John Herbert Dillinger spent his entire 31 years in and out of trouble.
Born in Indianapolis in 1903, his life started off pretty rocky. His mom died when he was three years old, and as was customary, when his much-older sister got married, Little Johnny’s dad sent him off to live with the newlyweds. That didn’t last long because not only was Little Johnny a troublemaker even as a tot, but soon his sister had her own family to care for. So Johnny went back to live with his father, where he started to steal coal from a Pennsylvania railroad car (from what I understand, not that uncommon of a petty crime for poorer folk in coal and copper towns back then). The crappy thing for Little Johnny, however, was some of the housewives to whom he sold the coal, ratted him out.
At age nineteen, he stole a car. In order to avoid prosecution, he joined the Navy but went AWOL and was dishonorably discharged shortly thereafter.
In April of 1924, Not-So-Little Johnny met and married Beryl Hovious, but when things got tough and he could no longer support his bride, he turned back to crime. During a dispute, Dillinger shot a man (who survived). He was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison.
While in prison, Dillinger had plenty of time to reflect upon the injustice of his life. He grew resentful, looked around him at the criminals who shared his block, and decided then and there to have his revenge on society.
In the same way nerds like me study history, Dillinger studied crime. He picked the brains of the criminals surrounding him, and when the Great Depression hit and prisons were forced to parole inmates due to lack of funds, John was freed after serving nearly his entire ten year sentence.
Dillinger went on a rampage, no longer the petty thief they put away, but now a hardened criminal. After amassing a gang of lackeys and going on a bank robbing spree, he was arrested a second time and sent to jail.
Now here is where it gets hilarious:
John had some sort of map on him at the time of his arrest. Turns out, this map was a map of the jail and was part of an escape plan. Several of his lackeys used this plan to escape, but not ol’ John.
Instead of leaving John to rot, his lackeys dressed up as state policeman, returned to the jail where John was held, and convinced the sheriff they were there to transport John to state prison. I don’t know if the sheriff believed them or not, but in the end he was shot and beaten, and John Dillinger walked out of jail once again.
There followed more debauchery and another arrest. This time, John was reportedly able to escape by carving a fake gun out of wood.
You gotta give this guy some credit because now that he was on the lam again, he paid $5,000 to have his appearance altered. A few moles and a scar were removed, and his cleft chin was filled in. I read some places that Dillinger was too vain to have his appearance altered all that much, but I also read that he was pissed off at the surgeon, saying “Hell, I don’t look any different than I did!”
It worked, however. He was “free” long enough to take up with a young prostitute named Polly Hamilton. But–god, this is like a Hollywood script–Polly’s madam recognized Dillinger and ratted him out to the cops.
Dillinger and Polly went to a theater one evening. Unbeknownst to them, an FBI task force was amassing outside.
At the end of the movie, the couple walked out of the theatre. An undercover agent lit a cigarette, a signal to the others. Either Dillinger recognized the signal or something else tipped him off because he took off running, digging in his pocket for pocket for his gun.
The agents gave chase and fired six shots, hitting Dillinger four times. A bullet entered the back of his neck, clipped his brain, and killed him.
Interesting ending note: Dillinger’s gravestone was continually hacked away by thieves. A fitting end, yeah?
Want another fun fact? I found this information when researching what John Dillinger looked like for my latest novel, The Things We Keep, because one of my characters is a Dillinger-look-alike, a fact he used to his benefit with the ladies.