34 THE KILLING OF JOHN HERBERT DILLINGER
‘I guess my only bad habit is robbing banks. I smoke very little. I don’t drink much.’ A well-behaved outlaw, what is there not to like? As far as the American public was concerned in the 1930s, not much. John Dillinger grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota but moved to rural Mooresville when he was twenty-years-old. The locals in Mooresville launched a petition for the pardon of neighbour John Dillinger. When his photograph appeared in a Warner Brothers newsreel the cinema audiences cheered. The photographs of the federal agents received catcalls. Some of his robberies attracted crowds that wanted to glimpse the spectacle. There are witnesses that believe the outlaws were aware of their audience and added swagger to create a performance. In just over a year his gang robbed in excess of $300,000 and at least thirteen banks. Not bad for a man that was sentenced to prison twice in the same period. On both occasions Dillinger escaped. He was shot down by G Men outside the Biograph cinema in Lincoln Avenue Chicago and on the 22nd of July 1934. The movie Dillinger saw was Manhattan Melodrama. The stars in the movie were Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and William Powell. At the end of the movie, the gangster dies a noble death by refusing to have his death sentence commuted, some Hollywood nonsense about him not compromising his childhood friend who is a politician. For the eight weeks before the death of Dillinger the details regarding what he did are sparse. He probably went underground in Chicago and in bootlegging territory that the Capone gang had created but by 1934 was being managed by Frank Nitti.
Dillinger left the cinema just before 10.30 pm. He was in the company of two women, Anna Sage and Polly Hamilton. Hours after the killing, Anna Sage was described in colour blind press reports as ‘the lady in red’. That night she wore an orange dress and white hat. Polly Hamilton was the girl on the arm of Dillinger. How much affection existed between the couple is not known but the relationship was not chaste. Billie Frechette is regarded as the girl that Dillinger loved. Billie would have been on the arm of Dillinger that night if she had not been in prison serving a two year sentence and thinking about paying off her $1000 fine. Polly Hamilton fled from the scene of the killing but returned later to Chicago where she settled down to a quiet life with a salesman. Less than two hours after the killing, hundreds of people had gathered in Lincoln Avenue. They held up newspaper headlines and posed for photographs. Many dipped their handkerchiefs in the blood that Dillinger had left behind. Thousands more visited the morgue to view the dead body of Dillinger. For a reason never explained, the brain of Dillinger was removed. Some of the thousands that visited might have seen the famous photograph where the white sheet covering his body is raised to a point like the apex of a tent. The sensible explanation is that rigor mortis had stiffened his arm and the arm had lifted the sheet. No official explanation has ever been given. Sensationalists prefer to think that it is the erect penis of Dillinger that has raised the white sheet. Geometricians have calculated from the angle and height of the raised sheet that the imagined erect penis would have been 36 inches long.
His family was offered a five month vaudeville contract after the killing of Dillinger. Sister and father appeared in theatres and answered questions taken from the audience. The tour was a success and lasted for two years. The audiences offered the family members sympathy and respect. Admission to the shows was 25 cents before six pm and forty cents in the evening. After girlfriend Billie Frechette was released from prison she also appeared in theatres and gave lectures about her days with the outlaw. The Dillinger museums come and go but there have been and exist several in the USA. For those still curious, there exists a Dillinger trail that includes the Biograph cinema, the Little Bohemia Lodge where Dillinger and his gang escaped from federal agents despite being surrounded, and the Crown Hill cemetery where he is buried.
The man was popular because he had a droll manner, audacity and robbed banks in the middle of an economic depression. Even his enemies regarded Dillinger as defiant and accomplished. It helped that the bank robbing career of Dillinger was short lived, no more than thirteen months. No overexposure for celebrity John Dillinger. The jury of the Coroner decided that the killing by federal agents was justifiable homicide. The jury commended both the federal agents and the police for their ‘efficient participation’. Chicago police and federal agents were present at the killing of Dillinger. Those not so easily impressed by efficient participation claim that the police only took part because their conditions of service entitled them to claim a reward denied to the federal agents in the more budget conscious Division of Investigation. The joint operation operated on the basis that the federal agents split the reward fifty-fifty with the police. That was the deal or so it has been claimed. Many felt that Dillinger was the victim of a previously planned assassination by heavy handed authorities. The editor of the communist Daily Worker observed ‘that it had only taken fifteen armed men to shoot Dillinger and wound two innocent bystanders in the process.’ The wounded innocent bystanders were both women. Only a subsequent change in the law enabled them to receive compensation for their wounds. The cynicism of the editor of the Daily Worker and others had already been stoked by the death of Jimmy Probasco. He was arrested by police because he was suspected of harbouring Dillinger. The death of Probasco occurred after he exited the building through an upstairs window in the conference room of the police department. The police claimed that he had been left alone and that Probasco had dragged his chair over to the window and jumped.
Hoover needed a success for his Division of Investigation, shortly afterwards renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The police wanted Dillinger removed from the streets of Chicago because the increased presence of federal agents in the city risked exposing their corruption. Just as important were the wishes of Frank Nitti and other bootleggers. Additional federal agents searching the bars and saloons for Dillinger increased the risk of the money making premises of the bootleggers being closed. Dillinger was worth more dead than alive. Dillinger, on a witness stand in court, was a threat to what corrupt police and local gangsters considered to be their economic interests. Anna Sage was mythologised as the woman that betrayed Dillinger for a reward of $5000. More likely is that she acted as an intermediary and on behalf of corrupt Chicago police and gangsters.
Dillinger celebrated his 31st birthday a month before he was killed. The same day he was nominated as Public Enemy Number One. Eight days after his birthday Dillinger robbed the Merchant’s National Bank in South Bank Indiana. The gang hauled away $30,000 but this final robbery had chaotic elements that Dillinger had previously avoided. The wounded included a dead traffic cop called Howard Wagner, a non-fatal bullet to the head of longstanding Dillinger partner Homer Van Meter, injured bystanders and, unusually, injuries to hostages used to shield the gang from police fire.
On July 21 the federal agent Melvin Purvis met Captain Timothy O’Neill and Sergeant Martin Zarkovich from the East Chicago police department. Purvis was told that Anna Sage had revealed to Zarkovich that she would be watching a movie at the Biograph cinema the following night. At 8.30 pm on July 22 a phone call from Sage confirmed she would be going with Dillinger and his girlfriend Polly Hamilton to the cinema. Hamilton was born Rita Keele. Her ex-husband was a policeman. The divorce had happened months earlier. Anna Sage was a Romanian immigrant. Her original name was Anna Kumpanis. This changed when she married Mike Chiolek and changed again when she married Alexander Sage. She was not married to anyone the night she accompanied Dillinger to the Biograph cinema. From July 4 she had rented a room at North Halstead Street to Dillinger. Eight days later she had been informed by the US Immigration Service that she had to leave the country. Her cooperation with the police and federal agents did not prevent her subsequent deportation. Anna Sage had earned a living as a prostitute and brothel keeper. She had mob connections. Her immigration status and her landlady tenant relationship with Dillinger was why she was selected by cops and the gangsters to be the informant. Sage was friendly with Zarkovich, a policeman that had been accused of corruption on three occasions. There have been suggestions that although Zarkovich had helped arrange the escape of Dillinger from Crown Point prison he subsequently suspected two of his policeman friends had been killed by Dillinger
Purvis claimed that before the shooting he had called for Dillinger to halt but the outlaw broke free from Polly Hamilton, pulled a gun and ran. This account has been disputed by some witnesses. They claim that Dillinger did not reach for a gun. Six shots were fired at Dillinger. Two grazed him, one hit his left side and one entered his neck. This last bullet smashed the vertebrae at the top of the spinal cord before exiting through the right eye of Dillinger. When Hoover took charge of the Bureau of Investigation and well before it became the FBI he promised to create a body of qualified men that would use technical expertise and science to capture criminals and subversives. Federal agents, though, had to rely on more traditional methods to locate and kill Dillinger. A stool-pigeon and not a scientist found Dillinger. And as two innocent injured women could have testified, not even the marksmanship of the federal agents demonstrated expertise. As years passed, Hoover became a devotee of collecting information on others. He used it to not just arrest criminals but also to manipulate rivals and undermine those that refused to share his narrow political opinions.
Howard Jackson has had thirteen books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest book BORIS JOHNSON PFEFFELS AND PIFFLES is now available here.