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Today in history: The death of Public Enemy No. 1

John Dillinger wanted poster
John Dillinger wanted poster
Photo by Federal Bureau of Investigations

On July 22, 1934, one of America’s most notorious bank robbers was gunned down outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater. John Dillinger had earned the title of Public Enemy No. 1 from FBI head J. Edgar Hoover for crimes committed for the year leading up to his death.

Introduction to a life of crime

John Dillinger, born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1903, was reported to have had a troublesome childhood. He dropped out of school by age 16, and when he was 20 years old, he stole a car to allegedly impress a girl.

He was able to escape arrest, but knew he had to get away. So he joined the Navy the following day. But Dillinger did not like military life. After only five months, he jumped ship and headed back to Indiana, where he met Edgar Singleton.

In 1924, Dillinger and Singleton planned to rob a grocer—Dillinger would do the dirty work while Singleton waited in the getaway car. But Singleton never showed. Dillinger was arrested and pled guilty, resulting in a sentence of 10-20 years in the Indiana State Reformatory in Pendleton. That is where he met the connections that would lead to his infamy.

Dillinger’s prison escapes

Harry Pierpont and Homer Van Meter, two of the men Dillinger met in the Pendleton Reformatory had been transferred to Indiana State Prison in Michigan City. Dillinger was granted his request to transfer there as well.

Knowing Dillinger would be the first one to be released, the three men began to plan a jailbreak. After a little more than eight years, Dillinger was paroled and began robbing banks with accomplices suggested by Pierpont. They collected almost $50,000 as well as guns and ammunition to use for the break.

On September 22, 1933, five days before the break was supposed to happen, Dillinger was arrested and held in prison in Lima, Ohio. However, Pierpont and some of his men had escaped anyway and soon came to spring Dillinger.

For the next three months, the men went on a bank robbing spree. On January 25, 1934, while trying to lay low in Arizona, Dillinger was arrested and placed in Crown Point Prison—said to be inescapable—to await trial. But on March 3, Dillinger used a fake wooden gun coated in shoe polish to trick the prison guards, and made his escape. He stole the sheriff’s car and fled the state. This federal offense came to attract the attention of the FBI, which would lead to Dillinger’s demise.

How John Dillinger became ‘Public Enemy No. 1’

After his escape, Dillinger found a new gang, which included Lester ‘Baby Face Nelson’ Gillis and former prison mate, Homer Van Meter. Together they robbed a handful of banks in four different states throughout the Midwest.

The gang hid out at Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin, but the lodge owner recognized them. He tipped off local FBI agent, Melvin Purvis, and on April 22, FBI agents surrounded the lodge. A shootout ensued. The FBI shot three civilians, while Baby Face Nelson killed an FBI agent, and wounded an agent and a police officer. After the gunfire stopped, all of Dillinger’s men had gotten away. Dillinger went on to rob one more bank on June 30, 1934.

The death of John Dillinger

Leading up to John Dillinger’s final days, he had been visiting brothel owner Anna Sage with a girlfriend. Sage had been charged as an undesirable alien by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and she contact a police detective to see if her information on Dillinger would be enough to let her stay in the country.

The detective alerted the FBI and a deal was made between Sage and agent Melvin Purvis, though he couldn’t guarantee that she could stay in the country. She told him she would go to the movies with John and his girlfriend, Polly Hamilton.

On Sunday, July 22, the movie let out at the Biograph Theater. Dillinger walked with the women at his side and passed Purvis, who lit his cigar. That was the signal. Twenty agents closed in on Dillinger and he fled into the alley. Three agents—Charles B. Winstead, Clarence O. Hurt, and Herman E. Hollis—shot Dillinger, and he was pronounced dead at 10:50 that evening.

More than two dozen people were convicted for harboring and aiding and abetting the Dillinger Gang. From September 1933 to July 1934, the gang had planned three prison escapes, killed seven police officers and three federal agents, and robbed 11 banks of more than $300,000.