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Your Saturday history briefing

Chicago Sun-Times Afternoon Edition
Welcome to the “This week in history” newsletter, part of Afternoon Edition! Every Saturday we take a break from recapping the day’s news to bring you a deep dive into Chicago’s blimp-crashing, bank-robbing and often literary history. For more historic photos, follow us at @CSTphotovault on Facebook and Instagram.
— Alison Martin (@miss_alison_m, follow for extra history plus rants and dogs throughout the week)

This week in history
The front page of the Chicago Daily News on July 22, 1919, provided first-hand accounts of the terrible Goodyear blimp crash a day earlier. From the Sun-Times archives.
The front page of the Chicago Daily News on July 22, 1919, provided first-hand accounts of the terrible Goodyear blimp crash a day earlier. From the Sun-Times archives.
As World War I wound to a close in 1919, a sense of optimism swept through the United States, influencing even the most hardened news editor. Why else would the Chicago Daily News make such a far-reaching claim that the city would become the “blimpopolis of the world,” the gateway from North America to London, Paris and Berlin?
“Great passenger airships will make the hop from Chicago to London, and as for New York — it will be merely a crossroads aerial station, where the pilot may whistle or not at his own sweet will,” a Daily News reporter wrote on July 21, 1919.
The editors could not have been more wrong.
The Daily News published at 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, but its timing that day in July could not have been worse. At about that time, the Wingfoot Air Express, a blimp owned by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, crashed into the Illinois Trust and Savings Building, killing 13 people and injuring dozens more. This story would be particularly painful for the paper because one of its former photographers was onboard the airship.
The tragedy occurred at about 4:55 p.m. when the blimp, carrying passengers from Comiskey Park to the White City Amusement Park on the South Side, caught fire while flying over the Loop, according to the next day’s paper. It then dropped about 200 feet and hit the bank.
Here’s more about the terrible crash. Another journalist aboard the blimp was also killed in the crash. His account of what it was like to fly in the aircraft appeared days later in the Lincoln Journal Star of Lincoln, Nebraska. The crash touched off a series of tragedies that would last through the rest of the month, ending with the race riots. Here’s more on that awful week.
MORE THIS WEEK IN HISTORY:
First mention/Last mention
A large crowd lines the block surrounding the State Lake Theatre, 190 N. State St., to buy tickets to the late Bruce Lee film, "Enter the Dragon." The actor and martial arts expert died July 20, 1973. From the Sun-Times archives.
A large crowd lines the block surrounding the State Lake Theatre, 190 N. State St., to buy tickets to the late Bruce Lee film, "Enter the Dragon." The actor and martial arts expert died July 20, 1973. From the Sun-Times archives.
Rudy Lozano, born July 17, 1951: Pilsen wouldn’t be what it is today without the hard work of people like Rudy Lozano. The labor and political activist got his start at Carter Henry Harrison Technical High School, where he and other students staged a walkout to protest the poor conditions of the school and the lack of Latino representation in the curriculum. Lozano later campaigned for Harold Washington and stayed active in the politics of the 22nd Ward. His first mention in the Chicago Sun-Times came when he spoke out against three of Mayor Jane Byrne’s nominees to the Board of Education, none of whom were Mexican Americans. “Maybe one of the things that could be done is that Tom Ayers be taken off,” he told the committee responsible for confirming the appointments.
Bruce Lee, died July 20, 1973: The master of martial arts on the big screen, Bruce Lee wowed audiences with his moves and took down dozens of bad guys with his impressive skills. He began studying the Wing Chun style of gung fu with Master Yip Man at the age of 13, according to his official website, and moved to the United States when he was just 18. Although he had dreams of opening gung fu studios across the country, he threw himself into his acting, starring in popular TV shows such as “Batman” and “The Green Hornet” and movies like “Enter the Dragon” and “Fist of Fury.” Lee died unexpectedly after having a hypersensitive reaction to an ingredient in a painkiller. The last mention of his name before his death came in Norman Mark’s Nov. 27, 1972 column in which he answered some reader letters. One martial arts fan asked, “Wouldn’t it be great to have Bruce Lee, Kato of the Green Hornet show, do a weekly series?” Mark agreed. “Anything you say is all right by me.”
Check out the University of Illinois’ new digital exhibit on alumni Rudy Lozano’s political activism. To see more, visit the physical exhibit currently held at UIC’s Richard J. Daley Library. Watch some of Bruce Lee’s best fight scenes and read more about his personal life and philosophies.
Chicago's most wanted
People crowded in Cook County morgue to view the body of John Dillinger after he was killed by FBI agents outside the Biograph Theater on July 22, 1934. Photo by Rocco Padulo Jr./Chicago Sun-Times.
People crowded in Cook County morgue to view the body of John Dillinger after he was killed by FBI agents outside the Biograph Theater on July 22, 1934. Photo by Rocco Padulo Jr./Chicago Sun-Times.
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.
The stacks
Every writer dreams of winning the Nobel Prize, one of the greatest, most prestigious awards any novelist or poet can ever hope to achieve, but for Oak Park native Ernest Hemingway, that dream appeared to be very far out of reach.
Despite the critical success of his books (and not including the longevity they would have in classrooms across the country), something about Hemingway’s work rubbed some members of the literary community the wrong way.
“Hemingway’s earlier writings display brutal cynical and callous sides which may be considered at variance with the Nobel Prize’s requirements for a work of an ideal tendency,” Nobel judge Professor Andres Österling explained.
Österling advocated for Hemingway, who died this week on July 21, 1961, and in October 1954, the author and journalist won a Nobel Prize for his 1953 book, “The Old Man and the Sea,” which also won a Pulitzer.
Hemingway couldn’t accept the award in person at the ceremony in December. He was in Cuba recovering from not one but two plane crashes in Africa. Instead he sent a statement to be read by U.S. Ambassador John Moors Cabot.
“It expressed humility in the acceptance of the prize,” the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
Though the ceremony took place nearly a year after the plane crashes, he would’ve been in no position to go anywhere — especially by plane.
The front page of the Chicago Sun-Times as it appeared on Jan. 25, 1954.
The front page of the Chicago Sun-Times as it appeared on Jan. 25, 1954.
Hemingway and his wife, Mary, boarded a chartered plane in Kenya for a 600-mile flight over Lake Victoria and Lake Albert to the 400-foot Murchison Falls on the Victoria River, according to a Jan. 25, 1954 Sun-Times article. A day after they went missing, British pilot Capt. R.C. Jude of the British Overseas Airways Corps found what he believed to be their crashed plane in Uganda. He circled the area, dipping to just 200 feet off the ground, but saw no trace of the pair.
“This is one of the most inaccessible spots in Uganda — dominated by crocodiles, elephants, buffaloes, lions and other big game — and one of the most beautiful.”
Jude noted the plane’s identification letters, confirming it as the Hemingways’ plane. He saw very little damage to it.
“I would think the passengers climbed out and made for the river which was only 300 yards away, but you cannot tell about these things. It looked like the chap did a neat job of landing the aircraft.”
But Hemingway’s luck held out. He and Mary were located the next day. They endured yet another plane crash when the engine of their rescue plane caught fire as it took off, but the pair arrived in Entebbe, Uganda, technically in one piece.
“My luck — she is running very good,” he told a United Press reporter while clutching “a bunch of bananas and a bottle of gin.” His head was bandaged and his arm injured, but the author was in good spirits. He poked fun at his wife, who had two cracked ribs and a limp, about her snoring in the jungle.
“We held our breaths about two hours while an elephant 12 paces away was silhouetted in the moonlight, listening to my wife’s snores,” he joked.
In concluding his reasons for supporting Hemingway’s Nobel Prize candidacy, Österling said, “But on the other hand, he also possesses a heroic pathos which forms the basic element in his awareness of life, a manly love of danger and adventure, with a natural admiration for every individual who fights the good fight in a world of reality overshadowed by violence and death.”
He finished his praise by calling Hemingway “one of the greatest authors of our time.”
It’s never too late to read an Ernest Hemingway classic. Check out “The Old Man and the Sea,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “The Sun Also Rises.” For more on his life, check out this documentary from A&E.
Thanks for reading! Want to share your thoughts? Your favorite moment in Chicago history? Your complaints? Send them to amartin@suntimes.com.
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