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Dillinger’s Wild Ride by Elliott J Gorn

Review by Jay Benedict.

dillingerMy Granpa took to the road for years during the Great  Depression selling  vacuum cleaners, encyclopaedias and  rubber plants in the desert. Actually, that last little idea is what got him out of the Depression and back into affluence.   Only in America.

John D was the flipside of my Grandfather:  his way out was to rob banks.  My Father would have liked to rob banks but his way out was to print his own money – only he seriously flipped out and started giving it away on the streets, so they picked him up and put him in the slammer. Because he wouldn’t cooperate with the Feds, they kept adding to his sentence, very much like John Dillinger –except JD broke out of jail many times whereas my Father didn’t.   He should have been in a psychiatric ward instead.

But I digress.

Elliott J Gorn’s Dillinger’s Wild Ride is a fantastic read.

Gorn takes a different tack from previous accounts (he tells you so himself) in that he seeks to explain how the Dillinger story was created, interpreted, and reworked from primary sources like government documents, politicians, journalists and the Associated press of the day. He goes to great pains to explain the difference between being an outlaw and a gangster: how Dillinger was more Jesse James and Billy the Kid  than Al Capone, and how gangsters operated illegal businesses in drugs gambling and bootleg liquor, whereas outlaws tended to attack legitimate institutions like banks.

He draws a wonderful parallel between the financial global meltdown we’re currently experiencing  and 1930s depression-ridden America. When you think of our own stories of MPs fiddling their expenses, crooked bankers, white collar thieves, riots up and down the country, the Arab Spring etc  … it becomes clear why Dillinger’s wild ride fascinated America during the 1930s. This is a tale, brilliantly told, about how John Dillinger became the first outlaw superstar and it kicks off with a chronology of events that takes your breath away.

Johnny’s boyhood was unexceptional. Energetic, adventurous and a bit headstrong, he was an indifferent student for 8 years in Indianapolis. According to one of his teachers he was a nice, clean industrious boy who liked maths and had a quick wit. The high wages offered by companies during WW1 encouraged him to leave school early to work in a wood veneer factory, become a messenger at the Board of Trade and later work as an upholsterer and machinist. So far so good.

Things started to go downhill when Dillinger Senior made the move back to the country. Returning  to the land, he bought a small farm outside Mooresville and joined the local Quaker congregation. Johnny, unfortunately,  suffered from hayfever and spent most of his time in nearby Martinsville and Indianapolis.  There, he fell in love with a girl in Rockville but his Father prevented them from getting married.

It’s at this point that Johnny grew sullen.  He stole a car, panicked and joined the Navy. Twice he  deserted, with the Navy putting out a $50 reward for him.  He went home and got married and tried to keep on the straight and narrow: but it wasn’t to last. Hooking up with Ed Singleton at the local pool hall they decided  that a stick up was a quick way to earn some cash. They whacked Frank Morgan on the back of the head with an iron bar, accidentally discharged a gun, and ran for it.  Dillinger then gave the game away when he asked around town if old man Morgan was OK -  before anyone ever knew that a crime had been committed.

On his Father’s advice – that honesty was the best policy and he would be rewarded with a light sentence – Johnny gave himself up.  They put him away for 9 years, while Singleton got much less.  His first bitter lesson about honesty not being  rewarded.  Dillinger Snr had been naïve to say the least, but these were  God fearing decent people who went to Sunday school, believed God was American and – more importantly – on their side. How wrong can you be …..

Dillinger’s prison years were marred by numerous infractions which meant they just kept  adding to his sentence. His family pleaded for clemency but the parole board kept turning him down. His problems with discipline continued – gambling, smuggling cigarettes and hiding a razor blade in his cell – all minor offences that telegraphed a kid who  just wanted attention. By the time Dillinger was released in 1933, he had spent a third of his life behind bars.   In the meantime, America had gone through the 1929 stock market crash and a quarter of the workforce was unemployed. Much like today.

America had changed beyond recognition. Dillinger was 30 and he was going to make up for lost time …

A month after his release from the Indiana State Penitentary, John D and his  accomplices (‘Baby Face’ Nelson, Sam Goldstein and Homer Van Meter among others) stole $10,000 from the New Carlisle National Bank in Ohio.

In July 1933 Dillinger and Harry Copeland robbed the Commercial Bank in in Daleville, Indiana,  stealing $3,500.  In August of the same year he stole $12000 from the first National Bank in Montpelier, Indiana and then in September they relieved the State Bank of Massachussetts Avenue, Indianapolis of $25000. He was arrested in Dayton Ohio at the home of his girlfriend Mary Longnaker and transferred to Lima jail;  but before his arrest, he managed to smuggle in some guns for his mates at the Indiana State Pen. In October they stole $11,000 from the First National Bank in St Mary’s Ohio on their way to freeing Dillinger from  Lima. He raided  two Indiana police stations, then parted the Central National Bank of Greencastle, Indiana of $75,000.  A car chase and shoot out with police in Chicago followed as Dillinger and his new girlfriend Evelyne ‘Billie’ Frechette left his Doctor’s office.

Racine, Wisconsin was next when he and his accomplices robbed the American Bank and Trust Company of $28,000. They wounded two people and briefly took the Bank’s president and a policeman hostage. The Chicago Police Dept organized a forty man ‘Dillinger’ squad and raided  an apartment, wrongly killing three men believed to be part of the Dillinger gang … and so it carried on at breakneck speed.

The Press was full of stories and sightings. They often expressed a sense of awe at his wild year. One Associated Press reporter referred  to him as ‘the arch criminal of the age’ and ‘swashbuckling’ and described how he came out of obscurity to ‘astound the world with his deeds of depredation’.  His name was mentioned in the Senate chamber.  He was the subject of endless editorials and became ‘the most dangerous desperado of the decade’.

No other felon in American history so captured the public’s imagination. His insouciance and good nature became part of his legend. The Indianapolis Star was on the receiving end of Dillinger’s flippant  fatalism when they interviewed him in a Tuscon jail.  ‘Might as well go early in the morning’, he used to say, ‘Stay all night, bring your lunch and enjoy the fireworks’ and, ‘The world’s a very dangerous place; few of us get out alive.’

He loved nothing more than to walk right by a federal agent and flash his twisted smile when the whole of the US was up in arms against him.  He bantered with reporters, charmed everyone he met and was looked upon as a sort of Robin Hood who stood alone against the police. He made the law look ridiculous. Women flocked to him like flies round a camembert. He left a trail of deserted boudoirs while trusting their disgruntled owners to keep faith with him.

By January 1934 Dillinger was holed up in Florida. He went back to Indiana to rob the First National  Bank of East Chicago of $20,000 and was accused of killing a police officer.  Arrested for the killing in Tuscon and  flown to Indiana he still managed to banter  with prosecutor Robert Estill and Sheriff Lillian Holley at Crown Point even as he was being indicted for murder – but then managed to break out using a wooden gun, stealing the Sheriff’s car and driving to Chicago! 

Time magazine dedicated several pages to the Dillinger story including a map of a game the editors called ‘Dillinger’s Land’.  The outcome was anybody’s guess, but he was doing loop-de-loops around Iowa/Wisconsin/Illinois/Indiana/Minnesota with J Edgar Hoover and his keystone cops always three steps behind. He became the Scarlet Pimpernel,  even popping back for Sunday lunch with his family on Apil 8th, enjoying a sit down roast and his favourite dessert – coconut cream pie – despite the entire country looking for him.

Congress passed ten new laws, the ‘New Deals on Crime’, endorsed by the President who cited  Dillinger as a reason such legislation was necessary and it’s at this stage that Dillinger undergoes plastic surgery and meets his new girlfriend Polly Hamilton – who presumably didn’t recognize him …  (A bit like that joke about the guy who has a dream that God tells him to have a  transplant and body tuck – so he completely transforms himself, then gets struck  by lightning. In heaven he hollers at God who turns round and says, “Don’t shout at me Irving, I didn’t even recognize you!”)

Round about his 31st birthday he robbed the Merchant’s National Bank in South Bend, Indiana,  stole $30,000 and killed one policeman and several civilians.  Sporting glasses, dyed hair and a moustache, he was finally shot and killed by Federal agents as he left the Biograph Theatre in Chicago, on a tip off from Anna Sage – a brothel keeper who betrayed him to Melvin Purvis, one of J Edgar Hoover’s ‘G Men’.

They couldn’t catch him for a year while he was looking like himself but the moment he changed his appearance, they found him.   The ironies of all ironies … and the stuff of legend.His death made headlines across America and tens of thousands came to view his body in  the morgue.

Among the first images released after John Dillinger’s death one shows him lying on a tilted slab with a sheet covering his body.   Between his knees and his neck, the sheet rises at least a foot, like a tent, from (very) approximately where his loins would be. The photograph has  never been fully explained – probably it’s Dillinger’s arm and hand, stiffened in rigor mortis  – but it looks almost like young JD died with an enormous erection, and is doubtless partially responsible for the urban legend that J Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI and a closet case if there ever was one, kept Dillinger’s private parts preserved in a jar of formaldehyde on his desk for many years.

Hoover lived with Clyde Tolson, Associate Director of the FBI in charge of discipline.  They went on vacation together,worked closely together, went  night clubbing together and ate their meals together.  In fact they did everything together. “G-men always get their men” was the caption beneath a picture of the two of them wearing  fedoras …  Quite!

Pinky and Perky loved to ride on the boardwalk in Atlantic City  between rooting out communists and other miscreants and troll in their ‘prowler’ to the Georgetown Bar and Grill to ogle heterosexuals and catch some rays.  Hoover once famously said, “ I regret to say that we of the FBI are powerless to act in cases of oral-genital intimacy, unless it has in some way obstructed interstate commerce”. That says all you need know about the head of the FBI really;  but I’m digressing once more.

I urge you to read this brilliant book.  Despite the senseless violence, fast women and faster cars there was something deeply appealing about Dillinger’s nerve, his coolness, his élan. His charisma was especially compelling set against the background of the Depression and the breakdown of social and economic institutions – the bank runs, the foreclosures, the breadlines.  He was a product of his time.

After the August riots in England this year Camila Batmanghelidj said in an article in  The Independent:

It’s not one occasional attack on dignity, it’s a repeated humiliation, being continuously dispossessed in a society rich with possession. Young, intelligent citizens of the ghetto seek an explanation for why they are … condemned to a darkness where their humanity is not even valued enough to be helped. Savagery is a possibility within us all. Some of us have been lucky enough not to have to call upon it for survival; others, exhausted from failure, can justify resorting to it.

The ghost of John Dillinger haunts us still.

Oxford University Press.  2011.  Paperback.  ISBN: 978-0-19-976916-2. 272pp.

11 comments on “Dillinger’s Wild Ride by Elliott J Gorn

  1. Hilary
    October 1, 2011

    Fabulous review, Jay! Reading it was a bit of a wild ride in itself – such brio and passion. The name Dillinger is a familiar one, but until now I’d never realised just now notorious he was and why. I definitely want to read this now.

    Thank you for linking his story back to the words of the inimitably wonderful Camila Batmanghelidj – the strongest voice of sanity and humanity at the time of the riots this year.

  2. Chris Harding
    October 1, 2011

    I too knew nothing about Dillinger, apart from the fact that he was an American gangster, but I would love to read this.

  3. Moira
    October 1, 2011

    Chalk me up as another with a minimal knowledge of Dillinger until I read this. I knew the name of course, and that he was a US outlaw, and also famously dead … I also knew that Warren Beatty played him on film. Beyond that – nada. What amazed me the most was the fact that his ‘career’ was crow-barred into such a tiny window in time … His reputation is such that I always thought he must have had a hugely long and successful career – but no. Just a few months, basically. Extraordinary. And of course the other parallel with today is that then – as now – the Banks weren’t exactly flavour of the month …

    Terrific review …!

  4. Jay Benedict
    October 1, 2011

    Just for the record, Warren B played Clyde Barrow in the movie Bonnie and Clyde. Warren Oates played John Dillinger in a 1970′s movie of his life as did Johnny Depp more recently.Apart from that one little fact I agree with Moira’s assessment. Quite staggering what he packed into one year!!

  5. Moira
    October 1, 2011

    Warren Oates. Of course it was. I should have remembered that. I loved Warren Oates and that wonderful, lived-in face of his, but have never had much time for t’other one. Warren O died way before his time – mid-fifties, I think.

    By the way, if anyone’s interested in that famous, slightly bizarre photograph … it’s here:

    http://www.freeinfosociety.com/media.php?id=1586

  6. Jackie
    October 1, 2011

    I had no idea that Dillinger started out doing such pedestrian jobs. One wonders how different things would be had his family stayed in the city. Of course, we probably wouldn’t even be talking about him now if he had. He may have started robbing banks for the money, but obviously got hooked on the rush & outsmarting the Law to continue. Those sums would’ve lasted a long time, especially with the prices at the time.
    Someone like that probably wouldn’t get so far today. i think part of his success was because the towns were so far apart, surrounded by rural areas & it was easy to disappear. Plus, the lack of communication technology would’ve prevented cops from tracking him, etc. But even Whitey Bulger, who was active in the 70′s, eluded capture until this year. So the surveillance abilities is something very recent.
    The movie with Johnny Depp was very engaging, the atmosphere was so vivid. I never saw the Oates version, but I did see “Bonnie & Clyde”(except for the violent ending). It’s interesting to see how ordinary the real people look, compared to their Hollywood characters.

  7. Simon Woodroffe
    October 4, 2011

    There are some wise words in this review and Benedict concludes by suggesting that there is a metaphor for all of us in how our own behaviour might be or have been with our backs against the wall and a modern comparison to the recent riot.

  8. kirstyjane
    October 5, 2011

    Thank you, Jay, for a review both exhilarating and intelligent. I entirely agree with the parallel you draw with recent events. (I wonder, though, where Hoover’s private life really comes into it all. Surely he wouldn’t be a credit to any section of humanity.)

  9. Jay Benedict
    October 6, 2011

    Hoover certainly knew how to keep a secret(not least his private life!) which was really the key to his success. Not only did he know the secrets, but nobody knew which secrets he knew.He was the ‘éminence grise’ behind so much from 1924-1972-no one will ever hold that kind of power again- and if the FBI is a section of humanity, then he turned it into the force it is today.

  10. Nikki
    October 7, 2011

    Wow, what a review! I was breathless by the end of that. Looking forward to reading this one. I had to remind myself at the end of the review, that everything you talked about happened in a few months, like Moira, I thought it was over several years!

  11. nick
    April 24, 2012

    nice review, you certainly did a well job glamorizing his exploits, which by all means do seem very exciting, its just there’s one mistake. on his last robbery HE didn’t kill any civilians, weather baby face nelson or homer van meter did is another story but dillinger is known for his one killing and that is of sheriff o’malley….otherwise nice review.

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This entry was posted on October 1, 2011 by in Entries by Jay, Non-fiction: biography, Non-fiction: history and tagged , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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