Dillinger’s Malicious Ingenuity

For the time being, I’ve concluded my research into the life of John Dillinger and his rogue’s gallery of associates.  And when I appropriate the term “research,” what I’m really talking about is examining the final year of his short, yet significant, life.

The most recent resources to which I’ve dedicated my attention are Dillinger: The Untold Story (2009) (originally penned as a manuscript in the 1930s by George Russell Giardin, but later edited by William J. Helmer), along with Elliot J. Gorn’s Dillinger’s Wild Ride (2009), and John A. Beineke’s outstanding Hoosier Public Enemy: A Life of John Dillinger (2014). 

These minor expeditions functioned as reinforcement for several forthcoming projects (with a pair of stories still existing in a murky sketch-based state, while another longer draft — something tentatively titled, “The Sacraments of Blackgum Lake” — slouching toward some semblance of “Bethlehem” later this year).

I was able to apply additional layers of clarity into what those years — JD’s final year, in particular — “looked” like.  What fascinates me in particular is the anomalous confluence of so many circumstances (some disparate, some inextricably sutured together) that created the historic habitat in which Dillinger and his associates (temporarily) thrived.  We’re talking about a time period when dire economic conditions not only produced a sense of desperation, but compelled individual ingenuity — in Dillinger’s case, a rather malicious ingenuity.

Much is made of the mythical status that Dillinger — not unlike the legendary Jesse James (whose purported altruism has been debunked) — exists as a figure of nostalgia:  a Midwestern Robin Hood — a “gentleman bandit” who would allow poor farmers standing at a teller’s window to keep their money while he and his gang would exsanguinate the bank.

(Invoking Jesse James above, it’s anecdotally worth noting that, in relation to folkloric comparisons with James, Dillinger, in the early summer of 1934, had been sketching plans for a train robbery.  Working in collaboration with his associates Homer Van Meter and Babyface Nelson, JD’s “dream” of a million-dollar haul (the likely target being a mail or payroll train connected to Chicago, Milwaukee, Saint Paul and Pacific Railroad routes) would be his exit ticket to Mexico.  There was an incident on July 16 — about three-and-a-half weeks after his thirty-first birthday and merely six days before he’d be killed in an alley adjacent to the Biograph Theater — wherein two police officers happened upon Dillinger, Nelson, and several other individuals near a seldom-used road on the outskirts of Chicago.  Nelson, possessing nearly no self-control when it came to either opening fire or taking a life, shot at the police officers, injuring but, in this instance, not killing them.  The logic is that JD’s band was surveilling potential getaway routes should a train heist ever coalesce.  At this point, one of the main impediments to JD and Van Meter’s plan was access to “soup”:  nitroglycerin, which they would use to blow the doors off the train.)

The world into which Dillinger emerged following his initial, nine-year prison stint (1924 – 1933 — the backstory of which arguably composes the most formative of what Dillinger would become) was one which had been crippled by the economy.  A quarter of the country was unemployed.  Families were starving.  Businessmen were jumping out of buildings.  And so one useful approach in viewing this kaleidoscope of narrative perspectives is to recall the lack of hope that the Depression had instilled throughout the country:  an economic disaster that elicited the hunger for hope, intrinsic escapism — people needed a figure that stood in antithesis to the very real, very acute, man-made crisis.

Another spectrum with which to view Dillinger’s emergence as an aforementioned folk hero is the public’s ability to differentiate between metropolitan mobsters like Capone and underdog-outlaws like Dillinger — through the lens of the Depression, crooks like Capone represented corrupt capitalists while JD stood in for outlaws rebelling against a rotten, reified system.

In short:  the public had little sympathy for banking institutions.

Beyond this, JD’s escapades compelled the public to gaze at the institution of law-enforcement itself.  “As opposed to Hoover, [Dillinger] broke the law honestly and had only himself to hide” (Dillinger:  The Untold Story).

From a young age, Dillinger never demonstrated a desire for conventional work.  On his father’s farm, he was of mediocre assistance.  Five months after enlisting in the Navy, Dillinger (possibly homesick) deserted his fleet in Boston and returned to Mooresville, Indiana (he actually went AWOL twice before deserting in December of 1923).  Following his release from the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, IN, JD returned to Mooresville; but in May, 1933, when it came to securing “honest” work along the Depression-era landscape, JD made little effort to obtain it (there’s a digression on that note, because while the townsfolk of Mooresville tolerated Dillinger, he was still a convict with a nefarious reputation). 

It’s my estimation that John Dillinger was a very lonely man — a very lonely boy, really. 

We must remember that his Public-Enemy escapades lasted merely a portion of the thirteen months in which his intense and significant crimes were committed. 

I’ll use the marker of June 4, 1933 (when JD attempted a small-time robbery with “Bill” (“Kid”) Shaw, and Noble “Sammy” Claycombe) as an initial marker for the “reign of terror” which would follow, yet most researchers would likely cite July, 1933 as the true point of no return.  It was on this date that Dillinger, along with Harry Copeland (who would later introduce JD to Evelyn “Billy” Frescette) and Sam Goldstein, rob the Daleville Commercial Bank (perhaps apocryphal, but this may be the robbery that earned Dillinger the moniker “Jackrabbit,” as it’s purported he vaulted the barrier of the teller’s window with athletic ease). 

With the summer of 1934, Dillinger’s death cultivated the following year-long stats (which would of course be altered by a continued pulse of criminal activity and its coinciding body count):  26 people killed.  19 innocent bystanders wounded.  23 people sentenced (to death and otherwise).

Dillinger always had a choice, but his options (in relation to how he was formatively hardwired) were limited.  I think Dillinger hungered for (and trusted) friendship in a world of violent vacillation.  I think Dillinger had an appetite for women that was in direct association for the vacuum produced by losing his birth-mother at the age of three (there is an anecdote of JD, at the side of his mother’s open casket, tugging at her hand, pleading for her to wake up), and the death of his step-mother on the same day he was released from the Indiana State Prison in 1933.  I think Dillinger was constantly aware of his impermanence, which was converted into acute (and perhaps charming) defiance.  And I think that Dillinger (sort of sadly) just wanted to have fun at the expense of others.

Equipped with swift wits, Dillinger assimilated further into the underworld following his tentative “freedom” in May, 1933.  Contrary to the wistful mystique of Robin Hood befriended by his Merry Men, Dillinger elected to insulate himself with, as Beinke puts it, “a gang of talented murderers.”  It was that impermanent contract with the Underworld that satiated his need for fast cars, libidinous women, but it was an Underworld — a network which included politicians and the police — that would repeatedly betray Dillinger, and ultimately manifest in the grimly-poetic demise of being shot in the back.

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