Year of the Gangster, Part 3
The Top Ten Dillinger Myths
The Year of the Gangster, Part 3
The Biograph Theater as re-created for the Dillinger movie "Public Enemies."
On July 22, 1934—75 years ago today—Bureau agents put an end to John Dillinger’s reign of crime when he was shot and killed near the Biograph Theater in Chicago. Dillinger’s story has been told and retold ever since—including in a recent Hollywood movie. Along the way, fact and fiction have often been blended together. Here, from our perspective, are the top ten myths surrounding Dillinger and the facts as we know them.
Myth #10: Dillinger was a “Robin Hood” type criminal, a romantic outlaw.
Dillinger certainly had charm and charisma, but he was no champion of the poor or harmless thief—he was a hardened and vicious criminal. Dillinger stormed police stations in search of weapons and bulletproof vests. He robbed banks and stole cars. He shot at police officers (and may have killed one) and regularly used innocent bystanders as human shields to escape the law. Worse yet, he stood by as his ruthless gang members shot and killed people, including law enforcement officials. And what of his ill-gotten gains? They were used to line his own pockets and those of his partners in crime, not those of impoverished Americans in the midst of the Great Depression.
Myth #9: Dillinger was not carrying a gun the night he was killed.
Dillinger did have a gun on him—a .380 Colt automatic with the serial number scratched out. He reached for that gun when Bureau agents cornered him that fateful night. Not taking any chances, agents shot him before he had the chance to open fire.
Myth #8: John Dillinger was not killed at the Biograph Theater, a stand-in was.
If this sounds like a conspiracy theory, that’s because it is. Claims that a man resembling Dillinger was actually killed have been advanced with only circumstantial evidence. On the other hand, a wealth of information supports Dillinger’s demise. Special Agents M. Chaffetz and Earle Richmond, for example, took two sets of fingerprints from the body outside the Biograph Theater, and both were a positive match. Another set taken during the autopsy were also a match.
Myth #7: The FBI beat up Evelyn Frechette after her arrest.
Not so. Evelyn “Billie” Frechette—Dillinger’s one time girlfriend—was captured on April 9, 1934 and detained in our Chicago Field Office. She was interrogated about Dillinger around the clock for two days under hot lights. She refused to cooperate and was transferred to St. Paul to stand trail for harboring Dillinger. While her interrogation wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, at no time did agents attack or strike her. Frechette and her lawyer claimed we did during the trail—most likely to win sympathy.
Myth #6: The FBI took physical specimens from Dillinger’s corpse.
There is no evidence suggesting that the Bureau kept “souvenirs” from Dillinger’s body or in any way desecrated his remains. According to media reports, however, the local coroner later admitted taking pieces of Dillinger’s brain to examine.
Myth #5: East Chicago, Indiana Police killed Dillinger, not FBI agents.
While East Chicago Police officers were instrumental in helping the Bureau track down Dillinger the night he died, they were not in a position to shoot him. According to the drawn-up plans of the takedown and individual testimony, all of these officers were too far away to have an unobstructed shot. The closest—Captain Timothy O’Neil—was stationed across the street; his line of fire would have been blocked by special agents and civilians. In the end, it was Bureau agents who shot and killed Dillinger. Claims that someone else pulled the trigger came much later.
Capturing John Dillinger was certainly the Bureau’s top priority in the summer of 1934, but we did not take a “dead or alive” approach as evidenced in our records and in later agent recollections. After the failed raid at Little Bohemia, we did hire several exceptional lawmen with firearms experience and steady gun-hands during times of danger, but only one ended up firing on Dillinger. The idea was to bring in professionals to help mentor less experienced agents, not to get Dillinger at all costs.
Myth #3: Chicago Special Agent in Charge Melvin Purvis single-handedly brought down Dillinger.
Purvis was a key figure, but he definitely did not shoot Dillinger (as some press accounts claimed) and his role in the final days of the case has often been overstated. After the Little Bohemia incident, Director J. Edgar Hoover appointed Inspector and Special Agent Samuel Cowley to oversee what had become a multi-state search. Cowley operated independently, but largely out of our Chicago office. FBI records suggest that he and Purvis worked together on the Dillinger investigation, but Cowley was clearly in charge until the end.
Myth #2: A “lady in a red dress” betrayed Dillinger.
Actually, it was a lady in an orange skirt and white blouse named Anna (Ana) Sage. Sage—a Romanian who was friends with Dillinger’s girlfriend at the time, Polly Hamilton—came up with the idea of turning in the fugitive after she was invited to go to the movies with the couple. She contacted the East Chicago, Indiana Police Department, who passed her on to Purvis. While Sage hoped that the FBI might help her avoid deportation, she also wanted the $5,000 reward. She told Purvis she would be attending a movie with Dillinger and Hamilton at the Biograph and would wear an orange skirt to set her apart from the crowd. (The red dress was an invention of the media—red tends to be a more alluring color and apparently sounded better in a headline.) After Dillinger’s death, Sage was paid the reward, but the FBI was not able to influence her deportation proceedings, and she was sent back to Romania.
Myth #1: Dillinger died expressing his love for Billie Frechette.
Popular culture likes to play up the “eternal romance” between Dillinger and Frechette, but evidence shows that they were in love only a short time. After Frechette was captured, Dillinger looked elsewhere for romance. He found it with Polly Hamilton—the woman he took to the movies the night he was killed. When he was shot, Dillinger had on him a gold ring inscribed with the words, “With all my love, Polly,” as well as a pocket watch that contained a picture of her. Dillinger is thought by some to have whispered something about Billie Frechette as he lay on the sidewalk dying. Several eyewitnesses said they saw Dillinger’s lips moving moments before he died, but no one was close enough to hear if he was whispering or simply exhaling for the last time.