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.

Staring Contest In the Darkroom: 2021, A Summation

December, 2021 marks twenty years since concluding my culinary studies at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, Le Cordon Bleu — from the Windy City I returned to Indy.  I tend to get sentimental about my time in Chicago (along with some of the later chapters spent living in Highland and working in Merrillville), not necessarily for any particular episodes, but rather an amalgam of anecdotes.  I learned a lot living there, and I sensed that, formative as it was, I had a lot of growing to do.  As much as I’d like to think so, Chicago didn’t fix me (for there would be damage and detours to come), but it instigated a sort of philosophical suturing. 

Creatively speaking, I am a writer before I am a chef.  And while both vocations continue to elicit unfolding fulfillment, I’d like to begin this reflection by focusing on this past year’s literary endeavors.


In my own private practices, I will, by the end of this year (and exceeding the productively abysmal year of 2019), have accumulated something north of 56,000 words solely dedicated to creative endeavors.  I’m working on a longer story — something I’ve allowed a rather extended detour into the life (and perhaps lesser-known escapades) of John Dillinger with the intent of incorporating these aspects into what I have in mind to be a viable novella.  (In fact, as of this post, I will have just returned from a jaunt to Chicago — not necessarily an immersive research trip, but slipping into close proximity to some of his former haunts lends imaginative dimension to my current fictions.)

Though I can confirm inclusion of my story, “Lovenest,” in the forthcoming Dim Shores’ project, Looming Low, Vol. II (premiering at NecronomiCon, 2022, in Providence, RI), I had two pieces of fiction published this year along with a rather personal piece of non-fiction:

I’d be professionally negligent in not thanking the publishers for finding merit enough in these pieces to include them in their projects:  C.M. Muller (Nightscript); Jon Padgett (Vasterian); and David Longhorn (Supernatural Tales).  

It’s significant to also mention that while The Skeleton Melodies (Hippocampus Press, 2020) enjoyed several meaningful reviews, the collection was acknowledged by the estimable Ellen Datlow in Volume Thirteen of The Best Horror of the Year:  “The Skeleton Melodies…is an excellent second collection.  While Smith sometimes uses pulp tropes, his writing is so good that the stories aren’t pulpy at all.  A real achievement.  Thirteen stories, two of them new.  With introduction by Adam Golaski.”

Finally, I was humbled by the opportunity to apply my own endorsement to several literary colleagues by extending several well-deserving blurbs:

Reading / Books

  • Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett
  • The Only Good Indians, Stephen Graham Jones
  • The Shadows, Alex North
  • You Should Have Left, Daniel Kehlmann
  • A Mighty Word, Joshua Rex
  • Ghouls in My Grave, Jean Ray
  • Among the Lilies, Daniel MIlls
  • The Drone Outside, Kristine Ong Muslim
  • The Inner Room, Robert Aickman
  • Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn
  • Rookfield, Gordon B. White
  • The Heat’s On, Chester Himes
  • The Beasts of Vissaria County, Douglas Ford
  • 32 Yolks, Eric Ripert
  • Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem
  • The Drowning Pool, Ross MacDonald
  • Rovers, Richard Lange
  • Dillinger: The Untold Story, George Russell Girardin, Rick Mattix, and William J. Helmer
  • Homework: “The Tractate Middoth,” M.R. James
  • Homework: “Martin’s Close,” M.R. James
  • Homework: “The Phantom Coach,” Amelia B. Edwards
  • Homework: “The Empty House,” Algernon Blackwood
  • Homework: “A Ghost Story,” Jerome K. Jerome
  • Homework: “The Confession of Charles Linkworth,” E.F. Benson


  • Revisit: Death, Symbolic (1995)
  • Code Orange, Underneath (2020)
  • Deftones, Ohms (2020)
  • Revisit:  Death, Individual Thought Patterns (1993)
  • Havukruunu (various)
  • Revisit:  Carcass, Swansong (1996)
  • Napalm Death, Apex Predator (2015)
  • Broken Hope, Mutilated and Assimilated (2017)
  • Carcass, Despicable (2021)
  • Bathory, Blood Fire Death (1988)
  • Kreator, Endless Pain (1985)
  • Danzig, Skeletons (2015)
  • Deicide, Overtures of Blasphemy (2018)
  • In Solitude, The World.  The Flesh.  The Devil. (2011)
  • Sumerlands, Sumerlands (2016) 
  • Kreator, Coma of Souls (1990)
  • Entombed, Left Hand Path (1990)
  • Entombed, Wolverine Blues (1993)
  • Cavalera Conspiracy, Blunt Force Trauma (2011)
  • Mother of Graves, In Somber Dreams (2021)
  • Re-Visit:  Judas Priest, Point of Entry (1981)
  • Re-Visit:  Kreator, Phantom Antichrist (2012)
  • Protest the Hero, Pacific Myth (2016)
  • Carcass, Torn Arteries (2021)
  • Re-Visit:  Venom, Black Metal (1982)
  • Celestial Sanctuary, Soul Diminished (2021)
  • Chainsword, Blightmarch (2021)
  • Charger, Charger (2019)
  • Molten, Dystopian Syndrome (2021)
  • Lord Vigo, Danse de Noir (2020)
  • Vampire, With Primeval Force (2017)
  • Bewitcher, Under the Witching Cross (2019)
  • Bewitcher, Cursed Be Thy Kingdom (2021)
  • Darkthrone, Eternal Hails (2021)

Films and TV

  • Apostle (2018)
  • Dead and Buried (1981)
  • Ready or Not (2019)
  • Rare Exports (2010)
  • As Above, So Below (2014)
  • Terrified (2017)
  • Possessor (2020) 
  • The Guest (2014)
  • The Empty Man (2020)
  • The Sound of Metal (2019)
  • Love and Monsters (2020)
  • Lake Mungo (2008)
  • The Little Things (2021)
  • Arrival (2016)
  • Revisit: Memento (2000)
  • Fear Street Trilogy: 1994; 1978; 1666 (2021)
  • Black Widow (2021)
  • Come to Daddy (2020)
  • Revisit: Night Creatures (1962)
  • Midnight Mass (2021)
  • Halloween (2018)
  • Coherence (2013)
  • Annual Revisit: Horror Express (1972)