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The Ghost of Dillinger’s Corpse

Just a week after I released Jackrabbit, a novel about John Dillinger, he is back in the news again. In fact, he’s all over it. On Monday, it was announced that Dillinger’s nephew had petitioned for the gangster’s body to be exhumed from the cemetery in Indianapolis for examination. Two of the latest stories, from CBS and the New York Times have good information. As August is typically a slow news month, I expect to see more. (Oddly enough, there’s been nothing in Oregonian so far, but it has been in many other small-market newspapers. My Dad called me from Raleigh to let me know that the News and Observer ran a piece.)

The putative reason for this exhumation was initially pretty hazy. Over the last day or so, it has come out that the relatives “have evidence” that it’s not really John Dillinger buried in the grave with his name on the tombstone. This is nothing new – rumors of the “wrong man” being killed in Dillinger’s place have been circulating for ages. In fact, it’s a major plot point in Jackrabbit. I had heard the stories about the “wrong man” since junior high school, and wanted to explore how the switch may have occurred.

Of course, the FBI is standing by their story that they “got their man,” but given the circumstances of Dillinger’s death and some of the events that led up to it, their contemporary accounts may not be entirely believable. Dillinger pulled off a number of incredible escapes that were also incredibly embarrassing for J. Edgar Hoover’s nascent FBI. The worst of these was a shootout at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin several months prior to the Biograph shooting. The FBI agents killed a WPA logger and wounded two others, thinking they were gang members trying to make a run for it. One of their own agents was killed by Baby Face Nelson, who also wounded another agent and a local lawman. IF the FBI had killed yet another innocent person in its pursuit of Dillinger, it would have been devastating for Hoover and the FBI. They certainly had a strong motive to conceal another screw-up, if that’s in fact what happened.

Also, perhaps not coincidentally, the History Channel has a documentary about Dillinger in the works right now. Call me cynical, but I suspect that the History Channel offered a bunch of money to the relatives in question to have them initiate the exhumation in order to promote their special.

While you’re calling me cynical, you might as well call me hypocritical, as I am looking to capitalize on this exhumation as much as the History Channel. In fact, I was thrilled to pieces when this story initially broke. From my point of view, the timing couldn’t be better. I’m also plotting a major promotion to take advantage of the actual exhumation, currently scheduled for mid-September

But I’ve got to admit that it makes me feel a little sleazy, too. Take a good look at the picture above, and consider the carnival atmosphere that surrounded this man’s death. That’s about to be repeated, and I suppose I’ll aim to get my slice of the sleaze. John Dillinger was a colorful character, and a true American in more ways than one. It seems wrong to dig him up for the sake of a cable TV special – or a self-published novel.

John Dillinger was a colorful character, and a true American in more ways than one. It seems wrong to dig him up for the sake of a cable TV special – or a self-published novel.

Of course, Dillinger was a massive publicity hound. He loved the attention that he got in the contemporary press, but it also pretty much guaranteed that he was not going to end his career any way but the hard way. Hell, he’d probably be pleased as punch to know that he’s still grabbing headlines 85 years later. Putative book sales notwithstanding, I’d be just as happy if they left that grave undisturbed.

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