Public Enemy #1

July 17, 2009

The FBI's historian details the life and criminal history of John Dillinger, the mad deemed "Public Enemy #1" during the Great Depression and how his activities motivated changes within the worlds premier law enforcement agency.

Audio Transcript

Mr. Schiff: Hello I’m Neal Schiff and welcome to Inside the FBI, a weekly podcast about news, cases, and operations. John Dillinger. You may have heard about him. He was a very violent criminal and robbed a lot of banks.

Dr. Fox: “John Dillinger became the face of the crime problem in America during the Great Depression, a period between 1933 and 1934.”

Mr. Schiff: That’s Dr. John Fox. He’s the historian at the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs.

Dr. Fox: “And he became the chief target of the FBI (then called the Bureau of Investigation) in the spring of 1934, leading to a fatal confrontation at the Biograph Theater (in Chicago, Illinois) and the emergence of the FBI as the premier law enforcement organization in America.”

Mr. Schiff: Tell us about Dillinger’s life as a kid.

Dr. Fox: “Dillinger grew up in Indiana. First, Indianapolis. But then his father moved to a more rural part, Mooresville, Indiana. His mom died when he was young. Dillinger seems to have had a reasonably normal childhood for kids of that generation. Nothing really stands out. It’s hard to tell, sometimes, because a lot of the stories about Dillinger in his youth came out after his notoriety as a criminal, and so, you can’t tell sometimes whether people are reading too much back into it. But for the most part he seems to have had a fairly normal childhood.”

Mr. Schiff: Any idea what lured Dillinger behind the dark door and into the criminal world?

Dr. Fox: “It’s kind of hard to say. Certainly as a young adult Dillinger started to have his problems with the law. He ran afoul of the Navy when he went Absent Without Leave as a young midshipman. Of course the thing that really landed him into jail and into real confrontation with regular criminals was his assault of a grocery store clerk-owner that he was trying to rob. It led him to a nine-year sentence in a fairly severe prison. He became the acquaintance with a number of gangsters, and friends with them, and of course learned the ropes about robbing banks and being a hardened criminal from them.”

Mr. Schiff: What were some of his earlier criminal activities and some of the people he hung around with, and then did he escalate his crimes along the way?

Dr. Fox: “Well, what happened was as soon as Dillinger got out of jail, he embarked on a crime campaign, in a sense, to raise money to basically break his friends out of jail. He would rob banks; he would target law enforcement officers, sheriff’s offices, police officers to get guns and armored vests. He was basically raising money to go on a life of crime.”

Mr. Schiff: Dr. Fox says Dillinger, in 1933, was hooked up with some very bad people in the criminal community.

Dr. Fox: “Charles Mackley, Harry Pierpont, and of course, eventually, even more violent ones in 1934. So really, right off the bat of getting out of jail, he’s embarking on a crime crusade.”

Mr. Schiff: There are all kinds of Dillinger stories out there and we asked Dr. Fox about that.

Dr. Fox: “Dillinger became famous, in part, because he was a criminal with some style. Really, his escapades seemed to capture people’s imagination. A combination of close escapes, brazen bank robberies, and even some successful prison breaks, one of which, the Crown Point, Indiana, prison break, really catapulted him into fame because it was considered an escape-proof jail, or at least it was kind of portrayed that way in the press. Dillinger was seen hamming it up with local prosecutors; with other law enforcement officers, and his attitude seemed to say that, ‘I’m here for a time but you’re not going to be able to hold me.’ And when he was then able to actually break out and prove that true, it really catapulted him into fame.”

Mr. Schiff: Any myths out there that are floating around?

Dr. Fox: “I think there are a lot of stories out there about Dillinger that aren’t true. First of all, of course, is the idea that Dillinger was a Robin Hood, you know, kind of a romantic outlaw. Dillinger, of course, was a violent criminal. His bank robberies put innocent people into harm’s way. He would use human shields to protect himself from being captured by law enforcement. He was, of course, involved in a number of incidents even where law enforcement officers were killed. Whether or not Dillinger was the one that fired the shots might be a matter of debate but the fact that he was putting himself into these situations where that was a clear possibility suggests that he was part of the guilty party as well, and certainly would have been under today’s law. So, Dillinger hung out with violent thugs. Dillinger himself was one. He wasn’t a romantic criminal. He was a criminal, perhaps, who had some personality, but nonetheless, he was a danger to the public’s safety.”

Mr. Schiff: We come to 1934. What happened that fateful night in Chicago? What was the FBI up to? How did agents prepare to capture John Dillinger?

Dr. Fox: “Well, the FBI, of course, had been looking for Dillinger seriously since March. We had a number of near-misses, including one tragic one, where we accidentally killed a civilian and lost an agent at Little Bohemia, and we had been looking for Dillinger very, very strongly for a long time. Especially in our Chicago Division, but we also had a group of roving agents under Samuel Cowley who also were going around to different parts of the country wherever serious leads for Dillinger had come up. It came to our attention from an officer of the East Chicago police, that he had an informant named Anna Sage who knew, at least, that Dillinger would be visiting a friend of hers, Polly Hamilton; that they would be planning to out to the movies sometime soon. The Chicago police, of course, were looking for Dillinger because of the death of one of their officers in a robbery. And Anna Sage came to the Chicago office (FBI) and told the special agent in charge there, Melvin Purvis, that she could give Dillinger to them. She wanted, of course, the reward. She also wanted, perhaps, some help with an immigration matter, since she was under threat of deportation at that point. Purvis said that certainly if you help us, the reward would be in the workings and that the immigration matter wasn’t something he could control but would certainly put in a word for her. And so she agreed, and, the day of July 22nd, let us know that Dillinger was going to be there; that he was planning to go to the movies that night with her and Polly Hamilton, and that he would be at one of two theaters—the Biograph or the Marlboro. So, of course, we sent agents to both theaters, surveyed the situation, to then, of course, wait until Dillinger actually showed up. And of course he did, at the Biograph. And it was upon our realizing that Dillinger had gone into to see the movie that we were able to convene a number of agents, along with some East Chicago police who were there to help us, and actually set up a stakeout, waiting, of course, through the movie until Dillinger came out the front of the theater.”

Mr. Schiff: What happened when he came out?

Dr. Fox: “Dillinger turned; of course, if he’s coming out of the theater, he turned to the left, headed south down Lincoln Street. He was identified by Special Agent in Charge Melvin Purvis, who had been hanging out near the box office; and Purvis then signaled the other agents that Dillinger had come out. Sage, of course, had told us that she would be wearing an orange skirt and white blouse so that she’d be very colorful and noticeable on the street, and so agents knew what to look for. Three of our agents fell in behind Dillinger and as he was approaching an alley just past the theater, he realized that he was being followed and started to break for the alley and was turning towards the agents who were following him, reaching towards his pocket seeking to pull out a gun that he had in there. Agents fired. Dillinger, of course, was considered armed and dangerous; had been involved in many shootouts already, some of them with our agents, and so they immediately began to fire at him. Of course, several of the shots hit; Dillinger ended up dying very soon thereafter.”

Mr. Schiff: What was playing up on the silver screen of the Biograph Theater that night?

Dr. Fox: “Ironically, it was a gangster pic. It was called Manhattan Melodrama with Clarke Gable and Myrna Loy. Clarke Gable played a racketeer who had gone bad. Another actor was playing his best friend and it was one of these two childhood friends grow up on the opposite sides of the law and end up confronting each other in the end with the girl in the middle.”

Mr. Schiff: What was the upside of this situation for the FBI? Where did it move the FBI in history?

Dr. Fox: “Well, Dillinger was such a widely known public figure because of the image the media was portraying him. He became, in a sense, Public Enemy #1. The Department of Justice had authorized a very large reward, for instance, for his capture. Of course there were many others as well, because there were at least a dozen jurisdictions looking for him. So when the FBI successfully brought him down that night, it really catapulted the Bureau into national fame. We had, in a sense, redeemed ourselves from the problems at Little Bohemia. We had become, in a sense, the image of successful law enforcement, and it was an image that we really sought to live up to. Dillinger, because of his almost iconic stature, really kind of became that argument that federal law enforcement could deal with gangster crime and could do so effectively. That the laws that Congress had recently passed that made a number of the crimes that the gangsters had committed a federal matter. That gave Bureau agents, in a sense, law enforcement authorities, rather than strictly being investigators. That they could make arrests, carry firearms, and so forth, really justified, to some extent, in the public mind, that additional authority to the FBI. And of course, it led to our naming as the FBI; we weren’t named the FBI in 1934, but in 1935 we actually received that name and it led to the whole image of the G-Man, and all of a sudden Hollywood, that had been lionizing gangsters in the early 30s, was creating movies about law enforcement, and oftentimes they were starring an FBI agent.”

Mr. Schiff: The FBI’s Top Ten list didn’t come out until 1950, March 14, 1950, but if there would have been a Top Ten list, for sure, Dillinger would have been right on it.

Dr. Fox: “Absolutely. He certainly would have qualified, but as you know, we don’t rank them, so Dillinger wouldn’t have been #1 necessarily, but that was the conclusion we came to later. Of course it wasn’t the FBI that named him Public Enemy #1 per se, but certainly it was a phrase that was picked up by the Department of Justice and by many others, and really kind of characterized the way Dillinger was seen.”

Mr. Schiff: The John Dillinger melodrama ended shortly after 10:30 on the night of July 22, 1934. More of this gangster’s history of crime and violence and the Bureau of Investigation’s hard work to track him down is on the Internet at That concludes our show. Thanks for listening. I’m Neal Schiff of the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs.

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