Sunday is anniversary of Dillinger jail break
"I don't drink much and I smoke very little. I guess my only bad habit is robbing banks. Now you see, fellas, I ain't such a bad guy at heart."
-- John Dillinger, talking to reporters from his cell at the Crown Point, Ind., jail in February 1934, just days before he bluffed his way out with a wooden gun and drove away in the sheriff's car.
John Dillinger burst onto the national scene 75 years ago Sunday -- Oct. 12, 1933 -- after a violent escape from the Allen County Jail at Lima, Ohio.
Over the next nine months the Indiana farm boy-turned gangster would become the most famous American outlaw since Jesse James, raiding police stations for guns and ammunition before robbing banks in five states -- including his largest haul at the Central National Bank in Greencastle. He kept one step ahead of police and the National Guard until he died in a hail of FBI bullets outside a Chicago theater on July 22, 1934.
He was 31 years old.
Hollywood is about to introduce another generation of Americans to the Dillinger legend. "Public Enemies," starring Johnny Depp as Dillinger, is scheduled to be released in July.
But no movie, no book, no newspaper story can capture the depth of hysteria that gripped the nation at the height of Dillinger's fame. A Great Depression Robin Hood of sorts in the eyes of many who had lost their money in failed banks, he was hunted by law enforcement officers as the most dangerous criminal of a two-year era that included Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd, Lester "Baby Face" Nelson and Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.
Dillinger was paroled from the Indiana State Prison at Michigan City on May 22, 1933, after serving nearly nine years for his only crime to date, the botched robbery of a grocer in his hometown of Mooresville, Ind. Gov. Paul V. McNutt ordered the parole after receiving a petition signed by 200 Mooresville residents and a letter of recommendation from the judge who sentenced Dillinger. The petition declared, "We believe this prisoner, if released, will make a good and upright citizen. This young man, John H. Dillinger, is a bright and capable fellow. We believe he would make good on his father's farm as a manager."
Dillinger proved to be more than capable, but not at farming. Over the summer he robbed two banks in Indiana and a third in Bluffton, Ohio. He needed money to arrange the escape of friends still behind bars at Michigan City.
Early in September Dillinger bribed a supplier to put guns inside boxes of thread destined for the prison's shirt factory. When the boxes arrived on Sept. 26, 10 convicts -- described by Capt. Matt Leach of the Indiana State Police as "the 10 most dangerous men in the prison" -- used the guns to overpower guards and rush out the main gate. They stole two cars and disappeared into the dark, rainy afternoon.
Among those who escaped were three men who would from the nucleus of what newspapers dubbed Dillinger's "Terror Gang" -- Ohioans Harry Pierpont, 30, and Charles "Fat Charley" Makley, 44, and Russell Lee Clark, 36.
Five days before the Michigan City escape, police acting on a tip surprised Dillinger at a girlfriend's apartment in Dayton.
He was taken to the jail at Lima to await formal charges for the Bluffton bank robbery.
Dillinger would never answer to those charges.
Just after dark on Oct. 12 a long black sedan rolled to a stop in front of the jail. Pierpont and Makley, wearing hats and long overcoats which one witness later said "made them look like prosperous businessmen," stepped out.
Four others -- Clark, prison escapees Ed Shouse, 32, and John "Red" Hamilton, 34, and Michigan City parolee Harry Copeland -- remained in the car.
Pierpont and Makley walked into the jail, identifying themselves to Sheriff Jess Sarber as prison officials from Indiana. When they demanded to see Dillinger, Sarber, seated at his desk near his wife and a deputy, asked to see their credentials.
"Here's our credentials," said Pierpont, who pulled a handgun from beneath his coat and shot Sarber in the chest. As the sheriff lay dying, the deputy was forced to release Dillinger. On their way out Pierpont and Makley stripped the jail of rifles and shotguns.
Dillinger, whose notoriety had been confined to Indiana and Ohio, immediately commanded front-page headlines across the nation. The Allen County commissioners posted $5,000 rewards for the capture of Dillinger and Pierpont "dead or alive." The FBI would raise the price on Dillinger's head to $10,000 after Director J. Edgar Hoover declared him Public Enemy No. 1.
Hysteria spread through the Midwest two days after the Lima escape when Dillinger staged a late-night raid on the police station at Auburn, locking up the officers on duty before carrying off an arsenal of machine guns, shotguns, bulletproof vests and thousands of rounds of ammunition.
The next day Indianapolis City Council, meeting in emergency session, authorized the construction of an armored gun cage in the police station where officers could combat possible gang raids.
In Ohio, Columbus police Chief Fred F. Kurtz ordered the doors of police headquarters locked from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m.
None of this seemed to worry the police department at Peru in northern Indiana. It should have. On Oct. 20 Dillinger and company arrived at midnight and left with what newspapers described as "the entire police arsenal."
The search for the Dillinger gang reached a fever pitch. The Indiana National Guard set up sandbagged machine-gun checkpoints along major highways.
Police raided suspected hideouts in Indiana and Ohio but found nothing. A volunteer American Legion "shotgun army" combed the Indiana countryside.
Dillinger, Pierpont, Makley and the others were in Chicago, planning what would be their largest haul -- the Oct. 23 robbery of the Central National Bank in Greencastle.
Editor's note: Larry Gibbs, a Putnam County native and newspaper editor for nearly 30 years, has chronicled the John Dillinger story since his tenure as publisher of the Banner Graphic from 1977 to 1987.
An Ohio resident for the last 20 years, he now serves as public relations director for the Mansfield City Schools in north central Ohio. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.