A few days ago, I belatedly discovered that some magazines I’d bought as far back as the late 1980s had somehow survived the conflagration that destroyed my home in early March of this year. I’d almost forgotten that I still had these fascinating, detailed publications, as it had been so long since I’d browsed through them, so it was a double delight to look through this collection yesterday afternoon: along with me, they’d survived the fire and I’d not lost myself in their pages for a few decades at least.
Out of a gallery of monsters, the one face that leapt out at me was that of John Dillinger, described succinctly on the front of edition 46 of Murder Casebook as “The 1930s outlaw who blazed a trail of destruction across the USA.” Many other men and some women of the time were in the same often murderous line of business as Dillinger, but he was unusual inasmuch as he seems to have adopted a life of crime as a result of boredom, rather than because of a background or upbringing that had visited deprivation or sustained abuse upon him as a child.
Many men secretly like to think of themselves as outlaws or desperadoes, daydreaming of sticking the finger to The Man while keeping the company of other like-minded outsiders. Some people will be forever condemned to seek sanctuary and release in their imaginations, on account of being tied to a life of stultifying boredom and frustration, or else they will experience a vicarious pleasure through following the lives of other more blessed souls in rock bands, or in what I’ll call other creative collectives. However, whether it’s the aforementioned cases of wishful thinking or else the impressive, documented track record of bands like the Rolling Stones, they all pale into insignificance compared to the reality of the Dillinger Gang.
At the tender age of twelve, Dillinger himself became the leader of a gang in Indianapolis that went by the fearsome name of the Dirty Dozen, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that the collection of men he led in later life were sometimes known simply as the “Terror Gang”. While I don’t approve of the slaying of policemen – or of anyone else, for that matter – it is only fair to observe that while Dillinger kept company with rabid killers such as Baby Face Nelson, Dillinger himself was never convicted of murder.
Despite this, the official record states that he was executed by two FBI men named Zarkovich and O’Neill in an alley in Chicago, although it quickly became apparent that the corpse in the morgue had brown eyes, whereas Dillinger’s were blue-grey, while the dead body had none of the identifying scars of Dillinger, either. There were other equally striking differences, leaving no doubt that a lookalike or double going by the name of Jimmie Lawrence had been gunned down by law enforcement that evening in 1934, but literally dozens of men all over the USA at the time had been arrested as Dillinger.
A man by the name of Ralph Alsman from Indiana was taken into custody no less than six times, while Detective Frank Slattery of the Chicago police bore such as close resemblance to Dillinger that he was nearly shot on the night of the death of Dillinger, or Jimmie Lawrence, by another FBI agent. I could continue in this vein for hours yet, as there were so many bizarre and intriguing aspects to Dillinger’s life, purported death, burial encased in concrete and convincing survival under another name.
However, I shall resist the temptation to continue writing here and draw to what I hope is a graceful close. Perhaps it’s wrong to eulogise this man, as I accept I may have done in this short essay, but Dillinger was never convicted of murder and even in his own day, he was widely regarded as a ‘Robin Hood’ figure, as distinct from one of his many murderous peers, such as the aforementioned Pretty Boy Floyd or Al Capone.
When Dillinger robbed banks, he was courteous and even respectful to those he held up, whereas nearly a century down the line, the banks and other financial institutions who have been shamelessly robbing us possess nothing of the late Dillinger’s grace; little wonder that one branch of the John Dillinger Died For You Society flourishes to this day.