Born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1903, John Dillinger was dead by the age of 31. In spite of this, his name has gone down in history as one of the most famous in the annals of American crime. Dillinger’s legend has inspired everything from the experimental metalcore band The Dillinger Escape Plan to books and movies, and within a year of his death, his exploits were already being fictionalized by Hollywood.
But who was John Dillinger, and why did the papers of the time dub him the Robin Hood of the Depression era? To answer that question, we have to go all the way back to the legendary bank robber’s formative years and earliest crimes.
By 1924, Dillinger was just 21 years old, but he had already been in trouble with the law. Arrested for auto theft, Dillinger was described as having a “bewildering personality," according to John Dillinger: The Life and Death of America's First Celebrity Criminal by Dary Matera.
He had enlisted in the United States Navy but, like so many things in his life, found it difficult to settle there. He deserted within a few months, while his ship was docked in Boston, and was dishonorably discharged. His attempts to settle down and start a family were similarly unsuccessful. Though he married Beryl Ethel Hovious, he was unable to find a job and ultimately planned a grocery store robbery with a friend who was an ex-convict.
The robbery wasn’t exactly a smashing success, either. The two men made off with only $50, and in the process Dillinger struck a witness on the head, and also discharged the gun that he was carrying, although the bullet didn’t hit anyone. Worse for Dillinger, the two men were identified while leaving the scene, and arrested the next day. Dillinger’s father, who was a local church deacon, convinced his son to confess to the crime after discussing the matter with the local prosecutor.
Both father and son expected a lenient sentence, but that didn’t come to pass. Instead, Dillinger was sentenced to 10 to 20 years at the Indiana Reformatory and Indiana State Prison. As he entered the institution, he was quoted as saying, “I will be the meanest bastard you ever saw when I get out of here.”
Dillinger spent nine years behind bars, and in that time his earlier oath largely came to pass. While his criminal tendencies may have already existed, in prison, Dillinger learned how to put them to more profitable use. There, he met career criminals, including seasoned bank robbers, and he studied their methods and would later put them into practice on the outside.
When he was released on parole in 1933, the Great Depression was in full swing. There were few prospects available even for a “respectable” citizen, let alone someone like Dillinger, who was fresh out of the pen. So, Dillinger turned almost immediately to crime, robbing his first bank within two months of his release. After a second robbery in Bluffton, Ohio, Dillinger was captured and placed in custody—but he wouldn’t stay long.
When the police searched him, they found what appeared to be a plan for a prison break on his person, but he refused to explain it to them. In short order, the plan explained itself, as several of Dillinger’s friends whom he had made while behind bars used the plan to break out, impersonating Indiana State troopers to spring Dillinger from his cell in Ohio. This was the origin of the so-called “Dillinger Gang.”
Over the next year, Dillinger participated in more than a dozen robberies, and the gang overall was been accused of twice that number, as well as the robberies of some four police stations. Together, they pulled off three jail breaks, including another daring escape on Dillinger’s part, this time from Lake County Jail in Indiana, which the authorities had dubbed “escape-proof.” In March of 1934, Dillinger nonetheless left the jail, along with 15 other inmates, when he produced a pistol seemingly out of thin air in the midst of morning exercises. Whether the gun was a real one that had been smuggled in to Dillinger, or a fake that he carved himself, remains a matter of conjecture to this day.
What we do know is that Dillinger was becoming a larger-than-life folk hero, thanks in part to media coverage that portrayed him as a latter-day Robin Hood. This came partly from the fact that, in the process of their daring robberies, the Dillinger Gang destroyed thousands of mortgage records, which helped innumerable individuals escape crushing mortgage payments during the Great Depression.
The authorities also inadvertently built up Dillinger’s legacy. By June of 1934, the Dillinger Gang had made off with some $300,000 from various banks, and the reward for Dillinger’s capture was up to a whopping $10,000—a lot of money, even now, and an absolute king’s ransom in the days of the Great Depression. J. Edgar Hoover, then director of the Bureau of Investigation, used Dillinger’s crime spree as a campaign platform, and it was the pursuit of Dillinger’s gang that helped to evolve the BOI into the modern-day FBI.
On July 22, Dillinger attended a showing of the film Manhattan Melodrama at Chicago’s Biograph theater. What he didn’t know before the show began was that he had been set up. A brothel owner with whom Dillinger had been staying had turned him in to the police in exchange for immunity and to avoid being deported—although she was later deported anyway. When Dillinger left the theater, he was surrounded by federal agents, who pursued him into a nearby alley and shot him four times.
Dillinger died at the scene, and his death was ruled a justifiable homicide, with the agent who fired it receiving a personal letter of commendation from J. Edgar Hoover. Though he had only been active for a little over a year, Dillinger’s legend had already grown so great that newspapers at the time reported bystanders dipping newspapers, handkerchiefs, and the hems of their skirts into the pool of blood that formed as he died.
At his funeral, some 15,000 people are reported to have come to view Dillinger’s body. By 1935, Hollywood had already begun adapting aspects of Dillinger’s life and death into film with Public Hero No. 1, while subsequent films saw Dillinger and his analogs played by actors including Humphrey Bogart, Lawrence Tierney, Martin Sheen, and Johnny Depp.