John Dillinger – Public Enemy #1
Of all the gangsters of the Prohibition era, John Dillinger (1903-1934) was Chicago’s favorite. Known for only robbing the banks—but never the innocent witnesses inside—Dillinger was admired for attacking the very establishments people blamed for the Great Depression. I also enjoy picturing him as Johnny Depp ever since Public Enemies came out last year (while filming in 2007, they transformed a portion of Lincoln Avenue into how it looked in the 1920s and ’30s for several weeks).
Dillinger was born in a middle-class neighborhood in Indianapolis, but after briefly moving to a farm and then joining and subsequently deserting the Navy, Dillinger’s life of crime commenced. Together with the local pool shark he attempted robbing an Indianapolis grocery store. After their arrest, his accomplice plead innocent and received a sentence of two years in jail, while Dillinger plead guilty and served over eight years in prison for assault and battery with intent to rob and conspiracy to commit a felony.
Soon after his release on parole in May 1933, Dillinger robbed a bank in Ohio and found himself back in prison. In October of the same year, three of Dillinger’s friends posed as Indiana State Prison employees, shot the Ohio jail’s sheriff, and freed Dillinger; the four then went on a bank-robbing spree. In November, Dillinger met Evelyn “Billie” Frechette, who lived at 901 W. Addison St. (just two blocks west of Wrigley Field), and the two fell in love.
However, after another arrest, Dillinger was sent to an “escape proof” Indiana jail. In March of 1934 he threatened the guards with a wooden gun he whittled himself, locked them into a cell, and made a getaway. Now that’s badass. He drove the sheriff’s car to Chicago, but by doing so he involved the FBI in his case (it’s a federal offense to cross state lines in a stolen vehicle).
Dillinger found Frechette, and the pair fled Chicago to St. Paul, Minnesota with fellow Chicago gangster Baby Face Nelson and several other criminals. The group robbed several more banks, and Dillinger’s fame grew to epic proportions.
On the brink of catching the thief, the FBI received a tip off of suspicious activity, but when agents waited to rush Dillinger’s hideout the door opened and a machine gun opened fire from within. Dillinger and Frechette escaped during the commotion.
Dillinger laid low at his father’s home in Indiana while Frechette went to visit a friend in Chicago. The FBI arrested her outside the Austin-State Tavern at 416 N. State St., and she was later convicted of conspiracy to hide a fugitive, fined $1,000 (roughly $16,000 today) and was sentenced to two years in prison.
Meanwhile, Dillinger robbed a police station and continued to elude the FBI until the agency received another tip about suspicious persons at a summer lodge in northern Wisconsin. Preparing to swarm, the agents surrounded the lodge, but were met with machine gun fire from the roof. Once again Dillinger escaped.
Returning to Chicago, he holed up in a friend’s house at the corner of Pulaski and Altgeld (in the Logan Square community), which now houses an auto repair shop. At this time the FBI set up headquarters for the Dillinger case in Chicago.
In July, Anna Sage, the madam of a brothel in Gary, Indiana, offered information on Dillinger in the hopes of avoiding deportation to her native Romania. Sage divulged that she, her friend, and Dillinger would see a movie the following night at either the Biograph (located at 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. in Lincoln Park), or the Marbro (4124 Madison St. in Garfield Park), but was not sure which theater.
The trio ended up at the Biograph to see Clark Gable’s gangster flick “Manhattan Melodrama.” As they left, Melvin Purvis, the head of the Chicago FBI office, lit a cigar as a signal to other agents. Three bullets hit Dillinger, and he fell dead onto the pavement in front of the theater. People were rumored to dip their handkerchiefs in his blood outside the Biograph, and his gravestone has been replaced several times after people took pieces as souvenirs. Even after his death, with the story of his three jailbreaks and numerous bank robberies, Dillinger quickly became a fascinating legend not only to Chicagoans, but to the entire nation.