By Marc Kelley
As with many of the Gangsters of the 1930’s, John Dillinger was and continues today, to be portrayed as a modern day “Robin Hood” fighting for the little guy against the big money banks and corrupt politicians of the time. Books have been written, movies have been made, and stories have been told of how this charismatic Gangster lived and how he died. Dillinger loved the limelight as much as any politician alive today and he often posed for photographs working his charm and becoming a master at manipulating the media. Much like those who seek the bright lights of fame, Dillinger was constantly baiting the media into telling his story, the way he wanted it to be told. A deeper look into the life of John Dillinger reveals a man who was very much a creature of habit and a man who spared no expense to indulge his depravity. Dillinger loved women and there is little doubt he was attracted to a certain “type”. Beautiful women with dark hair, dark eyes, and a misguided sense of loyalty, would always be on his arm or at his side. Whether or not you believe he loved these women is for you to decide. What is not in question is the fact, John Dillinger drew his final breath on July 22, 1934 while enjoying the spoils gained from a life of crime.
|John Herbert Dillinger was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on June 22, 1903. He was the youngest of three children born to a second generation of immigrant parents, whose family came to our country in the early 1850’s. In an interview given by Dillinger himself, he described his childhood as “harsh”, going so far as to explain his Father believed in the concept, “spare the rod and spoil the child”. Whether this was in fact the truth or simply part of the story John Dillinger wanted the public to believe, it seems clear his Father was unable to convey his message to his son. Dillinger’s Mother died just before his fourth birthday and he was raised by his sister for several years, until his Father remarried in 1912. Most accounts of this time tell of a difficult relationship between Dillinger and his Stepmother. Dillinger’s teen years were especially tough for himself as well as his family. The young Dillinger was constantly in trouble for petty theft and bullying younger, smaller children. Unable to get along with the other students, Dillinger left school and began working in a machine shop; however, his criminal behavior continued. Constantly in trouble and running with the wrong crowd, Dillinger’s Father intervened and moved his family to the rural town of Mooresville, Indiana. Once again, a change of venue would not change the young man’s behavior and within a year after the move, he was arrested for auto theft. Given the choice between going to prison and enlisting in the military, Dillinger chose the latter, and entered the Navy, where he served as a Fireman, 3rd Class aboard the USS Utah. Dillinger fared no better with the discipline that comes with serving in the military and within a few months he deserted and was ultimately dishonorably discharged.|
|After returning home to Mooresville, Dillinger met a sixteen year old girl by the name of Beryl Ethel Hovious. Beryl was a beautiful young woman with dark hair and dark eyes, just exactly what John Dillinger liked in his women. In 1924 the two were married and once again Dillinger attempted to settle down and live an honest life with his beautiful, young wife. However, much like his previous attempts to abide by the rules of a civilized society, Dillinger was again drawn into a life of crime. Dillinger joined his friend Ed Singleton and the two planned and carried out a robbery of a local grocery store. In the process of the robbery, Dillinger pulled a gun and attempted to force the owner into giving up the cash he had on hand. It is unclear exactly what transpired next; however, the firearm was discharged and even though the bullet struck no one, the use of the weapon increased the charges Dillinger would ultimately face for his participation in the robbery. As the pair attempted to get away from the scene, they were spotted by a local minister who recognized the pair and reported what he had seen to the local police. The two men were arrested the next day. Singleton immediately pled not guilty to the crime and requested a jury trial. Dillinger however, was convinced by his Father to “do the right thing” and pled guilty to the crime without first consulting an attorney. Because he used a weapon, and ultimately struck the shop owner in the head with a machine bolt he had wrapped in a cloth, the charges against Dillinger included: assault, battery with intent to rob and conspiracy to commit a felony. For his crimes, Dillinger was sentenced to 10-20 years in the Indiana State Prison. Dillinger was clearly angry and felt he had been “sold a bill of goods” after admitting to his crime and being sentenced to what he saw as an overly harsh sentence. Upon being processed into the State Prison, Dillinger exhibited his self-absorbed, bigger than life ego, stating “I will be the meanest bastard you ever saw when I get out of here”, and so began what would be his education, into a life of crime.|
|In Prison Dillinger would meet and begin a longtime friendship with Harry “Pete” Pierpoint, Homer Van Meter, Charles Makley, and Russell Clark. These men were seasoned criminals and bank robbers who would teach the young Dillinger how to be successful in the world of crime. Through stories and accounts of their exploits, the three older men introduced Dillinger to the bank robbing system which had been developed by Herman Lamm, the man who would become known as “The Father of modern bank robbery”. The four men formed a close knit unit and planned a series of bank robberies they would commit as soon as they were released from prison. For Dillinger that time would be nine years, and in May 1933, Dillinger was paroled and released from prison. 1933 was the height of the Great Depression, jobs were scarce, times were tough, and true to his word, Dillinger had no intentions of attempting to abide by the law or make an honest living.|
|June 21, 1933 Dillinger robbed the New Carlisle National Bank in New Carlisle, Ohio and made off with $ 10,000.00. Twenty three days later he robbed a bank in Bluffton, Ohio and was captured by police who had been following his movements. Upon his arrest and search, a document was discovered which appeared to lay out a plan for a prison escape. Dillinger refused to answer any question about the document and the police never realized what they had in their possession. The document in question was in fact Dillinger’s personal notes covering a plan to break his friends out of prison. The plan called for firearms to be smuggled into the laundry facility of the Indiana State Prison where his friends held prison jobs. Four days after Dillinger’s capture, Pete Pierpoint, Russell Clark, Charles Makley, Ed Shouse, Harry Copeland and John Hamilton, escaped from the Indiana State Prison, following Dillinger’s plan. Returning the favor, on October 12, 1933, Pierpoint, Clark and Makley posed as Indiana State Police Officers, and claimed to be part of the extradition order to return Dillinger to Indiana to face charges in that state. When asked for their credentials, Pierpoint pulled his firearm and shot Sheriff Jess Sarber in the head at point blank range. The four men escaped to Indiana and formed what would be called the “Terror Gang”, with John Dillinger leading the crew and planning their robberies. Over the next twelve months The Terror Gang would commit a string of twelve bank robberies. It is also during this time period, John Dillinger would meet his second dark haired, dark eyed stunningly beautiful, female companion…her name was Billie Frechette.|
|Billie Frechette, by most accounts was a “party girl” who liked the cabaret atmosphere, enjoyed alcohol, and the free wheeling life of the 1930’s. At age 26, she met John Dillinger, fell in love and began traveling with him. Frechette was the perfect companion for Dillinger’s persona. Her role was more that of “eye candy” than that of an accomplice or partner in crime. Whether or not you believe Dillinger loved Billie Frechette, it was very clear, she loved him. Dillinger would spend just under six months with Billie Frechette, and in that time the couple traveled extensively and were often in the company of Lester “Baby Face” Nelson. On one trip in particular, Frechette accompanied Dillinger as well as “Baby Face” Nelson and his wife Helen, to San Antonio, Texas. The two Gangsters were looking to add to their arsenal and had heard of a young gunsmith named Hyman Lehman. Lehman had a particular way with firearms and would modify several Colt 1911 pistols which were chambered in the new 38 Super cartridge . In addition to several pistols and ammunition, Lehman sold the gangsters Thompson sub machine-guns. When law enforcement recovered some of these weapons, they would be traced back to the San Antonio gunsmith and when the newly formed FBI came to talk to Hyman Lehman, it would be his description of Billie Frechette and her good looks, which allowed them to tie her to the Gangsters. Dillinger and “Baby Face” Nelson had posed as wealthy Texas oilmen looking to add unique weapons to their personal collections. When the weapons were shipped, it would be to the address of the apartment, Billie Frechette shared with Dillinger in St Paul, Minnesota. It would not take long before law enforcement began surveillance on Billie Frechette and on April 9, 1934 she would be arrested, charged with harboring a fugitive and subsequently convicted and sentenced to two years incarceration at the Federal Correctional Farm in Milan, Michigan. The story goes that Dillinger and an unknown associate watched from less than a block way as FBI Agents arrested Frechette. While Dillinger was visibly upset with her incarceration, no plans were made to break her out of prison as he had done for several other members of his gang. The couple would never see each other again, as John Dillinger would be killed by FBI Agents while Billie was serving time.|
|Dillinger had always enjoyed the “party life” and the un-ending supply of young women on whom he would ply with his charm and flattery. The subject of the many women Dillinger was involved with, caused friction between the other members of the gang, but none more so, then with Helen Gillis, the wife of “Baby Face” Nelson. Yet no amount of warning or council would get through to John Dillinger. In what would turn out to be a very accurate description, Lester “Baby Face” Nelson warned Dillinger about his penchant for pretty women. After narrowly escaping the shoot-out at The Little Bohemia Lodge, “Baby Face” Nelson told Dillinger, ” mark my words, it will be a woman that will be your death”. Unfazed by the warning, Dillinger is said to have laughed and told his friend he was going to the cabaret to find a “friend” who would appreciate his company.|
|It was not long thereafter, John Dillinger would take up company with yet another beautiful woman with dark features. Polly Hamilton, was a runaway from Fargo, North Dakota who upon reaching the city met and befriended another young woman named Anna Sage. Anna Sage was a part-time prostitute who would travel to Chicago to work. Sage introduced Hamilton to the lifestyle and in the summer of 1934 the pair were sharing an apartment in the city. Hamilton and Dillinger would meet in June of 1934 at the Barrel of Fun Night Club. The couple began dating and spending time together at the apartment Anna and Polly shared. By this time the FBI had named John Dillinger as “Public Enemy # 1” and placed at $ 10,000.00 reward on his head. The large reward resulted in a steady flow of tips concerning Dillingers on his whereabouts and soon allowed the FBI to tie Dillinger to Polly and Anna. In what would be seen as immoral and bigoted by the Chicago politics of today, FBI Agent Melvin Purvis along with the help of the Chicago Police, picked Anna Sage up for questioning. Upon learning she was an immigrant from Romania, the Feds threatened her with deportation on the grounds of “low moral character”, unless she gave them information about Dillinger. Scared and without options, Anna Sage agreed to provide information as to the time and place Dillinger could be found. Upon learning that Polly and Dillinger were planning to attend a movie at the Biograph Theater, Anna contacted Melvin Purvis and agreed to join the couple and to wear a bright orange dress so that she could be easily identified by the FBI Agents, as the three walked to the theater. On July 22, 1934, it would be the warning given to John Dillinger by his friend “Baby Face” Nelson, which would prove prophetic. Dillinger died in a hail of gunfire from FBI Agents after being sold out by Anna Sage. If Dillinger could have avoided the temptation of the beautiful, young, dark haired Polly, he almost certainly would not have met his end, on that hot Chicago day.|
|While many may say Dillinger got exactly what he deserve, and equal number will argue to the contrary. For many years rumors persisted, John Dillinger had never murdered anyone. The only accusation of violence noted in history, stems from the 1934 of killing Patrolman Patrick O’Malley, following a bank robbery in East Chicago. However Dillinger was never arrested or convicted of this or any other murder. On the night of Dillinger’s death, an unknown individual chalked a pavement near the Biograph Theater with the epitaph: |
“Stranger, stop and wish me well, just a prayer for my soul in Hell. I was a good fellow, most people said,betrayed by a woman all dressed in red.