I don’t smoke much, and I drink very little. I guess my only bad habit is robbing banks.
— John Dillinger
John Herbert Dillinger was a dangerous killer and midwestern bank robber during the early 1930s. He was responsible for the murder of several police officers, robbed at least two dozen banks, and escaped from jail twice.
During the Great Depression, many Americans, deep in poverty and feeling helpless, made heroes of outlaws who took what they wanted at gunpoint. Of all these many outlaws, John Herbert Dillinger came to evoke this Gangster Era, and stirred mass emotion to a degree rarely seen in this country.
Idolizing him as a modern-day Robin Hood, Dillinger was nicknamed “the Jackrabbit” for his graceful movements during his robberies — actions such as leaping over counters and his many narrow escapes from police.
The exploits of Dillinger and his gang, along with those of other criminals of the Great Depression such as Bonnie and Clyde and Ma Barker, dominated the attention of the American press and its readers during the Depression era, a period which led to the development of the modern, more sophisticated Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Dillinger was born on June 22, 1903, in Indianapolis, Indiana. Growing up in a middle-class residential neighborhood, his father, a hardworking grocer, raised him in an atmosphere of disciplinary extremes, harsh and repressive on some occasions, but generous and permissive on others. John’s mother died when he was three, and when his father remarried six years later, John resented his stepmother.
As a teenager, he began to get in trouble, finally quitting school and getting a job in a machine shop in Indianapolis. Although intelligent and a good worker, he soon became bored and often stayed out all night. His father, worried that the temptations of the city were corrupting the boy, sold his property in Indianapolis and moved his family to a farm near Mooresville, Indiana. However, John reacted no better to rural life than he had to that in the city and began to run wild again.
He was soon caught stealing a car which led him to enlist in the Navy. There, he quickly got into trouble and deserted his ship when it docked in Boston. Returning to Mooresville, he married 16-year-old Beryl Hovious in 1924. The pair moved to Indianapolis but Dillinger was unable to find a job. He then hooked up with the town pool shark, Ed Singleton, in his search for easy money.
The hoodlums first tried to rob a Mooresville grocery store but were quickly apprehended. Singleton pled not guilty, stood trial, and was sentenced to two years. Dillinger, following his father’s advice, confessed, was convicted of assault and battery with intent to rob, and conspiracy to commit a felony, and received joint sentences of 2 to 14 years and 10 to 20 years in the Indiana State Prison. Stunned by the harsh sentence, Dillinger became a tortured, bitter man in prison. His marriage ended in divorce in 1929.
Dillinger was paroled on May 10, 1933, after serving nine and a half years. In the midst of theDepression, he had little prospect of finding employment and immediately returned to crime. On June 10, 1933, he robbed his first bank, taking $10,000 from the New Carlisle National Bank, in New Carlisle, Ohio. On August 14th, he robbed another bank in Bluffton, Ohio. Dayton police arrested him on September 22, and he was lodged in the county jail in Lima, Ohio, to await trial.
In frisking Dillinger, the Lima police found a document which seemed to be a plan for a prison break, but, the prisoner denied knowledge of any plan. Four days later, using the same plans, eight of Dillinger’s friends escaped from the Indiana State Prison, using shotguns and rifles which had been smuggled into their cells. During their escape, they shot two guards.
On October 12th, three of the escaped prisoners and a parolee from the same prison showed up at the Lima jail where Dillinger was incarcerated, pretending to be law enforcement officials. They told the sheriff that they had come to return Dillinger to the Indiana State Prison for violation of his parole. When the sheriff asked to see their credentials, one of the men pulled a gun, shot the sheriff and beat him into unconsciousness. Then taking the keys to the jail, the bandits freed Dillinger, locked the sheriff’s wife and a deputy in a cell, and leaving the sheriff to die on the floor, made their getaway.
Although none of these men had violated a Federal law, the FBI’s assistance was requested in identifying and locating the criminals. The four men were identified as Harry Pierpont, Russell Clark, Charles Makley, and Harry Copeland.
In the meantime, the Dillinger Gang pulled several bank robberies and plundered the police arsenals at Auburn and Peru, Indiana, stealing several machine guns, rifles, revolvers, ammunition, and several bulletproof vests. On December 14th, John Hamilton, a Dillinger Gang member, shot and killed a police detective in Chicago. A month later, the Dillinger Gang killed a police officer during the robbery of the First National Bank of East Chicago, Indiana. Then they made their way to Florida and, subsequently, to Tucson, Arizona. There, on January 23, 1934, a fire broke out in the hotel where Clark and Makley were hiding under assumed names.
Firemen recognized the men from their photographs and local police arrested them, as well as Dillinger and Harry Pierpont. They also seized three Thompson submachine guns, two Winchester rifles mounted as machine guns, five bulletproof vests, and more than $25,000 in cash, part of it from the East Chicago robbery.
Dillinger was sequestered at the county jail in Crown Point, Indiana to await trial for the murder of the East Chicago police officer. Though authorities boasted that the jail was “escape proof,” Dillinger threatened the guards with what he claimed later was a wooden gun he had whittled and forced them to open his cell door on March 3, 1934. He grabbed two machine guns, locked up the guards and several trustees, and fled.
It was then that Dillinger made the mistake that would eventually cost him his life. He stole the sheriff’s car and drove across the Indiana-Illinois line, heading for Chicago. By doing that, he violated the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, which made it a Federal offense to transport a stolen motor vehicle across a state line. Within no time, a federal complaint was sworn charging Dillinger with the theft of the vehicle, which was recovered in Chicago. After the grand jury returned an indictment, the FBI became actively involved in the nationwide search for Dillinger.
Meanwhile, Pierpont, Makley, and Clark were returned to Ohio and convicted of the murder of the Lima sheriff. Pierpont and Makley were sentenced to death and Clark to life imprisonment. But, in an escape attempt, Makley was killed and Pierpont was wounded. A month later, Pierpont had recovered sufficiently to be executed.
In Chicago, Dillinger joined his girlfriend, Evelyn Frechette. They proceeded to St. Paul, Minnesota where Dillinger teamed up with Homer Van Meter, Lester “Baby Face Nelson” Gillis, Eddie Green, and Tommy Carroll, among others. The gang’s business prospered as they continued robbing banks.