Sometime between now and mid-September, backhoes and morticians and television producers — and, I’m sure, a good number of the morbidly curious — will be on hand at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis as bank robber extraordinaire and Hoosier legend, John Dillinger, emerges from the ground like a long-dormant cicada.
With the highly-publicized exhumation, Dillinger’s kin hope to settle the contention over a persistent legend: that, perhaps, America’s very first “Public Enemy Number One” was not the man gunned down by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation on the sultry night of July 22, 1934, but instead, disappeared into a life of unlikely anonymity.
That theory, and a highly anticipated episode on the History Channel, has driven the unearthing of a body that virtually all Dillinger experts believe is that of the flamboyant gangster.
A native Hoosier himself, John Beineke, Arkansas State University Professor Emeritus, and author of “Hoosier Public Enemy: A Life of John Dillinger” (Indiana Historical Society Press, 2014), says there is little doubt in his mind as to who is buried beneath the few tons of concrete and scrap iron Dillinger’s father had dumped into the grave.
“All I have read indicates that there was no doubt it was Dillinger who was shot in Chicago,” Beineke says. “His family thought so, although his sister did not at first think it was, but was later convinced it was him after she saw the body and the scars that could have only been his. The funeral was held at the sister’s home in Maywood, and they buried him a day early so as not to have a circus out of the internment.”
Americans seem to have an appetite for digging up our famous dead, particularly in light of advances in DNA testing. President Zachary Taylor was exhumed upon the theory he had been poisoned; Lee Harvey Oswald was dug up to prove the body in his casket wasn’t a Soviet double; we were collectively deflated that there were no bones or loot found by Geraldo Rivera in Al Capone’s empty “vault.” Abraham Lincoln’s corpse was seen so many times after his first burial in 1865 — the last time in 1901when it was permanently moved to a refurbished tomb — that his son, Robert, ordered that his father, too, be buried under a few layers of cement.
It is likely that it was Dillinger in the alley near the Biograph Theater that humid night, for very few — if any — of those who crowded around the corpse (some dipped their hankies, hems, and broken straw boaters in his blood) seemed to think it was a body double; nor did the FBI agents who shot him. The nearly 100-degree heat and oppressive humidity had time to work on Dillinger’s body, a probable explanation for a change in the color of his eyes.
Beineke, however, is quick to point out that the exhumation may all be for the good. Dillinger’s legacy is that of a charismatic Robin Hood who was polite to hostages, considered a Houdini that couldn’t be kept in stir for long, was never convicted of murder (he escaped from the Crown Point jail while awaiting trial for the death of East Chicago police officer William O’Malley), and came off as an athletic Depression Era hero of the downtrodden who seemed to enjoy tweaking the noses of the rich “banksters.” He was spotted — often impossibly — all over the Midwest, hid in plain sight, and has been characterized by some as a simple victim of an overly zealous justice system that sent him to crime school with an unjustifiably long prison sentence in 1924.
“To establish it is Dillinger in Crown Hill Cemetery would probably lay to rest one of the most highly discussed aspects of his life,” Beineke says, “and even add to the legend.”
Like most Hoosiers, I have heard Dillinger stories, many with local ties. Among the more likely is that Dillinger had colleagues maintain a safe house in Terre Haute, but never used it, and that he robbed the Rockville National Bank nearly a year to the day he was killed. Parke County Historian Randy Wright believes that Dillinger probably did rob the bank in the county seat; the gangster was in Indiana, in fact, had pulled off a heist in Daleville just two days before. It is clearly established that his most lucrative bank robbery came in Greencastle in late October 1933.
“I am somewhat surprised by all the people who were not even born at the time, and have no proof, who ‘know’ that Dillinger did not rob the bank here,” Wright says.
Yet, our fascination with Dillinger, then and now, has also led to countless unsubstantiated tales. An old friend of mine believed the legendary gangster often stopped in at his father’s filling station near Pimento, even carved his initials in its outhouse door; several acquaintances have mentioned that Dillinger had a “hideout” near Coxville and another at Falling Rock, just off Highway 59; more than once I’ve heard that Dillinger was seen casing the bank on Main Street in Rosedale…
Dillinger’s methods added ammunition to his legacy. Beineke said: “He had the fastest cars, and the weapons he used were superior to what most law officials had. He used meticulous planning, casing a town and the bank, and had a getaway plan using multiple cars and maps that never used state or national highways. He never hit a town with railroad tracks on more than one side, he was aware of the technology his adversaries might use, and he always released hostages where there were no telephone lines. He even used the relatively new procedure of plastic surgery to change his appearance, but it wasn’t very successful and about killed him in the process.”
I am lucky to have a crumbling ledger that my mother gave to me years ago. In its back pages, not far from where she had drawn a few pictures and practiced her letters in grade school, her no-nonsense grandmother recorded deaths and births and weddings, casualties of coal mine accidents, the sale of properties, and the headlines of eventful days.
Among her entries, not far from a line about the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping, she wrote, “John Dillinger was shot and killed in Chicago by federal agents on Sunday, July 22. He was an outlaw.”
It won’t be too long now before we’ll all find out whether she was right.