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Dillinger getaway car displayed at Indiana State Museum

Bold headlines shouted the news: John Dillinger had escaped from jail. Carving a fake gun from a block of wood and staining it with black shoe polish, Dillinger had broken out of the so-called “escape proof jail” in Crown Point, Indiana, on March 3, 1934.

John Dillinger getaway car to be exhibited at Indiana State Museum
Courtesy photos
John Dillinger getaway car to be exhibited at Indiana State Museum
Jackie Sheckler Finch

Adding insult to injury, Dillinger made his getaway in the sheriff’s new V-8 Ford. The FBI’s first “Public Enemy” was on the loose again. But he wouldn’t be free for long. Before the year had ended, the 31-year-old Hoosier gangster would be dead.

Visitors to the Indiana State Museum can now see a part of the Indiana crime legend’s infamous life. Dillinger’s 1933 Essex Terraplane is now on display at the Indianapolis museum. The getaway car that Dillinger used in bank robberies will remain at the museum until March 2015, the museum announced Thursday, May 22.

“Dillinger’s car is a living piece of an American crime story,” said Aja May, Indiana State Museum Vice President of Marketing. “While Dillinger wasn’t a bootlegger, it ties in nicely with our upcoming fall exhibition American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.”

The fall exhibit will take visitors back to another era involving real-life crime legends like Al Capone and Carry Nation, May said. “The car’s crime connection will indirectly help us prime our audience for the fall show.”

Dillinger purchased the Essex in March 1934 from the Potthoff Brothers Motor Company in St. Paul, Minn., and used it until April 7, 1934, when he and his brother Hubert crashed the car in a farm field. On March 31, 1934, at Lincoln Court Apartments in St. Paul, Dillinger and his girlfriend Evelyn Frechette escaped a shootout with the police. Dillinger took a bullet in his left leg and two slugs can still be seen from the front cowl panel of the Essex.


Born June 22, 1903, in the Oak Hill section of Indianapolis, John Herbert Dillinger, Jr. grew up in a middle-class home. His father was a grocer who tried to steer his son on the straight and narrow path, believing in “spare the rod and spoil the child.”

Dillinger’s mother died shortly before his fourth birthday. When his father remarried seven years later, Dillinger is said to have resented his stepmother but later grew to love her. Frequently in trouble with the law for fighting and petty theft, Dillinger quit school at age 16 and went to work in an Indianapolis plywood mill.

Fearing that the big city was corrupting his son, Dillinger’s father moved the family to a farm in the tiny town of Mooresville. Dillinger didn’t take the move kindly. Small town life was boring to him. Besides getting in trouble, his main interests were hunting and baseball and girls. He excelled at all three.

Hoping to escape his problems, Dillinger enlisted in the Navy, was shipped off to the Great Lakes Training Center, and completed basic training on Oct. 4, 1923. Assigned to the battleship Utah as a fireman, Dillinger soon grew tired of shoveling coal into the ship’s boilers and went AWOL.

Eventually dishonorably discharged from the Navy, Dillinger returned home where he met and married Beryl Hovious on April 12, 1924. Unable to hold a job, Dillinger and an older man named Ed Singleton hatched a plan to rob a local grocer.

The plan went awry and the two men were arrested the next day. Getting an attorney, Singleton pleaded not guilty and was sentenced to two to fifteen years. Following the advice of his father, Dillinger confessed to the crime and was sentenced to ten to twenty years in prison for his crimes.

Both father and son were shocked. Enraged at the system and at his father, the 18 year old headed off to prison, vowing “I'll be the meanest bastard you ever saw when I get out.”

In prison, Dillinger had plenty of time and hardened cohorts to learn how to be a more successful criminal. Later transferred to Indiana State Penitentiary, Dillinger was now with the worst of the worst. “I went in a carefree boy,” he wrote his father. “I came out bitter toward everything.”

Paroled on May 10, 1933 – mostly at the strong behest of his father and family - after serving eight and a half years, Dillinger left prison an angry young man. His wife had divorced him while he was incarcerated but Dillinger had made new friends – Harry “Pete” Pierpoint, Charles Makley, Homer Van Meter, and Russell Clark – who would later become his gang members.


With the nation deep in the Great Depression, Dillinger turned to his former trade. Almost immediately he robbed a bank in Bluffton, Ohio, and was arrested on September 22.

Frisking him, county jailers found what looked like the plan for a prison break. Dillinger denied any such plan but four days later, eight of his friends escaped from the Indiana State Prison using the same plan. Heading to the Lima jail, three of the escapees freed Dillinger by claiming they were transferring him to the very same jail they had just managed to escape.

From then on, it was a crime spree – robbing banks and police arsenals. For some, Dillinger became a hero of sorts. Many people had lost their savings when banks failed during the Great Depression and they cheered on the likeable robber. On December 12, a Dillinger gang member shot and killed a police detective in Chicago.

A month later, the Dillinger gang killed a police officer during a robbery of the First National Band of East Chicago in Indiana. Hiding out in Florida and later in Tucson, Arizona, gang members were caught when a fire broke out in their hotel room.

Registered under assumed names Clark and Makley were identified by firemen and arrested, as were Dillinger and Pierpoint. Newsreel footage showed Dillinger arriving in Crown Point to await trial and execution. When the heavily guarded Dillinger landed at Midway Airport in Chicago after his arrest on January 30, 1934, several thousand people turned out to get a glimpse of him. “This is the end of Dillinger,”

Lake County Prosecutor Robert Estill announced, not knowing that the city’s law enforcement would soon become a national joke. Armed deputies stood atop the jail and other deputies surrounded the car when the handcuffed Dillinger was escorted into the jail. Sheriff Lillian Holley – who had taken over the job just months before when her sheriff husband was killed – swore that Dillinger would not escape from her jail.

When officials allowed journalists access to their prisoner, Dillinger denied being in East Chicago or killing a police officer. Spread in newspapers across America, a photograph showed prosecutor Estill and Sheriff Holley smiling proudly and posing with their prisoner. For a shockingly chummy photo, Dillinger rests his elbow on the shoulder of the prosecutor and Estill has his arm around the alleged murderer.


With the gang safely behind bars, the legal system began its slow paperwork grind to send Dillinger to the electric chair. Trail was set for March 12. But Dillinger didn’t wait that long.

Early on the morning of Saturday, March 3, 1934 - five weeks after his celebrity arrival at the Crown Point jail - Dillinger made his move. Sticking the wooden gun in a guard’s back, Dillinger ordered him to open the door to his cell. Locking up more guards and several trustees, Dillinger armed himself and invited another inmate, Herbert Youngblood to go with him.

Youngblood had little to lose. The black man was already in for murder and facing execution. He would die in a gun battle several months later. All in all, the two men locked up more than two dozen prison personnel. With Deputy Sheriff Ernest Blunk as hostage, the two escapees helped themselves to weapons and walked across the street to the city garage where they took garage mechanic, Edward Saager, as hostage and climbed in the fastest car available – Sheriff Holley’s personal Ford.

Once the escapees were safely on the road, they let Blunk and Saager out, giving them money for fare back home. That night, the sheriff’s car was found abandoned in Chicago. The embarrassed sheriff said the breakout was “too ridiculous for words’ and vowed she would lead the search for Dillinger and personally shoot him herself.

Although Dillinger later told his father that he had used a safety razor blade to slowly carve the fake gun out of the top brace off a washboard, reports still linger that the convict was helped to escape by corrupt police officers and maybe even by his own attorney. When Dillinger was at large, sightings began almost immediately. And it was obvious that even the escape artist couldn’t be in all those places at the same time. Outraged at the escape, the FBI organized a nationwide manhunt.

However, Dillinger made one last visit home on April 8 for a family reunion. Some said it was to tell his father and family goodbye. Family photos recall that time, including a famous one of a snappily dressed Dillinger smiling in the family’s farm yard, his machine gun in one hand and his wooden pistol in the other.

By April 23, 1934, the Dillinger Gang was hiding out in Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin. Tipped off to their whereabouts by the lodge owners, the place was surrounded by federal agents who opened fire, killing one Civilian Conservation Corps worker and injuring two more innocents. Dillinger and his men leaped from a second story window into a deep snow bank behind the building and made their getaway.


Frustrated at the Little Bohemia fiasco, FBI leader J. Edgar Hoover and agent Melvin Purvis were red faced at their failure. Dillinger seemed to have dropped out of sight. Then the Feds got a huge tip. Afraid of being deported to her native Romania and hoping to pocket reward money, a Chicago prostitute named Anna Sage said she could lead the men to Dillinger.

During a heat wave in Chicago, Dillinger, his girlfriend Polly Hamilton and Polly Sage were going to the Biograph Theatre to cool off on the night of July 22. Determined not to kill any more innocent bystanders, the Feds set up several codes to be sure it was Dillinger.

To alert the FBI, Anna Sage would wear an orange skirt that would look red under the marquee lights. Purvis would wait outside the theater, lighting a cigar to signal that Dillinger was n his way. The movie that Sunday was a crime thriller, Manhattan Melodrama, starring Clark Gable. The movie ended with the hero walking a last mile to the electric chair. Moments later, wearing a straw hat and gold-rimmed eyeglasses, Dillinger walked a few yards to an ambush death in a nearby alley.

Leaving the theatre with his girlfriend on one arm and Anna Sage on the other at about 10:30 p.m., Dillinger suddenly sensed that something was terribly wrong. Seeing an alley as the nearest escape route, Dillinger turned the girls loose, crouched, and started to run, reaching for the .380 automatic pistols in his right pocket.

He never made it. Brought down in a hail of bullets from almost 30 Feds, Dillinger crumbled to the sidewalk.

Pandemonium erupted. Two passing by women had been injured by G-Men gunfire. There were reports of men dipping their handkerchiefs and women the hems of their skirts into the pools of Dillinger’s blood as souvenirs of that fateful day. In his pocket, the one of the nation’s most successful bank robbers had $7.70.

The public was so enthralled with Dillinger that his body was put on display in the Cook County morgue where 15,000 people filed through for a grisly glimpse.

In Mooresville, Dillinger’s father told the press, “I suspect that Johnnie would rather it had been that way. He never told me so, but they had laid so many things on him that I guess he would rather have been shot down than arrested again.”

Dillinger’s casket was lowed into the ground at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis during a summer rainstorm three days after his death. He was buried next to his mother.

About 5,000 people attended the funeral, some ravaging the site after the burial, stealing flowers and even scoops of mud. Fearing that vandals might dig up his son’s body, Dillinger’s father later had his son’s coffin reburied under a thick layer of concrete and scrap iron. Dillinger’s tombstone has had to be replaced several times because of vandalism by people chipping off pieces as keepsakes.

For more details on the exhibits at the Indiana State Museum: Call (317) 232 - 1637, or visit the museum website

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