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Dillinger Example

Page history last edited by Brett Stumphy 14 years, 2 months ago


Public Enemy #1

Stranger, stop and wish me well,

Just a prayer for my soul in Hell.

I was a good fellow, most people said,

Betrayed by a woman all dressed in red.


He just wanted to catch a movie and soak up the air conditioning.  The movie wasn’t bad—Manhattan Melodrama, starring Clark Gable.  Nothing like a good gangster flick, though the ending, perhaps, left something to be desired.  Caught, indicted, convicted, executed.  A good gangster film should end one of two ways.  Either the anti-authority, rebel stages a daring and clever escape, or he goes out in a hail of bullets.  Well, at least the air conditioning lived up to its billing: “Cooled by Refrigeration.”  The stranger with the blue eyes smiled coyly at his fellow movie goers, smugly proud of his daring, collected his hat, and exited with the crowd, escorted by his friend, Ana Cumpănaş and his girlfriend, Polly Hamilton.  In the lights of the theater marquee, the orange dress Ms. Cumpănas wore looked red.  Nearby, a man lit a cigar, the signal for his men to move in.  Sensing the trap, the blue-eyed stranger surged ahead of his escorts, reached for his gun, and turned down the adjacent alley.  It happened in a matter of seconds.  Though the man with the cigar later claimed he'd shouted, "Stick 'em up, Johnny.  We have you surrounded," (qtd. in Burrough 408), no one even bothered to identify himself as FBI.  The man in the straw hat reached for his .38 and made to duck down the alley.  The agents fired six shots, hitting the fugitive four times: the fatal shot entered the back of his neck, "smashing a vertebra, severing his spinal cord and and tearing through his brain before exiting through his right eye" (408).    He slouched forward and died, face first, on the cobbled stone.

At least it wasn’t the electric chair.

Legend has it, the crowd gathered around the body, itching for a souvenir.  Most used newspaper and handkerchiefs, but some of the women, so the story goes, even dipped their skirts in the dead man’s blood.

John Herbert Dillinger, a man they say broke out of an Indiana jail with a gun he’d carved from a block of wood, couldn’t elude the FBI and fashion for himself another daring escape.

Or couldn’t he?

A local bar advertised the following day that Dillinger had slugged back his final beer in their establishment.  Locals peddled blood stained mementos.  J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, bragged that his agents had done their duty and dispatched public enemy number one.

Legends don’t die so easily, however.  Even in death, Dillinger remains.  Inside the Biograph, patrons will find a memorial of sorts.  A ticket booth contains a description of the fateful night.  The outlaw's seat has been preserved.  In the alley, they say, you’ll find Dillinger himself.  The violence of his death, combined, perhaps, with an ego too self-assured to readily accept defeat, no matter how mythic, left its mark on that alley.  Residents continue to claim they see there a shadowy figure clutch his chest and slouch forward in a swoon before vanishing against the pavement, the ghost of John Dillinger still acting out his final moments, looking for another miracle in a block of wood to get him clear.  A hail of bullets might be good enough for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but it’s not good enough for John Dillnger.  He’d broken free of tighter situations than this.  Melvin Purvis might have killed Pretty Boy Floyd, but he wasn’t good enough to trap the greatest bank robber who ever lived.  He might as well have tried catching the smoke from that cigar of his.

If you listen to Dillinger fans and conspiracy theorists, you’ll hear an ending more suited to the myth of the man.  Dylan Clearfield, author of Chicagoland Ghosts, speculates that Dillinger not only knew of the FBI's plans but also paid off the FBI before fleeing the country (5).  After all, Dillinger "was a cunning individual [...], used to outsmarting and evading law enforcement" (4).  Dillinger fans seem to agree: he was just too smart for the coppers.  Their evidence? According to autopsy reports, the man killed that night was shorter and more heavily built than Dillinger.  The dead man’s eyes were brown, not blue.  The autopsy also discovered a rheumatic heart condition.  Dillinger served briefly in the United States Navy.  If he’d suffered such a heart condition, the Navy doctors would have declared Dillinger unfit to serve.  To make matters more interesting, one Jimmy Lawrence, disappeared, unheard from again.  Not only did Lawrence bare a striking resemblance to Dillinger (though shorter and with brown eyes rather than blue), but Dillinger had also previously used the name Jimmy Lawrence as an alias.  The woman in red had lied to the FBI.  Sure, she’d tell them where to find Dillinger but would, instead, serve them Jimmy Lawrence.

Maybe Lawrence wasn’t a man of Dillinger’s stature, but certainly the betrayal, coupled with that old Dillinger magic would leave a mark on the alley.  Instead of Dillinger’s ghost, the ghost of Dillinger’s newest block of wood.

It seems unlikely to me that a man with Dillinger's penchant for violence and with Dillinger's inflated ego could simply give up bank robbing and retire to some tropical island, especially when he'd been so desperate for cash that he'd robbed a Sioux Falls bank with Baby Face Nelson, a man not known for his temperate mind.

No matter.  Whether its Dillinger or Lawrence reliving his demise in spectral form in the alley beside the Biograph Theater, Tthe lesson remains the same.  Never trust a woman in a red dress.

Works Cited

Burrough, Bryan.  Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-1934.  NY: Penguin, 2004.

Clearfield, Dylan.  Chicagoland Ghosts.  Holt, MI: Thunderhead Press, 1997.


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