“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 the 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 the Depression, 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 that 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 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 to charge 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.
On March 30, 1934, an FBI Agent talked to the manager of the Lincoln Court Apartments in St. Paul, who reported two suspicious tenants using the names of Mr. and Mrs. Hellman. The manager reported that the residents acted nervously and refused to admit the apartment caretaker. The FBI quickly began a surveillance of the apartment and the next day, an agent and a police officer knocked on the door of the apartment. When Evelyn Frechette opened the door, she quickly slammed it shut and the agent called for reinforcements to surround the building.
While waiting, the agents saw a man enter a hall near the Hellman’s apartment, who wound up being Homer Van Meter. When questioned, Van Meter drew a gun and shots were exchanged. Van Meter then fled the building and forced a truck driver at gunpoint to drive him to Eddie Green’s apartment. Suddenly the door of the Hellman apartment opened and the muzzle of a machine gun began spraying the hallway with lead. Undercover of the machine-gun fire, Dillinger and Evelyn Frechette fled through a back door. They, too, drove to Green’s apartment, where Dillinger was treated for a bullet wound.
At the Lincoln Court Apartments, the FBI found a Thompson submachine gun with the stock removed, two automatic rifles, one .38 caliber Colt automatic with twenty-shot magazine clips, and two bulletproof vests. Across town, other agents located one of Eddie Green’s hideouts where he and Bessie Skinner had been living as “Mr. and Mrs. Stephens.” On April 3rd, when Green was found, he attempted to draw his gun, but was shot by the agents and died in a hospital eight days later.
Dillinger and Evelyn Frechette fled to Mooresville, Indiana, where they stayed with his father and half-brother until his wound healed. Frechette then went to Chicago to visit a friend and was arrested by the FBI. She was taken to St. Paul, Minnesota for trial on a charge of conspiracy to harbor a fugitive. She was convicted, fined $1,000, and sentenced to two years in prison. Bessie Skinner, Eddie Green’s girlfriend, got 15 months on the same charge.
Meanwhile, Dillinger and Van Meter robbed a police station at Warsaw, Indiana of guns and bulletproof vests. Dillinger stayed for a while in Upper Michigan, departing just ahead of a posse of FBI Agents. A short time later, the FBI received a tip that there had been a sudden influx of rather suspicious guests at the summer resort of Little Bohemia Lodge, about 50 miles north of Rhinelander, Wisconsin. One of them sounded like John Dillinger and another like “Baby Face Nelson.”
From Rhinelander, an FBI task force set out by car for Little Bohemia. Two miles from the resort, the car lights were turned off and the posse proceeded through the darkness. When the cars reached the resort, dogs began barking. The agents spread out to surround the lodge and as they approached, machine gun fire rattled down on them from the roof. Swiftly, the agents took cover and one of them hurried to a telephone to give directions to additional agents who had arrived in Rhinelander to backup the operation.
While the agent was telephoning, the operator broke in to tell him there was trouble at another cottage about two miles away. Special Agent W. Carter Baum and a constable went there and found a parked car which the constable recognized as belonging to a local resident. They pulled up and identified themselves.
Inside the other car, “Baby Face Nelson” was holding three local residents at gunpoint. He turned, leveled a revolver at the lawmen’s car, and ordered them to step out. But without waiting for them to comply, Nelson opened fire. Baum was killed, and the constable and the other agent were severely wounded. Nelson jumped into the Ford they had been using and fled.
When the firing had subsided at the Little Bohemia Lodge, Dillinger was gone. When the agents entered the lodge the next morning, they found only three frightened females. Dillinger and five others had fled through a back window before the agents surrounded the house.
In Washington, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover assigned Special Agent Samuel A. Cowley to head the FBI’s efforts against Dillinger. Cowley soon set up headquarters in Chicago, where he and Melvin Purvis, Special Agent in Charge of the Chicago office, planned their strategy.
Late in the afternoon of Saturday, July 21, 1934, the madam of a brothel in Gary, Indiana, contacted one of the police officers with information. The woman, who called herself Anna Sage, but was actually Ana Cumpanas, had entered the United States from her native Rumania in 1914. Because of the nature of her profession, she was considered an undesirable alien by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and deportation proceedings had been started. Anna was willing to sell the FBI some information about Dillinger for a cash reward, plus the FBI’s help in preventing her deportation.