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John Dillinger

America's first Public Enemy One

John Dillinger

John Herbert Dillinger was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on June 22, 1903, the son of a grocery store owner. His mother died when he was three; his father remarried six years later, but John never liked his stepmother. Frequently in trouble, John quit school at the age of 16 and tried to hold a regular job, but was never successful. Believing that city life was having a bad influence on his son, John's father sold his grocery store and moved the family to a farm in Mooresville, Indiana, in 1920. The move didn't work, however, and John continued his troublesome ways. In 1923, after being arrested for auto theft, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, but went AWOL after just five months. On April 12, 1924, he married sixteen-year-old, Beryl Hovious.

After another brief stint at trying to hold a regular job, Dillinger teamed up with local pool shark Ed Singleton and decided to try making "easy money." On September 4, 1924, the two men tried to rob a Mooresville grocer. During the robbery attempt Dillinger struck the grocer with an iron bolt wrapped in cloth; fortunately, the man was not seriously injured. The robbery itself failed, and both men were subsequently caught. Singleton was subsequently tried, convicted, and sentenced to 2 to 14 years. At the advice of his father, Dillinger chose to confess to the crime, but ended up being sentenced to 10 to 20 years in the Indiana State Reformatory. The seemingly harsh sentence, especially compared to that of Singleton, did not set well with Dillinger.

On June 20, 1929, Dillinger's wife divorced him on the grounds that he was a convicted felon. A deeply embittered Dillinger subsequently requested a transfer to the Indiana State Prison, where he would be housed with hardened criminals. The request was granted, and he was transferred on July 15.

Released on parole on May 22, 1933, Dillinger almost immediately returned to his criminal ways. On June 10, he robbed a bank in New Carlisle, Ohio. On September 22, after committing a string of robberies, he was arrested in Dayton, Ohio, and sent to the Allen County Jail in Lima.

On September 26, 1933, ten men escaped from the Indiana State Prison using guns smuggled in by Dillinger accomplices. Most of those men, including Harry Pierpont, Charles Makley, John Hamilton, Walter Dietrich, and Russell Clark, subsequently became members of Dillinger's gang. On October 12, Pierpont, Makley and Clark broke Dillinger out of the supposedly "escape-proof" Lima jail, killing Sheriff Jesse Sarber in the process.

Over the next several months the Dillinger gang successfully robbed numerous banks throughout the Midwest. It also managed to break into police armories and steal weapons along the way. On December 16, 1933, the Chicago Police Department formed the "Dillinger Squad," comprising 40 men led by Captain John Stege.

On January 15, 1934, while robbing the First National Bank in East Chicago, Indiana, Dillinger was confronted by Officer William O'Malley, who shot him several times. Dillinger, who was wearing a bulletproof vest, emerged from the gunfight uninjured, but O'Malley was shot and killed.

On January 25, 1934, the Dillinger gang was arrested while vacationing in Tucson, Arizona. Pierpont, Makley and Clark were extradited to Ohio for the murder of Sheriff Sarber, and Dillinger was extradited to Indiana for the murder of Officer O'Malley. Upon arriving at the Lake County Jail in Crown Point, Indiana, Dillinger made headlines across the country when he posed for pictures with Prosecutor Robert Estill in front of reporters. Those pictures would subsequently ruin Estill's public career.

On March 3, 1934, Dillinger managed to escape from the Lake County Jail, steal Sheriff Lillian Holley's patrol car, and drive to Chicago. Unfortunately for him, the federal government had recently made it a federal crime to transport stolen property across state lines, and Dillinger suddenly found himself being pursued by agents of the Federal Division of Investigation (now the Federal Bureau of Investigation).

In April, 1934, the Dillinger gang decided to take a vacation at a little resort near Little Bohemia, Wisconsin. While there, the owners of the resort managed to get word to federal authorities that Dillinger and his men were staying there. Melvin Purvis, then head of the Chicago DOI office, quickly assembled a team of agents and planned an assault on the resort. Unfortunately for Purvis and his men, by the time they arrived at the resort on April 22, Dillinger and his men were ready for them. By the time the shooting was over Dillinger and his men were gone, and one federal agent had been killed and another wounded. But, to make matters even worse, federal agents had also managed to kill an innocent tavern customer and wound two others, creating a public affairs nightmare for the agency.

On June 22, 1934, Dillinger was informally named America's first Public Enemy Number One in a speech given by U.S. Attorney General Homer S. Cummings. Dillinger, meanwhile, celebrated his 31st birthday by going out with his new girlfriend, Polly Hamilton. On June 23, the Justice Department offered a $10,000 reward for Dillinger's arrest, and another $5,000 for information leading to his arrest.

FBI Wanted Poster

On July 4, 1934, Dillinger moved into the Chicago apartment of Anna Sage, a Romanian immigrant who owned several area brothels. On July 19, facing deportation because of her profession, Sage agreed to help Melvin Purvis apprehend Dillinger. She told him that Dillinger and his girlfriend would be attending a movie on July 22, and that she would let him know exactly which theater he would be attending and at what time. Dillinger was confronted by federal agents soon after emerging from the Biograph Theatre, and was killed in a brief hail of gunfire. On July 25, he was buried in the Dillinger Family plot at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.

the body of John Dillinger

contemporary photograph of the Biograph Theatre


American Experience: Public Enemy #1
Federal Bureau of Investigation

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This page was last updated on October 12, 2018.