John Dillinger: Public Enemy Number One

A mugshot of John Dillinger.
A mugshot of John Dillinger.

On this date in 1934, gangster John Dillinger was killed in a shootout with law enforcement outside a Chicago theater.

Here are some things you may not have known about “Public Enemy No. 1.”

John Dillinger was born in 1903 in Indianapolis, Indiana. His father was a grocer, who was reportedly quite stern with his children.

As a teenager, Dillinger began getting into trouble with the law. Most of his early offenses were for fighting and theft. His father moved the family to the more rural Mooresville, Indiana, where Dillinger was arrested for auto theft.

To avoid jail, he joined the Navy, serving aboard the USS Utah, before deserting a few months later and being dishonorably discharged.

As a petty criminal and military deserter, Dillinger had problems finding a job to support himself and his new wife. He and a friend robbed a local grocery store of $50. They were recognized by a witness and arrested the next day. Dillinger’s father convinced his son to plead guilty in hopes of receiving a light sentence. However, the judge sentenced him to 10 to 20 years in prison.

On his way to prison, he briefly escaped his guards, but was quickly reaprehended.

Upon being booked into prison at the age of 21 in 1924, he was quoted as saying, “I will be the meanest bastard you ever saw when I get out of here.”

While in prison, he built relationships with other criminals, like bank robbers Pete Pierpont, Charles Makley, Russell Clark and Homer Van Meter. They spent their sentences planning robberies to commit when they were released.

After serving nine and a half years, Dillinger was paroled in 1933.

A little more than a month later, he robbed a bank in New Carlisle, Ohio of about $10,000. Two months later he robbed a bank in Bluffton, Ohio. He was arrested soon afterward.

Six former fellow inmates escaped from prison and, impersonating Indiana State Police claiming to be extraditing him to Indiana, tried to get Dillinger out of the Ohio jail. The sheriff asked for their identification, leading Pierpont to shoot him dead.

Over the course of the next year, Dillinger and his gang robbed 10 more banks.

The precursor to the FBI, organized a nationwide manhunt for Dillinger, earning him the title of Public Enemy No. 1. He and his gang were later involved in a shootout with federal agents in St. Paul, Minnesota, before escaping to his hometown of Mooresville, Indiana.

Two months later in May 1934, Dillinger underwent plastic surgery to change his appearance and remove his fingerprints. He almost died during one of the procedures when the anesthetist administered an overdose of ether.

In July, a madam from a brothel in nearby Gary, Indiana, contacted the FBI offering information about Dillinger in exchange for help preventing her deportation. Dillinger and another prostitute invited the madam to see “Manhattan Melodrama” starring Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy at the Biograph Theater.

A team of federal agents and Chicago police officers surrounded the theater. The theater’s manager, thinking the agents were criminals planning a robbery, called police, who had to be convinced to leave by the feds.

After the movie ended, Dillinger and his two companions, walked out of the theater. Dillinger noticed one of the agents and ran ahead of the two women. He reached for his gun, but couldn’t produce it and ran into an alley that was already filled with agents. Three of the agents fired on Dillinger, who was struck four times. Three of the shots were superficial, but the fourth severed his spinal cord and exited under his right eye. He died on the spot at the age of 31.

Over the course of his one-year spree, Dillinger and his gang were responsible for robbing 24 banks, four police stations, among other targets.

Our question: Who preceded Dillinger as Public Enemy No. 1?

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