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Today in history... end of the road for Dillinger

12:00am & News

July 22nd, 1934, marked the end of the road for America's "Public Enemy No. 1" – John H. Dillinger.

The notorious gangster was gunned down in a hail of bullets fired by federal agents outside Chicago's Biograph Theatre.

It marked the end of a short but violent bank robbing career that lasted just over a year, gripping the American public at the height of the Depression era. Dillinger and his gang robbed 11 banks of more than $300,000 (equivalent to almost £5.5 million today), broke out of jail and narrowly evaded capture on several occasions. Crucially, they had killed seven police officers and three federal agents, marking them out as America's most wanted.

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1903, Dillinger was in trouble with the law from an early age and categorised as a juvenile delinquent. Arrested after a botched mugging in 1924, he pleaded guilty hoping for a lenient sentence, but the judge gave him 10 to 20 years at the Pendleton Reformatory. 

While in prison he made several failed escape attempts and his bravado led to him being "adopted" by a group of professional bank robbers led by Harry Pierpont. They schooled young Dillinger in their trade and when they were transferred to Indiana's notoriously tough Michigan City Prison, he asked to go with them.

After his release on parole in May 1933, Dillinger wasted little time in putting his prison education to work. Meeting up with accomplices of Pierpont, they planned a series of daring bank robberies, aiming to steal enough money to fund a prison break for Pierpont and his gang. Dillinger would then become a fully fledged member of the elite robbery gang.

In four months Dillinger and his gang robbed four Indiana and Ohio banks, two grocery stores and a drug store, netting more than $40,000. Witnesses at several crime scenes remembered Dillinger as sharply dressed, daring and athletic, identifying him as the apparent gang leader.

Dillinger then set up the planned jailbreak for Pierpont, bribing prison workers, finding a safehouse and arranging for guns to be smuggled into the prison. Just four days before the planned breakout Dillinger was arrested in Dayton, Ohio, but the break went ahead as planned with Pierpont and nine others escaping.

After robbing a bank in Ohio, they went to free Dillinger from Lima City Jail, with the Lima sheriff killed during the breakout on October 12th. Later that month the gang broke into a police arsenal, stealing weapons, ammunition and bulletproof vests.

It was then that the Pierpont/Dillinger gang moved up a gear, robbing banks in Indiana, Wisconsin and Chicago, killing four police officers and wounding two more in the process. By now the Chicago police had assembled an elite squad to track down and capture the fugitives, a feat they managed without bloodshed on January 25th in Tucson, Arizona.

Dillinger was extradited to Indiana to stand trial for murder and it was while in prison that he executed his most celebrated jailbreak. Brandishing a pistol, he managed to lock up several prison officers before raiding the prison arsenal for sub-machine guns, stealing a car from the prison garage and calmly driving off. It was later claimed Dillinger had carved the "pistol" from wood and blackened it with shoe polish, but it could have been a real weapon smuggled into the prison.

In any case, Dillinger was on the loose again and now formed his own gang including psychopathic killer "Baby Face" Nelson. More bank robberies and shootings followed, with the FBI called in and on Dillinger's trail. In one disastrous capture attempt, three civilians were mistakenly shot by FBI agents.

In the end it was a Romanian-born brothel madam in Chicago, a friend of Dillinger's, who betrayed him to the FBI in exchange for leniency in her upcoming deportation hearing and hoping to share in the $10,000 bounty on his head. She and Dillinger went to watch a gangster movie at the Biograph Theatre, which had been staked out by FBI agents.

On emerging they were surrounded, but rather than surrender Dillinger took off running. He made it to the end of the block before being gunned down, allegedly because he had pulled a gun. It was the end of a brief but violent and shocking chapter in the history of American crime.

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