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John Dillinger: The Houdini of the Gangland World

Updated on March 13, 2013
1921 Colt submachine gun
1921 Colt submachine gun | Source

The Train, the Train!

Other things were happening on the train, too, which was transporting Dillinger’s cohorts. Tubby Toms of the Indianapolis News was sitting with Matt Leach, when a senator invited them all to his compartment where he showed off a gold-plated loaded .45 pistol. Tubby heard Pierpont later say to the senator in the seats later that he’d like to have the use of the gat in his suitcase, and he offered him double what it was worth. Toms told Leach about the conversation, and he searched Pierpont, but nothing was found. It was later discovered that the senator had also been in prison.

Frank Loesch
Frank Loesch | Source

One Embarrassment After Another

While the murder trial was being prepared, that embarrassing photo with Dillinger and Estill was making huge waves. J. Edgar Hoover said that no picture ever made him angrier, and Homer Cummings called Estill’s conduct a disgrace. President of the Chicago Crime Commission, Frank Loesch was utterly shocked at the photo, as they looked like they were friends. His photo happened to be captured, but not for other equally embarrassing things. The gang had been treated with just as much familiarity by a judge, a governor, and a senator, as well as Matt Leach, insisting that Dillinger shake his hand. Estill ignored all this criticism and concentrated on the case at hand. On February 6, 1934, the small courtroom at Crown Point was filled with as many spectators as reporters to witness Dillinger’s arraignment before Judge William J. Murray. Everyone that entered the courtroom was searched, and a rumor circulated that John Hamilton and a number of the gangsters were going to raid the jail. The arraignment was continued to February 9.

On February 9, Dillinger was arraigned with another crowd in attendance. His new attorney was Louis Piquett, a self-taught lawyer, who finally passed the Bar after a dozen tries. He once served as City Prosecutor for Chicago.

Louis Piquett on right
Louis Piquett on right | Source

Prosecutor vs. Defense Attorney

Estill suggested that the trial begin in ten days, and Piquett melodramatically announced that it would take longer than that to get his witnesses there, asking for 120 days. Judge Murray set the trial for March 12. The judge called in Estill and said that he had changed his mind, and wanted to know what he had against the continuance, after he spoke to Piquett. Estill gave a reasonable answer, and when it was time for Piquett to answer that, he said that he had $40,000 in bonds from the Greencastle robbery, and he was waiting to fence it to get his fee. Estill called the explanation utterly ridiculous.

A good deal of banter went between the two attorneys. It was feared that another breakout would occur if Dillinger were allowed to speak to friends and witnesses. Finally, Mrs. John Dillinger showed up, who was none other than Billie Frechette, and the two spoke mainly in numbers.

Piquett claimed that he had a number of witnesses that could prove that the gang never left Florida until the night of January 14, but he was bluffing. He knew that Estill could prove the truth. He rendezvoused with a prominent Indiana judge at the Century of Progress and handed over an envelope containing a large sum of money. This judge promised to smuggle in a gun at the county jail.

Crown Point Jail
Crown Point Jail | Source

The Escape-Proof Crown Point

On the night of March 2, a plane made three circles over Crown Point, gunning the engine each time. It was a joke that it was a signal to Dillinger. He was securely locked up in an escape proof new section, there were a dozen barred doors, and fifty guards. Mrs. Holley also had a squad of Guardsmen along with armed members of the Farmers’ Protective Association. Floodlights were all around the building at night.

Dillinger planned to escape the next day with $14 and a gun, but he didn’t know the layout of the building.

Warden Lou Baker
Warden Lou Baker | Source

Dillinger Gets His Man

Shortly after 9 that morning, Sam Cahoon, an older attendant, unlocked the cell block door and allowed a group of trusties to enter for cleanup. He knew the jail better than anyone, having quite frequently served time for being drunk.

Dillinger casually walked up to him, and rammed a gun in his stomach. The trusties went into a cell and Cahoon was also forced in there, too. He questioned Cahoon enough to get a mental picture of the layout, then took Cahoon with him. A man was coming, who was Deputy Ernest Blunk. Cahoon was told to call him over. Dillinger had another hostage. He locked them in with the trusties. Blunk told him that Warden Lou Baker, was the only experienced jailer and the man most likely to prevent the escape. Dillinger took Blunk with him to the corridor downstairs and told him to call Baker, which he did. Dillinger grabbed him from behind and locked up the warden with the others. He then forced Blunk to decoy three of thirty other guards in outer rooms. Dillinger learned that there were machine guns in the warden’s office, once more forcing Blunk to go with him. They came to a receiving room which was separated from the Warden’s office by a barred door. Dillinger stuck his gun through the door at the turnkey, who unlocked the door. He was another trusty.

As Dillinger stepped inside, he saw a Guardsman standing just past the office. He motioned for Blunk to call the soldier. The Guardsman found himself facing Dillinger’s gun. Dillinger grabbed two machine guns on a windowsill, and he was ready to escape through the door to the outside just a few feet ahead. A dozen guards were there, and he knew it, so the next recourse was out the back door.

Herbert Youngblood
Herbert Youngblood | Source

Hostages Everywhere

Dillinger marched his prisoners, Blunk, the Guardsman, and the turnkey upstairs to the jail. Then he gave a machine gun to Herbert Youngblood, who was awaiting a murder trial. Two other inmates agreed to go with them, when asked. Dillinger took them to the kitchen, ordering Blunk inside first. There were three farmer vigilantes there, Dillinger ordered them to join them, then led everyone downstairs to the garage, with Youngblood behind them all.

In the garage, Dillinger found kitchen staff, the matron for the female prisoners, who was Warden Baker’s mother-in-law, and a few trusties. Baker’s mother-in-law was put into a Buick, but there were no keys. He left Youngblood to guard all the hostages, and went upstairs himself. Baker claimed that he didn’t have any knowledge on where the keys were, so Dillinger went back to the garage.

Mrs. Baker heard a noise coming from the closet, and saw the Warden via a peephole. He told her to call for help, as Dillinger was out. There was no answer at the switchboard. She went to the garage and saw Blunk next to a man with a machine gun. She said that Dillinger was out, and sure enough he walked up to her with his machine gun. He took her arm as she would have fallen down. She was led to a laundry room where Youngblood was guarding all the other hostages. Dillinger put on a raincoat, gave one to Youngblood, then shoved Blunk out the side door. There were not guards at the rear of the building, and the group went right in the back door of the Ford Garage.

Sheriff Holley's car
Sheriff Holley's car | Source

Sheriff Holley's Car was the Getaway Vehicle

Dillinger asked a mechanic for the fastest car, which happened to belong to Mrs. Holley, the Ford V-8. Dillinger told Ed Saager, the mechanic, to get in, who thought that he was being deputized. Blunk was told to drive, and Youngblood got in the back with Saager. Robert Volk, a mailman, happened to see the group just start to drive off. He told a salesman that Dillinger was in the car. He called the Gary Police, who treated him nonchalantly. He ran to the courthouse and was chased away. There was no answer when he rang the bell at the jail. One of Estill’s deputies saw him through a window on the third floor and asked him what he wanted. He again reiterated that Dillinger had escaped.

Blunk drove out of town at Dillinger’s direction. Dillinger showed Saager what appeared to be a pistol, but what was really a wooden gun, and said that was what had gotten him out of jail. Only then did Saager realize that this was Dillinger. Dillinger then put the real gun in his pocket.

They went into Illinois, removed the red light from the front of the car, and put chains on the two rear tires to get through the muddy back roads.

Dillinger noticed the lack of telephone poles, and told Blunk to stop. He gave Saager $4, and sent the two hostages on their way.

Captain John Stege
Captain John Stege | Source

Heads Will Roll and Do

When Prosecutor Robert Estill returned to the Criminal Courts Building, a Deputy told him that Dillinger was gone. Estill filed charges against Cahoon and Blunk. Nobody ever informed the state police, only the area locals.

Captain Stege had just disbanded the Dillinger Squad in Chicago, and had to start it up again. Dillinger drove into Chicago that afternoon, and remained free. Stege was given the wrong license plate number by Crown Point.

Tommy Carroll
Tommy Carroll | Source
Eddie Green
Eddie Green | Source

It's Always Something

Dillinger called Attorney Piquett and told him to be on Belmont Ave. at 4:00 to give him money. The newspapers had a field day with the wooden gun story. Dillinger had driven a stolen car over the state line, no less a sheriff’s car. Now the FBI could join the festivities.

The heads were rolling again. The Republicans blamed Governor McNutt, who ordered AG Lutz to conduct an investigation. Captain Stege was fit to be tied. He was the one that tried to say that this was going to happen again. He also expected Dillinger to hit a bank somewhere first thing on Monday, raid a police station for ammo and guns, and then start the cycle as usual.

Dillinger was in Chicago trying to form a new gang for another bank robbery on Monday or Tuesday, but he needed money right away and didn’t have time to plan. He got together with John Hamilton and Lester Gillis, AKA Baby Face Nelson. Baby Face loved using a gun and loved violence. Hamilton was as reckless as Dillinger could be, so this wasn’t a good match. Dillinger, Billie Frechette, Hamilton, and Nelson drove to St. Paul and found Homer van Meter, who had been robbing banks for the past few months. Van Meter introduced them to Eddie Green, who knew which banks to hit, a jug marker. Green knew an expert marksman, Tommy Carroll, and also had knowledge of a good bank in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Dillinger wanted to follow the same scenario that they used for the Racine job. Baby Face liked to go in firing, van Meter laughed at him, and Nelson started to move toward him. Dillinger stepped between them. He knew that these two were a mistake together, but he needed money fast. Pierpont, Clark, and Makley were in Lima waiting to be tried for the murder of Sheriff Sarber.

Dirtbags, All of You!

All right, you rats! I told you that I'd be out in no time flat, so here I am. This better go right, because I have a real gang in the slammer that I need. Don't be doing anything stupid, Baby Face, I've had it with you and your shooting like a madman. And you, Hamilton, you're worse than I am. Just give it a rest for a while, okay, boys?


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    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Colin, your dad is smiling inside you, whenever your eyes cross a page. Many other stories will be coming to quell that wandering soul...

    • epigramman profile image

      epigramman 4 years ago

      Well Deb like his son is doing now my dad would have loved your writing and this series as he was quite a historian in civilian life. I believe I may have already told you that - but my dad was a Canadian soldier in World War II and he landed on the Juno beach during D-Day.

      He wrote memoirs about his experiences in the war.

      I am also fascinated by the gunfighters and the outlaws of the Wild West.

      Sending you warm wishes from Colin and his cats at lake erie time ontario canada 5:30pm and I remember a film on Dillinger starring the late great Warren Oates

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Thanks, Eddy. Now I can try to catch up on what everyone else has been publishing over the past few days.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

      So very interesting and certainly shows off your wonderful talent.


    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Thanks, Nell. I'll get to work on Jesse James and his brother, Frank, eventually. They cared a great deal about women and children, which is why many people respected them.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

      Hi Deb, fascinating read, I am playing catchup here, I sat and watched the brad pitt film today about Jesse James, it was done sort of historically more than a normal film, fascinating stuff, I will catch up with the rest of these series tomorrow, voted up! nell

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Thanks, Alicia. It is an enjoyable write, as well.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      There's so much intrigue and adventure in this story of John Dillinger! It's a very interesting series, Deb.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Thanks, Billy. Old newspapers help, too, probably more so than anything, to be honest, as they had reps that actually spoke to the gang.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I am running very late on this one, Deb. Sorry about that. You really are doing a great job of related this history. What I would find in a couple books has been condensed nicely by you into a readable piece of work. Good job, Deb!

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Martin , I'm so glad that you're enjoying this series.

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 4 years ago from San Francisco

      Once again, thank you for going through the trouble of bring this to life.