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John Dillinger: Hero for the angry masses

June 28, 2009

In April of 1934, moviegoers watched a newsreel showing the manhunt for John Dillinger.

Audiences across America cheered -- and reportedly booed at images of special agents.

Seventy-five years later, Hollywood is hoping that, once again, average citizens will connect with the story of a dangerous criminal who, by some, was considered a 20th century Robin Hood.

Dillinger died in Chicago outside the Biograph theater on July 22, 1934 but his legend here has lived on -- to the chagrin of city fathers who have felt that the city's rat-a-tat-tat reputation, cemented by gangsters such as Dillinger, has done us more harm than good.

The latest movie about Dillinger -- Johnny Depp's "Public Enemies," much of which was shot in Chicago -- hits movie theaters Wednesday. If it connects with today's audiences, it may be because Dillinger and his Tommy-gun-toting gang robbed banks at a time when financial institutions were failing by the thousands, often with people losing their life savings.

"People were very angry, and so a man going into banks with guns blazing is not necessarily presumed to be all bad," said Elliott J. Gorn, author of the recently released book, Dillinger's Wild Ride.

The 1930s public seemed to thrill at Dillinger's audacious escapades, which included breaking out of the "escape-proof" Crown Point, Ind., jail using only a wooden gun. If not exactly a Casanova, Dillinger was a charming, nattily dressed rogue who -- unlike some other outlaws of the day -- didn't randomly kill civilians.

"He was doing this at a time when America was sorely looking for colorful personalities," said Rich Lindberg, a Chicago historian and author. "He certainly wasn't a hero -- he was a criminal, but there was a lot of popular sentiment for him."

He certainly had a folklore life. In 1923, at the age of 20, he joined the Navy, lasting only five months before going AWOL. The next year he married a 16-year-old (he was 20) and, with another man, robbed a grocer in Mooresville, Ind. Captured, tried and convicted, he was sentenced to 10 to 20 years. While in prison, his wife dumped him.

"I went in a carefree boy, I came out bitter toward everything in general . . . '' he once wrote.

At age 30, with his stepmother dying, he was released on parole. The next month, on June 10, 1933, he robbed his first bank, in New Carlisle, Ohio, taking about $10,000. Again captured, Dillinger is returned to prison but escaped and continued a crime spree where he and his gang were said to have held up 13 banks 15 months, stealing an estimated $350,000. A shoot-out with federal agents in northern Wisconsin in 1934 left Lester "Baby Face" Nelson dead and Dillinger on the run.

On June 22, 1934, Dillinger was named America's first Public Enemy No. 1 by U.S. Attorney General Homer Cummings. There was a $10,000 reward for his capture.

The son of an Indiana shopkeeper who later bought a farm, Dillinger was easily bored. Chicago kept him entertained. A baseball fan, he liked Wrigley Field and enjoyed the nightlife.

"He had lots of money to spend in the Depression," Lindberg said. "He had a big roll of bills. He took women out to the best nightclubs."

One of those women, a former "bawdy house" madam named Ana Sage, betrayed Dillinger. Facing deportation, Sage told authorities she'd give them Dillinger if they'd make immigration officials leave her alone.

And so, on a sweltering July night in 1934, Dillinger, Sage and Dillinger's girlfriend, Polly Hamilton, went to the Biograph to see "Manhattan Melodrama" staring Clark Gable. Dillinger had wanted to go to an air-conditioned theater. The Biograph advertised in bold letters on its marquee that it was "cooled by refrigeration."

Federal agents were waiting for Dillinger when he came out. Dillinger fled, making it only to a nearby alley, before he was cut down. As blood pooled around his body, a huge crowd gathered. Women dipped their skirts in his blood for a keepsake; others used handkerchiefs or newpapers.

When reporters told Dillinger's 69-year-old father that his son had been killed, he was skeptical. He'd heard reports like that many times before. But when the truth finally sank in, the father, with tears running down his face, said: "I regret he got in bad and had to be shot down that way, but I kinda been expecting it. . . . Johnny was not near as bad as he was painted."

Dillinger is buried at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis, where tourists still flock. Some chip away bits of his granite headstone, said Marty Davis, who runs a tourist program at the cemetery.

"We are actually on the third headstone," he said.

Video: Dillinger-Then and Now

Desperate Dillinger needed new look

John Dillinger knew he could get just about anything in Chicago -- including a new face.

Because of his fame, life was becoming increasingly tough for Dillinger. On May 27, 1934, he underwent plastic surgery in a North Side apartment.

The surgeon was Dr. Wilhelm Loeser, a German immigrant, who had served time in prison for illegally dispensing narcotics.

According to Dillinger, by G. Russell Girardin, Dillinger at first stopped breathing when given ether to knock him out. He was revived and the operation began.

Loeser cut away three moles on Dillinger's forehead, then removed a slit of skin under the lobe of each ear and pulled the skin to tighten Dillinger's face. The entire nose was slit open and rebuilt, and tissue taken from his cheeks was used to fill in a dimple on the gangster's chin.

The result: a Dillinger partner told him he looked as if he had been in a dog fight. But Dillinger was satisfied, and, writes Girardin, "after Dillinger's death there was at first some doubt as to whether the right man had been killed.''