“It was observed that Dillinger looked around in different directions and seemed to realize that he was being closed in upon, at which time he made a motion with his hand indicating that he was reaching for his gun. It was then observed that Special Agent in Charge M.H. Purvis and Special Agents Rollins, Winstead and Hurt had drawn their guns and were approaching right up to Dillinger. At that time the writer drew his gun.
“Dillinger, then realizing evidently that he was trapped and still trying to get his gun, seemed to take two quick steps toward the alley, and as soon as he did so, one or some of the Agents making the immediate approach on him fired three times and as a result of those shots Dillinger pitched forward on his face into the alley, at approximately four or five feet from the writer. Not knowing whether or not Dillinger would shoot after he hit the ground, the writer, along with the other Agents, covered him with guns, but it was observed he hit he ground he did not move again.”
– A.E. Lockerman, Special Agent. From the F.B.I. File on John Dillinger, July 22, 1934.
This was how the F.B.I. file on John Dillinger recorded the bank robber’s final violent moments which occurred on today’s date, July 22 in 1934. Dillinger had been tracked to the movies that hot night in Chicago, and when he came out with two ladies on his arms he found a posse of FBI agents waiting for him.
John Dillinger – A Life-long Outlaw
John Dillinger was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1903. A juvenile delinquent, he tried his hand at honest living; he was was in the U.S. navy for a time, and was even married, but such a settled existence was not a life he could live. He was arrested in 1924 after a botched mugging. He pleaded guilty, hoping for clemency, but was sentenced to 10 to 20 years at Pendleton Reformatory. While in prison, he made several failed escapes. He wound up throwing in with a band of experienced criminals; bank robbers who took him under their wing and taught him the tricks of their trade. This group was lead by Harry Pierpont.
Dillinger Cultivates a “Robin Hood” Image
In the years that followed, Dillinger cut a swath across the United States, putting together a succession of different gangs, and robbing banks, police arsenals and finding himself jailed only to escape, often right under the noses of his captors. In the course of this crime spree Dillinger managed to cultivate a kind of “Robin Hood” image, by being careful not to shoot indiscriminately, and thus limiting the number of civilian casualties. He also took money exclusively from banks which were often viewed as the villains in Depression-era America. He showed a weakness for dark-haired exotic women, hooking up with Billie Frichette (above), a hot-blooded woman of French and Native-American descent.
Dillinger Cooly and Calmly Escapes From Crown Point
But whatever his weakness for exotic women, Dillinger seems to have been remarkably cool-headed where his own safety was concerned. Time and again when his gang members were rushing to get away from robberies or jails, Dillinger would move coolly and as if he had all the time in the world. When in January of 1934 he was incarcerated in the jail at Crown Point, Indiana, he posed for pictures (above) with the Prosecuter, Robert Estill (above, center) with his arm around on the man’s shoulder, as if they were old friends instead of the criminal with the man who was seeking to send him to the chair. And then a few short weeks later Dillinger managed to escape that same jail using a wooden facsimile of a gun which he claimed to have carved from a washboard slat and painted black with shoe polish, but which in all likelihood had been smuggled in to him. He managed then to coolly and methodically lock up a number of hostages including the prison’s Warden, Lou Baker before hijacking the Ford automobile that belonged to the Sheriff, Lillian Holley (above, left), a rare woman sheriff, and calmly having it driven out of town and across state lines to Illinois.
The F.B.I. Closes In On Dillinger
But this last bit of bravado began Dillinger’s undoing as it brought the new Bureau of Investigation, BOI, the early forerunner of the Federal Bureau of Investigation FBI into the investigation. J.Edgar Hoover, the Director of the Bureau was attempting to get congressional funding, as well as extended powers into the hunt for this man whom Hoover branded as “Public Enemy #1”. Hoover had in fact not been anxious to join the hunt for Dillinger, which he considered to be a kind of quagmire. But the fame or rather the infamy of Dillinger was providing just the impetus that Hoover needed to get his FBI the funding and recognition that he wanted for his new Bureau. Ultimately, Dillinger’s love, Frichette was arrested. In April of 1934 a shootout at the “Little Bohemia” Lodge in Wisconsin resulted in Dillinger’s gang being scattered but the cost of several FBI and civilian casualties resulted in a ton of bad publicity for the FBI and for the Special Agent in Charge, Melvin Purvis (above). Dillinger dropped out of sight entirely. But the FBI task force continued to follow him, and lead by Purvis tracked him to Chicago wherein he was holed up with a new girlfriend Polly
Hamilton (above) and Anna Sage, a brothel madam from Rumania who was facing possible deportation.
“The Lady in Red” (or was it Orange??)
And this was what led to Dillinger’s final night. Sage (below)contacted Melvin Purvis, and offered to serve up Dillinger in return for the $25,000.00 reward and a promise not to deport her back to Rumania. Purvis agreed to give her a share of the reward and to do what he could about her deportation. The scene was thus set. Dillinger would attend the movie that night with Sage and Polly Hamilton, a new girlfriend who bore a striking resemblance to Dillinger’s beloved Billie Frichette. Sage would wear an orange skirt so the FBI would be able to see which one was Dillinger. The FBI men (who had kept the Chicago police out of the loop on this, wanting no slip-ups) were to be signaled by Purvis lighting his cigar that it was in fact Dillinger. The theater was the Biograph Theater which was that night showing “Manhattan Melodrama” starring Clark Gable and William Powell. It was the middle of a terrible heat wave, and the “Biograph” was air-conditioned, so there was a big crowd that night. Dillinger exited with the two ladies and looked directly at Purvis as he passed him. But he did not recognize his chief pursuer. And he subsequently walked into the ambush described by Agent Lockerman.
Dillinger was killed instantly. Anna Sage received $5,000.00 and a boat ticket back to Rumania. She became known as the “woman in red”, because in the light of the Biograph’s marquis, her orange skirt looked red. Prosecuter Estill who had his picture taken in such a buddy-buddy pose with Dillinger saw his political career ruined because of that photo feaux paux. Sheriff Holley in whose car Dillinger made his getaway stopped speaking of the incident a few weeks later, and never spoke of it again for the rest of her life. She lived until 1994, passing away at the age of 103. And John Dillinger was interred at the family plot in Chicago. His grave stone has had to be replaced several times after being picked apart by souvenir hunters.
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“Public Enemies” by Bryan Burrough, Penguin Books, New York, 2004.
“John Dillinger” by Dary Matera, Carrol & Graf Publishers, New York, 2004.