I wrote this blog post on the movie Public Enemies and the real story of gangster John Dillinger back in February. With the movie opening July 1, I thought it might be interesting for anyone who missed it the first time around.
Johnny Depp as John Dillinger
Director Michael Mann‘s 1930s mobster movie Public Enemies will be gangbusters when it opens on July 1.
Public Enemies stars Johnny Depp as murderous American folk-hero bandit John Dillinger and Christian Bale as murderous FBI manhunter Melvin (“Little Mel”) Purvis. Talk about electricity.
Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis
We’ll look at Depp, Bale and the movie later, but first let’s look at the real John Dillinger and his gangster era.
John Dillinger, 1934
The key thing to remember about John Dillinger — one of the most notorious criminals in U.S. history, the man branded “Public Enemy No. 1″ by J. Edgar Hoover — is that his whole bank-robbing, guns-blazing, headline-grabbing career lasted just one year.
Dillinger robbed his first bank in Daleville, Indiana, on July 17, 1933, and he was shot dead (perhaps executed) by FBI agents outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater on July 22, 1934.
In that brief reign of terror, Dillinger and his gangs (there were two distinct Dillinger gangs) robbed only 12 banks by my count, but killed at least eight people (half of them lawmen) and wounded at least a dozen others.
They also broke out of a prison and a jail, broke into a jail, and took over at least three police stations to seize their arsenals of Thompson submachine guns, other weaponry and bulletproof vests.
In October 1933, fear of Dillinger was so great the governor of Indiana called up the National Guard and armoured cars patrolled Indianapolis streets 24 hours a day for several weeks (sort of like Toronto’s Mayor Mel and the Great Snow Emergency of 1999).
The other thing to remember about Dillinger is that he was quite a young guy, only 30 years old during most of his crime spree.
Johnny Depp looks younger than Dillinger but is, in fact, 15 years older than Dillinger was when he died.
Part of the reason Dillinger looked so old was that he had spent most of his 20s in prison, definitely a hardening and aging experience.
Born in Indiana, Dillinger was a wild child, a petty criminal by his teen years. Twenty-year-old Dillinger joined the U.S. Navy in 1923 to avoid a prison sentence on auto theft charges, but deserted within a few months to return to Indiana and a life of crime.
Dillinger about the time he joined the Navy
Shortly after marrying a pretty teenager in 1924, Dillinger botched an attempt to rob a grocery store owner walking home with his day’s take.
Dillinger took his father’s advice to plead guilty in hopes of leniency — and the judge threw the book at him. On Sept. 16, 1924, Dillinger began serving a 10-to-20-year prison sentence for assault and robbery.
Dillinger goes to prison
That’s where Dillinger’s real education as a bigtime criminal happened. He learned at the feet of older, more experienced bandits and thugs like Harry Pierpont, Charles Makley, Russell Clark and Canadian John “Red” Hamilton. But Dillinger the novice had become the older men’s leader by the time he was paroled from Indiana State Prison on May 22, 1933.
Canadian gangster John “Red” Hamilton hooked up with Dillinger in Indiana State Prison
And that is where the legend of the daring and dangerous Dillinger began.
Determined to get his gang out of prison, Dillinger and two accomplices robbed four banks through the summer of 1933 to build a warchest for the jailbreak.
The outside gang members bribed a guard to smuggle weapons to the other gang members still in Indiana State Prison. Ten prisoners armed with Dillinger’s smuggled weapons busted out of the prison on Sept. 26, 1933.
But four days before the prison break, Dillinger had been arrested and locked up in the Allen County Jail in Lima, Ohio.
So what did Dillinger’s gang do? Run for cover?
No. On Oct. 12, 1933, Pierpont, Makley and Clark walked into the Lima jail while Red Hamilton and Ed Shouse stood watch outside. Pierpont shot Sheriff Jesse Sarber dead and the gang escaped with Dillinger.
Over the next two weeks, they seized the arsenals of two Indiana police stations and begin robbing banks across the American Midwest.
ASIDE: How could cold-blooded killers like these ever conceivably become folk heroes? Because, at a time when people were being dispossessed of their homes and farms by bank foreclosure, the Dillinger gang would sometimes steal or burn mortgages held in banks they were robbing. No mortgage, no foreclosure. I doubt it really happened that much, but the myth of Dillinger as Robin Hood grew quickly.
With plenty of money now and every cop in the Midwest looking for them, the gang decided to hide out for a while, first in Florida (where they celebrated the arrival of Jan.1, 1934, by firing their Tommy guns on the beach) and later in Arizona.
Filming Public Enemies
Dillinger, meanwhile, made a detour back to the Midwest, robbing an Indiana bank with two gang members and killing a police officer on Jan. 15, 1934, before picking up girlfriend Billie Frechette in Chicago.
Dillinger and Frechette reached Tucson, Arizona, on Jan. 21, 1934, but within days the entire gang was rounded up after firefighters responding to a hotel room fire recognized one of the gang members from a mugshot in a detective magazine.
Three states — Ohio, Wisconsin and Indiana — all tried to extradite the bandits, but an Indiana district attorney, Robert Estill, flew directly to Tucson and talked Arizona authorities into turning Dillinger over to him personally.
On Jan. 29, a struggling Dillinger was forced onto a small plane under armed guard and flown in stages back to Midway Airport in Chicago.
From there he was taken to the Lake County Jail in Crown Point, Indiana, just across the state line from Chicago, where he was held while awaiting arraignment for the murder of William O’Malley, the cop he shot during the Jan. 15 bank robbery in nearby East Chicago, Indiana.
The other gang members were put on a train in chains and shipped off to Ohio to stand trial for the murder of Sheriff Sarber when they broke Dillinger out of the Lima jail. That’s basically the end of Dillinger’s first gang. Most of them met bad ends but none of them ever rejoined Dillinger — except in hell (had to put that in — it was just too ’30s).
(I know this seems to be going on forever. I’ll try to make the second half of Dillinger’s year of the gun shorter — but I doubt I’ll succeed.)
It was now the end of January 1934 and Dillinger was behind bars in Crown Point, Indiana. The Lake County Jail was built in 1882, attached to the county sheriff’s residence. The sheriff at that time was Lillian Holley, a 42-year-old mother of twins serving out her slain husband’s term as sheriff.
Sheriff’s residence, front right, with jail behind it. Building on left is the courthouse
Crown Point was swarming with police, national guardsmen, reporters and photographers. Dillinger made his first appearance before Judge William Murray in the adjoining county courthouse in shackles and surrounded by 50 guards on Feb. 5, 1934.
In the jail, photographers persuaded Holley, DA Estill and other lawmen to pose with Dillinger. Estill wrapped his arm around Dillinger as the cop-killing gunman leaned his arm on Estill’s shoulder and smiled like a Cheshire cat.
Sheriff Lilian Holley, DA Robert Estill and Dillinger in famous Crown Point photo
What a dumb thing for Holley and Estill to do. And one they would regret for the rest of their lives after Dillinger broke out of the “escape-proof” jail with what was probably a wooden replica of a gun on March 3, 1934.
There are many different stories about whether the “gun” was real or a fake.
One story has Dillinger’s crooked lawyer. five-foot-nothing Louis Piquett, paying $3,500 to have a real Colt .38 smuggled in to Dillinger. According to another story, a German woodworker in Chicago carved a wooden facsimile that girlfriend Billie Frechette slipped to Dillinger during a visit. (Now, really, why would she risk smuggling a fake gun when she could just as easily give him a real gun?) In a third story (the one I think is most likely true), Dillinger made the fake gun himself, using the wooden top of a prison washboard and black shoe polish.
Is it or isn’t it?
Lou Baker, warden of the jail, testified before Judge Murray immediately after the jailbreak that it was a fake gun, but outside court said something to the effect of “Jeez, I’m in big trouble now, aren’t I?” and retracted his statement.
Whether it was real or fake, the gun did its job. On the morning of Saturday, March 3, Dillinger used it to gain control first of a trustie janitor with keys to the cells, then a deputy sheriff, then Warden Baker and four other guards.
Dillinger now had the guards’ real weapons and also got two Thompson sub-machine guns from the jail office.
Dillinger freed other prisoners and three of them elected to make the breakout with him. Dillinger gave one of the Tommy guns to Herbert Youngblood, facing trial for murder, and the group headed for the jail garage at the back of the building.
On the way, Dillinger captured three farmers who were volunteer guards. In the enclosed garage, he took control of even more people — a garage mechanic, the jail cook and his assistants, several more trusties … and Warden Baker’s mother-in-law.
By this point, Dillinger had seized 33 people in the jail without one shot being fired.
In the garage, two of the escaping prisoners got cold feet and backed out. Dillinger and Youngblood, both facing the death penalty, took two hostages — Deputy Sheriff Ernest Blunk and mechanic Edward Saager — and make their getaway in Sheriff Lillian Holley’s own car, a Ford V-8.
ASIDE: In May 1934, Henry Ford received a letter supposedly written by John Dillinger, praising the reliability of Ford vehicles and claiming they were the only cars Dillinger trusted for getaways. Ford actually used the letter in advertisements, although handwriting analysis later proved it to be fake — possibly the creation of one of Ford’s admen.
However, a month earlier Ford had received a letter from Bonnie and Clyde (which he also used in ads) praising his “dandy car.” This one was actually real. It was signed “Clyde Champion Barrow” but the handwriting was that of Bonnie Parker. Bonnie was generally the writer of the couple’s many letters to newspapers and law officers. Curled up in the passenger seat, she would scribble her notes and poems as Clyde drove his beloved Fords down the Dustbowl backroads of Texas, Oklaholma and Louisiana.
Real Bonnie and Clyde letters above. Fake Dillinger letter below
A few miles out of town, Dillinger and Youngblood released the hostages and headed for Chicago where they dumped the sheriff’s car and split up (Youngblood was killed in a shootout about 10 days later). By crossing the state line from Indiana into Illinois in a stolen car, Dillinger had violated a federal law — the Dyer Act — thus bringing in the FBI (then known as the United States Bureau of Investigation) for the first time.
Within days of his escape, Dillinger has rounded up a new gang of hoodlums including psychotic killer Lester Gillis (better known as Baby Face Nelson), the delightfully named Homer Van Meter, Eddie Green, Tommy Carroll and old pal Red Hamilton.
The new Dillinger gang launched a crime spree of bank robberies, shootouts and narrow escapes — most of the time with wives and girlfriends in tow. Several of the gang members were wounded, including Dillinger, but the violence continued to roll across the Midwest through March and April.
On April 9, Billie Frechette was arrested in a Chicago bar by Melvin Purvis, head of the Chicago office of the FBI (well, really the USBI). Dillinger escaped unnoticed as the arrest was going down. He decided things were getting too hot and it was time to lay low for a while.
On April 20, the gang and their molls took refuge in a northern Wisconsin tourist camp called Little Bohemia Lodge. During Prohibition, Little Bohemia had often been used as a stopover point by liquor smugglers and other gangsters crossing the border, so this crew of shady characters should have been nothing new to owners Emil and Nan Wanatka.
But it was. They were scared witless. Nan Wanatka managed to get word out that the gang was holed up in their cabins. Two days later the FBI (USBI) and local lawmen surrounded the lodge and its cabins.
Then everything went to hell.
First the posse shot three passing locals they mistook for gang members, killing one. Now alerted, the heavily armed gang opened a barrage of machine gun fire and took off in different directions. Baby Face Nelson killed one lawman and wounded another in the shootout.
Unbelievably the entire gang escaped unscathed, although three of their women were captured, including Baby Face’s wife.
Fleeing in one car, Dillinger, Van Meter and Hamilton got into another gun battle with police in Minnesota the next day. Hamilton died of his wounds, but Dillinger and Van Meter escaped and disappeared for a month.
On May 24, the two were approached by police in East Chicago and Van Meter opened fire with his Tommy gun, killing two officers.
The fugitives disappeared again, hunkering down in the homes of Chicago confederates. A gangland doctor performed bad plastic surgery on Dillinger and Van Meter in early June and partially burned off their fingerprints with acid.
The two split up temporarily but reunited with Baby Face Nelson and two of Nelson’s friends on June 30 to rob a bank in South Bend, Indiana.
The gang got about $30,000 but the getaway went badly. A police officer was killed and two bank employees and two bystanders were wounded. Van Meter was also shot in the head, but was well enough to attend the Chicago World’s Fair with Dillinger and their girlfriends 10 days later.
That would be the gang’s final bank robbery, although Dillinger continued to plan one last big heist to finance his getaway to Mexico.
During the summer, with Billie Frechette in jail, Dillinger had hooked up with a new girlfriend, Polly Hamilton. With every lawman in the country looking for him, Dillinger squired Polly around Chicago, taking her to nightclubs and movies as well as to the world’s fair.
Public Enemy No. 1
On June 22, 1934 — the same day he was declared Public Enemy No. 1 — they celebrated Dillinger’s 31st birthday with champagne at the French Casino nightclub. The next evening they returned to celebrate Polly’s birthday.
But the end was near. Enter The Lady In Red.
Anna Sage, The Lady in Red
A Romanian woman variously known as Ana Cumpanas (her real name) and Anna Sage was a friend and neighbour of Dillinger and Hamilton. Anna Sage had also been convicted of keeping a brothel in Gary, Indiana, and was facing deportation to Romania.
Anna Sage’s lover was a corrupt cop from East Chicago. She convinced him to put her in touch with the FBI (USBI) in hopes of cutting a deal that would quash her deportation and give her the Dillinger reward money.
A meeting was arranged with Special Agents Melvin Purvis and Sam Cowley.
ASIDE: Melvin Purvis, a Southern lawyer who was almost as ambitious and almost as creepy as FBI (USBI) director J. Edgar Hoover, joined the bureau in 1927. Purvis had been appointed to his Chicago post directly by U.S. President Herbert Hoover in 1932 shortly before he left the White House. The other Hoover — J. Edgar, head of the FBI (USBI) since 1924 — didn’t like having a rival not beholden to him in a powerful position like Purvis’ Chicago plum.
When the Pruvis-led raid on the Little Bohemia Lodge turned into a fiasco, Hoover took the opportunity to appoint another special agent, Sam Cowley, head of the Dillinger Squad even though he couldn’t remove Purvis as head of the Chicago office.
Purvis later swore up and down that no promises were made to Anna Sage at that meeting, but almost nothing Purvis swore to during this period could be taken at face value. In any case, Sage left the meeting believing her troubles were over and ready to finger Dillinger to the FBI (USBI).
That opportunity came the next day — Sunday, July 22, 1934 — when Sage called the FBI about 5:30 p.m. to tell them Dillinger was taking her and Polly Hamilton to a movie later that night. The only problem was she didn’t know which theatre it would be — the Marbro or the Biograph.
We all know now it was the Biograph, but Purvis and Cowley had to split up their force to stake out both venues.
About 8:15 p.m. Dillinger and the two women arrived at the Biograph for the 8:30 p.m. showing of Manhattan Melodrama, an MGM crime drama starring Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy.
With Dillinger inside the Biograph, Purvis and Cowley called their men back from the Marbro, assembling a force of about 20 lawmen.
When people began leaving the theatre about 10:30 p.m., Purvis was standing near the exit to identify Dillinger. He would light a cigar to signal the other agents and local police to move in.
Dillinger came out with the women, Purvis lit his cigar, Dillinger stared him straight in the eye and took off running. He made it as far as the opening of an alley beside the theatre before he was gunned down.
One of two agents — Charles Winstead or Herman Hollis — was said to have fired the shot that killed Dillinger, but that’s open to speculation.
According to official bureau accounts, Dillinger (who supposedly had a Colt automatic in his hand) was hit by two shots, one that entered the outlaw’s left side and the other that entered his back as he was falling and came out near the right eye. In the official account, Dillinger was already dead by the time he hit the ground. When Special Agent Purvis knelt beside him to speak to Dillinger, there was no response.
ASIDE: The gun Dillinger was supposedly carrying was later presented to J. Edgar Hoover for his personal collection of memorabilia. When the collection was being catalogued after Hoover’s death in 1972, the gun’s serial number was checked. The weapon was manufactured in 1935, a year after Dillinger had been killed, supposedly with that weapon in his hand.
The “Dillinger” Colt automatic
Now it gets interesting. For one thing, the Dillinger autopsy report indicated he was shot four times — two bullets grazing his face, one hitting his left side and the other entering the back of his neck and exiting below the right eye. Not much difference really, just the two facial grazes really differing — but listen to this.
When another legendary gangster, Pretty Boy Floyd, was finally tracked down by Purvis, his agents and local Ohio police in October 1934, the psycho gunman was only wounded in the shootout. Two local policemen who participated in the capture (including Chester Smith, the cop who wounded Floyd) later stated that Purvis bent over the wounded and disarmed gangster, spoke to him briefly, then stood up and ordered Special Agent Herman Hollis (remember him from the Biograph) to finish off Pretty Boy. Hollis supposedly shot him dead.
So, doesn’t it seem at least possible that Dillinger wasn’t in fact dead as he lay sprawled in the alley? Isn’t it at least possible that Purvis bent over the wounded man and spoke a few final words to him before placing his gun at the back of Dillinger’s head and blowing his brains out?
It may not have happened that way, but the execution of Pretty Boy Floyd certainly means it’s a possibility.
In any case, the gangster era was pretty much over. Bonnie and Clyde, the Barker Gang, Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson and the rest of Dillinger’s gang were all wiped out or jailed within a few months of each other in 1934 and early 1935.
J. Edgar Hoover with his live-in lover, Clyde Tolson
ASIDE: Victory over the gangs was sweet for J. Edgar Hoover. Because of his success in the war on crime, the U.S. Bureau of Investigation was re-formed as the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935, with increased powers, manpower and money. Hoover held the post of director of the FBI until his death in 1972. Accounts of his abuse of power are prodigious.
Hoover also got his revenge on Purvis. After “Little Mel” had done his dirty work crushing the gangs, Hoover forced Purvis out of the FBI in 1935. Purvis returned to the practice of law and later got into business, but his family always maintained Hoover blocked any further advancement of Purvis in law enforcement. Purvis died in 1960 of a bullet wound from a pistol given to him by fellow agents when he resigned from the FBI. His death was ruled suicide.
Let’s go back to Chicago on the night of July 22, 1934, again for a minute. From the death scene, Dillinger was taken to the nearby Alexian Brothers Hospital where he was pronounced dead. The body was then moved to the Cook County morgue where a bizarre spectacle took place.
As morgue attendants cleaned up the body and prepared it for later embalming, hundreds of spectators filed through the morgue gawking at the dead, naked body of Dillinger the desperado. Flashbulbs popped, recording the morgue photos you see here. It was a carnival atmosphere in the house of death.
Some of those photos also sparked an urban legend about Dillinger that Johnny Depp addresses a little later in this post.
As for Anna Sage, she received $5,000 of the Dillinger reward money but was deported to Romania in 1936. She died there in 1947.
ASIDE: Anna Sage was identified in newspapers at the time as the mysterious Lady In Red who fingered Dillinger. Sage was actually wearing an orange and white outfit (agreed on in advance so agents would know her). The artificial lights of the Biograph marquee made the orange dress appear red.
I think it’s finally time to move on to the movie.
Director Michael Mann
Director Michael Mann is a great stickler for detail. For his 1992 film, The Last of the Mohicans, Mann had a wilderness fortress built exactly as it would have been constructed in the 1750s. The entire cast’s costumes were made by hand exactly as they would have been sewn in that period.
So it’s not surprising that Public Enemies will have a very authentic feel.
The cars and clothing should be exact in every detail. (It was actually the myth of John Dillinger only driving Fords that got me started on this whole Dillinger thing.)
Mann filmed the movie in the spring and summer of 2008, trying to match as closely as possible the seasonal timeline of real-life events.
And many of the locations you see in the movie are the actual locations where the real events happened. For example, Dillinger’s escape from the Lake County Jail in Crown Point, Indiana, was filmed in the real jail, which hasn’t been used as a jail for decades but still exists.
ASIDE: Lillian Holley, the sheriff who posed with Dillinger and whose car was used in the bandit’s getaway, continued to live in Crown Point for the rest of her life, dying in 1995 at age 103. The local ordinance, enacted in 1882, that required the sheriff of Lake County to live in the residence attached to the jail was finally dropped in 1958.
The Little Bohemia shootout was filmed at the real Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitawish Waters, Wisconsin, which remains exactly as it was in 1934.
And the Biograph Theater you see in Public Enemies is the real Biograph Theater at 2433-43 Lincoln Avenue in Chicago where John Dillinger saw Manhattan Melodrama. Mann rented the entire block where the theatre stands and redressed it to look as closely as possible like it did in July 1934.
ASIDE: The Biograph, which opened in 1914, was completely renovated about five years ago and is now a live theatre venue. It was designated a Chicago landmark in 2001, but came close to being torn down several times in the decades before that. In 1974, then-owner Bill Durante closed the Biograph because he refused to show violent films and he said that was all the paying public wanted to see anymore. Durante had refused to show the 1974 Dillinger film starring Warren Oates because … it was too violent.
Now let’s move on to the cast of Public Enemies.
You know Johnny Depp is going to be whacked-out great as John Dillinger.
ASIDE: Leonardo DiCaprio was originally supposed to play Dillinger but dropped out after delays in the original production schedule. (Whew!)
And Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis? Oh, his Purvis is going to be just as crazy as Depp’s Dillinger. Bale’s recorded on-set tantrum that everyone heard a few weeks ago can do nothing but increase the nutsy buzz about his Purvis.
Here are some of the other cast members:
Marian Cotillard (who won the best actress Oscar for her portrayal of Edith Piaf in 2007′s La Vie en Rose) plays Dillinger’s true love, Billie Frechette.
Leelee Sobieski plays final girlfriend Polly Hamilton and Serbian actress Branka Katic (Bill Hendrickson’s fourth wife on the HBO bigamy series Big Love) is the infamous Anna Sage.
Stephen Graham (Snatch, Gangs of New York) is Baby Face Nelson. Channing Tatum, a relative unknown, plays Pretty Boy Floyd. Stephen Dorff is Dillinger’s sidekick Homer Van Meter. Australian actor Jason Clarke plays Canadian gangster Red Hamilton.
Billy Crudup gets to work his chops as J. Edgar Hoover.
Playing Sheriff Lillian Holley is Lili Taylor (Mystic Pizza, Say Anything…) who, at 42, is the same age Holley was when Dillinger busted out of her jail.
And now for the grand finale.
Here’s why Johnny Depp worried he wasn’t man enough to play John Dillinger.
Depp told Rolling Stone magazine in an interview published in January 2008 that he had heard Dillinger was extremely well-endowed in a masculine kind of way.
Here’s Depp’s take on the subject, as quoted in Rolling Stone:
“There’s some very famous photographs of Dillinger on the morgue slab, and there’s one particular angle, with the sheet over him, and it’s (his penis), like, 25 inches, man. The speculation was that he was in the wrong racket. But you read further, and it was a crank on the other side that the sheet had been draped over, making it look like he was packing, you know, Mr. Ed’s shotgun.”
So there you have it, from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. And here’s the photo Depp was talking about. Sorry to make you wait so long.
CLICK HERE for the New York Times review of Public Enemies.