“I rob banks for a living, what do you do?” – John Dillinger
John Dillinger Biography
The Depression-era has become a somewhat romanticised time in American history, especially as the memory of it fades from the collective consciousness. It was a time when people used to think that outlaws still had a certain amount of nobility or chivalry about them. And during this period, there was no outlaw who was more famous to the people and reviled by the federal agents than John Dillinger.
Born in Indiana, USA on 22 June 1903, John Dillinger had a troubled youth. His mother died before his 4th birthday and his family situation with his father was never stable. John Dillinger simply had a desire for mischief even from a young age. Accused of bullying smaller children at school, brash behaviour, and petty theft, Dillinger, even as a child showed all the hallmarks that would come to characterise his personality later in life. His father, concerned for his well-being and fearing that the city was corrupting his son, moved them further out into the countryside; however, this did nothing to assuage the young Dillinger’s need for rebellion and by the age of 19 he was getting into more serious trouble and in 1922, he was arrested for auto theft.
John Dillinger’s behaviour started to drive a wedge between him and his father and so he enlisted in the US Navy and was assigned to the USS Utah as a Fireman. however, after only a few months into his service, he deserted when the ship made port in Boston and he eventually received a dishonourable discharge. He then returned to the rural town he had left, Mooresville, Indiana, where he met Beryl Ethel Hovious, whom he married in 1924. The couple attempted to settle down into some sort of family life but John had difficulty finding work, and when he did find a job he often struggled to keep it, so he started to think of more rewarding ways of making money, eventually settling on a plan to commit a robbery in collaboration with his friend Ed Singleton.
Recognised by a local man, John Dillinger and Ed Singleton were quickly caught by the Mooresville Police Department. After initially pleading not guilty, John was convinced by his father that he would get an easier sentence if he pled guilty. John’s father worked to try and get a lenient sentence for his son but instead, John was sent to prison for 10 to 20 years. Unfortunately, his time in prison did not have the desired results and instead of rehabilitating he spent his time learning from other inmates and even began meticulous planning for how they would rob banks when they were released. It was during this period that John Dillinger learned the skills that would make him a bank robbing legend.
Through the successful lobbying of his father, Dillinger was paroled after having served nine and a half years. With a newly acquired knowledge of criminality and getting released in the midst of the Great Depression, honest work was difficult to come by and so immediately upon release, Dillinger began a professional life of crime and started planning his first bank robbery.
On 21 June 1933, the day before his 30th birthday, Dillinger successfully robbed the New Carlisle National Bank, getting away with $10,000. After robbing another bank in Ohio, Dillinger was swiftly caught by the police who took him into custody and sent him to the Allen County Jail. Before he entered the jail, he was searched and to their astonishment the police found him to be in possession of documents that seemed to point towards an escape plan, but when he was quizzed about them, he wouldn’t let on what they were.
With the help of friends from his previous time in jail who were adept at impersonating police officers, Dillinger did indeed break out of prison and immediately formed his first professional bank robbery gang. From 1933 through 1934, John Dillinger and his gang are known to have robbed at least 12 different banks. The life of Dillinger from this point proceeded at a breakneck pace. He met a new love interest, Evelyn Frechette, and John undertook a successful string of different robberies and was involved in a number of notorious incidents including the escape from Crown Point Prison and the Lincoln Courthouse Shootout which would go down in Depression-era legend.
After a string of successful robberies, escapes, and near-misses, John Dillinger and Evelyn, along with another member of the gang, went to visit John’s father on 6 April 1934. However, after falling asleep at the wheel and causing an accident resulting in the car ploughing through a local farmer’s fence, the police quickly arrived in the area followed shortly thereafter by the FBI who had been on the trail of Dillinger for some months. A net was starting to close.
On 9 April, Dillinger had an appointment in a local tavern, but when he and his lover Evelyn arrived she sensed something was amiss and insisted to Dillinger that she should go in first. As soon as she entered the tavern, Evelyn was arrested by FBI agents who sought the whereabouts of Dillinger. Refusing to tell them anything, she allowed Dillinger to quietly drive off without anyone noticing.
After a failed attempt at saving Evelyn, Dillinger and the gang went on the run again, but eventually, the law caught up with John for the last time. Betrayed by an informant who told officials that John Dillinger was a frequent client at a certain brothel, agents finally knew his whereabouts. He was observed entering the Biograph Theater on 22 July 1934. Federal agents staked out the area and waited for John to emerge.
Although accounts vary, one thing is certain, Dillinger attempted to flee agents by running down an alley while armed and was shot by FBI agents. John Dillinger was 31 years old at the time of his death which happened only a few months after the deaths of Bonnie and Clyde. Dillinger cemented his place in history with a crime spree which lasted just a little under two years. Although he lived for only a brief time, Dillinger will always be remembered in American folklore as one of the greatest bank robbers of all time.