When i was in eighth grade, Mr. Lucius, the history teacher, pulled me aside and handed me a book. The book was Dillinger: Dead or Alive? by Jay Robert Nash and Ron Offen. “I think you would find this interesting,” Mr. Lucius said, and he asked that I read it as part of an assignment he had given the class.
I really didn’t know that much about John Dillinger at that point – only that he was a 30’s gangster who robbed banks, along with others of similar ilk who had nicknames like “Baby Face” and “Machine Gun” and “Pretty Boy.”
I read the book and really enjoyed it. It posited that the “John Dillinger” who had been famously gunned down outside the Biograph Theater on July 22, 1934 was actually an obscure crook named Jimmy Lawrence. What’s more, the FBI knew they had gotten the wrong guy, but hushed it up.
By that point of my life, I was beginning to suspect that the world didn’t really operate in the sweetness-and-light fashion I had been taught as a young’un. The conspiratorial nature of the book appealed to that rebellious adolescent nerve that was just beginning to pulse and throb. I delivered an enthusiastic report and got an A.
Then I promptly forgot about it.
About twenty years later, I had time to kill in the Milwaukee airport. I wandered into the newsstand and picked up a copy of The Dillinger Days by John Toland. This was the first “scholarly” review of the life and times of John DIllinger and his contemporaries. Prior to that, the exploits of the Jackrabbit (and Baby Face, Machine Gun and Pretty Boy) had been relegated to the sensationalist pages of true-crime mags. Toland’s book was the first to construct a narrative of the entire time period of the Dillinger Days – a length of time that lasted about eighteen months.
I read it and enjoyed it. I was reminded of the assignment Mr. Lucius had given us decades earlier. Then I promptly forgot about it.
Flash forward almost another twenty years, and I’m laid up recovering from surgery. Looking for something to pass the time, I dug way back on my bookshelf and turned up Toland’s book. As I re-read it, I was amazed at the story it told. By then, I had been writing for five or six years, and was always on the lookout for a good story to tell. The Dillinger Days story was fascinating beyond belief – and that presented a problem, I thought.
The criminal career of John “Jackrabbit” Dillinger was truly amazing. So much so that I decided that I had to shed a significant chunk of it to keep from overwhelming the reader. I was also concerned about overwhelming the suspension of disbelief – Dillinger’s career was peppered with unbelievable luck and narrow getaways. Proof, I thought, that truth was stranger than fiction.
I decided that the escape from Crown Point jail – the so-called “wooden gun” escape – was a good enought starting point. The narrative from that point to the Biograph shooting on July 22, 1934 hung together fairly well on its own, with only a handful of references required to the Jackrabbits previous exploits and comrades. (Most of those comrades were in an Indiana lockup for the murder of Sheriff Jess Sarber, whom “Handsome Harry” Pierpont had brutally beaten while breaking Dillinger out of the Allen County slammer in 1933.)
So I began researching the life and times of John Dillinger and his contemporaries, and got drawn into the web of drama that seemingly connected all of the 30’s gangsters with the funny nicknames. One of the best sources I found was Bryan Burrough’s Public Enemies. This was an incredibly well-researched and well-written book, a great source and a great read.
I was excited to learn that they had made a movie based on Burroughs’s book. Then I saw the movie. The movie’s producers completely “Hollywoodized” the story – changing important plot lines here, killing off characters there . . . to no discernible dramatic or story-telling purpose.
To my thinking, the story was a pretty amazing narrative on its own, no editing required. Also, Public Enemies was an incredibly well-assembled historical document, which is why I was yelling at the screen about five minutes into the movie version: “Walter Dietrich didn’t die in the Michigan City breakout! He died in prison like twenty years later! WTF?”
Speaking of horrible Dillinger movies, I also saw the 1973 movie Dillinger , starring Warren Oates in the title role. I’ve always liked Oates as a sort of poor man’s Clint Eastwood, but this movie was meh at best. About the only memorable part of it was Richard Dreyfus as Baby Face Nelson.
The 1945 Dillinger movie starring Lawrence Tierney was actively bad. It was pretty much the standard “you dirty rat” mad-dog gangster tropes overlaid on a very loose framework of Dillinger’s history.
I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch the 1991 made-for-TV movie starring Mark Harmon. Ugh, no.)
Now, Dillinger is back in the news again. A week after the publication of Jackrabbit, it was announced that Dillinger’s nephew had obtained a permit to exhume Dillinger’s body and test it to find out if it really was him. Other relatives objected, and eventually so did the Crown Hill Cemetery. It touched off a soap opera of sorts, and you can read my blog posts of the drama, starting here.
The John Dillinger saga continues to unfold. Keep reading the blog for updates!