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John Herbert Dillinger
June 22, 1903–July 22, 1934

John Dillinger was the most famous modern American criminal. During the Depression of the 1930s his bank robberies were generally regarded as revenge on society's financial institutions that were unfairly exploiting the economically distressed.


John Dillinger was born on June 22, 1903, in Indianapolis, Ind. His mother died when he was quite young; he was raised by an older sister and eventually, when his father remarried, by his stepmother. At 16 he quit school and began to work intermittently. A year later his father moved the family to a farm near Mooresville, Ind. Dillinger rejected rural life and spent most of his time in the surrounding cities.

In 1923 Dillinger fell in love, but the girl's father ended the romance. Embittered, Dillinger stole a car which he later abandoned. Afraid of being prosecuted, he joined the Navy but deserted a few months later. In 1924 he was arrested for assault and attempted robbery. On the advice of his father he pled guilty; not only did he receive a more severe sentence than his accomplice, who pled not guilty, but also the accomplice secured parole after 2 years, while Dillinger languished in prison.

A difficult prisoner, Dillinger served much of his time in solitary confinement. As is frequently the case, Dillinger's confinement, instead of reforming and rehabilitating him, only trained him to be a criminal. When he left prison in 1933, he carried a map, supplied by inmates, of prospective robbery sites.

Released during the worst of the Depression, as an ex-convict it is unlikely that Dillinger could have secured legitimate employment. He quickly found employment robbing banks, however, and almost overnight became a kind of Robin Hood national hero. The fact that people were killed during his holdups was overlooked; instead the national press played him up as a brilliant, daring, likeable individual, beating the banks which had been inhumanely foreclosing mortgages on helpless debtors.

Dillinger became a challenge for law enforcement officials, for he often made them look like fools; conflicts between police jurisdictions made him difficult to capture. When he was captured, he was able to escape. His most famous exploit was when he broke out of heavily guarded Crown Point County Jail armed only with a wooden gun. Eventually, however, the members of his gang were killed or caught. Dillinger moved to Chicago, disguised himself, and attempted to disappear. But he was recognized by Anna Sage, a woman who lived with his girlfriend, Polly.

On July 22, 1934, Anna Sage went to a movie with Dillinger and Polly; she wore an orange skirt to identify herself, and Dillinger, to waiting Federal agents. They gunned him down. Even in death Dillinger remained a thorn in the side of the establishment. Anna Sage ("the lady in red") became a hated figure, like most informers, and the image of law enforcement suffered through what was regarded as too little willingness to take Dillinger, then almost a national hero, alive.


John Herbert Dillinger was a notorious bank robber in mid-western America. Some considered him a dangerous criminal, while others idolized him as a present-day Robin Hood. He gained this latter reputation (and the nickname "Jackrabbit") for his graceful movements during bank heists, such as leaping over the counter (a movement he supposedly copied from the movies) and many narrow getaways from police. His exploits, along with those of other criminals of the 1930s Depression era, such as Bonnie and Clyde and Ma Barker, dominated the attention of the American press and its readers during what is sometimes referred to as the public enemy era (1931-1935), a period which led to the further development of the modern and more sophisticated FBI.

Dillinger family history

John Herbert Dillinger was born June 22, 1903 in Indianapolis, Indiana, the younger of two children born to John Wilson Dillinger (1864-1943) and Mary Ellen "Molly" Lancaster (1860-1907), who had married August 23, 1887 in Marion County, Indiana. The elder John Dillinger was reportedly a harsh father and a grocer by trade. The couple had one older daughter, Audrey, born March 6, 1889. After the death of Molly Dillinger in 1907, he was primarily raised by his teenage sister while their father manned his business. Audrey married in 1907 to Everett "Fred" Hancock and had the first of their seven children in 1908. Their father remarried on May 23, 1912 in Morgan County, Indiana to Elizabeth "Lizzie" Fields (1878-1933). Initially Dillinger was jealous and disliked his stepmother but reportedly eventually came to love her as his own mother. When in jail he was paroled to see her after she had become ill but arrived home to find that she had already died. Dillinger's father and stepmother had three children, Hubert Dillinger, born c. 1913, Doris Dillinger, born c. 1918 (married surname Hockman) and Frances Dillinger born c. 1922 (married surname Thompson). On April 9, 2004 Ethel Schooling Dillinger died in Indianpolis, Indiana at age 86 years. She was listed as the widow of Hubert M. Dillinger. Doris Dillinger Hockman, born December 12, 1917, died March 14, 2001 in Martinsville, Indiana.

Dillinger's early years

When Dillinger quit school to work at a machine shop and would often stay out all night, his father moved the family out to Mooresville, Indiana. Dillinger's wild and rebellious behavior was resilient despite his new rural life. After trouble with his father and the law, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, but deserted within a few months and eventually was dishonorably discharged.


Beryl Ethel Hovious was born August 6, 1906 in Stinesville, Indiana, the daughter of Stephen Hovious and Cara Vandeventer. After he was discharged from the military, Dillinger returned to Mooresville where he met and married Beryl Hovious, in Martinsville on April 12, 1924. However she stated then her age was 19 and she was born August 5, 1904.He attempted to settle down, though he had difficulty holding a job and preserving his marriage. The marriage ended in divorce on June 20, 1929. Beryl Dillinger remarried in July, 1929 to Harold McGowen, with the pair divorcing in July, 1931. In 1932, she again remarried, this time to Charles Byrum and they had one child. Beryl Hovious Byrum died November 30, 1993 at Millers Merry Manor, Mooresville, Indiana and is buried at Mt. Pleasent Cemetery, Hall, Indiana.

Robbery career

Dillinger embraced the criminal lifestyle behind bars, learning the ropes from seasoned bank robbers like Harry Pierpont of Muncie, Indiana and Russell "Boobie" Clark of Terre Haute. The men planned heists that they would commit soon after they were released. Once Dillinger was released from Indiana State Prison at Michigan City, he helped conceive a plan for the escape of Pierpont, Clark and several others, most of whom worked in the prison laundry. The group known as the "first Dillinger gang" included Pierpont, Clark, Charles Makley, Edward W. Shouse, Jr., of Terre Haute, Harry Copeland, "Oklahoma Jack" Clark, Walter Dietrich and John "Red" Hamilton. Homer Van Meter and Lester Gillis (a.k.a. Baby Face Nelson) were among those who joined the "second Dillinger gang" after he escaped from the county jail at Crown Point, Indiana.

Among Dillinger's more celebrated exploits was his pretending to be a sales rep for a company that sold bank alarm systems. He reportedly entered a number of Indiana and Ohio banks and used this ruse to assess security systems and bank vaults of prospective targets. Another time, the gang pretended to be part of a film company that was scouting locations for a "bank robbery" scene. Bystanders stood and smiled as a real robbery ensued and Dillinger and friends rode off with the loot. Stories such as this only served to increase Dillinger's burgeoning legend.

Banks allegedly robbed

Dillinger was believed to have been associated with gangs who robbed dozens of banks of a total of more than $300,000. Banks allegedly robbed by John Dillinger and his associates included the Commercial Bank, Daleville, Indiana of $3,500 on July 17, 1933; Montpelier National Bank, Montpelier, Indiana of $6,700 on August 4, 1933; Bluffton Bank, Bluffton, Ohio, of $6,000 on August 14, 1933; Massachusetts Avenue State Bank, Indianapolis, Indiana, of $21,000 on September 6, 1933; Central Nation Bank and Trust Co., Greencastle, Indiana of $76,000 on October, 23, 1933; American Bank and Trust Co., Racine, Wisconsin of $28,000 on November 20, 1933; Unity Trust and Savings Bank, Chicago, Illinois of $8,700 on December 13, 1933; First National Bank, East Chicago, Indiana of $20,000 on January, 15, 1934; Securities National Bank and Trust Co., Sioux Falls, South Dakota of $49,500 on March 6, 1934; First National Bank, Mason City, Iowa of $52,000 on March 13, 1934; and Merchants National Bank, South Bend, Indiana of $29,890 on June 30, 1934.

Jail time

Dillinger served time at the Indiana State Prison at Michigan City, until 1933, when he was paroled. Within four months, he was back in jail in Lima, Ohio, but the gang sprang him, killing the jailer Sheriff Jessie Sarber. Most of the gang was captured again by the end of the year in Tucson, Arizona, due to a fire at the Historic Hotel Congress. Dillinger alone was sent to the Lake County jail in Crown Point, Indiana. He was to face trial for the suspected killing of Officer William O'Malley during a bank shootout in East Chicago, Indiana, some time after his escape from jail. During this time on trial, the famous photograph was taken of Dillinger putting his arm on prosecutor Robert Estill's shoulder when suggested to him by reporters.

On March 3, 1934, Dillinger escaped from the "escape-proof" Crown Point, Indiana county jail which was guarded by police and National Guardsmen. Dillinger escaped using a fake handgun carved from either soap or wood (sources differ) and blackened with shoe polish, although this was disputed by some witnesses.

Dillinger further embarrassed the town, as well as 42-year-old Sheriff Lillian Holley, by driving off in her brand new V-8 Ford. The press augmented her chagrin with such headlines as: "Slim woman, mother of twins, controlled Dillinger as sheriff."

Incensed, Holley declared at the time, "If I ever see John Dillinger again, I'll shoot him dead with my own gun. Don't blame anyone else for this escape. Blame me. I have no political career ahead of me and I don't care."

Driving across the Indiana-Illinois state line in a stolen vehicle, Dillinger violated a federal law and thus caught the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. An investigation concerning the facts of the escape was carried out some time later by the Hargrave Secret Service of Chicago, Illinois on the orders of the Illinois governor. The governor and Illinois state Attorney General Philip Lutz eventually chose not to release information because they did not want Dillinger to know of the informants with whom they spoke. As a result, the findings about the gun in the escape were never made public, and this, coupled with Dillinger himself actively perpetuating the wooden gun story as an ego boost, is a reason many believe the "wooden gun" escape was real.

Once out of prison, Dillinger continued to rob banks. The United States Department of Justice offered a $20,000 reward for Dillinger's capture, or $5,000 for information leading to his apprehension.

Little Bohemia Lodge

In April, the gang settled at a lodge hideout called Little Bohemia Lodge, owned by Emil Wanatka, in the northern Wisconsin town of Manitowish Waters. The gang assured the owners that they would give no trouble, but they monitored the owners whenever they left or spoke on the phone. Emil's wife Nan and her brother managed to evade Baby Face Nelson, who was tailing them, and mailed a letter of warning to a U.S. Attorney's office in Chicago, which later contacted the FBI. Days later, a score of FBI agents led by Hugh Clegg and Melvin Purvis approached the lodge in the early morning hours. Two barking watchdogs announced their arrival, but the gang was so used to Nan Wanatka's dogs that they did not bother to inspect the disturbance. It was only after the FBI mistakenly gunned down a local resident and two innocent Civilian Conservation Corps workers as they were about to drive away in a car that the Dillinger gang were alerted to the presence of the FBI. Gunfire between the groups lasted only momentarily, but the whole gang managed to escape in various ways despite the FBI's efforts to surround and storm the lodge. Agent W. Carter Baum was shot dead by "Baby Face" Nelson during the gun battle. Barney G. Louis Boeding accompanied him during the robberies.

By the summer of 1934, Dillinger had dropped out of sight. He had, in fact, drifted into Chicago and went under the alias of Jimmy Lawrence, who was a petty criminal from Wisconsin who had dated Dillinger's sometime girlfriend, Billie Frechette, and bore a close resemblance to the bank robber. Taking up a clerk job, he also found a new girlfriend named Polly Hamilton, who was unaware of his true identity. In a large metropolis like Chicago, Dillinger was able to lead an anonymous existence for a while. What Dillinger didn't realize was that the centre of the FBI dragnet happened to be in Chicago. When the authorities found Dillinger's bloodied getaway car on a Chicago side street, they were positive that he was in the city.


The Lady in Red

Dillinger's last day alive was July 22, 1934. Dillinger attended the film Manhattan Melodrama at the Biograph Theater in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. Dillinger was with his girlfriend, Polly Hamilton, and Anna Sage, whose real name was Ana Cumpanas, a brothel madam in Gary, Indiana.

Because of the nature of Sage's profession, she was considered an undesirable alien by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and deportation proceedings had begun. Sage was willing to sell the FBI some information about Dillinger for a cash reward, plus the FBI's help in preventing her deportation. At a meeting with Sage, Cowley and Purvis were cautious. They promised her the reward if her information led to Dillinger's capture, but said all they could do was call her cooperation to the attention of the Department of Labor, which at that time handled deportation matters. Satisfied, Sage told the agents that Polly Hamilton had visited her establishment with Dillinger. Sage had recognized Dillinger from a newspaper photograph. When they exited the air-conditioned theater that hot summer night, Sage tipped off the FBI agents, who opened fire as Dillinger ran while drawing his weapon, killing him. Sage had identified herself to agent Melvin Purvis by wearing an agreed-upon orange dress. The artificial lighting distorted the true color of the dress leading to the enduring notion of the "Lady in Red" as a betraying character. Though she had delivered Dillinger as promised, Sage was still deported to her home country of Romania in 1936, where she remained until her death 11 years later.

The Biograph Theatre

Purvis had assembled a team of both FBI agents and hired guns from police forces outside Chicago (Milwaukee, Michigan City, Indiana, etc.) because it was felt that the Chicago police had been compromised and could not be trusted. As a matter of fact, during the stakeout, the Biograph's manager thought the agents were hoodlums that were setting up a robbery. He called the Chicago police who dutifully responded and had to be waved off by Purvis, who told them that they were on a stake out for a much more important target. Earlier in the day, Sage had called Purvis and told him that Dillinger was going to the movies that night and might even go to two separate shows just to avoid the murderous heat that was smothering Chicago that week. Two theaters were mentioned. One, the Marbro, was on the West Side, and the other was on the North Side (the Biograph).

Not chancing another embarrassing escape, Purvis split the team in two and dispatched one team downtown while he accompanied the other group to the Biograph. When the movie let out, Purvis stood by the front door and signaled Dillinger's exit by lighting a cigar. Both Purvis and the agents reported that Dillinger turned his head and looked directly at Purvis as he walked by, glanced across the street, and then moved ahead of his female companions and bolted into a nearby alley, drawing a pistol when he quickly came under fire from a number of different guns. Two women bystanders were slightly wounded in the legs and buttocks by flying bullet and brick fragments. Dillinger was struck three times, twice in the chest, one actually nicking his heart, and the fatal shot, which entered the back of his neck and exited just under his right eye. An ambulance was summoned even though it was clear that Dillinger had quickly died from his gunshot wounds. According to Purvis, Dillinger died without saying a word. At 10:50 p.m. on July 22, 1934, John Dillinger was pronounced dead in a little room in the Alexian Brothers Hospital.

The body was then taken to the Cook County morgue where the body was repeatedly photographed and death masks were made by local morticians in training, who inadvertently damaged the facial skin. Throughout that night and most of the next day, a huge throng of curiosity seekers paraded through the morgue to catch a glimpse of Dillinger in death. The chief medical examiner finally complained that this mob was interfering with his occupation and Cook County sheriff's deputies were posted to keep these macabre tourists at bay. There were also reports of people dipping their handkerchiefs and skirts into the pools of blood that had formed as Dillinger lay in the alley in order to secure keepsakes of the entire affair.

Dillinger was buried at Crown Hill Cemetery (Section: 44 Lot: 94 )in Indianapolis. His gravestone is often vandalized by people removing pieces as souvenirs.

Fans continue to observe "John Dillinger Day" (July 22) as a way to remember the fabled bank robber. Members of the "John Dillinger Died for You Society" traditionally gather at the Biograph Theater on the anniversary of Dillinger's death and retrace his last walk to the alley where he died, following a bagpiper playing "Amazing Grace".

Was it Dillinger?

To this day, there are doubts whether Dillinger actually died on July 22, 1934. Some researchers (chief among them famed Chicago crime writer Jay Robert Nash) believe that the dead man was in truth the petty criminal from Wisconsin named Jimmy Lawrence, whose name Dillinger was using as a pseudonym, who resembled Dillinger. Some people who knew Dillinger said they did not recognize the body. Dillinger's father had suddenly exclaimed when first seeing his son's corpse, "That's not my boy!" Adding to the uncertainty, Dillinger had received some rather crude plastic surgery some time before his death. Moreover, if indeed the agents did mistake Lawrence for Dillinger, the FBI would have had a strong incentive to cover up such a blunder, since J. Edgar Hoover was on the verge of being fired as Bureau director in the wake of the extensive public outrage over the earlier Little Bohemia Lodge incident. An autopsy contained information that was controversial, such as:

* The corpse had brown eyes. Dillinger's were grey, according to police files.
* The body showed signs of some childhood illness which Dillinger never had.
* The body showed a rheumatic heart condition, yet according to the later testimony of Dr. Patrick Weeks—Dillinger's physician at Indiana State Prison—Dillinger could not have suffered from this disease as he was an avid baseball player while in prison and had served in the Navy.
* The small Colt semi-automatic pistol that Dillinger had allegedly drawn on the approaching FBI agents outside the Biograph (and was for years shown in a display case at FBI Headquarters along with Dillinger's death mask) was not his; it had, in fact, been manufactured five months after Dillinger's death, which supports the claim that the FBI agents, without warning, shot and killed an unarmed Dillinger.
* In 1963 The Indianapolis Star newspaper received a letter from a person who claimed to be "John Dillinger" with a return address in Hollywood, California. The letter contained a photo of a man who looked like a more aged Dillinger. When this was ignored, another letter was sent to Emil Wanatka Jr., the proprietor of the Little Bohemia Lodge.

However, the body was positively identified as John Dillinger by his sister Audrey, through a scar on his leg received in childhood. It has been suggested that the mistake concerning the corpse's eyes may have been an error on the part of the coroner resulting from eye discoloration caused by a traumatic head wound or decomposition in the intense summer heat. The FBI has at least two sets of post-mortem fingerprints of the dead man. Though scarred by corrosive acid, the prints shared the same characteristics as those of John Dillinger.

A 2006 Discovery Channel documentary titled The Dillinger Conspiracy examined the legends surrounding his death. Several historians, detectives, and forensic scientists examined the autopsy, the 1963 letter, and East Chicago Police Sergeant Martin Zarkovich's gun to determine the true story behind his death. Ultimately, the show suggested Zarkovich fired the final bullet which did in fact kill Dillinger, and that the FBI was complicit in his death.


Many legends surround John Dillinger. One of the rumors that followed his death was that he had a very large penis (which Hoover later kept in a jar), while another urban legend held that Dillinger's penis had somehow found its way into the Smithsonian Institution. These legends are the result of the photograph of his corpse; the bulge caused by his arm, stiff from rigor mortis, covered with a sheet; some who saw grainy newsprint copies of the photo mistakenly believed it to be his unnaturally large erect penis.

The "Lady in Red" story stems in part from a poem allegedly chalked on the alley wall where Dillinger was shot:

    "Stranger stop and wish me well,
    Just say a prayer for my soul in hell.
    I was a good fellow, most people said,
    Betrayed by a woman dressed all in red"

Over the years, reports have come in of Dillinger deliberately taunting J. Edgar Hoover by making collect phone calls to the FBI headquarters in Washington, DC, as well as sending him Christmas cards. There can be no doubt that Hoover became irrationally obsessed with apprehending Dillinger to the exclusion of all other duties. At one time, a third of the entire budget of the FBI in 1934 was devoted to hunting down this one man. Hoover was known to have referred to Dillinger by name in the majority of his private correspondence to friends and family in the months leading up to Dillinger's death. After Dillinger was gunned down, Hoover maintained a macabre private museum of Dillinger artifacts including the gun, hat, pocket change and eye glasses that were found on the body that night in Chicago.

Another legend claims that Dillinger wrote Henry Ford letters on a few occasions, thanking him for the power and durability of his vehicles, and claiming that whenever he stole a car he preferred to steal a Ford. The letter was proven a hoax, possibly inspired by Clyde Barrows supposed letter of praise one month earlier.

During his brief stint in the Navy, Dillinger was assigned to both the USS California and USS Nevada. Both ships were among those tied up at Battleship Row the morning of December 7, 1941, and fell victim to Japanese air attack. Others place him instead on the crew rosters of the USS Arizona and USS Oklahoma in the months before his desertion. There was no social security system then and there were numerous J. Dillingers in the fleet at that time so it is difficult to track his movements.

Sandy Jones and the John Dillinger Society purchased what is believed to be the 1933 Hudson Essex-Terraplane 8 that Dillinger and girlfriend Billie Frechette were driving, when in a machine gun battle they narrowly escaped police. They had been hiding out under assumed names in a St. Paul, Minnesota apartment.










This web page was last updated on: 23 December, 2008