John Dillinger (1903-1934) was the most famous modern American criminal. During the Depression of the 1930s his bank robberies were generally regarded as revenge on society's financial institutions that were unfairly exploiting the economically distressed.
John Dillinger was born on June 22, 1903, in Indianapolis, Ind. His mother died when he was quite young; he was raised by an older sister and eventually, when his father remarried, by his stepmother. At 16 he quit school and began to work intermittently. A year later his father moved the family to a farm near Mooresville, Ind. Dillinger rejected rural life and spent most of his time in the surrounding cities.
In 1923 Dillinger fell in love, but the girl's father ended the romance. Embittered, Dillinger stole a car which he later abandoned. Afraid of being prosecuted, he joined the Navy but deserted a few months later. In 1924 he was arrested for assault and attempted robbery. On the advice of his father he pled guilty; not only did he receive a more severe sentence than his accomplice, who pled not guilty, but also the accomplice secured parole after 2 years, while Dillinger languished in prison.
A difficult prisoner, Dillinger served much of his time in solitary confinement. As is frequently the case, Dillinger's confinement, instead of reforming and rehabilitating him, only trained him to be a criminal. When he left prison in 1933, he carried a map, supplied by inmates, of prospective robbery sites.
Released during the worst of the Depression, as an exconvict it is unlikely that Dillinger could have secured legitimate employment. He quickly found employment robbing banks, however, and almost overnight became a kind of Robin Hood national hero. The fact that people were killed during his holdups was overlooked; instead the national press played him up as a brilliant, daring, likeable individual, beating the banks which had been inhumanely foreclosing mortgages on helpless debtors.
Dillinger became a challenge for law enforcement officials, for he often made them look like fools; conflicts between police jurisdictions made him difficult to capture. When he was captured, he was able to escape. His most famous exploit was when he broke out of heavily guarded Crown Point County Jail armed only with a wooden gun. Eventually, however, the members of his gang were killed or caught. Dillinger moved to Chicago, disguised himself, and attempted to disappear. But he was recognized by Anna Sage, a woman who lived with his girlfriend, Polly.
On July 22, 1934, Anna Sage went to a movie with Dillinger and Polly; she wore an orange skirt to identify herself, and Dillinger, to waiting Federal agents. They gunned him down. Even in death Dillinger remained a thorn in the side of the establishment. Anna Sage ("the lady in red") became a hated figure, like most informers, and the image of law enforcement suffered through what was regarded as too little willingness to take Dillinger, then almost a national hero, alive.
Further Reading on John Dillinger
Interesting popularized accounts of Dillinger are contained in Robert Cromie and Joseph Pinkston, Dillinger: A Short and Violent Life (1962), and in John Toland, The Dillinger Days (1963). For a perspective on Dillinger in the context of his times consult Don Congdon, ed., The Thirties: A Time to Remember (1962). The law enforcement viewpoint is presented in Andrew Tully, The FBI's Most Famous Cases (1965). See also Jay R. Nash and Ron Offen, Dillinger: Dead or Alive (1970).
Additional Biography Sources
Dillinger: the untold story, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Nash, Jay Robert, The Dillinger dossier, Highland Park, Ill.: December Press; Chicago, Ill.: Distributed by Chicago Review Press, 1983.
Toland, John, The Dillinger days, New York: Da Capo Press, 1995.