Dillinger: Indiana's Wayward Son

 

Some things are true. Some aren't. Then there are things that may not be true, but they should be.

In another incarnation, I worked for a company with offices in an antique building on Massachusetts Avenue. This building had a basement reinforced with bricks and large, rough-hewn stone. It was cool in the summertime and management gave those of us with nicotine addictions permission to use it as a kind of grotto when we smoked.

This mundane ritual was incalculably enhanced by a legend. We were told that John Dillinger's body was put on ice and stored down there one night during its transit from Chicago to its eventual resting place in Crown Hill Cemetery.

This was a good story. If you saw that basement, you could easily imagine it being used for such a ghoulish purpose. It invested every cigarette we smoked with a puff of history.

I've learned more about Dillinger since then. About his incredible bank robbing spree during the Great Depression and how it made him, in a very short time, a very famous celebrity. The way he was shot down outside a movie theater in Chicago. Then how his corpse was taken to his family home in Mooresville and from there to Indianapolis for a public funeral in the city's most distinguished burial ground.

I haven't found so much as a word about his being stored, however briefly, on Massachusetts Avenue.

But I've also found that, when it comes to John Dillinger, historical accuracy - what actually happened - is just part of the story. That's because Dillinger or, at any rate, the idea of Dillinger, has managed to get inside people's heads in an incredible way.

Indeed, the only fact about Dillinger's story that may really matter is how incredible the rest of us have made it.

On Dillinger's trail

We know this about John Dillinger: He was born in Indianapolis on June 22, 1903. His mother died when he was 3. His father, a grocer, was a parental disaster, said to be alternately harsh with his son and then unctuously permissive.

Dillinger apparently had a wild side early on, because his father decided to move his adolescent son out of Indianapolis to the farming town of Mooresville, with the hope that country life might have a calming effect. It didn't.

Dillinger quickly ran afoul of Mooresville's modest constabulary. He dodged any serious consequences, though, by joining the Navy. Then he jumped ship. He returned to Indiana, met a 16-year-old named Beryl Hovius and married her. This was in 1924.

For a little while, the newlyweds made a party of it in Indianapolis. But Dillinger couldn't gain any traction in Indy. Eventually, he hooked up with a backstreet character named Ed Singleton and the pair cooked up a scheme to pull off a robbery back in Mooresville.

It's a pretty good bet that Highway 40, the old National Road, was probably Dillinger's preferred route between Indianapolis and Mooresville. From Indianapolis, it's almost a straight shot west, 16 miles from the edge of the city to the heart of what was little more than a crossroads 75 years ago.

That road, of course, is wider and the scenery's changed since Dillinger's time. Now Highway 40 is a non-stop string of low-slung franchise joints and dilapidated motels that were run out of luck by the interstates in the 1950s. The sense that Dillinger must have had, of 40 being a way to almost immediately flip from an urban world into something green and leafy and far from any kind of scrutiny, is long gone.

Until, that is, you're in Mooresville itself. There is still architecture here that Dillinger would recognize. And the place hasn't grown so much that a stranger can't walk up to a townsperson and get an instant lesson in local history.

Nancy Northway and Sheila Jones operate an antiques store, Yellow Moon, in a 1901 building that has an elevator still operated by ropes. It turns out Dillinger's nephew, who lives nearby, frequents the place - he collects Dillinger-related artifacts. Though Northway says she's new in town - only lived here 30 years - she can tell us where, in 1924, Dillinger "committed his first crime," which is to say, the crime that set him on the road to becoming the John Dillinger people make movies about.

The only trouble is, there is some disagreement about where the crime took place.

Becoming John Dillinger

It seems Dillinger and Singleton had it in mind to rob a local grocer, Frank Morgan. Morgan's store stood on a lot that's not more than a 10 minute walk from the Dillinger farmhouse, which sits on a little rise overlooking what is now a sand and gravel quarry on the way into town.

The one thing we know for sure is that Dillinger and Singleton attacked Morgan. But whether the assault took place at the Community Church of Mooresville or behind Morgan's store isn't clear.

Cecil Moore is a jovial man who will look you in the eye and tell you that replacing your faucet is going to cost more, not less, than you'd like. He runs Morz Plumbing, the business that stands where Morgan's grocery used to be, and he says Dillinger jumped Morgan there, at 135 High St.

The church, which wears a beige coat of vinyl siding and promises free dinners every Wednesday from 5-6:30 p.m., is just a block away.

Wherever it was Dillinger jumped Frank Morgan, the thing that impresses the most is the close proximity of everything - his dad's house, the grocery, the church. What made him think he could get away with anything in such a small place? Maybe he thought he could just get behind the wheel and drive off.

Dillinger and Singleton were arrested. Singleton pleaded not guilty, stood trial and was sentenced to two years.

Dillinger, on the other hand, listened to his dad. His dad told him to come clean and plead guilty. So Dillinger confessed. He was then convicted and a judge sentenced him to joint sentences at the State Prison in Michigan City of two to 14 years and 10 to 20 for assault and battery and conspiracy to commit a felony.

The original prison on the west side of Michigan City was built in 1860 on the edge of the Lake Michigan dunes. Since then, it has been expanded in stages, which gives it a look that's haphazard and brutish, like a haircut perpetrated with a rusty pair of garden shears. It's also the state's death house. If you drive around the back, you'll see the corner graveyard with its forlorn rows of little white markers.

Dillinger was here for eight and a half years. This is where he was when his teenage bride divorced him; it's where he met the people who would become the core of his gang.

Pulp fiction Robin Hood

Things started happening with mind-boggling speed once Dillinger was paroled in May of 1933. He packed a lifetime into the next 14 months.

Between May 1933 and his death at the Biograph Theatre in Chicago on July 22, 1934, Dillinger and his gang were responsible for 10 killings. No one knows for sure how many banks they robbed. Confirmed hits include sites in Indiana, Ohio, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Iowa. Estimates suggest they made off with over $300,000 in Depression era currency. They raided several police arsenals, making off with tommy guns and bulletproof vests, and staged three jailbreaks.

They also covered about 75,000 miles of country roads and highways, covering distances as far as Tuscon, Ariz., to the west and St. Paul, Minn., to the north. As Cecil Moore in Mooresville chuckled, "I wonder how many valve jobs he had to do."

It's easy to imagine Dillinger driving back roads north of Mooresville on his way to the bank he robbed off the town square in Greencastle. These are narrow lanes that wind and roll over gentle hills and land that's been farmed for generations. Teenagers have come to use them for late night drag racing. Every now and then one will miss a turn in the dark and, for a moment, take what probably seems like flight before crashing in a sudden, silent heap.

The bank Dillinger knocked over in Greencastle is now a family services office. It sits on a corner directly across the street from the courthouse. Proximity again. Point blank range seemed of no concern to Dillinger - maybe he even preferred it - going into tight spots, right in the faces of cops and judges and jailers. No wonder the public began to think of him as a pulp fiction Robin Hood, a heartland swashbuckler.

The robbery in Greencastle is depicted in Johnny Depp's new movie. They shot it in Wisconsin.

Wishful thinking

A little way up the road from Greencastle is Roachdale (population 975). A friend recalls a boyhood memory of visiting the bank there, seeing an old newspaper framed on the wall with an account of how it was robbed ... by Dillinger?

The bank in Roachdale is still where it was in the 1930s, in a brick storefront that was probably built around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The main drag is only about two blocks long. At the far corner is Roachdale Hardware; a sign painted on its wall proclaims, "Stoves, Implements, Buggies and Wagons." It says the place was established in 1900.

The sudden appearance of two or three strange sedans on this street in the early 1930s would likely have stopped locals in their tracks. You could compare it to that scene in so many westerns where the strangers come riding sulkily into town.

The bank has had a makeover. There's now a glass-enclosed entryway with an ATM machine and a lobby featuring the latest in mid-price office furnishings. The place is like a shoebox - and virtually all the employees are gathered at the far end. When my friend and I enter, they freeze, as if in a deer-in-the-headlights tableaux.

I ask if Dillinger robbed this bank before someone presses a silent alarm.

Everyone visibly relaxes. The manager (the only man there) tells us no, but the bank was indeed robbed - in 1931, two years before Dillinger got out of Michigan City. The newspaper story is on the wall by his office. There's a picture of what was left of the vault after the robbers blew its door off. In another photo, men in long overcoats and fedoras stand about with expressions that seem to say, "You don't see that every day." The haul was $4,500.

According to the story, the robbers began by cutting off power to the entire town. "It couldn't have been that hard," the manager says.

You have to wonder how Dillinger could have missed this place. In any event, the Roachdale bank's Dillinger factor turned out to be not unlike the basement of the place where I used to work in Indianapolis: a kind of wishful thinking.

Dillinger's Midwest

America loves outlaw stories. Western states have been trading on them for generations. A robust folklore grew up around 19th century tales of desperadoes who traveled on horseback through wide-open spaces and under big skies. Stories of the likes of Billy the Kid and Jesse James, Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday were told and retold and then transmogrified into forms of popular entertainment, starting with dime novels and working their way through movies and TV shows, until they were part of the country's cultural DNA.

John Dillinger was an outlaw who, in his time, was every bit as famous as his Old West progenitors - maybe more, thanks to the coincidence of his crime spree with the rise of electric media like newsreels and radio. At the time, when banks were foreclosing on farms, homes and businesses, some people thought Dillinger wasn't half bad.

But there's never been a market for kid-size fedoras like there is for cowboy hats.

Johnny Depp's new movie notwithstanding, the Dillinger legend and related stories of other outlaws who made headlines throughout the Midwest in the 1930s haven't contributed to this part of the country's aura in the way that bad men turned western locations into tourist traps.

There's a Dillinger museum in Hammond, transplanted from bucolic Brown County. But, before it opened, people objected that it might glorify crime. So the museum presents itself as a cautionary tale. "Crime doesn't pay" is its motto. "The museum was renovated and developed into an educational and historic experience and uses John Dillinger and other era criminals as examples of what happens to people who engage in criminal activity."

You can buy a keychain in the gift shop with a miniature wooden gun like the one Dillinger supposedly used to escape from the jail in Crown Point. As usual, there's an alternate version of this story. Dillinger, it goes, carved his gun from a bar of soap - an idea Woody Allen borrowed for Take the Money and Run.

Reinventing a genre

With the exception of a brief countercultural vogue, kicked off by the movie about Dillinger contemporaries Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, Bonnie and Clyde, in 1967 and culminating in John Milius' take on the man himself, Dillinger, in 1973, Depression era outlaw mythmaking has been fairly minimal, more fashion statement than manifesto.

There could be at least a couple of reasons for this lack of traction with the mass imagination. The first has to do with the Depression itself. Western legends took place against a backdrop of forward momentum, limitless horizons and a belief not just that crime doesn't pay, but that it gives way to civilization, progress and law-abiding communities.

The Depression was about promises not kept, busted hopes and disillusion: all the ways that things can go wrong in America. Where western gunslingers could seem rebellious, Dillinger and his crowd were merely hemmed in.

Which is the way some people describe Dillinger's Midwest stomping ground. The West was, and is, our land of opportunity. The Midwest, on the other hand, continues to be a place many people spend their lives trying to escape. It's a landscape of limits as far as the general imagination is concerned. A region lacking the dramatic natural features - mountains and deserts - that can turn the banality of crime into derring-do.

But that could change. Public Enemies, the book by Bryan Burrough that the movie is based upon, is a ripping yarn that also happens to be a nifty work of Midwestern history. If the film is able to place its considerable action within an authentic Midwestern sense of place, we may find ourselves witnessing the reinvention of a genre. If anyone can evoke the romance some of us find inherent in this part of the country, surely it's Johnny Depp.

And that would add yet another layer to the incredible stories we entertain about our state's most wayward son.

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