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New Dillinger book takes a vivid look at charismatic criminal

Updated on September 12, 2014

Indiana's native son draws enduring interest

"Hoosier Public Enemy: A Life of John Dillinger" tells the riveting story of one of America's most infamous outlaws.
"Hoosier Public Enemy: A Life of John Dillinger" tells the riveting story of one of America's most infamous outlaws. | Source

Depression-era crime wave made headlines

By Robert Kostanczuk


John Dillinger would not have become such a law-breaking legend had he not been so adept at fleeing.
The knack for escaping kept the Indianapolis-born gangster in the public eye during the Great Depression.
Bank robberies were his specialty -- and so were getaways.
“They were meticulously planned,” said John A. Beineke, author of “Hoosier Public Enemy: A Life of John Dillinger” ($17.95 hardcover; Indiana Historical Society Press; http://shop.indianahistory.org).

Released this summer, the book covers Dillinger’s youthful foray into crime.
Only 10, John Herbert Dillinger was hauled before an Indianapolis judge for swiping coal from railroad cars, the author says.
While a teen, Dillinger and his family moved to Mooresville, a small farming community just southwest of Indianapolis.
The future jailbird would get into bigger trouble in the more rural setting.
At the age of 21 -- armed with a gun -- he assaulted and attempted to rob a Mooresville grocer.
Feeling the weight of harsh sentencing, Dillinger served nine years in prison.
He left the correctional system with a hardened attitude -- and the stomach for bank robberies.

Beineke’s “Hoosier Public Enemy” states that shortly after being paroled in May 1933, Dillinger went to work in early June, pulling in about $10,000 from a bank robbery in Ohio.
It was his first in a large string of such heists that would stretch out for more than a year.
The planning of bank robberies and the attention to escaping were a hallmark of the Dillinger gang.
“Each of the men in the gang had a role to play in a bank job,” relates a passage from the Dillinger book.
Time and time again, the ex-machinist was able to wriggle free -- just like Harry Houdini, the iconic escape artist.

Beineke, a history professor at Arkansas State University, details Dillinger’s slippery nature in “Hoosier Public Enemy,” which is part of the Indiana Historical Society Press’ Youth Biography Series. A press release from the Historical Society states “readers of all ages will enjoy learning about Dillinger’s first unlucky brush with the law” and “his embrace of a criminal life during his time at the Indiana Reformatory.”

Viewed as a dapper bandit by a large segment of the public, Dillinger and his cohorts stayed one step ahead of the law in heists from Sioux Falls, S.D., to Galion, Ohio.
To that end, the Dillinger raiders enlisted the capabilities of a stopwatch.
“They would time things, they would trade off cars, they would have maps,” noted Beineke, 64. “He was very savvy. They could go from literally two or three states and never be on a state highway.”
Avoiding high-profile roads was a practice of the Dillinger gang, according to Beineke.
Avoiding jail also seemed to be a strong point for the first person to be slapped with the title of Public Enemy No. 1 by federal law-enforcement authorities.
That dubious distinction came in June 1934, three months after Dillinger made his legendary jailbreak in Crown Point, Ind.
While a suspect in the killing of a policeman during a bank robbery in East Chicago, Ind., Dillinger escaped from Lake County Jail and then motored off in a stolen sheriff’s car.
With two hostages in tow, he fled Crown Point, crossing over the state line toward Chicago -- and along the way, dealt with his captives.
“He waited until he hit a road where there were no telephone poles, and then he drove another couple miles, and then he let the hostages out,” said Beineke, further explaining “there was no way they could call anybody” unless they returned “to where telephone poles were, and followed poles to a house.”

During the Great Depression, cash-strapped Americans needed an adventuresome break from reality. In that vein, “news of economic hardship often took a backseat” to articles on the outlaw from Indiana who built a reputation for “his breakouts, getaways and close calls,” according to promotional material for Beineke’s book.
The Crown Point jail wasn’t the only lockup that couldn’t hold Dillinger.
Despite his dashing veneer, the son of a grocery-store owner is not someone to be glamorized: Beineke’s book makes that clear.
“The theme is crime doesn’t pay; a number of people around him got killed, whether they were bystanders or people in his gang“ said Beineke, a resident of Jonesboro, Ark., who holds the title of distinguished professor of educational leadership and curriculum.
Aside from bystanders and gang members, lawmen were killed in “the bank robber’s rampage,” the author says.
Dillinger partners Charles Makley and Harry Pierpont were convicted of murdering a police sheriff during the course of breaking out Dillinger from a jail in Lima, Ohio.
Makley was shot and killed trying to escape from prison in Ohio.
Pierpont was executed in the electric chair.

Additionally, the Dillinger gang’s lawlessness had extended to brazenly raiding police stations in the Indiana communities of Auburn, Warsaw and Peru. The hoodlums swiped a variety of guns, along with ammunition and bulletproof vests.

"Hoosier Public Enemy" estimates that Dillinger and his various gang members stole about a half-million dollars "when their robberies are added together" -- a massive amount for the Great Depression era.

At a breezy 268 pages and peppered with vintage photos, “Hoosier Public Enemy” stands as a cautionary tale for young people about the true pitfalls of lawlessness, according to Ray E. Boomhower, who did editing work on the book.
“The author’s eyes were very open to what Dillinger was,” said Boomhower, who also serves as senior editor for the Indiana Historical Society Press. “I think some authors fall into the trap of seeing Dillinger as a folk hero.
“He may have been a gentleman bandit to some, but when you get down to brass tacks, he was a criminal.”

Part of Dillinger’s lasting appeal is that he is not generally remembered as a savage thug.
“He came across as being rather nice looking,” Beineke said.
Dillinger, in many ways, was a relatable Midwesterner with a sly, crooked smile who was good with a quip and even better with selling life on the run as an exciting, roguish lifestyle.

At a press conference during his 1934 custody in Crown Point, Dillinger -- according to Beineke’s book -- contended that he didn’t do much drinking or smoking.
“I guess my only bad habit is robbing banks,” he said.
Beineke writes that reporters were “charmed.”
The author points to newspaper coverage that referred to the murder suspect as “suave,” “articulate” -- even “swashbuckling.”
But later in the year, it all came to an end for the charmer when he left a showing of the movie “Manhattan Melodrama” (starring Clark Gable) at Chicago’s Biograph Theater.
It was about 10:40 p.m. July 22, 1934.
“Boy, wasn’t that a great movie?” Dillinger was heard to say, according to Beineke’s book.
Moments later, the most wanted fugitive in the country was fatally shot near the theater in an ambush by federal agents.
Dillinger was 31.


Back home in Indiana

John Dillinger was on the run from law enforcement when he posed for this photograph at his family's farmland home in Mooresville, Ind., in the 1930s.
John Dillinger was on the run from law enforcement when he posed for this photograph at his family's farmland home in Mooresville, Ind., in the 1930s. | Source

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