The night of July 22, 1934, must have felt like the end of an era in Chicago. On the North Side outside the Biograph Theater, FBI agents gunned down Public Enemy Number One John Dillinger as he left the movie theater with two women.
Starting in the spring of 1933, Chicagoans devoured newspaper accounts of a terrible 18-month crime spree that swept the country, known as the Great Crime Wave of 1933-34. Readers would come to know the names of Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson maybe even better than they knew their president’s name. At a time when people struggled to find work and put food on the table, reading about any harm coming to banks likely felt somewhat cathartic.
“On reflection,” Bryan Burrough writes in his book, “Public Enemies,” “that spring would have been seen as a low point. Muddy shantytowns spread along the Potomac River, beneath Riverside Drive in New York, and in Chicago, Boston and San Francisco. Thousands of families, including a legion of dirty children, lived nomadic lives in railroad cars, rumbling across the Midwest, lurching from town to town in search of a better life that was nowhere to be found.”
He added: “People were angry. They blamed the government. They blamed the banks.”
These feelings, combined with a charismatic outlaw, turned Dillinger and his fellow desperados into modern-day Robin Hoods, out to steal from the rich and stick it to the government. Though none of them lived up to Robin Hood’s moral standard (and many left trails of bodies in their wake), readers couldn’t get enough of their exploits.
So when Dillinger’s crime spree came to a violent end in 1934, the Chicago Daily News tapped reporter Robert J. Casey to chronicle the outlaw’s life. Casey had followed Dillinger’s exploits from the beginning, and he wrote a full, three-part account that was published on July 25, 26, and 27 in the paper, pulling from old interviews and using his literary style of writing to do Dillinger’s story justice. He called it, “Dillinger: The Country Boy Killer.”
The son of a grocer from Mooresville, Indiana, Dillinger enjoyed a fairly unremarkable childhood, Casey wrote. Despite losing his mother at the age of 3, he had a loving family, a good education and an overall genial nature.
“He was not a murderer — not even quick-tempered,” the reporter said. “He was kind to animals and unacquainted with firearms.”
That all came to a screeching halt when he and a drinking buddy decided to rob a local grocery store in 1924. After knocking back a few drinks, the pair beat the owner and stole $11.
Police wasted no time arresting them, and a judge sentenced Dillinger, who pled guilty, to 10 to 21 years in prison. His buddy, who pled not guilty, got two years.
“Johnny Dillinger appears to have had the sympathy of everybody in Mooresville except the prosecuting witness, the judge and the jury — which powerful minority was too much for him,” Casey recorded. “He was given the longest sentence provided by the law and stricken from the census roll of Mooresville permanently.”
Whether or not the sentence was just, prison proved to be the opposite of what Dillinger likely needed. In an interview given in March 1934 at the Crown Point, Indiana, jail, he described his attitude toward prison as a university to train him for his new criminal profession. His antics in prison earned him a transfer to the state prison in Michigan City where he studied under the best professors of the era.
“I read everything I could find in the prison library — I figured that a fund of general knowledge would help me a lot in my new profession after graduation.”
He also gained insightful knowledge on what separates the good criminals from the great ones.
“The more I talked with criminals,” he said, “the more I realized why they never got anywhere. Crime on the whole is unorganized — undisciplined. When you consider the class of intelligence that engages in it you marvel that it ever succeeds at all.
"Pickpockets, on the whole, are the most likely to succeed because they are the only crooks in the business who work as a cooperative unit. Each member of a mob of dips has his job and does it. That’s why pickpockets are so hard to catch and convict.”
When the student of crime got out of Michigan City after serving nine years in 1933, he didn’t quite follow his professors. But unknown to him, he had only about a year left of his life.
Casey noted that Dillinger’s early exploits garnered only one five-lined story in the Chicago papers. His gang was anything but disciplined as they robbed banks in Indiana and Ohio during the summer of 1933. In September, he helped smuggle guns into the Michigan City prison so a number of his buddies — Harry Pierpont, Charles Makley, John Hamilton, Walter Dietrich, and Russell Clark — could escape. They got out just in time. Dillinger himself had been captured in Dayton, Ohio, but his crew repaid the favor and got him out the following month.
The Dillinger gang continued their reign of terror, targeting banks and police arsenals. Newspaper readers seemed to enjoy reading about the criminals’ daring escapes and exploits, Casey observed, but public opinion likely turned when Dillinger shot an East Chicago, Indiana, police officer during a bank robbery in January 1934. The murder sent him and his gang into hiding, though they were eventually caught in Tucson, Arizona about a month later.
Back in Crown Point, Indiana, where he would be tried for the officer’s murder, Dillinger “had a magnetic personality and a ready smile and his suggestion that there had been a mistake in the murder charge against him was straightforward and convincing.” Despite protestations of his depraved mind, Capt. John Stege and Sheriff Lillian Holley never quite managed to convincingly paint Dillinger as a dangerous man.
What happened next of course is legend: Dillinger escaped the allegedly impenetrable Crown Point jail in March 1934 using a wooden gun blackened with shoe polish. He stole Holley’s car and drove west across state lines into Illinois, breaking federal law and finally bringing in the FBI.
Once again, the public ate it up.
“This exploit, ingeniously designed and cooly executed, caused less consternation throughout the land than might have been expected,” Casey wrote. “The public that should have been outraged at the escape of a dangerous criminal leaned back and laughed. The Dillinger legend was well on its way.”
With barely four months of his life left — unknown to him of course — Dillinger sought to hide and eventually retire. He made fewer appearances in public and narrowly escaped federal agents in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the Little Bohemia resort in Wisconsin.
And finally, the bank robber’s luck ran out. While attending “Manhattan Melodrama” with waitress Polly Hamilton and friend Anna Sage, federal agents killed Dillinger in an alley after he and his friends came out of the theater.
Casey’s work is particularly remarkable considering that he had all of three days to write it. He did, however, make one peculiar mistake. Throughout the story, he alleged that a woman gave up Dillinger to the feds for $15,000, yet his previous reporting the day after Dillinger’s death suggests he already knew Sage was the one who sold out the criminal. It’s unclear who Casey thought fingered Dillinger in the end.
Throughout his writing, Casey remained coolheaded about portraying Dillinger: “He was still merely a bank robber — a formidable bank robber but nothing fancy.”
He also addressed the comparisons made to Robin Hood, “a sort of benevolent robber who seemed to wear a hero’s laurels because he stood alone (except for the gang of talented murderers) against the police.” But he also, in Casey’s words, “made the law seem ridiculous — which entailed no great effort on his part.”
Ironically, the Great Crime Wave, in which Dillinger played a major role, led to the creation of the modern FBI as it is known today, strengthening the very laws he so casually ignored.
“It rained the day Mr. Dillinger was born. It rained also the day they were burying him in Indianapolis,” Casey concluded. “But in the latter case, at least, the augury meant nothing to Mr. Dillinger.”
John Dillinger was just one major player in the Great Crime Wave. Read about them all in Bryan Burrough’s “Public Enemies” (P.S. Skip the movie). For a great in-depth look at Dillinger, check out PBS’ “Public Enemy #1” from American Experience. Robert J. Casey continued to write about crime and life in Chicago, and he later served as a war correspondent in World War II. Check out his papers.