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.