Post by Graveyardbride on Jul 22, 2014 10:20:15 GMT -5
July 22, 1934: The Biograph Shooting
On Sunday, July 22, 1934, the temperature in Chicago climbed to a record-breaking 107° F. in some parts of the city. At a time when air-conditioning in private homes was unheard of and citizens did not venture out in public unless fully dressed, those who had the money flocked to movie theaters and other buildings “cooled by refrigeration.” At approximately 10:30 on this sweltering night, a man wearing a fashionable straw hat and white shoes walked out of the comfort of the artificially-cooled Biograph Theater and into oblivion – ending the life and career of John Dillinger.
At the time of the shooting, the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression. Banks were failing across the country and bankers were foreclosing on small farms, forcing folk off land their families had owned for decades. There was little work, even less money and banks were viewed as corrupt institutions. In such uncertain times, John Dillinger – who stole money many were convinced the banks had stolen from the people – was viewed as a Robin Hood-type and often compared to the legendary Jesse James. On one occasion, Dillinger and his men entered a bank and when he noticed a farmer standing near a small stack of bills lying on the counter, asked, “Is that your money or the bank’s?” When the farmer said the money was his, Dillinger said, “Keep it. We’re here for the bank’s money.” Later this incident was wrongly attributed to Clyde Barrow in the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde.
John Herbert Dillinger was born June 22, 1903, in Indianapolis, the son of a grocery store owner. His mother died when he was 3-years-old and his sister Audrey, who was 16, assumed the responsibility of rearing her little brother. In 1923, at the age of 20, Johnnie Dillinger enlisted in the Navy, but deserted five months later and on April 12, 1924, married 16-year-old Beryl Hovius. His criminal career began in 1924 when he and Ed Singleton, an older accomplice, robbed a grocer in Mooresville, Indiana. Dillinger was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison, while Singleton, the mastermind of the robbery-gone-awry, served just two years. Embittered by what he considered an injustice, Dillinger soon befriended many seasoned bank robbers, including Harry Pierpont, Homer Van Meter and John “Red” Hamilton. These career outlaws taught the younger man the finer points of robbing banks and the group agreed when they got out of “the joint,” they would resume their bank-robbing exploits.
When Dillinger was paroled May 22, 1933, after serving almost nine years, he immediately set about committing a series of robberies and devising a plan to break his friends out of Indiana State Prison. By bribing the right people, he was able to make arrangements to have pistols smuggled into the facility by concealing them in the large spools of thread used in the sewing shop. While Pierpont and the other inmates were planning their escape, on September 22, 1933, Dillinger was arrested in Dayton, Ohio, and returned to Allen County, where he had robbed the Citizens’ National Bank in Bluffton. Because he was an affable sort, Dillinger quickly became friendly with Sheriff Jesse Sarber and, by all accounts, the two had a great deal of respect for each other, despite the fact one was a law enforcement officer and the other an outlaw. Three days later, on September 26, Pierpont, Hamilton, Charles Mackley, Walter Dietrich, Russell Clark and five others escaped and made plans to break Dillinger out of jail. On October 12, 1933, Pierpont and Clark appeared at the jail, freed Dillinger, but in the process, Pierpont shot Sarber. Dillinger bent down, held the kindly man’s head in his hands and looked up at Pierpont, “Did you have to do this?” he admonished.
Although the other men were older and more experienced than Dillinger, they decided to call themselves the “Dillinger Gang” because “Dillinger” sounded something like “Derringer,” the name of a small pocket pistol. (Actually, the name “Dillinger” is German with a hard “g” but the name was, and is, universally mispronounced.) The Dillinger Gang continued robbing banks and by mid-December, the Chicago police had formed a “Dillinger Squad” comprised of 40 men led by Capt. John Stege. Things were heating up in the Midwest, so the outlaws decided to take a break and headed south to Daytona Beach, Florida.
On January 15, 1934, which was a Monday, several men robbed the National Bank in East Chicago, Indiana, and Officer William O’Malley was shot and killed. Not only was the robbery attributed to the Dillinger Gang – which wasn’t unusual – Dillinger himself was accused of shooting Officer O’Malley. However, on the same day, Dillinger was observed at a department store in Jacksonville, Florida, and the following day, he purchased gas in Bristol, Tennessee, where he passed out dollar bills to a group of children. (At a time when men were working for 25¢ a day, a dollar was a significant amount.)
With two murder raps hanging over their heads, the outlaws decided Arizona was safer than Chicago and made their way across the country to Tucson where they rented a house at 927 N. 2nd Avenue. While waiting for the newly-waxed floors to dry, the men checked into the Congress Hotel. Unfortunately, on Sunday, January 21, 1934, a fire broke out and the outlaws were forced to exit their upper-level rooms via a ladder, leaving their luggage behind. During the confusion, several gang members were recognized and taken into custody. Dillinger was arrested around 6:30 p.m. at the North 2nd Avenue residence. Pierpont and Clark were extradited to Ohio for the murder of Sheriff Sarber and Dillinger to Indiana for the killing of Officer O’Malley.
Dillinger was booked into the “escape-proof” Lake County Jail in Crown Point, Indiana, January 30, 1934, where reporters and officials alike were captivated by his charisma and sense of humor. The outlaw even posed for a photograph (above) with prosecutor Robert Estill in which he placed his arm on Estill’s shoulder. Sheriff Lillian Holley (above left) posted extra guards to ensure Dillinger would not escape her jail. From all accounts, Johnnie was a model, and very popular, prisoner, until Saturday, March 3, 1934, when, using a wooden gun – smuggled to him by his attorney Louis Piquett – which he blackened using boot-black, he and a Negro prisoner escaped in Sheriff Holley’s new Ford automobile. His only mistake was driving the stolen vehicle across a state line, which constituted a federal offense and allowed the FBI to enter the case.
Following his escape, Dillinger picked up girlfriend Evelyn “Billie” Frechette and headed for St. Paul, Minnesota, where he rendezvoused with Hamilton and the two joined Baby Face Nelson’s gang, composed of Homer Van Meter, Tommy Carroll and Eddie Green. However, Dillinger did not approve of Nelson’s “style,” particularly after he [Nelson] wantonly shot and badly wounded Hale Keith, a traffic officer, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. A week later, on March 14, the gang robbed the First National Bank in Mason City, Iowa, during which both Dillinger and Hamilton were shot in their right shoulders. Nelson again shot someone, wounding a deaf man in the leg and again, Dillinger expressed his disapproval. Nelson’s hair-trigger temper and lack of control worried the unruffled Dillinger.
Not long after they moved in, the landlord of the apartment Dillinger rented in St. Paul became suspicious and on March 30, 1934, reported his suspicions to a federal agent. The building was placed under surveillance by Special Agents Rufus Coulter and Rusty Nalls. The next day, Nalls remained with his car while Coulter and a local St. Paul detective went to the apartment. Dillinger escaped through a back entrance before federal agents closed in on the building. Gang member Eddie Green was shot in the head during the raid and died a week later.
Dillinger and Billie drove to Mooresville, Indiana, arriving at the Dillinger farmhouse April 5. The following Sunday, the family held a picnic for kinfolk and friends under the trees near the house and even though local newspaper reporters and many others knew Dillinger was at his father’s home – and some actually attended the gathering – no one advised the authorities. The following day, Dillinger and Billie returned to Chicago and shortly thereafter, she was arrested.
By this time, dozens of government agents were tasked with tracking down and capturing, or killing, John Dillinger, and following up on a tip, they tracked him to a lodge resort in rural Wisconsin. In what became known as the Little Bohemia Shootout, FBI agents, led by Melvin Purvis, surrounded the building and when three men came out, the agents opened fire. Two Civilian Conservation Corp employees and a local man were shot and one of the CCC workers, Eugene Boisneau, died. The shooting of the three innocent bystanders alerted gang members and they all escaped. Following the Little Bohemia fiasco, humorist Will Rogers wrote:
“Well, they had Dillinger surrounded and was all ready to shoot him when he came out, but another bunch of folks came out ahead, so they just shot them instead. Dillinger is going to accidentally get with some innocent bystanders some time, then he will get shot.”
Following his narrow escape, Dillinger allegedly returned to Chicago where he laid low in a safe house.
The newspapers were full of Dillinger’s exploits and J. Edgar Hoover cringed every time he read an editorial romanticizing the bank robber. Following the disaster at Little Bohemia, people were joking that the federal agents were more dangerous than Dillinger and congress was seriously considering dismantling Hoover’s elite Bureau of Investigation (the federal law enforcement agency didn’t become the FBI until 1935). He had to get Dillinger and did not care how it was accomplished. So when Chicago brothel-keeper Anna Sage claimed the man calling himself James “Jimmy” Lawrence, who was dating her roommate Polly Hamilton, was really John Dillinger, the investigative agency listened. On the night of July 22, 1934, Sage, who was supposed to be wearing red, accompanied Polly and Jimmy Lawrence to the Biograph Theater to see Manhattan Melodrama starring Clark Gable.
When the movie ended around 10:30 p.m., Mrs. Sage, dressed in an orange bouclé outfit that appeared blood-red in the glare of the neon lights, walked on Dillinger’s right. Agent Melvin Purvis stood in the doorway of the theater and when the trio passed, Purvis lit a cigar to signal other men taking part in the ambush and they began to shoot. Bystanders later recalled hearing five shots, three of which struck Dillinger, knocking him face down in the alley. The lady in red continued walking as law enforcement officers swarmed around the motionless body of the man she had sat beside a few minutes earlier. The corpse was transported to nearby Alexian Brothers Hospital and John Dillinger was pronounced dead at 10:50 p.m.
Following the shooting, people rushed forward, dipping handkerchiefs and other items in the pool of blood – women even knelt and dipped their skirts in the blood of the murdered man. The news that John Dillinger was dead spread like wildfire up and down the streets of Chicago, newspaper reporters hurried to their respective offices to write what would likely be the biggest story of their lives and Purvis placed a telephone call to J. Edgar Hoover.
So ended the short life of John Dillinger. Or did it? To this day, there are many unanswered questions regarding the shooting and its aftermath. For example, when Purvis turned the body over, he exclaimed (to himself), “That doesn’t look like Dillinger!” Unfortunately, he was overheard by several bystanders, including a reporter. Realizing he had spoken out loud, he quickly added, “Neat bit of plastic surgery, that.” Later, he learned from the coroner the man killed had brown eyes and Purvis knew Dillinger’s eyes were bluish-grey. Additionally, the man on the slab was larger than John Dillinger, had darker hair and a rheumatic heart condition. The bad heart was of particular concern because Dillinger was known for his athletic prowess, having played baseball in prison and there were reports he actually leapt over counters and teller’s cages during bank robberies – not an easy feat for a man in the best of health and impossible for one with a serious heart condition. Then there were the fingerprints: they didn’t match those on file for Dillinger.
Things got worse. When Dillinger’s father arrived at the morgue, he did not recognize his son, remarking, “He is changed considerably.” Back in Mooresville, after the undertaker prepared the corpse for viewing, people began whispering that the man in the coffin wasn’t Johnnie Dillinger. Finally, the mortician asked Audrey Hancock (Dillinger’s sister) to identify a scar on the man’s leg and she said, “I’m satisfied. Bury him.” But was she satisfied the man was, or wasn’t, her brother? And where was the scar from the gunshot wound to the shoulder Dillinger sustained during the Iowa robbery? On July 25, a funeral motorcade made its way from Mooresville to Indianapolis and as John Dillinger was laid to rest in the family plot in Crown Hill Cemetery, the skies opened and much-needed rain soaked the mourners.
Almost immediately, there was talk of “digging up” and stealing Dillinger’s corpse and a few days later, Dillinger’s father arrived at the cemetery and paid to have slabs of concrete placed atop his son’s coffin.
The tombstone the family ordered is engraved “John H. Dillinger, Jr.” even though John Dillinger was not a “junior” – his father was John Wilson Dillinger. Johnnie was known to have a wry sense of humor and many believe the decision to add “Jr.” to his name was his way of letting people know he had “gotten away” again.
If the man killed turned out to be someone other than Dillinger, the jobs of Purvis, Hoover and the entire FBI would on the line and Hoover would be a laughing stock. Did Hoover, Purvis and others involved cover up the fact the wrong man was killed? More than 30 years later, it was discovered that “Dillinger’s gun,” which was displayed for many years at FBI Headquarters just outside Hoover’s office, hadn’t even been manufactured at the time the man was killed outside the Biograph. How much other “evidence” was manufactured? In fact, the man shot on the night of July 22, 1934, wasn’t wearing a coat and there was nowhere for him to have concealed a weapon. Furthermore, it is incredible that the most wanted man in America would walk around unarmed. Did John Dillinger, escape artist extraordinaire, escape death?
There are those who say that following the Biograph shooting, Dillinger left the Midwest for California or the Pacific Northwest. He supposedly returned to Indiana for visits because people in and around Mooresville and Indianapolis claimed to have seen him years after his “death.” When John Toland was researching The Dillinger Days, his biography of the famous outlaw, he spoke with several Mooresville residents who claimed to have seen Dillinger as recently as the 1960s. One man Toland questioned casually remarked: “Johnnie drove through town the other day. He waved to me.”
In July 1959, the Indianapolis Star received a letter and photo (mailed from California) that reads:
On the 22nd of July, the 20th anniversary of the slaying of John Dillinger at the Biograph Theater in Chicago; please put my picture in your paper, with a write-up if you wish.
I have always had a keen sense of impending danger, therefore, I knew they were setting a trap for me.
James Lawrence, an employee of the Chicago Board of Trade said “To prove I was superstitious, he would take my place and say he was Dillinger.” I warned him it meant his death.
Although the body was identified as mine, the face and fingerprints did not match.
To prove the facts, am sending a photo of John Dillinger as he appears today.
John H. Dillinger
Four years later, the same man sent a letter and photo to Emil Wanatka at Little Bohemia Lodge, where Wanatka and his son maintained a “Dillinger Museum.” This letter, too, was mailed in California and the heading reads: “Hollywood, Calif.” and it is dated July 30, 1963.
Am sending a letter and photo of Dillinger as he looks today for you to place on exhibit in your museum. The man shot was James Lawrence, who told the woman in red, Anna Campana, that he was Dillinger.
J.E. Hoover stated, “There is every indication that the man shot is Dillinger – except the proof. It is customary to send in to Headquarters the fingerprints of every man shot by the F.B.I., but no fingerprints of Dillinger have come in, in spite of a regulation burial.”
The fingerprints were taken of the man shot, but they did not match those of Dillinger, therefore, they were not sent in, because if they were, the F.B.I. would then have to admit the wrong man was killed.
Dillinger’s Sister Audrey said she could positively identify her brother by a scar on his leg. After viewing the body, she said, “There is no question in my mind. Bury him.” But what she was really looking for was a birthmark, which was not there. But naturally by saying this, she protected both Dillinger and the F.B.I.
The man shot had black hair and brown eyes, and weighted 170 lbs., to [sic] large for Dillinger.
John H. Dillinger
The handwriting in these two letters was compared to that of a 1929 letter Dillinger wrote to his stepmother and other family members while he was incarcerated at Pendleton Reformatory. Some handwriting experts asserted the handwriting was that of the same person, others disagreed.
While investigating the Dillinger story, Jay Robert Nash interviewed Russell Clark, the last of the Dillinger Gang, who was dying of cancer at the time. Clark suggested Dillinger was living in Puente, California. Nash subsequently traveled to Puente and met a man who claimed to be Dillinger in a darkened room. Although he had no way of being certain, Nash believes the man he spoke with was Dillinger.
In 1984, “The Dillinger Print,” an episode of the TV series Simon & Simon, was based on the premise that the wrong man had been killed outside the Biograph and Dillinger was alive and living in California.
Dillinger’s Ghost. So far as is known, the old Dillinger farm wasn’t haunted until some time in the early 1980s when people began hearing phantom voices and occasionally, in the spring and summer, those driving past saw what appeared to be a group of people picnicking under the trees. Later, those witnessing this gathering would recall the women all seemed to be wearing skirts much longer than those of the 1980s. Drivers also reported meeting or passing vintage automobiles from the 1920s and 30s on the road near the farm. Some believe the real John Dillinger died in the 1980s and following his death, the phantom picnic started. In the spring of 1934, while Dillinger was on the run, he returned home for a visit and on Sunday, April 8, the Dillinger family and friends threw a picnic at which those attending enjoyed fried chicken, biscuits and gravy – Dillinger’s favorites. Those who believe in such things say the phantom picnic is a spectral re-enactment of the1934 event – the last time Dillinger was with his family before the Biograph shooting and his departure for the west coast.
Sources: The Middleton Press, July 22, 2013; "Film wrong! Dillinger not killed by FBI! Fact: Hoover coverup!" by Roger Ebert, April 3, 2009; The Dillinger Days by John Toland; Dillinger: Dead or Alive by Jay Robert Nash; American Experience; and The Vendetta: Special Agent Melvin Purvis, John Dillinger, and Hoover's FBI in the Age of Gangsters by Alston Purvis.