The Dillinger gang pulled over a dozen bank jobs, and stole hundreds of thousands of dollars. A dozen victims—police, FBI agents, gangsters, and civilians—were killed in his rampage.
In 1933-34, an era that witnessed the rise of celebrity outlaws like Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Bonnie and Clyde, Dillinger was the most famous and flamboyant of them all. Reporters rushed to describe the man and his misdeeds—spicing their accounts with exaggerated tales of his swashbuckling bravado and cool daring. The newspapers and newsreels thus provided Americans worn down by the Great Depression with a salacious mix of sex and violence that proved irresistible.
As Dillinger's wild escapades unfolded, the tale filled more and more space in the press and movie newsreels. Even today, Dillinger is the subject of pulp literature, serious poetry and fiction, and big budget Hollywood films, including a 2009 movie starring Johnny Depp.
Dillinger was born into a middle-class family in Indianapolis but was a disturbed adolescent, getting into trouble with the police, and deserting the Navy after a short period of enlistment. In the mid 1920s he was convicted of a botched store robbery and served eight and a half years in prison. On his release in May 1933 he embarked on the criminal rampage that was to ensure his fame. He robbed a bank in Buffalo, Ohio, was arrested, and then 'sprung' from custody by associates in the course of which a sheriff was killed. After several further bank robberies (during which two police officers were killed) Dillinger and several associates were arrested in Tucson, Arizona, in January 1934; in March, he broke out of prison in Indiana using a fake gun carved from wood to take prison officers hostage. From September 1933 to July 1934 the Dillinger gang was responsible for ten murders.
After an extensive search directed by the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover, Dillinger was traced to Chicago through information provided by a Romanian brothel madam. In return for assistance in avoiding deportation she told police of a planned assignation with Dillinger at a local cinema and agreed to wear a red dress to identify the group. On 22 July Dillinger was shot dead by FBI agents on leaving the Biograph Theater, after he had drawn a gun on the approaching officers.
Dillinger In Popular Culture
The Dillinger Escape Plan named themselves in tribute to John Dillinger. Innumerable Hollywood movies have featured Dillinger, the most recent was "Public Enemies" (2009) Despite his murders, Dillinger has been portrayed as a charming and romantic 'Robin Hood' figure, most notably in the 1973 film Dillinger.
- Gorn, Elliott J. Dillinger's Wild Ride: The Year That Made America's Public Enemy Number One (2009) scholarly history