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Traveling Around - Crown Point, Indiana - John Dillinger Museum

Updated on June 23, 2016
Entrance to the Dillinger Museum
Entrance to the Dillinger Museum | Source
Lake County Courthouse
Lake County Courthouse | Source

The John Dillinger Museum is located in the basement of the court house. When we started to park the car on the street, I noticed a policeman writing what looked like a ticket for some hapless motorist that had parked incorrectly. I moved my car to a spot that I was sure was appropriate and when I got out of the car, I realized that the policeman was really a statue. Each year the city rents the statues and puts them on display in several areas of town. We soon realized that a woman and her dog as well as a man disposing of some trash were part of the display. Near the trash disposing man stood another in a clerical collar using a cell phone. The quality of the suit worn by the cleric was surprisingly realistic and we were embarrassed that the man on the phone wasn't a display but was truly a man on the phone. I don't think we attracted his attention so quickly turned the other way.

That part of Indiana is unexpectedly in the Central Time Zone so that when we arrived it was 9:30 local time and the museum didn't open at 10:00 AM. We wandered around the downtown area for a bit finding the various statues. Some of them were so realistic that I'm still unsure if we were looking at statues or at real people.

The area of the courthouse that contains the museum is undergoing some renovation but also contains some touristy kinds of shops with gifts and toys and miscellaneous merchandise. The area used to be the county morgue. After paying the admission, there is a detour that leads through a jail door into the museum. The door is controlled electronically by the out-of-sight attendant at the front desk.

State of Indiana Electric Chair
State of Indiana Electric Chair | Source

Just inside the door is this display. It illustrates the theme of the museum - "The museum may be about John Dillinger, but remembers crime ends badly and doesn't pay".

The red plaque to the upper left of the picture states that this is the chair used at the Indiana State Prison and that it was used 62 times. This particular display illustrates the execution of Bruno Hauptman (the convicted Lindbergh baby kidnapper). (Addendum - Got a comment from a reader that Hauptman was executed in New Jersey so apparently there is an error in the exhibit information.) It was used the first time in 1914 and the last time in 1994.

John Dillinger was born in 1903 in Indianapolis, Indiana. In 1921 in an effort to keep John, a rebellious young person, out of trouble his family bought and ran a grocery store in Mooresville, Indiana, a small town in the south central part of the state. In 1924, John first came to the attention of the court system for robbing a local merchant who was going to the bank with a deposit of $50. His father made an effort to get the court system to consider John's youth and lack of previous crimes, but the court sentenced John to 10 to 20 years in prison.

Jail Cell At Dillinger Museum
Jail Cell At Dillinger Museum | Source

During the intial parts of the museum, John comes across as a normal Hoosier boy that perhaps is barefoot on a dusty road much of the time. He is an avid baseball player in his high school years. Depression times made employment difficult and he found himself drinking and carousing with an undesirable crowd. This apparently led to the first robbery.

Upon his incarceration, he announced that "I will be the meanest bastard you ever saw when I get out of here." He became a student of the bank robbers that were in prison and when his father convinced the parole board to release him in May of 1933, the 9 1/2 years in prison had served to make him a full fledged criminal. His criminal career would span on 14 months but would bring him notoriety that would last many decades.

Very quickly he formed a gang to rob banks. He used the knowledge he had gained in prison and his first robbery was at New Carlisle, Ohio, where he stole $10,000. Considering inflation, that amount would be worth over $179,000 today so this virtually penniless country boy was flush with the money.. John began living the high life immediately. He soon needed more money and robbed the bank in Bluffton, Ohio, on August 14. Apprehended for the Bluffton robbery, he was jailed in Lima, Ohio, where his gang instigated the first of several outlandish jail escapes for which he became known.

FBI Diorama
FBI Diorama
Dillinger Arsenal Illustration
Dillinger Arsenal Illustration

The museum begins to illustrate the problems and solutions faced by law enforcement during this time rather than the life and times of John Dillinger. The Bureau went through several name changes and realignment of duties but by 1932 was concentrating on crime - particularly prohibition - within the United States. There are several dioramas within the museum that illustrate law enforcement and define the fastidiousness of the FBI and the slovenliness of the criminal element once the FBI became involved.

At about this time in the exhibits we realized that we weren't thinking of him as "John" anymore - the barefoot boy in Indiana. We were thinking of him as John Dillinger, the criminal that would kill you if he thought you were a threat.

One of the problems that is illustrated at the museum is the lack of firepower and personal protection by the local law enforcement personnel. Dillinger and his gang recognized that they had the same deficit and to remedy that, they robbed police arsenals at Auburn and Peru, Indiana, stealing several machine guns, rifles, and revolvers, a quantity of ammunition, and several bulletproof vests.

According to the displays in the museum, most local law enforcement could not hope to contain the Dillinger gang which had an arsenal such as the one displayed.

Fake Gun Used By Dillinger
Fake Gun Used By Dillinger | Source

It seemed for a while that local jails could not hold the Dillinger gang. Either by deadly force, or by ingenuity, or by bribing low paid local law enforcement, the gang escaped from jails throughout Indiana and Ohio. Perhaps the most famous one occurred in Crown Point, IN, where he was jailed after extradition from Arizona. Dillinger carved a fake gun. Legend has distorted the material used and it ranges from a bar of soap to a potato to a shelf in his cell. He used it to intimidate a trustee and took him hostage and then threatened his way out of the jail.

The museum illustrates John Dillinger's running and dodging the FBI. Local law enforcement was hampered by lack of communication during the early 1930's and apprehension in area other than the area robbed was unlikely. The Dillinger Gang and John in particular ran rampant through the outlying Chicago area in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Illinois. The museum illustrates that he and his cohort enjoyed travelling on vacation when they were flush with money from the robberies.

Biograph Theater, Chicago
Biograph Theater, Chicago

On July 22, 1934, Dillinger attended the movies with a friend, Anna Sage (more readily known as the "Lady In Red") and as he was leaving was confronted by federal agents. He tried to escape and was killed. His body was displayed at the Cook County Jail. After being viewed by some 15,000 people, it was moved to the morgue in Crown Point, Indiana, where it lay while a struggle went on about the place of burial. Finally his father prevailed and the body was transported to Mooresville, Indiana.

There is a diorama of the body of John Dillinger in the morgue as it appeared in 1934 in Crown Point.

Morgue Diorama
Morgue Diorama | Source

There is an admission charge. The hours and other information can be found on the museum's website. When visiting, remember that although Crown Point is in Indiana, it is on Central Time and an allowance should be made for the difference.


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