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John Dillinger, Before He Was Public Enemy Number One
John as a Young Child
John Herbert Dillinger was born in Oak Hill on June 22, 1903, an Indianapolis suburb. Three years later, his birth mother, Mollie, suffered a stroke, and died after an operation.
John’s father, John Wilson Dillinger, was a hard-working grocer, who punished young Johnnie for the slightest indiscretion, yet he was indulgent. Little John had the first new bike in the neighborhood, always had enough money to treat his friends to candy, and spent the most on fireworks.
John’s sister, Audrey, thirteen years his senior, first took the place of his mother, but she married within a year, and moved from the house on Cooper Street. Mr. Dillinger spent the next few years at the grocery store, sometimes locking his son in the house, sometimes letting him roam the neighborhood, quite a world of extremism.
His best friend, Fred Brewer, was just as lonely as John. They could often be seen strolling down the street together. Fred’s father was a whiskey salesman, who came home on Saturday nights drunk. Once the two cronies piled rocks on the roof of the front porch and as Mr. Brewer staggered up the front steps, dumped them on his head.
John’s battle with his father was a lot subtler. When he was old enough to wait on customers, he sometimes gave the neighborhood children overgenerous amounts of candy. One day, his father witnessed him give a pretty girl an extra pack of Kiss Me Chewing Gum. Father grabbed the gum away from the girl, then knocked his son down. They boy just looked up at his father and wiped the blood from his mouth.
The Dirty Dozen
When John was nine, his father married again. Her name was Elizabeth Fields, a country woman in her late 20’s. Young John always considered his stepmother a stranger. He grew increasingly resentful to see his father give this woman the affection that he never got.
Not long after this marriage, he became the leader of a neighborhood gang, The Dirty Dozen. By the time he was in the sixth grade, he was leading the more adventurous on raids against the Pennsylvania Railroad. They were stealing large amounts of coal from the gondolas on the belt line, and selling it to the neighbors. One day a few women asked if they could get a better price if they hauled it from the tracks, and he agreed. Fred Brewer spotted a railroad detective, the boys fled, and the women were caught, but that night the boys were rousted from bed by the police. Everyone was frightened at court, except Dillinger. He stared at the judge with arms folded, his cap slouched over one eye, chewing gum.
The Baby Brother and the Trouble That Spawned
Around this time, was when his brother, Hubert, was born. When Mr. Dillinger gave attention to the baby, it brought back bad blood again. Fred’s parents were now divorced, and his mother remarried a man named Whiteside. They both felt like outcasts. One of their favorite hangouts was Drinkard’s Veneer Mill, next to Dillinger’s store. When the mill closed, the cronies would often sneak in and operate the saw. One afternoon, they tied another boy on the carrier, and Dillinger threw the switch to the saw. Only when he was about a yard away from the spinning blade did Dillinger stop the carrier.
Lecturing never helped with Johnnie, and vindictive punishment only made him worse. He once commandeered a switch engine and ran it into a line of coal cars, then stole three cases of whiskey from a boxcar, and showed up at school drunk. He also developed an interest in sex. He and some other boys grabbed a girl that showed up near the railroad tracks during the summer of his thirteenth year. She only put up a token protest, and they took her into an abandoned house. Each of them took turns with her.
Dillinger's Work History and His Father's Retirement from Work
At sixteen, John quit school and got a job at Drinkard’s Mill. Everyone was amazed with his mechanical aptitude, never realizing that he had been operating the saw for years. Then he worked at Reliance Specialty Company, a machine shop. His manual dexterity was remarkable, but his father never praised him.
Mr. Dillinger retired, sold the store and four houses, and moved his family to Mooresville, the country, his second wife’s hometown. Johnnie became popular with the boys at the Mooresvlle Christian Church, and drove them around in his father’s Apperson Jack Rabbit. He entered the Mooresville High School against his will during the fall. He didn’t study and received poor marks, yet his father was too busy to discuss the matter with the school officials. However, he was furious when John quit school before Christmas.
Young John went back to work at the Reliance Specialty Company in Indianapolis, commuting by motorcycle. Delbert Hobson became his new best friend, even though two years younger. John developed an interest in Wild West stories, namely the tales of Jesse James. He was obsessed with his courage, but also by his kindness to women and children.
Wilder and Wilder...
It was obvious that this move to the country had no effect on Johnnie, it only made him wilder. He would stay out late, sometimes the entire night, then refuse to tell where he had been. He had actually been in Martinsville, hanging around Gebhardt's Pool Hall, played baseball, and tried to find dates.
John actually fell in love with his uncle’s stepdaughter, Frances Thornton. He asked her to marry him, but his uncle thought they were too young, and persuaded her to refuse him.
Eventually, he was found roaming the streets of Indianapolis in July of 1923. A police officer grabbed the youngster’s coat collar and escorted him to a callbox, where Dillinger simply ducked down, leaving the officer holding an empty coat. The following morning, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, then soon went AWOL for nearly a day. He was tossed in the brig for ten days, his first imprisonment. He simply walked off a month later, when his ship, The Utah, docked at Boston.
Dillinger married a 16-year-old girl, Beryl Ethel Hovius, then he brought her home to his father. Within a few weeks, he and his cronies were arrested for stealing forty-one chickens from Homer Zook of Lawrence Township. The day after the trial, Mr. Dillinger tried to get Mr. Zook to get Johnnie a suspended sentence, but Zook refused. Mr. Dillinger finally managed to get the case dismissed. A short time later, the couple moved in with Beryl’s parent’s, as young John was unable to get along with his father.
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Dillinger's wild youth ended, but that didn't stop him in his plans to continue in the same vein as an adult. Wait for the next part in this series to learn more about the life of the future Public Enemy Number One.