"John Herbert Dillinger is America's classic bank robber," wrote Jay Robert Nash in his excellent book, Bloodletters and Bad Men: A Narrative Encyclopedia of American Criminals From the Pilgrims to the Present.
"No other criminal ever approached his exploits and reputation," Nash wrote. "Within the space of twelve months Dillinger robbed more banks and stole more money than Jesse James did in the sixteen years he was at large. It took the combined forces of five states and the FBI to pressure his criminal operations to a halt."
According to the FBI, Dillinger and his gang killed ten men and wounded seven other. They robbed banks, police arsenals and staged three jail breaks. They killed a sheriff during one jail break and wounded two guards in another. They also killed a police officer during a robbery and killed a detective who stopped Dillinger's car.
With the release of Public Enemies, a Michael Mann film starring Johnny Depp as Dillinger and Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent who hunted him, I felt a look back at the notorious criminal was in order.
Mann's film is based on the book, Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and Birth of the FBI, by Bryan Burrough. Burrough's true crime book covered the years 1933 and 1934, the years of the Depression-era's bank robbers' crime spree and the birth of the FBI. The book chronicle's the crooks and the lawmen who hunted them. Mann, however, chose to concentrate his film only on Dillinger, his girlfriend Evelyn "Billie" Frechette and Purvis.
Dillinger was the most famous, or infamous, of the Depression-era criminals. He was born in 1903 in Indianapolis. His mother died in 1907 and he was raised by a 15-year old sister. Unlike other Depression-era criminals, Dillinger was not poor. He was born into a middle-class family.
After graduating high school, Dillinger was uprooted by his grocer father, a stern disciplinarian, who purchased a farm and moved the family to Indiana. Dillinger refused to work the farm and found a job in Indianapolis.
In 1923 Dillinger stole a car and then joined the Navy to avoid arrest. He later deserted and returned to Indiana. Hanging around poolrooms in 1924 he and another crook planned the robbery of a grocer. The grocer was bludgeoned and Dillinger pulled out a pistol, but the grocer knocked it away as it fired. The robbers then ran off. Dillinger, 21 at the time, ended up in Indiana State Reformatory with a severe 10-to-20-year sentence.
He was later transferred to Michigan City Penitentiary where he met the men who would shape his life, Homer Van Meter and Harry Pierpont. Pierpont, who worked with the legendary "Baron," Herman K. Mann, taught Dillinger the Baron's technique for robbing banks. The education was offered in return for Dillinger's promise to break Pierpont and his gang out of prison after he was released.
Dillinger was paroled in 1933. With his gang Dillinger began robbing small stores, businesses and banks. He was later arrested and jailed. While Dillinger was in jail, Harry Pierpont and his crew broke out of prison. Pierpont and the gang then broke Dillinger out of jail, killing the sheriff in front of his wife during the break-out.
Dillinger, a natural leader, led the gang as they robbed more than 30 banks in only a few months. Dillinger and members of his gang were arrested in Arizona and he was transferred to a jail in Indiana. Legend has it that Dillinger broke out of jail with a gun carved from a block of wood, but in fact he simply bribed a guard.
The escape made headlines and Dillinger's reputation. He became the most wanted man in the country and the FBI, under agents Samuel P. Cowley and Melvin Purvis, hunted him and his gang across several states.
As the Dillinger gang was hiding out at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin, Purvis and the FBI moved in. There was a full-scale shootout, but Dillinger and five others managed to escape through a back window before the FBI could surround the lodge.
Dillinger later had plastic surgery on his face to alter his looks and he moved in with a young woman named Polly Hamilton in Chicago. Hamilton had a roommate named Anna Sage. Sage, who was facing deportation to Romania, discovered who Hamilton's friend was. In exchange for dropping the deportation proceedings, she offered to assist the FBI in capturing Dillinger.
Purvis accepted the deal and Sage told him that Dillinger planed to take her and Hamilton to the movies at the Biograph or the Marbro Theater the following day.
Although legend identifies Sage as "The Lady in Red," she actually wore an orange dress in order to be recognized by the law enforcement officers.
On Sunday, July 22, 1934, Purvis saw Sage enter the Biograph with a man and another woman. The film showing was Manhattan Melodrama starring Clark Gable.
Purvis and his fellow agents waited until the film ended and the trio came back outside. Purvis lit a cigar to let the other agents know it was Dillinger. According to the FBI, Dillinger reached for his gun and the agents opened fire. Five agents fired five shots and four bullets hit Dillinger. He collapsed and died on the street.
Burrough wrote that people who met Dillinger remember him for years afterward - "the courtesy, the easy wink, the whiff of manly joi de vivre."
Burrough also wrote that Dillinger craved respect. he wanted to be the type outlaw people admired. Many people today still regard Dillinger as a modern-day Robin Hood.
Others, me included, see Dillinger as a murderer and armed robber who terrorized countless innocent people during his short-lived crime spree.
Note: The above column was published at GreatHistory.com in 2009.