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October 24, 2021

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Gangster John Dillinger: Not just Bluffton's Public Enemy # 1

By Ron Lora

When John Dillinger held up Bluffton's Citizens National Bank and relieved it of $2,100, no one in town, let alone the nation, knew that a day was coming when he would be designated "Public Enemy Number One." For years, the date of that daring five-minute holdup, August 14, 1933, burned in the memory of Bluffton citizens.

Everyone in town knew what had happened before reading about it in The Bluffton News. The local paper mentioned "five well-dressed bandits," "streets sprayed with bullets," and "bullet-shattered windows." Parked outside the bank on Church Street, facing west with motor running, a green sedan had turned right on Jackson, sped to Riley where it again turned right, and then north at Main St., escaping at a high rate of speed.

Tracked to Dayton and arrested there, Dillinger was transferred to Lima's Allen County Jail to await grand jury action on the Bluffton heist. But on October 12, the first Dillinger Gang, which included Charles Makley and the notorious Harry Pierpont, sprung Dillinger from the jail and escaped in two waiting cars - but not before killing Sheriff Jess Sarber (against Dillinger's wishes) and locking up Mrs. Sarber and Deputy Wilbur Sharp.

Several in Bluffton had a decent look at Dillinger; however, called to Dayton to identify the young outlaw, neither cashier E. C. Romey nor bookkeeper Oliver Locher could do so. Nor could others, whether it was optometrist Gordon Bixel, whose second-floor office and window was directly above the action, or Justin Basinger, seated in a Farmers Grain truck close to the getaway car on Church St., or Harry Shine, of Toledo, waiting for a bus in front of the Presbyterian Church.

The Bluffton robbery came early in Dillinger's short career of terrorizing upwards of two dozen smaller banks in the Midwest, mostly in Indiana and Ohio. Just three months earlier he had been released from an eight-and-a-half year incarceration in the Indiana State Penitentiary - having been sent there at the age of 23 for battering an elderly grocer in his home town of Mooresville (Ind.) during an unsuccessful robbery attempt.

Here was the Houdini of outlaws

A string of bank robberies took him on a wild ride until his crime spree ended a year later. The public saw it as high drama, and why not? The brazenness of the man astounds: robbing more than a dozen banks (perhaps as many as two dozen when including police stations), breaking out of jail, springing accomplices out of jail, smuggling guns into prison, gun battles and near-captures, raiding police stations for weapons and ammunition, shooting his way out of FBI traps, and demonstrating to an observant public the incompetence of law enforcement in America. Big cars and gangster girls were added attractions.

It was all so out-of-the-ordinary. On a couple of occasions Dillinger posed as a bank alarm salesman - and then robbed the bank. On another, he arrived to "film" a robbery - a ruse to steal money. And yet again: escaping from jail by using a fake wooden pistol!

The latter occurred at the Crown Point (Ind.) jail where he was being held for killing a police officer in East Chicago. Newspapers had reported that the jail was escape-proof. Yet two months later, with the wooden pistol painted black, Dillinger duped a guard into opening his cell, then locked him up with other guards and escaped in Sheriff Lillian Holley's new Ford V-8. Here was a genuine "Houdini" of outlaws.

The woman in red

The risks he took to rob banks didn't stop there. The small-town country boy became careless, and seemingly couldn't resist the night life of the city, especially Chicago. With only the barest of disguises, such as wearing glasses and dying his hair, he frequented bars and night clubs with his female friends. Failing to recognize how large a task force the oft-humiliated FBI was creating for his capture, Dillinger ran around openly with two prostitutes, one of whom was Anna Sage.

A Romanian immigrant in danger of deportation, Anna struck a deal with J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. In exchange for money and help in fighting deportation, she revealed that on July 22 Dillinger would attend a movie with her and his Chicago girlfriend at the Biograph Theater on Chicago's north side. The police could identify them by the red dress she would wear. When the movie, starring Clark Gable and Myrna Loy, was over, federal agents ambushed Dillinger as he exited the theater, killing the renegade.

A fascinated public wished for connection with the public enemy who was shot down. Witnesses saw several in the gathering crowd dip their handkerchiefs in his blood. His body was then displayed at the Cook County morgue, where thousands filed past to view his uncovered face, many examining rather closely the spot where the fatal bullet from behind had exited near his right eye.

Buried in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis, Dillinger's gravestone has been replaced several times because souvenir-seekers have chipped and carried away a link to the charismatic man who for a very short while appeared to beat the system, a politico-economic system that many blamed for causing hurt.

Altogether, the Dillinger Gang stole approximately $350,000 from the banks, around $5.5 million in today's money. The largest heist came just ten days after the murder of Sheriff Sarber, when "the Jackrabbit", as came to be called, and five others robbed a Greencastle (Ind.) bank of $75,000.

The romanticization of outlaws

The Dillinger saga was but one part of a crime wave that swept the country during 1933 and 1934. Other gangster celebrities such as Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Ma Barker, and Machine Gun Kelly commanded local headlines. Newspapers sensationalized their robberies of banks and police stations, of grocery stores and filling stations.

Several factors combined to ease their way into lives of crime. Most importantly, the Great Depression years of extended double-digit unemployment (rising to a quarter of the work force), bank failures (thousands suspended payments in the early 1930s), the heavy toll occasioned by farm foreclosures (200 per week in Oklahoma alone), the desperation among Oakies moving west and of urban poor into "Hoovervilles"" - all these served to loosen the normal restraints on human behavior.

At that moment in history, ill-staffed police forces were not equipped either with weapons or cars to match those of the gangsters. Their hand guns and rifles were woefully inadequate against Thomson machine guns that sprayed 600-rounds per minute. And their Chevys and four-cylinder Fords and Plymouths could not match the power and speed of a Ford V-8 or a 1933 Hudson Essex Terraplane Eight, a state-of-the art favorite of Dillinger. A car that hit 80, even 90 mph in getaway mode soon left pursuers breathing dust or engine exhaust.

Banks, especially small-town banks, often had poor security. While in jail, Dillinger obtained a copy of an "easy jug" list of banks that could be robbed with a good chance of success if they were scouted out in advance for a get-in and get-out" raid of a few minutes.

One consequence of public anger at banks was that bank robbers attracted a notable degree of sympathy. Dillinger was no Robin Hood, though some thought him one. He often said he didn't rob poor people; he robbed only those who became rich by fleecing the poor. One Tennessee woman, writing a complaining letter to Eleanor Roosevelt, made exactly that point: "If he holds up a bank what of it? Hasn't most of the bankers them selves been crooked, that is how they became wealthy, by cheating the honest man."

The romanticization of John Dillinger into a celebrity outlaw is understandable, but it should not blind us to the fact that Public Enemy Number One was a murderer and a thief. Unlike Baby Face Nelson, Dillinger preferred not to commit murder. However, his deeper preference was - one way or the other - to get the money.

Most citizens were glad to have Dillinger killed. Still, the Dillinger story seems laden with an escapist fantasy of wish fulfillment. Is it so difficult to imagine how normal citizens, leading hum-drum, nose-to-the-grindstone lives, short on pleasure and laden in debt, might see as romantic the saga of a hunted man who took risks, appeared to be brave, violated the moral codes and did what he wanted? He burned his candle at both ends and went down in flames. But his ghost is still with us, a rather popular one at that.