For 85 years since his death at the hands of the FBI, bank robber John Dillinger has lived on as a crime legend and a fountain of speculation.
Some of that speculation could be laid to rest this September, when Dillinger’s body will be exhumed briefly from his grave, according to a permit approved this month by the Indiana State Department of Health. The Depression-era gangster’s bid to change his appearance through plastic surgery while evading authorities helped to feed rumors that FBI agents shot and buried a Dillinger double back in 1934.
The exhumation from Indianapolis’ Crown Hill Cemetery will be covered during a History Channel documentary, according to channel spokesman Dan Silberman, who told The Washington Post he could not provide more details and said the project is in early stages. A source familiar with the plans told The Post that Dillinger is being dug up for DNA testing that could confirm the body’s identity.
The body will be removed and reburied on Sept. 16, Indiana Health Department spokeswoman Megan Wade-Taxter told The Post.
The planned removal from a grave fortified with steel and concrete — requested by Dillinger’s nephew Michael Thompson — could feed public fascination with a man who drew admiration despite his crimes. Dillinger’s gang killed 10 people in the course of their robberies and pulled off several violent jailbreaks, according to the FBI. But the Midwest criminal also became a heroic figure of sorts, some historians say, as Americans grew disillusioned with their economic prospects and the country’s financial system in the throes of the Great Depression.
The FBI says Dillinger’s misdeeds began in Mooresville, Indiana, where he was caught trying to rob a grocer. The Indianapolis-born criminal ended up in state prison for more than eight years, a harsh sentence that the agency says made him a “tortured, bitter man” by the time he got out in 1933.
Quickly rearrested for another robbery during his parole, Dillinger broke out of jail with help from his escapee friends. The men shot a sheriff in the process — the first of many killings attributed to Dillinger and his associates, though the infamous outlaw was never convicted of murder.
But experts on Dillinger say he wasn’t bloodthirsty and was even kind to hostages.
“He was very much a professional,” Bill Helmer, who has published a book about Dillinger, told the Indianapolis Star.
Dillinger spent the next two years stealing more than $300,000 from bank after bank and slipping away when authorities managed to catch him. At one point, the FBI says, Dillinger got out of an Indiana jail by threatening guards with a gun that he later said was just whittled from wood.
Wanted posters from the era show a $10,000 reward for Dillinger’s capture — almost $200,000 in contemporary dollars.
Dillinger’s bloody travels finally caught up to him in July of 1934, when a brothel madam in Indiana gave the FBI a tip in exchange for their help to avoid deportation. Agents shot Dillinger outside a Chicago theater, prompting headlines around the world. The Chicago Tribune alone featured three stories about him on its July 23 front page.
The thousands who showed up for Dillinger’s funeral illustrated the popular following the notorious gangster had inspired. Members of the public are said to have kept handkerchiefs dipped in the man’s blood, and the death spawned all sorts of conspiracy theories.
Those who doubt that Dillinger actually died that July point to oddities such as witnesses who say the man shot had different colored eyes than Dillinger, and Dillinger’s links to a fellow criminal and look-alike named Jimmy Lawrence.
But Dillinger’s sister identified the body as her brother’s. Helmer told the Indianapolis Star that speculation Dillinger is not actually buried at Crown Hill is “total nonsense.”
Those digging up Dillinger’s body will encounter a heavily fortified grave. Dillinger’s father had the casket buried under a concrete cap, scrap iron and four slabs of reinforced concrete, afraid that his son’s fame would draw vandals and people intent on stealing the corpse. The family had gotten a request to lend Dillinger’s body out for display.
“I think they’re going to have a hard time getting through that,” Indiana historian Susan Sutton told the Associated Press.