Saturday, July 04, 2009

Repost: John Dillinger & Me

I originally posted this last year, but with the release of the movie Public Enemies this week, I wanted to share it again, and offer a bit of an update.

I have an addiction. It's difficult to admit, especially because it's so odd, but I can't help myself. I'm a bit obsessed with John Dillinger. Yeah, the gangster from the 1930s. I come by it honest enough; my dad shares my fanaticism. He, of course, inspired mine. (My dad is nearly impossible to buy gifts for. He doesn't need much, and what he does, he buys on his own. This year for Christmas, I think I got him his favorite gift ever: a John Dillinger Zippo lighter. He still raves about how much he loves it.) I read Dad's paperback copy of John Toland's Dillinger Days to death. It sits on my bookshelf today in pieces. The cover is stained, and the pages are falling out, but I'll never get rid of it.

When I was in high school, the biggest paper I ever wrote was about Dillinger and the mystery surrounding his death. While history records him as being killed by the FBI in front of the Biograph theater in Chicago on July 22, 1943 (after seeing Manhattan Melodrama starring Clark Gable and William Powell), there's a large group of true believers who think that it was a set up and instead of Dillinger, the real victim was a small time crook from Milwaukee named Jimmy Lawrence. The theory is fueled mainly by Dillinger: Dead or Alive by Jay Robert Nash As with every conspiracy, there is just enough information to make the claim credible: wrong eye color, a heart condition, missing scars. In the 1960s, a man in California wrote letters to the newspapers claiming to be Dillinger. But, the FBI staked its reputation on Dillinger's death (his deathmask hung on the wall outside of J. Edgar Hoover's office for years), so they won't even address the issue; I wish they would. How hard would it be to do a little DNA test in this day and age?

I used to be sold on the conspiracy, but now I'm not so sure. After reading Dillinger: The Untold Story by G. Russell Giradin and seeing some of the autopsy photos, I do believe that it was poor Johnny who was shot in the back by the FBI. Dillinger was the FBI's first Public Enemy Number One, but the only federal crime he ever committed was driving a stolen car across state lines. Another sign of my illness? When Jesse and I were dating, we went to Chicago. We visited the Biograph, and I made Jesse lay face down in the alley next to it so I could take his picture in Dillinger's death pose.

Part of my fascination with Dillinger I'm sure comes from his links to Wisconsin. His girlfriend, Billie Frechette, was a Menominee Indian who lived about 20 miles from here. Dillinger was also rumored to have buried some of his bank robbing spoils near Billie's home. When I was little, my dad would take a metal detector and search the yard telling me we were looking for Dillinger's treasure (Dad, I still don't know if you were just messing with my head). In Gangster Holidays by Tom Hollatz, he talks of going into bars in Shawano, and an old-timer in nearly every one had a story about drinking with Johnny. Dillinger and his gang (including Baby Face Nelson) had a shoot out with the FBI in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin at the Little Bohemia Inn. The lodge still exists, and there's a small museum up there with all of the luggage that Dillinger and the gang were forced to leave behind as they fled. (They got away. The FBI killed 2 CCC workers and shot another) On my list of things to do before I die is have supper up there and see the museum.

The release of Public Enemies seems almost prescient in the wake of the multiple bailouts of Wall Street and the country's growing hatred of bankers. Dillinger was active at the height of the Depression when everyone was struggling, and because the banks were foreclosing on family homes and farms they had become a symbol of everything that was broken in the nation. Dillinger became a folk hero because he was perceived as stealing from the rich (banks) who were closing, taking their patrons money with them or foreclosing and taking away their homes. His popularity infuriated the FBI, especially its head, J.Edgar Hoover, who made it is passion to get Dillinger. In the scheme of things, Dillinger was a small time criminal who never would make today's Most Wanted list.

Arrested in his teens for petty theft, he did more than ten years in prison during which he acquired a thorough knowledge of robbing banks from his fellow inmates. After his release, he helped them escape and then robbed banks throughout the Midwest using that information. Just over a year after his release, he was shot in the bank and killed by the FBI. His spree of crime wasn't exceptionally violent (he never actually killed anyone), and his only federal crime was that of driving a stolen car across state lines, but he has lived in America's imagination for the 75 years since his death in a way that would certainly have amused him. Smooth with the ladies, quick with the one-liners, and a snazzy dresser, I hope that Depp does him justice in the movie. Jesse has promised to take me, and I'll post a review of it when I do. It couldn't be any worse than the 1973 version starring Warren Oates, and I own that on VHS!


Anonymous said...

you should read the book Banking with