They came into town like distant thunder, a rumble too low to register as a threat. But just like storms build, they finally flashed their dark intent. And after they were gone, they left behind physical evidence … myths … and a ghost or two.
Ask any Tucsonan about John Dillinger and his gang, and chances are you’ll get a response that’s informed by the many movies made about their exploits, tall tales about their leader, and the remaining artifacts of his brief presence in the Old Pueblo.
How brief? His cohorts arrived piecemeal, starting on January 21, 1934. Nine days later, they would all be in custody, and the man who would later be labeled by U.S. Attorney General Homer S. Cummings as “Public Enemy No. 1” would be on a plane, bound for Indiana, and infamy that would echo long after he had departed.
So why do we remember him? Why do we have events dedicated to someone who led a year-long crime spree before cops shot him dead through in the neck in a Chicago alleyway?
Ask Elliott Gorn, the author of Dillinger’s Wild Ride, one of the definitive books about the famous criminal, and he responds truthfully, “Who knows why people latch onto certain stories? Some folks just like the style of that [1930s] era. Some like the underdog part of the story. Others like the defiance. There are a lot of motives.”
A steamer trunk full of motives … including Dillinger’s own reasons for driving to the dusty outpost that was Tucson — population approximately 32,000 — in 1934. Though we can never be entirely sure of the why, in the next few pages, we’ll take a peek into the swirling turbulence that was the Dillinger Gang to try to better understand them, as well as what happened 87 years ago this month, and even investigate our own motivations for keeping the myths alive.
Though he was anything but a hero — heroes, after all, put aside their own needs to sacrifice for others — John Herbert Dillinger has the sort of arc to his life story that Joseph Campbell would have immediately recognized. Born just after the turn of the 20th century to a humble grocer, and losing his mother at the tender age of 3, Dillinger grew up taking some hard knocks in Indianapolis, Indiana. Later, his father remarried and moved the family to a farm in nearby Mooresville.
Biographers note that he was a pretty ordinary kid for his day. John A. Beineke, author of the excellent book Hoosier Public Enemy, quotes one of Dillinger’s classmates as saying, “He wasn’t a bad boy. He didn’t do anything other boys wouldn’t have done — play hooky or steal cherries.”
But as the years rolled by, petty juvenile crimes turned into more serious offenses, including going AWOL while enlisted in the navy and subsequently being courtmartialed as a deserter.
The crime that most Dillinger experts zero in on, though, was one that involved violence, and landed him in the Indiana State Reformatory (and later transferred to the Indiana State Prison). Explains Gorn, “What got him into jail before any bank robberies was a pretty nasty assault on an old man.”
The facts in that case, thanks to the victim’s testimony and Dillinger’s own confession, are not in dispute. Frank Morgan, an elderly Mooresville grocer, was coming home one night and Dillinger and Ed Singleton accosted him. The future “Public Enemy” struck Morgan several times in the head with a heavy iron bolt wrapped in a handkerchief, and then pointed a revolver at him. Though stunned and bleeding, Morgan fought back and knocked the gun down, causing it to discharge. At the sound of the shot, Dillinger and Singleton took off, though they were soon apprehended.
Dillinger cooperated and received a stiff sentence: 10 to 20 years for assault and battery, and two to 14 for conspiracy to commit a felony. Singleton pleaded not guilty, was tried, and wound up with just a two- to 14-year sentence.
Dillinger would later say that anger over his harsh sentence is what led him to rob banks. In any case, he made matters worse with his bad behavior in prison, trying to escape, fighting, and other infractions.
He went behind bars in 1924 as a married, 21-year-old man, living in a country that believed in prosperity. When he was released, nine years later, he was divorced, trained in the felonious arts, and the United States had been plunged into the Great Depression. With jobs scarce (and his skills rather meager), Dillinger chose to kick his criminal career into overdrive.
In 1933, Dillinger had the steely nerves of a stick-up man, a handful of contacts with experienced criminals, and the perfect target — perhaps the most hated institution of the 1930s. “One of the things that’s overlooked a bit is that [his] story is a great Depressionera story, and it was very much viewed that way in the 1930s,” Gorn elaborates. “It’s sort of Robin Hood, but not exactly. Most people understood he wasn’t robbing banks to help the poor. He was robbing banks to help himself, and they hated banks, so they were good with that. By the time Dillinger was committing robberies, something like 10,000 banks had closed, taking all the depositors’ money with them; there was no federal bank insurance then.”
And many decades before social media, Dillinger realized that image was everything. He was no matinee idol — standing 5’7”, 157 pounds, with a face that was the polar opposite of up-and-coming chiseled Hollywood hunk Clark Gable, with whom he had several odd, coincidental connections, including the fact that they would both go through legal proceedings in the Pima County Courthouse (the movie star in 1954). But Dillinger knew that a polite, friendly manner went a long way with folks, and the right clothes were critical.
“He had a real sense of style, not just the way he dressed, but also he was kind of a stylish bank robber,” notes Gorn. “From the very early robberies, he would leap over the counter and say to a teller, ‘Get me the money, honey,’ or something like that. You look at some of the photographs of him and he has a playful look to his face that people noticed.”
Though the myth of Dillinger has expanded into near-Arthurian levels, leading the average person to believe that his bank robberies spanned years, in fact, his first one took place June 10, 1933, in New Carlisle, Ohio. By July 22, 1934, he was dead, having pulled his last job (in South Bend, Indiana), on June 30. His career lasted just over 12 months.
But what an explosive run it was: robberies, shoot-outs and escapes. At one point or another he associated with numerous infamous members of the criminal underworld, such as Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Machine Gun Kelly. And his downfall was brought about partly due to the efforts of the quintessential “G Man” — Melvin Purvis. So many gangster movie clichés that we know today, such as criminals taking their girlfriends with them on the road, having plastic surgery to avoid detection, and escaping jail with a fake firearm, are all the result of John Dillinger’s real-life exploits.
In those early days of the Roosevelt Administration, with clouds of war gathering across the globe, Americans held their breath as they read news reports of Dillinger’s capers, some hoping he would be cut down by lawmen, and many others cheering him on. Deep in their hearts, Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public knew that Dillinger would be captured or killed, perhaps by local authorities, or maybe due to the efforts of the Justice Department’s Division of Investigation (later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation).
Probably no one thought the gang would be caught by brilliant policing in a town most Midwesterners couldn’t spell or pronounce. Where in the starlight was Tucson, anyway?
“In 1934 there were still hitching posts for horses on Congress,” observes Jonathan Mincks, founder of hotshotperformer. com, and the producer/director/writer and star of the Dillinger Days show at historic Hotel Congress. “Some of the Tucson cops didn’t even have uniforms. If you look at the pictures, they are just in jackets, ties and cowboy hats. It’s almost an impossible story. These guys [the Dillinger gang] had outwitted the feds and authorities in Chicago and other cities, had all these incredible escapes, and they get caught by cops who didn’t own police radios.”
To understand why John Dillinger, Charles Makley, Harry Pierpont and Russell Clark were hiding out in Tucson, you have to hit rewind and look at the months preceding their January 1934 arrival in the Old Pueblo. Fresh from a vacation in Daytona Beach, Florida, where a drunken Dillinger allegedly fired a Thompson submachine gun at the moon one night, members of the gang arrived back in Indiana. In the town of East Chicago, Dillinger took a big risk: he and John Hamilton walked into the First National Bank and robbed it without a lookout or a plan. It proved to be a terrible decision.
Twenty-thousand dollars (about $389,000 in today’s money) richer, the two Johns tried to make their escape, but the police were waiting in force outside. Dillinger and Hamilton sought to use Patrolman Hobart Wilgus and Bank VP Walter Spencer as human shields, but on the sidewalk, Officer William O’Malley had a clear shot, and put four rounds into Dillinger.
Though the body armor of the 1930s was crude (mainly canvas or leather stuffed with heavy cotton padding, sometimes reinforced with steel plates), it was effective against the weapons of the day, and Dillinger’s “bullet-proof” vest saved him. According to witnesses, he then cut loose with his Thompson and hit O’Malley eight times.
The weapon that the notorious bank robber wielded is a part of American military, law enforcement, and movie history. Col. John T. Thompson invented the fully automatic .45-caliber submachine gun to be used by U.S. forces in WWI. Though it wasn’t deployed in time for that conflict, it was later referred to as the “trench broom” for the ferocious way it cleared real estate. Adopted by gangland figures (who often stole them from police armories), it became known as the “Chicago typewriter,” the “Tommy gun,” and the “Annihilator.” It could spit out .45 ACP rounds at the rate of 800 per minute, allowing a criminal to — in army parlance — “contaminate an area.” The early versions could take a 50-round drum magazine and there was even a 100-round option.
The details matter here. Dillinger later claimed that he was not in East Chicago at the time of the robbery (though eye witnesses, and money he carried that was traced to the bank, said otherwise). He also maintained that he had never killed anyone. The fact that he walked into banks toting a Thompson suggests that not only was he very comfortable with firearms, he also was prepared to kill a lot of people if he felt it was necessary.
Observes Gorn, “He put people in harm’s way. By leading not just one gang, but two different groups of bank robbers, people were going to die from his actions. Supposedly only one person — Officer O’Malley — died at Dillinger’s hands. By contrast, Pretty Boy Floyd was probably a psychopath. He liked killing people. You don’t exactly get that off of Dillinger, but again, people died because of him, whether it was his gun or someone else’s.”
Hamilton was seriously wounded in the East Chicago shootout, and while he stayed behind and received medical attention, Dillinger, Makley, Clark, Pierpont, and their girlfriends Opal Long, Mary Kinder and Billie Frechette, lit out for the wide open spaces of the desert Southwest. After their capture, the gang members offered differing explanations as to why they were in Tucson: they had to escape law enforcement in the Midwest; they were casing a bank job in Douglas; they wanted to warm up after being in the freezing Midwest winter; or they were looking for an escape route into Mexico.
Any of these explanations is plausible, and given the contentious dynamics of the gang, it’s very possible that they were all equally true. Though they were a criminal outfit, and sometimes drinking companions, they didn’t necessarily all like each other (Pierpont and Dillinger were especially on bad terms), and they each may have had their own reasons for being in town.
Whatever the case, on Jan. 23, 1934, the fuse was lit.
Makley and Clark had earlier checked into the Hotel Congress, staying in adjoining rooms on the third floor. A fire broke out in the hotel’s basement early in the morning of Jan. 23, quickly spreading throughout the structure. Firefighters responded, and together with local Good Samaritans, helped to clear the 80-room hotel of guests.
Possessing more swagger than sense, the two gangsters reportedly tipped firemen generously to help them get their luggage — heavy with body armor and weapons — out of the burning structure. There are different stories about what happened next, with some historians maintaining that it was the firemen who recognized Makley and Clark from photos in a True Detective Mysteries magazine, and others maintaining it was a patrolman who ID’d the pair based on a tip from a citizen.
In any case, the duo moved to the Spanish-revival- style home at 927 N. Second Avenue, while Dillinger and Pierpont booked rooms at the Arizona Tourist Court at 1749 S. Sixth Avenue.
The Tucson Police Department then did something that law enforcement in other states had failed to do: lasso all the gang members without firing a shot.
Makley was arrested at an electronics shop while perusing police radios. Clark was overwhelmed by cops at the Second Avenue house and taken down. Pierpont — who was armed with three handguns — was duped into going to the police station for a “tourist sticker” for his car, and then outdrawn. Dillinger, ever the cagey bird, arrived at the rental house, saw blood on the sidewalk (from a lawman whose hand had been slammed in the door), and turned to head back to his car. Tucson cops were waiting for him, and realizing that he was seriously outgunned, he surrendered.
Held in jail cells at the old Pima County Courthouse, the Dillinger gang received somewhere north of two thousand visitors/ spectators, including some who reportedly brought gifts, such as clothes for the girlfriends, and homemade Mexican food. As with other “stops” on Dillinger’s circuit of crime, Tucson turned into a bit of a sideshow. But the authorities took numerous precautions, including posting guards armed with rifles and machine guns, and the city expedited getting the notorious criminal and his cohorts out of the jurisdiction. About six months later in Chicago, Dillinger would attend a showing of Manhattan Melodrama, a crime story that ends with Clark Gable going to the electric chair. Minutes after the movie ended, Dillinger himself would be dead.
In some ways, however, he and his gang are still with us. For a quarter of a century, Mincks and his troupe of experienced stunt professionals have re-enacted tales of John Dillinger at the Hotel Congress each January. Due to the pandemic, there will be no live performance this year, though at press time there was talk of streaming a previously recorded performance online, or perhaps projecting the show onto a wall at the hotel.
Dillinger (who has been portrayed in at least a dozen films) definitely remains an ethereal presence across America, especially in his home state of Indiana, as well as in the Old Pueblo. For years, Mincks has even portrayed the notorious gangster that way. Presenting the end of Dillinger’s spree, starting with the East Chicago robbery, Mincks has his character break the fourth wall and comment on the action. “Dillinger slips out of the action as it freezes behind him and talks directly to the audience, giving an update from the perspective of a 1934, 30-year-old man who is cognizant of what’s happening in the 2000s,” the writer/producer/ star says. “It’s as if his ghost has been here the whole time, has watched society, and he’s recalling and commenting in a way that helps a modern audience understand the events of his day.”
Of course, though he may be around in spirit, haunting the stylish Southwest deco lobby of the Hotel Congress, or retracing his steps down Second Avenue, he can’t actually tell us why we keep summoning him back. Perhaps the ongoing attraction to Dillinger is as simple as the fact that he defied authority and lived by his own rules. Or maybe it was the stylish clothes, fast cars, and insane firepower he carried. Also, the desire to stick a thumb in the eye of the government, something that plays out in society even today, could be a big part. Confirms Gorn, “Dillinger fits right in with a long tradition — Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde, and so on. It’s often seen as apolitical, but it’s actually not in a lot of ways. Jesse James, for example, was closely associated with the resistance to the defeat of the Confederacy.”
And the very buildings that John Dillinger visited keep his ghost walking among us. The landmarks associated with his capture — especially the Hotel Congress and the old Pima County Courthouse — are still here, alive with energy, just as the locations of his ignoble end haunt Chicago. “Where Dillinger was killed is a spot in town that I actually walk by fairly often, and I always think about his story when I do,” sums up Gorn. “Walking to a friend’s house, I’ll go north on Lincoln Avenue through the alley where he was shot near the Biograph Theater, and come out a few steps onto Halstead, right by the house where he had been staying. It’s all very alive here in a certain way.”