John Herbert Dillinger was born 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. As a legend, he was known as “Public Enemy Number One.” His exploits during the depth of the Great Depression made him a headline news celebrity and one of the most feared gangsters of the 20th century.
As a boy, John Dillinger was constantly getting into trouble. He would commit small time pranks and petty theft with his neighborhood gang, “the Dirty Dozen.” Most of his neighbors would later say he was generally a cheerful, likable kid who didn’t get in to any more mischief than other boys. But there were also accounts of severe juvenile delinquency and malicious behavior as a teenager. To a degree, both of these perceptions are correct and were evident in his adult life. Like any celebrity, accounts describing his early life were shadowed by his later exploits and added either positively or negatively to his reputation.
Dillinger was the youngest of two children born to John Wilson Dillinger and Mary Ellen “Molly” Lancaster. The elder Dillinger was a somber, church-going small businessman who owned a neighborhood grocery store and some rental houses. He was simultaneously a harsh disciplinarian who would beat Johnnie for his insubordination, and then turn around and give him money for candy. Later, when Johnnie was in his teens, Dillinger, Sr. would alternate between locking Johnnie in the house all day and then, later in the week, letting him roam the neighborhood for most of the night.
Dillinger’s mother, Molly, died of a stroke when he was not quite yet four years old. His sister, Audrey, who was 15 years his senior raised him until his father remarried 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 be good employee with a talent for working with his hands. His father, however, wasn’t pleased with his career choice and tried to talk him out of it. John showed his obstinacy and refused to go back to school. In 1920, hoping a change of venue would provide a more wholesome influence on his son, John Dillinger, 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 commuted the 18 miles on his motorcycle. His wild and rebellious behavior continued with nightly escapades which included, drinking, fighting, and visiting prostitutes.
Early Crimes and Conviction
Matters reached a head on July 21, 1923, when Dillinger stole a car to impress a girl on a date. He was later found by a police officer roaming aimlessly through Indianapolis streets. The policeman pulled him over to question him and, suspicious of his vague explanations, placed him under arrest. Dillinger broke loose and ran. Knowing he couldn’t go back home, he joined the United States Navy the next day. He made it through basic training, but 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 and returned home to Mooresville. His five-month military career was over, and he was eventually dishonorably discharged.
Upon his return to Mooresville in April 1924, John Dillinger met and married 16-year-old Beryl Ethel Hovious and attempted to settle down. With no job or income, the newlyweds moved into Dillinger’s father’s farm house. Within a few weeks of his wedding, he was arrested for stealing several chickens. Though his father was able to work out a deal to keep the case out of court, it did little to help his relationship with his father. Dillinger and Beryl moved out of their cramped bedroom and into Beryl’s parents’ home in Martinsville, Indiana. There he got a job in an upholstery shop.
During the summer of 1924, Dillinger played shortstop on the Martinsville baseball team. There he met and befriended Edgar Singleton, a heavy drinking individual who was a distant relative of Dillinger’s stepmother. Singleton became Dillinger’s first partner in crime. He told Dillinger of a local grocer who would be carrying his daily receipts on his way from work to the barbershop. Singleton suggested Dillinger could easily rob the elderly grocer for the cash he would be carrying while Singleton waited for him in a getaway car down the street. The incident did not go well. Dillinger was armed with a .32 caliber and pistol and a large bolt wrapped in a handkerchief. He came up behind the grocer and clubbed him over the head with the bolt, but the grocer turned and grabbed Dillinger and the gun, forcing it to discharge. Dillinger thought he had shot the grocer and took off running down the street to meet Singleton’s getaway car. There was no one there and he was soon caught by the police.
The local prosecutor convinced Dillinger’s father that if his son pleaded guilty the court would be lenient. However, that was the extent of his legal assistance. Dillinger, Jr. appeared in court without a lawyer and without his father. The court threw the book at him: 10 to 20 years in prison, even though it was his first conviction. Singleton, who had a prison record, was also caught. He served less than two years of his two to four year sentence, thanks to having a lawyer.
Imprisonment and Jailbreak
Dillinger was sent to the Indiana State Reformatory in Pendleton, where he played on the prison baseball team and worked in the shirt factory as a seamster. Dillinger’s remarkable manual dexterity 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 would secretly help fill other men’s quotas. As a result, he made many friends within the prison population. It was at the state reformatory that Dillinger met Harry Pierpont and Homer Van Meter, two men who would someday join Dillinger in his life of crime.
As his prison years went on, Dillinger’s wife and family visited him frequently. He often wrote letters to Beryl full of affection, “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…Write soon and come sooner.” But Beryl was not doing well with the separation. She obtained a divorce on June 20, 1929, two days before his birthday. He was devastated and later admitted the event had broken his heart.
Dillinger was dealt a second blow when he was denied parole. He had not been an exemplary prisoner, after having tried to escape a few times. But not seeing he was much responsible for his circumstances, he felt bitter and angry about the denial for parole. In a letter he wrote to his father in October 1933, 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.” He quit the baseball team, one of his few passions, and asked to be sent to Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, Indiana. Dillinger told prison officials it had a better baseball team, but the truth was he wanted to join friends Pierpont and Van Meter who had been transferred there earlier.
Dillinger found prison life much harsher and disciplined. He was surprised to see so many men his father’s age spending the rest of their lives in prison. He became depressed and withdrawn. He didn’t join the baseball team, but instead buried himself in his work in the prison shirt factory, producing double his quote to help other inmates.
It was during this time that 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. A former German army officer, Lamm had emigrated to the United States in the late 1800s. He was famous for planning his bank robberies with the precision of a military tactician. Dietrich had studied the man’s method well and was a good teacher, instructing his students in how to investigate the layout of a bank, the entries and exits, windows, and the location of the nearest police station.
Pierpont and Van Meter had longer sentences than John Dillinger but they weren’t planning on serving out their full terms. They 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 sooner than they, Pierpont and is colleagues brought him in on their scheme and gave Dillinger a crash course in the art of robbery. They gave him a list of stores and banks to hold up and contact information of the most reliable accomplices. They also provided him with guidance on where to fence stolen goods and money.
In May of 1933, the plan got an unexpected boost. Dillinger had been in the state pen for almost four years. He was notified by his family that his stepmother was near death. He was granted parole, but arrived home after she had died. Seizing on the moment, he joined up with a few of Pierpont’s men and began a string of robberies that netted nearly $50,000. 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 packed in a box of thread, and smuggled into the shirt factory. The prison break was set for September 27, 1933.Having some time on his hands, Dillinger decided to visit lady friend Mary Longnaker in Dayton, Ohio, whom he had met earlier that year. Unfortunately, the police had been stalking him through much of this time as he gathered the funds for the prison break. After receiving a tip from his landlady, they stormed into Mary’s room and arrested Dillinger. He was on his way back to prison. In the meantime, Pierpont and his men escaped from Indiana State Prison and made their way to the gang’s hideout in Hamilton, Ohio.
Dillinger was incarcerated at the Lima, Ohio, jail under the care of Sheriff Jess Sarber and his wife, who lived at the jail building. The jail was just a little over 100 miles away from Pierpont’s hideout. He 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 that had been previously closed due to the “bank holiday” enacted by Treasury Department. 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 they were officers from the state penitentiary and needed to see Dillinger. When Sarber asked for their credentials, they showed him their guns. Sarber reached for a gun and Pierpont panicked and shot him twice. Mrs. Sarber gave them the jail keys and they sprang Dillinger. Sarber died a few hours later. This made all members of the gang accessories to murder.
Once 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 the three guards, and stole machine guns, sawed-off shotguns and ammunition.
The Dillinger Gang
After the bold prison escape, the killing of Sarber, the bank robberies, and the attack on the police arsenal, the Pierpont Gang was gaining substantial notoriety. Newspapers wrote sensational stories of the gang’s exploits. Gang members were often 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 this 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 the off-hours, and 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.For the next three months the gang went on a crime spree of several bank robberies in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. Always meticulously planned, the heists often had a theatrical flair. One time, 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 pretended to be a film crew scouting locations for a bank robbery movie. Bystanders looked amused as the real bank heist took place.
It was during this time 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. One story told of a farmer who had come to a bank to make a deposit while the gang was robbing the place. Standing at the teller window with his money in front of him, Dillinger asked the farmer if the money was his or the bank’s. The farmer answered it was his and Dillinger told him, “Keep it. We only want the banks’.”In December 1933, the gang took some time off and then decided to spend the holidays 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. Since police were looking all over the Midwest for them, and they had plenty of money to live on for a few more months, they decided to keep a low profile. On his way out West, Dillinger collected his girlfriend, Billie Freshette, and one other gang member, Red Hamilton. He and Hamilton decided to rob the First National Bank of Gary, Indiana, for some quick cash to fund their trip. The robbery went badly; Hamilton was wounded, and Dillinger killed police officer William Patrick O’Malley during their escape.The rest of the gang arrived in Tucson, Arizona, and were experiencing difficulties of their own. A fire at the hotel where they were staying tipped off police to their whereabouts. John Dillinger and Billie Freshette arrived a day or so after the fire, and registered at a motel nearby. The unexpected event caused the gang members to lose their concentration. The next day, Tucson police rounded up all of them in a few hours, including Dillinger and Freshette.
The next few days were a circus as state officials from the Midwest began to barter for extradition of the prisoners. Each state claimed “their criminal’s” offence was more severe than the others, and that they had supreme jurisdiction. In time, matters were sorted out and various gang members were assigned to different states for trial. Dillinger was to go with Police Captain Matt Leach back to Indiana for the murder of Officer 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 had 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 a quick quote from the famed desperado. At one point, a photographer asked Dillinger to pose with the other officers. He obliged and placed his elbow on the shoulder of Indiana state prosecutor Robert Estill. The picture was printed in many Midwest newspapers and ruined the chances for the aspiring lawyer to become governor several years later.
While awaiting trial, John Dillinger was placed in Crown Point Prison. The facility 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 prison and that someone slipped him a real gun. In any case, Dillinger was able to elude his captors, steal Sheriff Holley’s police car, and make his getaway back to Illinois. However, in the process of doing so, he crossed a state line with the stolen car—a felony—and drew the attention of the FBI.
Once arriving in Chicago, Dillinger quickly put together another gang. In this one, its members were not as carefully chosen as the previous gang, being composed of several misfits and a few psychopaths, including Lester Gillis, a.k.a. “Baby Face Nelson.” Dillinger also teamed up with his friend from the Reformatory, Homer Van Meter. The new gang located to the St. Paul, Minnesota, area. During the month of March, the Dillinger Gang went on a crime spree in four states, robbing a half dozen banks. Some of the robberies went off without a hitch, while others proved more problematic. Dillinger and another gang member were wounded during a bank robbery in Iowa and 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. He assured Wanatka there would be no trouble, but to be sure he monitored the lodge’s owner and his family closely. The other gang members made Wanatka fear for the safety of his wife and family. He wrote a letter to the U.S. Attorney, George Fisher, revealing the identity of his guests. His wife, Nan, convinced Dillinger to let her go to her nephew’s birthday party. She was able to elude their guard, Baby Face Nelson, and mailed the letter. Soon after, the local FBI agent, Melvin Purvis, was contacted.In the early morning of April 23, FBI agents drove to the Little Bohemia lodge by car. About two miles from the resort, they turned off the car lights and trekked on foot into the woods. The agents spotted three men walking out of the lodge and into a car in the parking lot. Thinking they were gang members trying to escape, the agents opened fire on the car. They ended up killing one and wounding the other two. The lodge exploded with gunfire as the real gang members were alerted to the intrusion. Following a carefully planned escape route, all gang members slipped out the back of the lodge and ran in different routes into the woods.
Public Enemy No. 1
As summer approached in 1934, John Dillinger had dropped out of sight. Because of his notoriety, life was becoming increasingly difficult. The FBI labeled him “Public Enemy Number One,” and placed a $10,000 reward on his head. To avoid detection, Dillinger underwent a crude form of plastic surgery in May at the home of Jimmy Probasco, a Chicago bar owner with connections to the mob. He spent the following month at Probasco’s home healing, and going under the alias Jimmy Lawrence. In reality, Lawrence was a petty thief who at one time had dated Dillinger’s former girlfriend Billie Frechette.On June 30, 1934, John Dillinger robbed his last bank. He was accompanied by Van Meter, “Baby Face” Nelson, and one other unidentified individual. Shortly before noon, the gang arrived at the Merchant’s National Bank in South Bend, Indiana. As they entered, Nelson fired his machine gun to get everyone’s attention inside the bank, which in turn got everyone’s attention outside the bank. The next few minutes unfolded like a scene from a Hollywood gangster movie.
Several people came running toward the bank, including police officer Howard Wagner. He hid behind a car and started firing at Van Meter who was standing as lookout in front of the bank. After pushing off a few townspeople who had come to help, he shot back at Wagner, killing him. A shop owner brandishing a pistol hit Nelson as he came out of the bank, but the bulletproof vest he was wearing saved him. He spun around, shooting wildly, and wounded two pedestrians. The shop owner backed off, only to be replaced by a teenager who jumped on Nelson’s back, beating him with his fists. Nelson threw him off through a window and fired a shot, hitting the boy’s hand.
As Dillinger and the others were exiting the bank with hostages, police and citizens fired at them. Most of their bullets hit the hostages. The gun battle raged on as the gang members tried to make it to their getaway car. Van Meter was shot in the head as a gang member dragged him into the car. The bullet, a .22 caliber, entered his forehead near the hairline and burrowed under his scalp, exiting six inches out the back. The total take on the bank robbery netted each gang member only $4,800. It was later revealed that the unprecedented reception by the fair citizens of South Bend was spurred on by their greed for the reward money.
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 the summer of 1934 through his girlfriend, Polly Hamilton, who worked for Sage. Sage was born in a small village in Romania and moved to the United States with her husband in 1909, settling in East Chicago, Indiana. Soon after the birth of her son, her marriage broke up and she supported herself as a prostitute and later as a madam for mobster “Big Bill” Subotich. Later, after Big Bill’s death, she opened up her own brothel.For a time she was under investigation for immigration violation by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and charged as an “alien of low moral character.” At some point during her time in East Chicago, she had become involved with one of the city’s police detectives, Martin Zarkovich, either as a friend or romantic interest. After Sage told Zarkovich of her problems with the INS, he arranged a meeting with FBI agent Melvin Purvis.Purvis and Sage met on July 19, 1934, and he promised to do all he could to stop her deportation proceedings but said he could not guarantee anything. She told Purvis that she, Dillinger, and Hamilton sometimes went to the Marboro Theater to see a movie and they might be going again soon. She agreed to work with Purvis and keep him informed as to when Dillinger might come to her home. Purvis assembled a team of FBI agents and hired guns from police forces from outside the area because he felt the Chicago police had been compromised and couldn’t be trusted.
Final Months and Death
On Sunday, July 22, at 5:00 PM, Anna Sage told FBI agents that she and Dillinger were planning to go to the movies. She mentioned that they were either going to the Biograph or the Marboro theater. Purvis decided to stake out the Biograph himself. Two other agents were posted at the Marboro. Purvis was standing just a few feet away from the theater entrance when the movie let out. As Dillinger passed, he looked Purvis directly in the eyes, but made no indication of recognition of suspicion. Following the pre-arranged signal, Purvis lit a cigar. As Dillinger and the two women walked down the street, 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.Four bullets hit his body, three from the rear and one from the front. Two bullets grazed his face just next to his left eye. A third, the fatal shot, entered the base of the neck and traveled upward hitting the second vertebra, then exiting below his right eye. Gradually, a crowd formed around Dillinger’s lifeless body, and several people dabbed handkerchiefs into the 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.
Dillinger was taken to Alexian Brothers Hospital and officially pronounced dead before being taken to the Cook County Morgue. The crowd had followed the FBI agents and 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, an estimated 15,000 people shuffled past the body of John Dillinger, before it was taken to 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 the Harvey Funeral Home, Dillinger’s sister, Audrey, identified the body. He was given a Christian burial on July 25, 1934, and laid to rest in the family plot at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Biography courtesy of BIO.com