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Merchants National Bank and the Biograph Theater
Where Did He Go?
Dillinger dropped out of sight, and the police thought that he had gone to England again. Scotland Yard mobilized its flying squad, and “Q” cars were requisitioned. On June 19, an innkeeper at Stratford-on-Avon called the police to say that Dillinger was there, along with the entire gang. It was four American Rhodes scholars.
Three days later, Johnnie’s sister, Audrey, put a birthday greeting in the classifieds of an Indianapolis newspaper. This was the day that the FBI designated John Dillinger Public Enemy Number One. A day later, the Department of Justice raised the reward for his capture to $10,000. $5,000 was tacked on for information leading to his arrest.
The Wheels are Turning
Dillinger was ready to make a last haul before his Mexican dream, then head south. van Meter found the Merchants National Bank of South Bend, Indiana, the perfect bank. The post office made large deposits, and they should get at least $100,000. They needed more men to help.
Nelson came to mind for a moment, but that was quickly dismissed. Nelson sulked when Dillinger’s reward was $10,000 and his was only $5,000. Dillinger couldn’t deal with him any more, but that was all he had. Baby Face said that he even had a wheelman and a torpedo. June 30, 1934, was the big day.
With the arrangements already made, Dillinger was like his old self. He went to the Century of Progress, a few ball games and wrestling matches, and even had a new girl. Life was good again.
South Bend, Indiana
June 30 in South Bend was a gorgeous Saturday and the assistant postmaster came out of the post office with $7,900 for his deposit. In a police car were Detective Edward McCormick and his partner. They had been doing this for a while, since there was a tip that the post office would be robbed. As soon as the postal employee went into the bank, they went to lunch.
A man in a Ford parked near Michigan and Wayne by the bank. A brown Hudson double-parked right beside him, and four men got out. Alex Slaby realized that they were robbers, as they had guns under handkerchiefs. Dillinger stuck a gun through Slaby’s window, and told him that he’d better leave, then followed the first two men toward Michigan St.
He got out of his car, and noticed that the engine of the Hudson was running. He was going to remove the keys, but Baby Face asked him what he was doing, He nonchalantly crossed the street to call the police.
Pretty Boy Floyd?
Baby Face walked to the intersection with a machine gun under his jacket. His job was to guard the car. van Meter stopped in front of a shoe store, as he was going to guard the front of the bank with a .351 rifle. Dillinger entered the bank with a friend of Nelson’s and a fat man.
Dillinger called out that it was a holdup, and he and the fat man went behind the cages. The fat man fired a burst of rounds at the ceiling. A couple of bank employees thought that they recognized Pretty Boy Floyd.
Robbery of the Merchants National Bank
People thought that the firing was a pre-Fourth of July celebration and that van Meter, dressed in overalls and a straw hat, was a clown. The mood of the crowd soon changed when Officer Wagner was shot by van Meter. Jewelry store owner, Harry Berg, exited his store with a revolver, shooting at Baby Face Nelson. Baby Face shot like a wild man. A bullet hit a man in the leg, and he shattered the windshield of an occupied car across the street, showering the driver with glass.
Officer Sylvester Zell and a co-worker were directing traffic a block away, observing people running south. When they crossed the street a burst of fire went directly over their heads. A man in an office over the State Theater told him that it was a holdup. He ducked behind some cars, then approached the area with caution.
At that time, Dillinger and his boys were exiting the bank with hostages. A block away, the detectives at lunch heard on the restaurant’s radio that all police cars were needed to respond to Merchants Bank. They ran to their car, but traffic was so congested, Detective McCormick told his partner to drive there and he would run. McCormick took a sawed-off shotgun, instead of the rifle that he asked for. When he observed Dillinger exiting with the hostages, he couldn’t use the shotgun, for fear of hitting one of the innocents.
A Small Take for the Risk
Another officer fired, which struck two of Dillinger’s human shields. The person believed to be Pretty Boy Floyd, ordered them to keep moving. One of the hostages was ordered into the getaway car, and he was finally shot at. Detective McCormick had a clear shot, but a pedestrian got in the way, right when Dillinger and the others were running for the car.
Police and the gang shared shots. van Meter was hit in the head, and Dillinger grabbed him and helped him in the car, which was full of bullet holes. Police gave chase, but they had no sirens and their cars weren’t fast enough.
Dillinger abandoned the Hudson near the Indiana-Illinois line, got into another car and headed for Chicago. van Meter was badly hurt, almost carried into the Probasco residence. Probasco called Dr. Cassidy to respond right away.
Nelson divided the money, but the piles were smaller than expected. Dillinger’s $4,800 would only get him to Mexico, without any spending money. They had to do another job, which was getting more risky every time. Officer Wagner died after his arrival at the hospital.
Polly Hamilton and Anna Sage
Dillinger met a new girlfriend a couple of weeks prior to the South Bend heist. Her name was Polly Hamilton, in her mid-20’s, recently divorced from a police officer. He had given her a fictitious name, and her friends ribbed her about how he looked just like Dillinger. He treated her nicely, and was very generous.
She rented an apartment from Anna Sage, who had been convicted a couple of times for operating a disorderly house. McNutt recently became governor, and he wasn’t going to pardon her a third time, so the Immigration Bureau was about to send her back to her native Romania.
By mid-July, Dillinger was in the neighborhood regularly, living like a normal citizen. He’d have strawberry sundaes at the local ice cream parlor, eat at the Seminary Restaurant, occasionally go to the Biograph Barber Shop, and sometimes see the bookie over the Biograph Theater. The underworld thought that he was dead, and Pat Reilly told a St. Paul reporter that he died after Little Bohemia. The manhunt continued for him, as the stakes were high, not only for the citizens, but the underworld wanted the money, too. He was living in the reality that his life could end at any time, and perhaps, he was afraid of that stark notion.
Mrs. Sage recently learned that this was John Dillinger, and he was back to his impudent ways. Piquett was at Wrigley Field standing next to a police officer when Johnnie walked up to him to say hello.
Dillinger even made tentative plans to leave for Mexico with his escorts on July 23, even though he barely had enough money to get there.
Anna Sage Rats on Dillinger
Agent Sam Cowley was sent to head the Special Squad in Chicago, but Purvis remained head of the local field office. Cowley drove his men hard, but he drove himself even harder. His men saw him still at his desk pouring over paperwork when they were leaving.
Dillinger’s identity was only known by Anna Sage, and she seemed sympathetic to him. She was tempted by the hefty reward, but felt that Dillinger was her key to remaining in this country. She decided to go see an old acquaintance, Sgt. Martin Zarkovich of the East Chicago, Indiana Police. Naturally she said that she’d co-operate with police if her deportation proceedings were dropped. He passed this on to his superior officer, Captain Timothy O’Neill, Chief of Detectives assigned to the Dillinger case. O’Neill had to seek help from Chicago. He went to his chief and told him that he’d be out of town on the Big Case. On July 20, a detail was assigned to respond with O’Neill and Zarkovich.
The next afternoon, they contacted Purvis about the case, who set up a meeting with Cowley at 6 p.m. in the Great Northern Hotel. The East Chicago men told Cowley about Dillinger’s visits to the Sage apartment to see Polly Hamilton.
Before giving other details, Sage wanted to speak to the head of the Chicago office, and a meeting was arranged by Cowley. Purvis met with her at a secluded spot on Lake Michigan. She said that she didn’t know who Dillinger was at first, but showed him a newspaper picture of himself, and he admitted his identity. She then wanted assurance from Purvis that she’d be assisted by the FBI in her deportation fight. He agreed to do what he could, but his authority was limited. She also wanted the reward, but he wouldn’t commit to that, other than a substantial fee. That was enough for her.
She thought a moment, and then said that Dillinger was going to take her and Polly to a movie the next day, most likely at the Marbro Theater. Purvis called Hoover, and he said that Dillinger was to be taken alive, if possible. He didn’t want any innocent people hurt.
Maybe the Marbro Theater
Cowley took his assistant Virgil Peterson with him to the Marbro, to make detailed notes on entrances, egresses, and fire escapes.
All available agents in Chicago were put on alert. They were told that men would be at all fire exits, and Purvis and Zarkovich would be on either side of the entrance, so no matter which way the group turned, there would be someone able to give the signal. Surprisingly, Chicago Police would not be informed about this, not even the Dillinger Squad or the Scotland Yard Detail.
The agents met the East Chicago officers so that they would be recognized, and Zarkovich explained that Dillinger had plastic surgery, and how his face had changed. Everyone knew what they had to do for their roles.
At 5:30 p.m., Anna Sage called to say that she, Polly and Dillinger were going to a movie that night at either the Marbro or the Biograph. She would call when she knew something definite.
The Biograph Theater Incident
Cowley sent two agents to the Biograph to map out the entrance and the exits. He only knew that it was closer to the Sage residence. She called at 7 p.m. to say that Dillinger had arrived, but didn’t know where they were going.
Since Purvis knew Sage, it was decided that he’d sit in a parked car outside the Biograph. Zarkovich and Agent Charles B. Winstead, an expert marksman, would cover the Marbro. Cowley and the remaining men would wait in the office at the Bankers’ Building.
An hour later, Anna Sage and a couple walked by Purvis at the Biograph. Sage and Polly waited while Dillinger bought tickets. Amazingly, the older Sage’s orange skirt looked blood red under the marquee lights.
Purvis bought a ticket and went inside. His partner, Agent Ralph Brown, informed Cowley. Purvis couldn’t see in the theater and waited in the foyer until his eyes were accustomed to the darkness. When he could see, he peered back inside the packed theater, but Dillinger was nowhere in sight. He returned to the ticket office, learning that the feature would run 94 minutes, the entire show was two hours and four minutes.
He returned to his car, and told Brown about all this. Cowley was informing Hoover about the latest, then decided that it would endanger innocent people if they tried to capture him inside the Biograph.
Cowley ordered his men into position, and Zakovich and Winstead were told to come in from the Marbro and report to the north side of the Biograph. It was expected that they would return to Mrs. Sage’s apartment when they exited, and as they passed, Purvis was told to light a cigar. There was a shortcut to the Sage place via the theater’s alley, as well, which would also be covered.
And What Do YOU Think?
This will end here and now without any extraneous fanfare on July 22, 1934. Dillinger was shot five times outside the Biograph Theater in the alleyway when he exited. He died shortly thereafter. It was said that he was armed and that he reached for his gun. It is also said that it wasn’t Dillinger that died, that it was a stand in named James Lawrence, an alias that Dillinger frequently used. Dillinger is still laughing, for nobody ever really knew the way that he thought or his motives, but I will tell you this: he never wanted the little man hurt for any of his actions.
And Anna Sage? She was deported, anyway. Melvin Purvis committed suicide, according to the FBI. He could have accidentally shot himself while extracting a tracer bullet. Will we every really know the truth?