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Associated Press

On This Day: John Dillinger Gunned Down by Federal Agents

July 22, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On July 22, 1934, notorious bank robber John Dillinger, the FBI’s first-ever public enemy No. 1, was killed by federal agents as he exited Chicago’s Biograph Theatre.

The Life and Death of John Dillinger

 John Dillinger served nine years in prison before being released on May 22, 1933. Over the next year, he would become one of the most infamous bank robbers in American history.

Dillinger, who was jailed for participating in a grocery store robbery, learned the intricacies of how to rob banks from fellow inmates. Upon his release, he organized a prison break to free 10 men, five of whom would join his gang. They in turn broke Dillinger out of a county jail, killing a sheriff in the process.

Dillinger’s men proceeded to rob a string of banks and police stations in a precise and methodical fashion. “Their reputation with the public—enhanced by the fact the Depression had meant banks had foreclosed on millions of people—became almost Saint like,” writes The Biography Channel. “Unwittingly perhaps, Dillinger began to cultivate a ‘Robin Hood’ hero-like status, acting as avenger for the way millions of ordinary American citizens had been treated.”

Dillinger was arrested on Jan. 25, 1934, and charged with the murder of police officer William O’Malley. He managed to escape from an Indiana prison, but he “made the mistake that would cost him his life,” according to the FBI. He stole the sheriff’s car and drove it to Chicago, a violation of the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, which makes driving a stolen car across state lines a federal offense.

J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation—then known as the Bureau of Investigation—was “ecstatic” that he could now open an FBI investigation on Dillinger, says PBS. Dillinger narrowly escaped FBI agents on several occasions as he continued to rob banks.

In April, FBI agents surrounded Dillinger, “Baby Face” Nelson and several of Dillinger’s men at a lodge in Little Bohemia, Wis., but they bungled the operation and allowed the criminals to escape.

Dillinger’s notoriety was making it nearly impossible to evade law enforcement. On May 27, he and associate Homer Van Meter underwent plastic surgery to change their appearance.
On June 22, the FBI named him its first-ever public enemy No. 1 and offered a $10,000 reward for his capture. With his girlfriend in jail and fellow criminals trying to avoid him, Dillinger had few places to hide. On July 4, he moved in with Anna Sage, a Romanian immigrant who owned several brothels.

Facing deportation, Sage agreed to help the FBI locate Dillinger in exchange for help staying in the country. She told agents that she, Dillinger and prostitute Polly Hamilton would be attending a movie at the Biograph Theatre on Chicago’s North Side on July 22.

Federal agents, under the control Special Agent Melvin Purvis, were waiting outside as Dillinger departed the theater, having seen gangster film “Manhattan Melodrama.”

“At the sight of men closing in on him from nowhere Dillinger whirled, reached for his gun, darted for an alley,” wrote Time. “A volley of lead cut him down in his tracks, one bullet through the head, one near the heart.”

Dillinger was pronounced dead later that night. At the time of his death, he was wanted for “killing 10 men, wounding 7 others, robbing banks and police arsenals, and staging 3 jail breaks—killing a sheriff during one and wounding 2 guards in another,” according to the FBI. In his career he stole more than $300,000 from 11 banks in the Midwest.

Historical Context: Gangster Culture During the Great Depression

American Decades examines the role of bandits, gangsters, and lawmen in Dillinger’s era. Gangsters and bootleggers had been glorified in the 1920s, during the age of Prohibition. This tolerance toward criminals carried into the 1930s, when Americans turned their anger to banks and other financial institutions responsible for the the Great Depression.

“In the early 1930s the public appeared to be in no hurry to condemn the holdup men and bandits who flouted authority and got away with it,” explains American Decades. “Public ambivalence toward them was picked up by the motion picture industry, which rushed to take advantage of the gangster mystique.”

Dillinger’s Final Escape?

Supposed inconsistencies related to Dillinger’s death suggest to some that the man killed on July 22, 1934, was not John Dillinger. According to TruTV, despite Dillinger’s significant efforts to change his appearance, people who knew him still insisted that the corpse inside the morgue was not his. It was also later discovered that the gun displayed at FBI headquarters as the one Dillinger was carrying at the time of his death wasn’t manufactured until after he died.

The TruTV piece theorizes that the FBI might have mistakenly shot the wrong man and covered the mistake to avoid public criticism, or perhaps even intentionally set up the wrong man as Dillinger to claim a major victory.

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