John Dillinger - Public Enemy No. 1

A Crime Spree That Changed America

John Dillinger - FBI's Public Enemy Number 1
John Dillinger - FBI's Public Enemy Number 1. Public Domain

During the eleven months spanning from September 1933 through July 1934, John Herbert Dillinger and his gang robbed numerous Midwest banks, killed ten people and wounded at least seven others, and staged three jailbreaks.

The Start of the Spree

After serving a little more than eight years in prison, Dillinger was paroled on May 10, 1933, for his part in a 1924 robbery of a grocery store. Dillinger came out of prison as a very bitter man who had become a hardened criminal. His bitterness stemmed from the fact that he was given concurrent sentences of 2 to 14 years and 10 to 20 years while the man who committed the robbery with him served only two years.

Dillinger immediately returned to a life of crime by robbing a Bluffton, Ohio bank. On September 22, 1933, Dillinger was arrested and jailed in Lima, Ohio as he was awaiting trial on the bank robbery charge. Four days after his arrest, several of Dillinger’s former fellow inmates escaped from prison shooting two guards in the process. On October 12, 1933, three of the escapees along with a fourth man went to the Lima county jail posing as prison agents who were there to pick up Dillinger on a parole violation and return him to prison.

This ruse didn’t work, and the escapees ended up shooting the sheriff, who lived at the facility with his wife. They locked the sheriff’s wife and a deputy in a cell to free Dillinger from incarceration.  Dillinger and the four men who had freed him – Russell Clark, Harry Copeland, Charles Makley, and Harry Pierpont immediately went on a spree robbing a number of banks. In addition, they also looted two Indiana police arsenals where they took various firearms, ammunition and some bulletproof vests.   

On December 14, 1933, a member of Dillinger’s gang killed a Chicago police detective. On January 15, 1934, Dillinger killed a police officer during a bank robbery in East Chicago, Indiana. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began posting photos of Dillinger and the members of his gang in the hope that the public would recognize them and turn them into local police departments. 

The Manhunt Escalates

Dillinger and his gang left the Chicago area and went to Florida for a short break before heading to Tucson, Arizona. On January 23, 1934, firemen, who responded to a blaze a Tucson hotel, recognized two hotel guests as being members of Dillinger’s gang from the photos that had been published by the FBI. Dillinger and three of his gang members were arrested, and police confiscated a cache of weapons that included three Thompson submachine guns, as well as five bulletproof vests, and more than $25,000 in cash.

Dillinger was transported to the Crown Point, Indiana county jail which local authorities claimed was “escape proof” a claim which Dillinger proved wrong on March 3, 1934. Dillinger used a wooden gun that he had whittled in his cell and used it force the guards to open his. Then Dillinger locked up the guards and stole the Sheriff’s car, which he drove to and abandoned in Chicago, Illinois. This act allowed the FBI to finally join the Dillinger manhunt since driving a stolen car across state lines constitutes a federal offense.

In Chicago, Dillinger picked up his girlfriend, Evelyn Frechette and they then drove to St. Paul, Minnesota where they met up with several of his gang members and Lester Gillis, who was known as “Baby Face Nelson.” 

Public Enemy No. 1

On March 30, 1934, the FBI learned that Dillinger may be in the St. Paul area and agents began speaking with managers of rentals and motels in the area and learned that there was a suspicious “husband and wife”  with the last name of Hellman at the Lincoln Court Apartments. The following day, an FBI agent knocked on the Hellman’s door, and Frechette answered but immediately closed the door. While waiting for reinforcements to arrive a member of Dillinger’s gang, Homer Van Meter, walked towards the apartment and upon being questioned shots were fired, and Van Meter was able to escape. Then Dillinger opened the door and opened fire with a ​machine gun allowing him and Frechette to escape, but Dillinger was injured in the process.​

A wounded Dillinger returned to his father’s home in Mooresville, Indiana with Frechette. Shortly after they arrived, Frechette returned to Chicago where she was promptly arrested by the FBI and was charged with harboring a fugitive. Dillinger would remain in Mooresville until his wound healed.
After holding up a Warsaw, Indiana police station where Dillinger and Van Meter stole guns and bulletproof vests, Dillinger and his gang went to a summer resort called the Little Bohemia Lodge in northern Wisconsin. Due to the influx of gangsters, someone at the lodge phoned the FBI, who immediately set out for the lodge.

On a cold April night, the agents arrived at the resort with their car lights turned off, but dogs immediately began barking. Machine gunfire broke out from the lodge, and a gun battle ensued.  Once the gunfire stopped, the agents learned that Dillinger and five others had been able to escape once again.  

By the summer of 1934, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover named John Dillinger as America’s very first “Public Enemy No. 1.”