John Herbert Dillinger was born on June 22, 1903 in the Oak Hill section of Indianapolis, a middle-class residential neighborhood. His father, a hardworking grocer, raised him in an atmosphere of disciplinary extremes (“spare the rod and spoil the child”), harsh and repressive on some occasions. John’s mother died when he was three, and John was taken care of by his elder sister and her husband until his father remarried six years later. John resented his stepmother, although later they fell in love and had a three-years long relationship.
In adolescence, his bewildering personality became evident, and he was frequently in trouble. Finally, he quit school and got a job in a machine shop in Indianapolis. Although intelligent and a good worker, he soon became bored and often stayed out all night. His father, worried that the temptations of the city were corrupting his teenage son, sold his property in Indianapolis and moved his family to a farm near Mooresville, Indiana. However, John reacted no better to rural life and soon began to run wild again.
A break with his father and trouble with the law (auto theft) led him to enlist in the Navy. There he soon got into trouble and deserted his ship when it docked in Boston. Returning to Mooresville, he married 16-year-old Beryl Hovius in 1924. A dazzling dream of bright lights and excitement led the newlyweds to Indianapolis. Dillinger had no luck finding work in the city and joined the town pool shark, Ed Singleton, in his search for easy money. In their first attempt, they tried to rob a grocery, but were quickly apprehended. Singleton pleaded not guilty, stood trial, and was sentenced to two years in prison. Dillinger, following his father’s advice, confessed, was convicted of assault and battery with intent to rob and conspiracy to commit a felony, and received joint sentences of two to 14 years and 10 to 20 years in the Indiana State Prison. Stunned by the harsh sentence, Dillinger became a tortured, bitter man.
On May 10, 1933 he was paroled from prison after serving eight-and-a-half years of his sentence. Almost immediately, Dillinger robbed a bank in Bluffton, Ohio. Dayton police arrested him on September 22, and he was lodged in the county jail in Lima, Ohio to await trial. Four days later eight of Dillinger’s friends escaped from the Indiana State Prison, using shotguns and rifles that had been smuggled into their cells.
On October 12, three of the escaped prisoners and a parolee from the same prison showed up at the Lima jail where Dillinger was incarcerated. They told the sheriff that they had come to return Dillinger to the Indiana State Prison for violation of his parole. When the sheriff asked to see their credentials, one of the men pulled a gun, shot the sheriff, and beat him into unconsciousness. Then taking the keys to the jail, the bandits freed Dillinger and made their getaway.
The “Dillinger Gang” or “The Terror Gang” was accused of robbing 24 banks and four police stations, among other crimes. Dillinger escaped from jail twice. He was also charged with the murder of an East Chicago, Indiana police officer who shot Dillinger in his bullet-proof vest during a shootout, prompting him to return fire; he was not convicted of this crime, however. It was Dillinger’s only homicide charge.
During the Great Depression, many Americans, deep in poverty and feeling helpless, made heroes of outlaws who took what they wanted at gunpoint. Of all these many outlaws, John Herbert Dillinger came to evoke this Gangster Era, and stirred mass emotion to a degree rarely seen in this country.
Idolizing him as a modern-day Robin Hood, Dillinger was nicknamed “the Jackrabbit” for his graceful movements during his robberies — actions such as leaping over counters and his many narrow escapes from police.
The exploits of Dillinger and his gang, along with those of other criminals of the Great Depression such as Bonnie and Clyde and Ma Barker, dominated the attention of the American press and its readers during the Depression era, a period which led to the development of the modern, more sophisticated Federal Bureau of Investigation.
After evading police in four states for almost a year, Dillinger was wounded and returned to his father’s home to recover. He returned to Chicago in July 1934 and met his end at the hands of police and federal agents who were informed of his whereabouts by Ana Cumpănaș (the owner of the brothel where Dillinger had sought refuge at the time). On July 22, 1934, the police and the Division of Investigation closed in on the Biograph Theater. Federal agents, led by Melvin Purvis and Samuel P. Cowley, moved to arrest Dillinger as he exited the theater. He drew a Colt Model 1908 Vest Pocket and attempted to flee, but was killed. This was ruled as justifiable homicide.
I don’t smoke much, and I drink very little. I guess my only bad habit is robbing banks.
— John Dillinger
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