Home News Stories 2004 July A Byte Out of History: Fall of John Dillinger

A Byte Out of History: Fall of John Dillinger

A Byte Out of History
The Fall of John Dillinger and the Rise of the FBI

Biograph theater with Dillinger inset and words

07/23/04

The movie playing at the Biograph Theater on this hot, muggy summer night was Manhattan Melodrama, starring Clark Gable as the ruthless gangster Blackie Gallagher.

But it was the real-life drama starring notorious outlaw John Dillinger that was playing out on the streets of Chicago on this particular Sunday evening that would ultimately captivate the nation and forever transform the FBI.

On July 22, 1934—70 years ago Thursdaya nervous Melvin Purvis, special agent in charge of the Bureau's office in Chicago, stood near the Biograph box office. He'd seen Dillinger walk into the crowded theater about two hours earlier with two women, including one in an orange skirt (often called a "red dress") who had tipped off authorities that the wanted criminal would be there. Now, Purvis was waiting for Dillinger to re-emerge.

Suddenly, Purvis saw him. Purvis took out a match and lit his cigar. It was a pre-arranged signal to the Bureau agents and local police officers taking part in the operation, but in the thick crowd fewer than half a dozen of the men saw it.

In the past year, many such opportunities to catch the wanted outlaw and other gangsters had gone up in smoke. The Bureau had learned many lessons, often the hard way, in the process. Three months earlier, a special agent had been gunned down following a hastily planned raid on a Dillinger gang hideout in Wisconsin. And 13 months earlier, the Bureau had lost an agent and three law enforcement partners at the hands of "Pretty Boy" Floyd and others in the infamous "Kansas City Massacre."

But on this night, the Bureau was prepared. The arrangement of agents, the setting of the signal, and the careful preparation were evidence that the Bureau was learning how to catch the most violent criminals. The plan was not perfect, but it was sound, with agents covering all theater exits and directions Dillinger might take.

As Dillinger walked down the street, agents fell in behind him and closed in. Dillinger sensed something was wrong, and as Agent Charles Winstead would later describe, the gangster "whirled around and reached for his right front pocket [where he had a .380 Colt automatic pistol]. He started running sideways toward the alley."

Agents fired. Dillinger fell, mumbled a few words, and died.

The successful conclusion to the Dillinger manhunt was the beginning of the end of the gangster era and a cornerstone in the evolution of the Bureau. With new powers, new skills, and within a year, a new name--the Federal Bureau of Investigation--it was well on its way to becoming a premier law enforcement agency respected around the globe.

Want to read more? Then visit Dillinger's story on our history page. Also see Dillinger's detailed 1934 wanted poster, later marked "cancelled" after he was killed.