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The Jackrabbit Rests in Peace…for Now

Dillinger’s body prior to burial

The September 16 date for exhuming John Dillinger’s body has come and gone – and he continues to rest in peace, at least for now. In previous posts (here and here), I outlined the effort spearheaded by Dillinger nephew Michael Thompson to have his famous uncle’s boy disinterred for DNA testing. Now it seems as if the planned exhumation is on indefinite hold.

The exhumation was announced shortly after the 85th anniversary of the Biograph shooting that allegedly took down the famous gangster. The Indiana State Department of Health had approved a request by Thompson to disinter Dillinger’s body. The reason given was to establish once and for all whether or not it was John Dillinger in the grave. For decades, rumors had circulated that it hadn’t been Dillinger who was gunned down outside the movie theater in Chicago, but rather a look-alike. This “wrong man” theory had been supported by some fascinating anecdotal evidence, and Thompson claimed that he wanted to prove or disprove the theory.

Shortly after the announcement, it was revealed that the drive to dig up the Jackrabbit was connected with a History Channel documentary on the life and crimes of John Dillinger.

Then things started to get weird. Surprise!

First, there were other Dillinger relatives who were opposed to the exhumation. Dillinger great-nephew Jeff Scalf, who has some manner of legal control over Dillinger’s name and likeness, was adamantly opposed. “It’s my opinion that this effort was done for 15 minutes of fame and 30 pieces of silver,” he said. 

Then Crown Hill Cemetery started to get cold feet. “We also have concerns that the complex and commercial nature of this exhumation could cause disruption to the peaceful tranquility of the Cemetery and those who are visiting to remember their loved ones.” This is a legitimate concern, as accessing Dillinger’s remains would involve a fairly robust construction effort. Concerned about grave tampering, Dillinger’s father had his body reburied under huge slabs of concrete and scrap metal shortly after the initial burial in 1934.

Not to be thwarted, Thompson filed an injunction against Crown Hill to compel them to cooperate with the exhumation. Thompson’s attorneys claimed that Crown Hill’s objections were disingenuous. They stated, “Thompson and others in his family should not be prohibited from confirming the identity of their uncle merely because he is infamous. If identity is confirmed, Thompson and all other descendants of the deceased can put to rest their legitimate questions about identity.” A hearing is scheduled for October 1 to discuss the case.

In the latest twist, the History Channel announced on September 11 that they would no longer be associated with the documentary project. No reason was given. Two days later, Thompson announced that he planned on moving forward with the project. Personally, I’m not sure if that will happen without the History Channel support. I think that the logistics involved in getting around John Sr.’s tamper-deterrent measures may require some outside financing. Perhaps some sort of “angel investor” will appear to fill the void.

The whole thing has been – and continues to be – a soap opera. I’m sure that the lack of consistent explanation from Crown Hill Cemetery and the History Channel about their sudden withdrawal from the project will fuel further conspiracy theories. I suspect that there will be a few more chapters to play out, but I think this drama is headed towards denouement.

At the end of the day, I think that maybe it wasn’t that good of an idea in the first place. Of course, I’d love to really know whether or not John Dillinger is in the grave with his name on it. And as an author who has just published a book about Dillinger, I would welcome the free publicity attendant to such a spectacle. However, the idea of disturbing someone’s remains for the sake of a TV documentary never seemed right.

Let Johnnie D. rest in peace.

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  1. Frank Dunham Frank Dunham

    Being a relative I’m all for it, you get tired of people asking if it’s him or not. Mikes not making anything off this, if he is it’s not much, it’s alright for people outside the family to make money off the Dillinger name, they have been doing it for years, Mikes not doing it for the money or anything else, just to put to rest ” is it him or not ” B.S. My grandpa Fields (Earl) is Lizzy’s brother, Dillinger is my 1st cousin once removed, I grew up in Mooresville, Frances used to come over to our house to visit my Mom.

  2. Scott Umsteadt Scott Umsteadt

    Mr. Smith, I’m very curious as to why you would be opposed to this? I don’t believe there was any controversy when Jesse James’ identity was confirmed. Nor Lee Harvey Oswald’s. So why is John Dillinger any different?

    Has “Truth” become so old fashioned that “narratives” have become more important? Are we really advocating the old adage, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”?

    If the family wants to exhume the body for any reason it’s their business. It’s not like exhumations are that rare. As a matter of fact, just a few years ago a pioneer cemetery was relocated just for an I-69 highway expansion. Coincidentally, the bodies were re-interned at Crown Hill. Forensic analysis was conducted by Indiana University before the bodies were re-interned. Not to mention archeologist do scientific studies on remains everyday.


    • Crawford Crawford

      Thanks for your comment! You raise some interesting points, especially about Jesse James and Oswald. Actually, I’m fairly conflicted about the entire enterprise. I can’t imagine how the family members must feel, although Mr. Dunham’s post does shed some light on that. I understand, however, that there are other family members who are adamantly opposed to the exhumation. I must admit to an acute interest in getting a definitive answer to the identity question – after, all I’ve been wondering about that since I fist read Dillinger: Dead or Alive? over forty years ago. I was therefore a little disappointed (but not especially surprised) when the proposed disinterment broke down. However, I am content to just let the legend continue of the fact isn’t imminently available.

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