Our Gangster: John Dillinger

In 1934, he died in a hail of bullets. Why are Hoosiers still so proud to call a bank robber one of their own?

Add a comment

Editor’s Note, March 27, 2013: The following article originally appeared in the July 2004 issue of IM. In 2009, actor Johnny Depp played Dillinger in the movie Public Enemies, about the Indiana desperado’s notorious Depression-era crime spree. Earlier this month, the Indianapolis International Airport announced plans to display Dillinger’s 1933 Essex Terraplane.

The death cult began on July 22, 1934, when FBI agents gunned down John Dillinger outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater. As word spread that the most notorious bank robber of the Depression era was dead, people flocked to the scene and used handkerchiefs to sop up his blood. Thousands filed into the basement of the Chicago morgue to view his corpse, which was propped up for display. Law-enforcement officers posed proudly with his remains. Photos of his lifeless face, torso, and blanketed body ran front-page on newspapers across the country.

Back in Indiana, Dillinger’s family announced a false funeral time to mislead the throngs. By the time they saw their fallen relative, much of his facial hair had been pulled away by plaster casts that souvenir-seekers had made of his face; now, those original death masks, one of which J. Edgar Hoover is said to have kept in his office for years, are the holy grails of Dillingerdom. After Dillinger’s casket was lowered into the ground at Crown Hill Cemetery, the grave was filled with concrete to deter the morbidly curious; over the years, his headstone has been replaced several times because visitors chip off pieces to take home as keepsakes. The gravesite is one of only a dozen—including the resting places of a president, a senator, and three vice presidents—highlighted on Crown Hill’s tour maps.

America’s early fascination with Dillinger, beginning with his whirlwind crime spree of 1933 and ’34, was a product of the times. But as the Great Depression gave way to World War II and the baby boom, Dillinger remained an icon. In 1936 Humphrey Bogart got one of his first big breaks playing a gangster based on Dillinger in the movie Petrified Forest; Bogie is said to have watched Dillinger newsreels to prepare for the part and probably owes much of his early success to the flamboyant criminal. Since his death, Dillinger has inspired scores of movies, documentaries and books, and at least two museums.

In Indiana, Dillinger’s legacy is even more intense. If he’s not the prodigal son of the Hoosier family, he’s certainly the most beloved black sheep, a gunman who became a folk hero who became a legend, whose exploits are exaggerated and improvised with each telling. Ask around, and folks will tell you that their dad, grandpa, or uncle drank a beer with Dillinger, saw him leave a hideout, or stood by while he held up a bank. For good or ill, Indiana still identifies with John Dillinger. And decades after his death, we refuse to let him die.

Born in 1903, John Herbert Dillinger grew up in a middle-class neighborhood on what is now the near-eastside of Indianapolis. His father, John Sr., was a grocer. His mother, Mollie, died when he was 3. Notwithstanding the early loss of his mother, Dillinger had, by most accounts, a normal turn-of-the-century boyhood, attending public schools, tussling with other boys in the neighborhood, and swimming in Fall Creek. It’s possible that the worst thing he did as a child was steal coal from railcars and sell it to neighbors.

When Dillinger was 9, his father remarried; when he was 17, the family moved to a farm in Mooresville, which would forever after be known as Dillinger’s hometown. While he’s said to have gotten on well with his stepmother and half-siblings, in young adulthood Dillinger left the farm often, seeking out the relatively greater excitement of nearby Martinsville, the county seat, where he was a star on the baseball team and a regular in the pool halls. After a brief stint in the Navy, he married at 21.

Rather than settle down, however, Dillinger fell in with a local ne’er-do-well and ex-con, Ed Singleton. It was Singleton who helped him plan his first robbery. On the evening of September 6, 1924, as a Mooresville grocer named Frank Morgan carried the day’s proceeds to the town bank, Dillinger attacked him with a heavy iron bolt wrapped in cloth, then turned a gun on him. But Dillinger, reportedly drunk, botched the holdup. Morgan grabbed the gun, Dillinger fled, the deputy sheriff tracked him down two days later, and Dillinger’s father, known as an honest man and devout churchgoer, convinced his son to confess to the crime. The prosecutor assured young Dillinger he didn’t need a lawyer because he’d admitted his guilt and the judge would let him off easy.

Instead, the judge, regarded as the toughest in the county, made an example of Dillinger by handing down an unusually long sentence of 10 to 20 years. Singleton, the more-experienced accomplice, wisely sought legal counsel and received only two. Dillinger spent the next nine years of his life stewing in prison, first in the Indiana State Reformatory in Pendleton and later in the tougher Michigan City State Prison.

Believing that he’d been duped by the prosecutor and received an unfair sentence, Dillinger, while incarcerated, demonstrated the same healthy disregard for authority that would eventually make him a household name. Prison records show that in the first two years of his sentence he was disciplined for “hiding out,” “gambling,” “disorderly conduct,” “fighting,” “destroying property,” “attempt escape,” and “crookedness.” In a letter to the warden, his sister, Audrey Hancock, explained that “John at heart is not a bad boy, and is doing time someone else ought to be doing. That is why he has been so dissatisfied and as we all know, has not been as obedient as he might have been.” While he was in jail, Dillinger’s wife divorced him, and he met the seasoned criminals who would later form the nucleus of his gang. His stepmother died just an hour before he returned home.

Dillinger would never forgive the legal system for giving him a bad rap and, in his mind, taking the best years of his life. “I know I have been a big disappointment to you,” he later wrote to his father, “but I guess I did to [sic] much time for where I went in a carefree boy I came out bitter toward everything in general. Of course Dad most of the blame lies with me for my environment was of the best but if I had gotten off more leniently when I made my first mistake this would never have happened.”

Within a month of returning to Mooresville in May 1933, Dillinger hooked up with a group of small-time hoods in Indianapolis and started committing robberies. Over time, he and an evolving cadre of gang members graduated from knocking over groceries and pharmacies to hitting banks and police armories, pulling off a string of brazen robberies around Indiana and the upper Midwest. He helped organize a massive jailbreak, freeing his old prison buddies from Michigan City to join his gang. They, in turn, would later free Dillinger from a small-town jail in Lima, Ohio—where he had landed after authorities picked him up while he visited a girlfriend in Dayton—and kill the local sheriff in the process. The gang’s proficiency and moxie propelled its nominal leader to the top of the FBI’s Most Wanted list. By 1934, Dillinger was Public Enemy Number One and the biggest news story in America.

Of course, not everyone viewed Dillinger as an enemy. Hoosiers, mired in the depths of the Great Depression, faced massive unemployment, frequent bank closures, widespread property foreclosure, and government corruption. In that climate of hatred for financial institutions and mistrust of government, Dillinger, who made his living by sticking it to the establishment—raiding depositories and defying the law with impunity—was a largely sympathetic character.

“Nowadays, you’d be pissed because he was stealing your money,” says Randy Pinkston, a Fishers resident whose father was an early Dillinger expert. “But in the Depression you couldn’t get your money out of the bank, so everybody hated the banks more than they hated him.” To people beaten down by financial desperation, Dillinger was a heroic figure, and many a man on the street was happy to call the Hoosier bandit one of his own, despite the fact that most of the money he stole belonged, even if indirectly, to the people of Indiana. “Hurray for you, John,” read a letter published in one Indiana paper. “May you never be caught!”

Even if you didn’t approve of Dillinger’s livelihood, it was hard to resist his flair and the almost infectious zeal he brought to his chosen profession. A star of newspapers and newsreels, he took pride in being a bank robber, wearing tailored wool suits, a cocked fedora, and a jaunty mustache. He favored fast, flashy cars and pretty, streetwise women. Bystanders and bank tellers often found themselves liking the guy because he was generally polite, charming, and funny. His trademark maneuver of vaulting over bank guardrails would have made Douglas Fairbanks proud. When he found it necessary to inconvenience people during a getaway—say, by kidnapping them and using them as human shields—he papered them with looted cash. On the rare occasions when he was in custody of the law, he was chummy with jailers and cooperative with reporters.

“People would always talk about how polite John was, even in very negative encounters,” says Pinkston. “There was never any cursing, throwing people around, or unnecessary violence. He was a businessman. He knew he was there to rob a bank and not make it anything more than a bank robbery.”

Even when the nationwide manhunt for Dillinger was at its hottest, he found time to visit his family in Mooresville, which the media would then report to an admiring public several days later. “As odd as it sounds, he held true to some pretty decent family values,” says Pinkston. As Dillinger ran wild, the public read about his exploits from the perspective of his concerned kinfolk back on the farm, who always maintained that their Johnnie was a good boy turned bad by an unfair system. Theirs was a dramatic family saga played out on a national stage.

Though he’d dropped out of high school, Dillinger was smart enough to have outwitted state and local authorities for months before allegedly killing a police officer in the course of an East Chicago robbery, then heading cross-country to hide out in Arizona, where Tucson police apprehended him in January 1934. The nation’s newspapers had painted Dillinger’s crime spree as a failing of Indiana law enforcement, and Governor Paul McNutt, who’d signed Dillinger’s parole papers only a few months earlier, must have breathed a sigh of relief when the outlaw, mugging for the cameras, stepped onto an airport tarmac in Chicago en route to his arraignment on homicide charges in Crown Point.

Just three weeks after Dillinger’s court appearance, however, McNutt awoke to the news that the bandit had made a daring escape from the Lake County Jail using a fake wooden pistol. A storm of letters soon flooded McNutt’s office. All over the country, angry correspondents clipped and sent in articles about the jailbreak; the tenor of their letters was that Indiana and, by implication, its governor were responsible for unleashing Dillinger’s lawless fury on the American public. “In many states outside of Indiana, Hoosier blood is boiling,” wrote one Charles C. Pettijohn, a lawyer in New York. “I hope that you clean house out there in no uncertain terms … The eyes of the nation are focused on you.”

For the remainder of his term, McNutt kept every abusive letter and embarrassing article in a special Dillinger file. He seems to have realized that despite all the challenges he’d faced, his administration—indeed, the state of Indiana during his tenure—had been defined by the exploits of a single cocky gangster in a well-cut suit.

Meanwhile, back on the loose in early 1934 after escaping from Crown Point, Dillinger was busy building his legend. While authorities scoured several states to find him, he joined five gang members and their molls in a Wisconsin resort called Little Bohemia to “cool off.” When the feds received a tip that the Dillinger crew was holed up there, they quietly approached the lakeside compound and, mistakenly thinking the gang was wise to them and trying to escape, shot up a car full of innocent resort patrons. When Dillinger and the gang heard the noise, they came out blazing. What ensued was, though brief, one of the most famous shootouts in U.S. history, on par with the St. Valentine’s Day massacre and the showdown at OK Corral. All of Dillinger’s men escaped; one federal agent and an innocent bystander were killed.

Though the ambush in Chicago cut short Dillinger’s crime spree and meteoric rise to fame, it sealed his reputation as one of the great bank robbers of all time. And his untimely, violent death made him an idol.

After trying to alter his fingerprints with acid, Dillinger went under the knife for crude plastic surgery to change his more recognizable facial features—the dimpled chin, the moles, the scar on his lip. He began the sultry summer of 1934 on the lam in Chicago, going to movies with his girlfriend, Polly Hamilton, and generally keeping a low profile. It was the movies, however—and Hamilton’s friend, Anna Sage—that would prove Dillinger’s undoing. Sage had tipped off the feds that on the evening of July 22 she, Hamilton, and Dillinger would be attending Manhattan Melodrama, a gangster flick, at the Biograph Theater. The agents were waiting for Dillinger as he strolled out of the cinema, and when he came into view they unleashed their bullets. Dillinger collapsed in a dark alley, dead at the age of 31. Because of the way the lights colored Sage’s orange skirt, it would be said forever after that Dillinger was betrayed by “The Woman in Red.”

Though the ambush in Chicago cut short Dillinger’s 14-month crime spree and meteoric rise to fame, it sealed his reputation as one of the great bank robbers of all time. He died with at least a dozen confirmed heists, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, to his credit. With brazen attacks on police stations (Dillinger and company hit the cops to build their arsenal), jailbreaks, and various holdups and kidnappings also on his resume, Dillinger not only outpaced his many larger-than-life contemporaries—Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, the Ma Barker Gang—he joined the ranks of all-time desperados like Billy the Kid and Jesse James.

His untimely, violent death made him an idol. Falling in a blaze of glory saved him from the deliberate, grinding wheels of the criminal-justice system, the airing of his crimes in open court, and the images of a defeated convict confined like a caged animal. Like the legendary outlaws of the Old West, Dillinger lived hard, died young, and never burdened his admirers with the indignities of old age. “He was like a rock star,” says Lori Hyde, a Dillinger enthusiast in northeast Indiana. “He got airplay and newspaper coverage just like any rock star would now. That’s why his name has carried on for so long.”

Dillinger’s significance in American mythology is matched by his role in shaping history. Thanks largely to Prohibition and corruption in major cities such as Kansas City, Chicago, and St. Paul, Minnesota, the Midwest was the center of organized crime in the United States in the 1920s and ’30s. Often using these cities as their base of operations, armed bandits crisscrossed the countryside robbing and kidnapping with reckless abandon. Dillinger rode the crest of this crime wave and, thanks to a little panache, became its most visible face. The inability of local and state agencies, particularly in Indiana, to rein him in shone a harsh light on how outdated and outgunned law-enforcement was and encouraged passage of federal anti-crime legislation in the mid-1930s.

“The fledgling Indiana State Police used fear of Dillinger to justify spending when state government was poor,” says Pinkston. “The FBI followed the same trail. They wanted to increase their powers, and if they could create a larger-than-life person to justify increased authority and funding, they did it. Today, the police have radios, helicopters, and computers. The genesis of all that can be credited to Depression-era bad men. Every agency used that fear to build what they have now.” The state police still maintain a small Dillinger exhibit in their museum, a nod to their worthiest of historic adversaries.

But the truest mark of Dillinger’s lasting hold on the public imagination are the elaborate speculation and conspiracy theories that have grown up around him. One persistent rumor is that the body on display in Chicago wasn’t actually Dillinger’s. The story likely began when people questioned the appearance of Dillinger’s face, which he’d had surgically altered before dying. Jay Nash, a fringe Dillinger historian (or quasi-historian, as is often the case in Dillingerdom), wrote in his book The Dillinger Dossier that the bank robber’s death “was wholly accepted by the public, the press and, ostensibly, the FBI,” never mind that “little or nothing was ever said about the glaring out-and-out errors of the case.” To Nash’s thinking, the FBI, desperate to improve its image by convincing the public it had apprehended Dillinger, killed a patsy, ignored claims that he didn’t look like Dillinger, and reached an agreement with the real bank robber that he should disappear. In 1959, a man claiming to be an elderly Dillinger sent a letter and picture of himself to the Indianapolis Star; his story turned out to be a hoax.

Most historians dismiss Nash’s paranoid musings, noting that Dillinger’s family positively identified the body. But other tales about the gunman persist, the most popular of which involves his supposedly enormous penis. One morgue photo, a profile shot that shows a mysterious protuberance raising the sheet draped over his body, may have occasioned this part of Dillinger lore. While some experts have explained away the picture as showing nothing more extraordinary than an arm that rigor mortis had positioned awkwardly (and an arm does seem more plausible than a penis, given the height of the protuberance), it’s impossible to say exactly what caused it. What’s certain is that wild speculation was off and running—that the penis was removed, for example, placed in a jar, and squirreled away in the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian has denied the claim, and Dillinger’s autopsy report says nothing of severed genitals.

Hyde spends a lot of free time researching Dillinger minutiae, and says she disbelieves the penis legend because a friend of hers spoke with a woman who had visited Dillinger’s body in the Chicago morgue, peeked under the sheet, and not noticed anything unusual about the deceased’s private parts. In Dillingerdom, hearsay twice removed often passes for definitive proof.

In fact, a devoted subculture of Dillinger enthusiasts ranging from historians to nutcases still debates these theories as well as every other detail of Dillinger’s life and times. In the John Dillinger Died For You Society, described by one Web site as an “esoteric cult,” members stay abreast of the latest in Dillinger research and carry “credit cards” bearing a circle that says “insert pistol barrel here.” They recite a famous Dillinger saying, “Never trust a woman or an automatic pistol,” and keep a JDDFY songbook, which includes “The Ballad of John Dillinger”: “In an Indiana farm house / John Dillinger was raised. / His family, friends, and neighbors / This fine young man did praise.”

Hyde, who recently joined the JDDFY Society, lives in Corunna, Indiana, just a few miles from a police station Dillinger’s gang raided in 1933. When Hyde was a girl, her father pointed out Dillinger hangouts in the area. She’s been a diehard aficionado ever since and now maintains a Web site called the John Dillinger Scrapbook. One of her most prized possessions is a copy of the gangster’s death mask, which she keeps swaddled in bubble wrap. Another is a bag of shell casings from a Thompson submachine gun. The story goes that when Dillinger escaped from Crown Point in 1934, he stole the gun, which was on loan from the Porter County Sheriff’s Department. The feds seized the gun as evidence, stored it for years, and returned it to Porter County decades later. To mark the occasion, the sheriff’s department organized a small festival and invited Hyde to fire a few rounds from the gun.

“Even though he was a criminal, he was still a part of history,” Hyde says. “I and others like me are trying to keep his name alive.” She says she frequently fields e-mails from people who surf to her Web site; the most common query is from people wondering if Dillinger, known to drive over large swaths of the Midwest in brief periods of time, might have been their father.

In most of the country, debate over Dillinger rarely strays from the benign realm of historical interest. In Indiana, however, where many relatives of the bank robber, his gang, and their victims still reside, arguments over Dillinger’s legacy hit closer to home.

On January 15, 1934, Dillinger’s gang hit the First National Bank and Trust Co. in East Chicago—the robbery that preceded his flight to Arizona. In the ensuing skirmish, an East Chicago police officer, William O’Malley, was shot and killed. Eyewitnesses said the gunman was Dillinger. Almost a month later, after he was apprehended in Tucson and returned to Lake County to face murder charges, photographers captured an infamous image of a confident-looking Dillinger leaning chummily on the shoulder of a smiling Robert Estill, the prosecutor.

After his arraignment in Crown Point, Dillinger was committed to the Lake County Jail—from which he made his legendary escape with the carved wooden pistol. In the course of that escape, he also stole Sheriff Lillian Holley’s new V-8 Ford. When word got out that Dillinger was on the loose again, Crown Point became the laughingstock of the country. The media quickly dubbed it “Clown Point,” and for years thereafter letters from anywhere in the United States addressed to “Wooden Gun, Indiana” could be expected to arrive safely. Holley, who was serving as sheriff only to finish out her husband’s term following his death, bore the brunt of the onslaught. “Blonde Sheriff Bakes Pies as Killer Flees,” read a headline from one New York newspaper. Estill, the prosecutor photographed cozying up to Dillinger before the escape, saw his political ambitions fall to ruin.

Crown Point has never fully recovered from the ignominy of that incident. Partly out of embarrassment and partly out of respect for Holley, who died in 1994 at the age of 102, community leaders have shied away from publicizing the town’s Dillinger connection. The county jail from which Dillinger escaped sat virtually abandoned for the better part of a century, as though officials preferred to see it crumble along with the sore memories it housed. Though preservation efforts are now under way, the director of the project, John Heidbreder, discusses Dillinger only grudgingly. “We’re not a John Dillinger Society, and frankly we’re not concerned with Dillinger,” Heidbreder says.

In the mid-1990s, Speros Batistatos, then head of the Lake County Convention and Visitors Bureau, wanted to use Dillinger to generate tourism. When Randy Pinkston’s father, Joe, one of the earliest and most passionate Dillinger historians, died in 1996, he left behind a museum full of Dillinger artifacts—including a headstone that once graced Dillinger’s grave at Crown Hill—in Nashville, Indiana. Batistatos wanted to get the artifacts—the Lake County CVB eventually purchased them for more than $400,000—and co-promote a new museum with the old Lake County jail, then in the infant stages of preservation. But organizers of the jail project wanted no part of it. “There are events in history that some people would rather forget or not talk about,” says Batistatos. “They attempt to revise history and edit away things they deem unpleasant.”

Phil Struebig, who bought the Crown Point Criminal Courts Building, which sits next to the jail and was the site of Dillinger’s arraignment, tells the same story. When he began renovation of the building nearly 15 years ago, he found that the town’s “old guard” was less than happy about his plans to advertise the landmark’s Dillinger history. “They freaked out,” he says. “They think Dillinger is bad for Crown Point.” Undeterred, Struebig and his wife, Cynthia, opened a ’30s-themed bar they called The Great Escape.

Among others in Lake County, distaste for Dillinger runs deeper than the embarrassment his escape caused. Shari Jazyk, great-granddaughter of William O’Malley, the cop Dillinger allegedly shot, grew up there, in a family that regarded Dillinger as persona non grata. “A lot of people aren’t aware just how brutal and sadistic this man was,” says Jazyk. “It’s a shame that people like that are put on a pedestal and made celebrities.” When the Lake County Convention and Visitors Bureau opened its Dillinger museum, it agreed, at the insistence of the O’Malley family, to install a memorial to the fallen officer at the entrance. “We wanted people to walk in and know right away what kind of man Dillinger was,” says Jazyk. “He was a killer.”

On the other hand, many Dillinger devotees refuse to accept that he killed anyone. “Dillinger was blamed for every robbery committed while he was loose,” says Hyde. “But I don’t believe he was there. And even if he was, O’Malley kept bouncing bullets off his bulletproof vest, so he fired back. If he did do it, it wasn’t intentional. He wasn’t a cold-blooded murderer and didn’t find enjoyment in hurting people.” She cites reports that Dillinger was vacationing in Florida when the East Chicago robbery took place.

Ultimately, the answer to that most-loaded Dillinger question—was he a murderer?—will probably remain in the same nebulous netherworld as the answers to who shot Kennedy and what’s in Area 51. It’s true that there are differing accounts of Dillinger’s whereabouts when O’Malley’s killing occurred, and that Dillinger was never convicted of the murder. Yet it’s also true that he never gave authorities the chance to try him on the charge. For his part, Pinkston doesn’t understand defending a career criminal by drawing ethical distinctions. “I don’t relate to the idea that he only robbed banks with guns but didn’t kill people,” he says. “I guess it’s moral ground you can take to feel better. But he was in the jail in Lima, Ohio when the boys broke in to rescue him and killed the sheriff in the process. He knew that, if cornered, he would shoot his way out until he escaped. Whether or not he chose to murder people on a daily basis, I think he always knew the option was there. If it was kill or be killed, he wasn’t going to come out on the losing end.”

Far from Crown Point, in Dillinger’s former stomping grounds of Martinsville, the prevailing sentiment seems to be that the notorious gangster was a good old boy who got a bum deal. Tina Chafey co-owns a gift, tea, and antiques shop in the former Morgan County Sheriff’s Residence and Jail, where Dillinger was held before being sent upstate (the cell he occupied is now full of hummingbird collectibles). “What they did to him here was just wrong,” she says, referring to Dillinger’s inordinately long jail sentence. “I think he was just a nice guy and a party animal—that’s all he was guilty of. Oh, and he stole.” Her brother-in-law, who helped remodel the old sheriff s residence, adds with a wink, “I heard he was hung like a horse.”

A few blocks away, at another antiques shop, patrons hanging around the counter laugh proudly about Dillinger’s ability to elude the FBI. “He’s a Superman to some people,” says one of the men. Another man notes that he grew up listening to old-timers spin yarns about running around with Dillinger. “If I could get away with robbing a bank, I probably would, too.”

“As far as people around here are concerned, he got into some trouble and was punished unmercifully,” says Larry Incollingo, a former Bloomington Herald-Times reporter who covered south-central Indiana for years. “People believe that had he not gotten a raw deal in the beginning, Dillinger would have been a good person. Every once in a while I run into somebody older and they’ll say, ‘You know, those agents murdered him. They executed him without a trial.’ People feel very strongly about that.”

Dillinger’s staunchest defender is his great-nephew, Jeff Scalf, who grew up in a family that held tight to the image of their relation as beloved brother and uncle. Before she died, Scalf’s grandmother, Dillinger’s half-sister, told him, “If you can stop them from painting John as a killer, do it.” He took her request to heart and, in Pinkston’s words, “has made it his life’s goal to be a pain in the ass to everybody with anything to do with Dillinger.”

“My grandmother always said that John never killed anyone, that he wasn’t a vicious person,” says Scalf, who keeps several framed pictures of his great-uncle on a shelf in his office. “He just got mixed up in the wrong crowd, got a bad break, then went down the wrong path. The only reason I grant interviews is to make sure people know that he wasn’t a killer.”

Scalf recently instigated a legal dispute with the Lake County Convention and Visitors Bureau, partly because its memorial to Officer O’Malley asserts as fact that Dillinger was the shooter. He’s also gone after a restaurant called Dillinger’s in tiny Hudson, Indiana, claiming that his great-uncle was being portrayed as a murderer there, too. The restaurant is located in a former bank that was robbed by unknown assailants in 1933, and though there’s no evidence to suggest that Dillinger was among them—he was, in fact, in prison when the robbery occurred—local legend was enough to inspire the owners to display Dillinger news clippings, the original bank safe involved in the robbery, a mannequin dressed like Dillinger, and a knockoff of the death mask.

Crime Scenes: Indiana Exploits

Statewide, the gangster was nearly as well-traveled as Johnny Appleseed.

“There were a lot of bank robberies attributed to John, says Scalf. “One of my favorite stories from Grandma was when John was in Mooresville, sitting in a chair and reading the sports page. A report came over the radio—‘The Dillinger gang has struck again.’ John lowered the paper and listened, then looked at her, shook his head, and said, ‘See, Doris, there’s another robbery I’ll get blamed for but won’t see a nickel from.’”

Scalf says it was the widespread and indiscriminate appropriation of the Dillinger name that motivated him, on the advice of his attorneys, to reassert the family’s right of control. “I was told that if we didn’t protect the family name, it could be involved in stuff that we would not want—possibly even pornographic, because of the myths and legends about John’s sexual organ. The last thing anyone in our family wants to see is a John Dillinger sex toy.”

The Hudson restaurant’s willingness to capitalize on a dubious Dillinger connection illustrates another interesting phenomenon in the ongoing saga: Places with lesser claims to Dillinger’s legacy seem to assert those claims the hardest—and vice versa. Mooresville, for instance, has long downplayed its association with the bank robber. Several years ago, a local McDonald’s owner faced a minor public furor when he hung pictures of Dillinger in the restaurant. And in 2002, Scalf attempted to establish a Dillinger Days festival in Mooresville to boost tourism. But when he appeared before the town council to make his proposal, one of the more outspoken critics, councilman Tobey Dolen, called Dillinger a “criminal,” “murderer,” and “bum.” Contacted for this story, Dolen said he had “no comment whatsoever regarding John Dillinger” and hung up the phone.

Town boosters in Greencastle, on the other hand, point proudly to a former bank on the courthouse square, the site of a Dillinger robbery; last year, on the 70th anniversary of his visit, the town named its Main Street festival in his honor. T-shirts bearing his likeness were printed, with the slogan “Greencastle A Great Getaway.” “On Oct. 23, 1933 John Dillinger robbed the Central National Bank in Greencastle, Ind. and got away with $75,000,” read the shirts—“his biggest haul!”

In most of Indiana, Crown Point and Mooresville notwithstanding, having a legitimate claim to Dillinger’s legacy is a sort of status symbol. Perhaps this is because for historically significant sites, Indiana can’t rival the Atlantic states, and for celebrities it pales in comparison to the West Coast. In his day, Dillinger, a historical figure and celebrity both, put Indiana on the map. Now, “Dillinger robbed our bank” is the Hoosier equivalent of “George Washington slept here.” It doesn’t seem to matter that Dillinger usually stayed in town only long enough to clean it out.

Or perhaps Dillinger lingers on because, in legend at least, he embodies both the wholesome Midwestern values on which many Hoosiers pride themselves—politeness, a reverence for family, a stubborn independence—and a rules-be-damned lifestyle we only dream of. Clever and charismatic, he refused to be kept down. His historical persona is at once considerate and dangerous, bound by morality but free of the law. And it is these contradictions that make his legacy dynamic. “You have people who think he was a great man and people who think he was a killer,” says Incollingo. If they ever come to agreement, we’ll know that our most celebrated criminal has finally fallen into the dustbin of history.

Photo of Dillinger gravestone by Tony Valainis; photo of Dillinger with guns courtesy Indiana Historical Society; photos of Dillinger seated and at morgue courtesy John Dillinger Died For You Society; mugshot and newspaper
clipping courtesy Indiana State Archives.

This article appeared in the July 2004 issue.

Related Content