollywood saw things that way.

History has this, to tell us:

Dillinger’s Early life

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 and Mary Ellen “Mollie” Lancaster. Dillinger’s father was a grocer by trade and, reportedly, a harsh disciplinarian.

Dillinger’s older sister, Audrey, was born March 6, 1889.

Their mother died in 1907 just before John’s 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. They had three children, Hubert, Doris M. and Frances Dillinger.

A Rebellious Youth

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.

His father moved the family to Mooresville, Indiana, in about 1920.

Dillinger’s rebellious behavior continued, despite their new rural setting. He was arrested in 1922 for auto theft, and his relationship with his father deteriorated.

He enlisted in the United States Navy, where he was made a Fireman 3rd Class assigned to the battleship USS Utah. He deserted a few months later, when his ship was docked in Boston. He was eventually dishonorably discharged.

Dillinger returned to Mooresville, where he met Beryl Ethel Hovious. The two were married on April 12, 1924.
The marriage ended in divorce on June 20, 1929.

Dillinger was unable to find a job, and planned 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 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 John 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, but instead was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison for his crimes.

En route to Mooresville to testify against Singleton, Dillinger briefly escaped, but was apprehended within a few minutes.

School of Hard Knocks

Dillinger embraced the life behind bars in the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City. Upon being admitted, he is quoted as saying, “I will be the meanest bastard you ever saw when I get out of here.”

He soon 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.

Outside Moves

Dillinger’s 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.

Released at the height of the Great Depression, Dillinger had little prospect of finding employment. He immediately returned to crime.

On June 21, 1933, he robbed his first bank, taking $10,000 from the New Carlisle National Bank, 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 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.

Methods and Means

The Bureau of Investigation (BOI), a precursor to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was brought in to help identify the fugitives – although the men had not violated any federal law. Using their superior fingerprint matching technology, they successfully identified all of the suspects, and issued nationwide bulletins offering rewards for their capture.

But the crooks had methods of their own.

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” a bank’s security by carrying out an actual robbery.

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 (allegedly) 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.

Dillinger was believed to have been associated with gangs who robbed dozens of banks and accumulated a total of more than $300,000.

To obtain 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.

The Shanley Case

On December 14, 1933, Chicago Police Department (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, Hamilton pulled a pistol and shot him twice, fatally, then escaped.

Shanley’s murder led the Chicago Police Department to establish a forty man “Dillinger Squad”.

As police began closing in, 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 evacuated 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 their luggage.

One of the firefighters, 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 next.

To arrest Pierpont, the police staged a routine traffic stop and lured him to the police station, where they took him by surprise.

Dillinger was the last to be arrested.

The police found the men in possession of over $25,000 in cash and several automatic weapons.

Tucson still celebrates the historic arrest with an annual “Dillinger Days” festival, the highlight of which is a reenactment of the events.


The men were extradited to the Midwest after a debate between prosecutors as to where the gang would be prosecuted first.

The governor ordered that Dillinger should 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.

Escape from Crown Point

The police boasted to area newspapers that the Crown Point jail was escape-proof – and posted extra guards, to make sure.

There is still some debate as to what happened on the day of Dillinger’s escape in early March.

Deputy Ernest Blunk claimed that Dillinger had escaped using a real pistol, but FBI files indicate 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 smuggled the gun in himself.

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).

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 Bureau of Investigation, who immediately took over the Dillinger case after the car was found abandoned in Chicago.

Youngblood 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.

On the Run

After escaping Crown Point, Dillinger began living with his girlfriend Evelyn “Billie” Frechette. They proceeded to Saint Paul, Minnesota, met up with Hamilton and a few others, and 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 shot Keith, 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’s stalling tactics. Dillinger and Hamilton were both shot in their right shoulders and wounded.

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 were kept waiting at the door.

Van Meter showed up, 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, where 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. He lasted for a week, before dying on April 10.

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.

Still Making Moves

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 got a tip that federal agents were headed there, and left just days before they arrived.

Little Bohemia Lodge

In April, the Dillinger gang settled at a hideout called Little Bohemia Lodge, in the northern Wisconsin town of Manitowish Waters.

The gang assumed the owners, Emil Wanatka and his family, would give no trouble, but monitored them 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 moments, and 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.

Aftermath of Little Bohemia

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 died in Aurora, Illinois, three days after the shooting.

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 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 it has been suggested (by Fatso Negri to the BOI) that it was 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. Van Meter would be shot in the head during a shootout with police that followed the robbery.

The Elusive Mr. Lawrence

By July 1934, Dillinger had dropped completely out of sight, and 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.

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.

The Woman in Red

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, but she was later deported.

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, the following day.

She agreed to wear an orange dress – which is believed to have appeared red in the artificial lights of the theater – so that police could easily identify her.

She was unsure which of two theaters they would be attending but told the agency their names: the Biograph and the Marbro.

A team of federal agents and officers from police forces outside Chicago was formed, along with a very few Chicago police officers (Federal officials felt that the Chicago police had been compromised and could not be trusted). Among them was Sergeant Martin Zarkovich, to whom Sage had informed on Dillinger.

Not wanting 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.

The Biograph Theater

Dillinger attended the film “Manhattan Melodrama” at the Biograph Theater in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, with Polly Hamilton and Ana Cumpănaş.

Once they had determined that Dillinger was in the theater, the lead agent, Samuel P. Cowley, contacted J. Edgar Hoover for instructions.

Hoover 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.

Dillinger reached into his pocket but failed to extract his gun, then ran into a nearby alley.
Other accounts state that 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 fell face first to the ground. He was struck three (or four, according to some historians) times, with two bullets entering the chest, one of them nicking 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 be the man who fired the fatal round, and he received a personal letter of commendation from Director Hoover.

Two female bystanders took slight flesh wounds from flying bullet and brick fragments.

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, Dillinger was pronounced dead at Alexian Brothers Hospital. According to the investigators, Dillinger died without saying a word.

Dillinger’s body was displayed to the public at the Cook County morgue after his death.

He 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.

The Nash Theory of Dillinger’s Escape

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 “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), the body 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. The Bureau would have gone to great lengths to ensure a cover up.

In shooting “Lawrence”, 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 itself 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 own 1960 alleged suicide.

Nash alleged that Dillinger was living and working in California as a machinist, under what would have been an early form of the witness protection program.

Just another aspect of Dillinger folklore?

Who knows?

In any event, this story ends, here.

Hope you’ll join me, for the next one.

Till then.