“I rob banks for a living. What do you do?” ~ John H. Dillinger The Short Life of a Notorious Bank Robber

The stock market crash of October, 1929, was the beginning of a collapse of the American economy that was to last for nearly ten years. Prosperity was restored then by a huge war preparedness boom. During the 1930s thousands of businesses failed, construction was halted on new buildings, people who owed large amounts of money that had been borrowed for speculative ventures shot themselves or jumped out of high windows, and young people who were “making good” in the big city came home for long visits with mom and dad.

“We’re having too good a time today. We ain’t thinking about tomorrow.

The deepening depression and resistance to the prohibition of alcoholic beverages combined to produce a breed of felon that made Jesse James and his desperadoes seem like amateur bumkins. Stories of bank robbery, bootlegging, shoot-outs and gang warfare kept the public entertained and left law enforcement in a state of embarrassed anxiety. The Midwest was the center of the stage on which the action took place, and Chicago supplied most of the prominent actors and the best performances. Al Capone, the most famous criminal, went to prison in 1931. He was convicted not of murder or violation of the Volstead Act, but of income tax evasion. The second most notorious rascal of these times was certainly John Dillinger, and it was he who contributed a paragraph to Kosciusko county history.

John Herbert Dillinger was born June 22, 1903 in Indianapolis, Indiana and died July 22, 1934 in Chicago, Illinois. The American criminal who was perhaps the most famous bank robber in U.S. history, was known for a series of robberies and escapes from June 1933 to July 1934.

Dillinger, who was born in Indianapolis, had a difficult childhood. When he was three years old, his mother died, and he later had a strained relationship with his stepmother. Often in trouble, he eventually dropped out of school. The family subsequently settled on a farm in nearby Mooresville, but the relocation had little effect on Dillinger’s behavior. In 1923 he joined the navy and served on the USS Utah before deserting after only a few months. Dillinger then returned to Indiana. In September 1924 he was caught in the foiled holdup of a Mooresville grocer, and he served much of the next decade in Indiana State Prison. While incarcerated, he learned the craft of bank robbery from fellow inmates. So, while it can not be said that the depression drove him into crime, upon parole on May 10, 1933, he turned his knowledge to profit by organizing a gang and robbing (with one to four confederates) five Indiana and Ohio banks in four months. He gained his first notoriety as a daring, sharply dressed gunman and becoming a legend that has found its way into the archives of American folklore.

In September 1933 Dillinger was captured and jailed in Ohio. However, the following month he was rescued by five former convict pals whose own escape from Indiana State Prison he had earlier financed and plotted; a sheriff was killed during the incident. Dillinger and his gang next robbed banks in Indiana and Wisconsin and fled south to Florida and then to Tucson, Arizona, where they were discovered and arrested by local police.

Dillinger was extradited to Indiana and lodged in the Crown Point jail, which was considered escape-proof. However, on March 3, 1934, he executed his most-celebrated breakout. With a razor and a piece of wood, he carved a fake pistol, blackened it with shoe polish, and used it to force his way past a dozen guards to freedom, singing as he left, “I’m heading for the last roundup.” Dillinger then drove the sheriff’s car to Chicago. By taking a stolen vehicle across state lines, he committed a federal offense, and two months later the Federal Bureau of Investigation named John Dillinger America’s Public Enemy #1.

On Friday, April 13th, 1934, at just past one o’ clock in the morning Warsaw Police Officer, Jud Pittenger and John Dillinger met. Officer Pittenger came out of a restaurant on Center Street, walked west to the corner of Buffalo and, seeing no one in any direction, turned south. He had gone but a few steps when he heard the sound of running feet. Turning, he faced two men carrying sub-machine guns. One of the them he recognized from the photos as being Dillinger. The other was later identified as Dillinger’s first lieutenant, Homer Van Meter.

“We want your vests,” said Dillinger, meaning the bulletproof vests kept at the police station.

Officer Pittenger’s astonishing and ill-advised response to this remark was an attempt to wrest Dillinger’s machine gun from him.

“Let loose,” said Dillinger. “We don’t want to kill you.”

Intervening in the tussle, Van Meter took Pittenger’s hand gun from him and used it to subdue him with two or three sharp cracks over the head. Then the trio continued south on Buffalo Street, east through the alley, and north on Indiana Street, crossing Center Street to the city building, which stood near the northeast corner of Center and Indiana, which also had been the site of the first two courthouses. The police station was on the second floor, back of the council chamber and over the fire station.

At the police station Dillinger and Van Meter took three vests. They also took a hand gun, which made two since they already had Officer Pittenger’s gun. While they were rummaging around Pittenger suddenly departed, slamming a door behind him and running down the stairs. He didn’t stop until he gained the dark shelter of the alley across the street, just south of the county jail. He waited long enough to see the two gangsters enter a car, which had been parked, shamelessly, beside the police station and drive north on Indiana Street. Then he ran to Gill’s restaurant and called the State Police. Fireman Mike Hodges, wakened by the noise over his head and in the street, looked out and later reported that he saw two more cars hurriedly depart.

There followed more bank robberies with new confederates, notably Baby Face Nelson. Over the course of Dillinger’s yearlong crime spree, several people were killed by his gang, and he barely escaped FBI entrapments and shootouts in Minnesota and Wisconsin. He eventually made his way to Chicago, where he reportedly had plastic surgery to alter his appearance. His end came through a trap set up by the FBI, Indiana police, and Anna Sage, a brothel madam who knew Dillinger’s girlfriend. Sage informed law officers that she and the couple would be seeing a movie on the night of July 22, 1934. The trio ultimately went to the Biograph Theater. Although Sage was later described as “the woman in red,” she was actually wearing an orange skirt to make herself easily visible. After a showing of the crime drama Manhattan Melodrama (1934), Dillinger emerged to find FBI agents waiting for him. He attempted to escape but was shot to death in the alley.

That’s the factual end of the story. A curious coincidence is that the spot where he lay dead was only a ten minute walk from gangland’s classic shoot-up, the Valentine’s Day Massacre.

From the Annuals of the Thaddeus – Autumn 1978 and Dillinger historical research

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