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Morton: Dillinger was Public Enemy No. 1

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On this day (July 22) in 1934, the notorious bank robber John Herbert Dillinger was mortally wounded outside of the Biograph Theater after watching the movie “Manhattan Melodrama” in Chicago’s north side Lincoln Park neighborhood.

During Dillinger’s colorful outlaw career, he was charged with robbing at least 25 banks and with the fatal shooting of a police officer. By 1934, “Jackrabbit” (his adult nickname) deservedly had earned the title of Public Enemy No. 1.

Born June 22, 1903, in Indianapolis into the family of John and “Mollie” Dillinger, the young “Johnnie” lost his mother in 1907, and, thereafter, was raised by his older sister, Audrey, until their father remarried in 1912.

As a teenager, Dillinger often was in trouble for petty theft and for his increasingly wild and rebellious behavior. He dropped out of high school to work in an Indianapolis machine shop. During his teenage years, while pursuing a wild lifestyle, he contracted gonorrhea.

Arrested in 1922 for auto theft, he apparently avoided imprisonment by enlisting in the U.S. Navy, where he was assigned to the battleship USS Utah. Quickly tiring of the Navy regimen, he went AWOL, which led to a dishonorable discharge from the Navy.

Dillinger then returned to the home of his father and stepmother in Mooresville, Ind. It was there that he met his future wife. On April 12, 1924, the 21-year-old Dillinger married Beryl Ethel Hovious, from whom he was divorced five years later.

Unable to hold a job, Dillinger began his notorious career in crime in 1924 by robbing a local grocery store, netting all of $50. Spotted as he left the store, Jackrabbitt was arrested and convicted of a conspiracy to commit a felony, and he was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison. He began his prison term in the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City. He was paroled on May 10, 1933.

Now free after nine years in prison, Dillinger immediately reverted to a career of crime by robbing a bank. Thereafter, in 20 or more bank robberies, most of which were in the Chicago area, Dillinger was estimated to have stolen more than $300,000.

In January 1934, during a robbery attempt in East Chicago, Ind., Dillinger and cohorts were confronted by seven police officers. Dillinger was charged with killing police officer Patrick O’Malley in the ensuing shootout. Dillinger escaped immediate arrest and went into hiding – first in Florida, later in Texas, and finally in Arizona.

It was while he was in Tucson, Ariz., that Dillinger was captured and charged with the murder of O’Malley. He was then extradited to the Lake County Jail in Crown Point, Ind.

At the time of this incarceration, local newspapers claimed that the Crown Point jail was escape-proof. The details of Dillinger’s widely reported escape are murky, but the most plausible explanation is that he had carved a gun out of wood and used it to facilitate his escape.

During the few months between his legendary escape and his death, Dillinger robbed four more banks while hiding in Chicago under the alias of Jimmy Lawrence.

Interestingly, Jackrabbitt became a rabid Chicago Cubs fan and often came out of hiding to attend baseball games at Wrigley Field.

His death in 1934 has been well documented and even memorialized.

A prostitute, Ana Cumpanas, threatened with deportation, told federal agents that she would identify Dillinger in exchange for their help in preventing her deportation. She became the infamous “Woman in Red.” Actually, she wore an orange dress, which appeared red in the lights of the theater.

Cumpanas told the federal agents that Dillinger would be attending the movie with another prostitute named Polly Hamilton, but she would go up to the couple outside of the theater, thus identifying Dillinger.

A bloody shootout ensued in which Dillinger was hit at least three times – one of which severed his spinal cord, bringing almost certain instant death. His demise was quickly and widely reported in the press.

Dillinger was buried at the Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at demjcm@comcast.net.

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