John Dillinger: The Death of America’s First Public Enemy Number One
By George Beck
Cook County Morgue, July 24, 1934.
“My boy!” were the words 70–year-old John Wilson Dillinger cried as he tried to hold back his emotions in the Cook County, Chicago morgue. His beloved son, John Herbert Dillinger, lay before him, clean, cold, and dead. Beyond the undertaker’s door, 500 to 800 thrill-seekers milled about, as the old man and his son Hubert (John’s half-brother) were left alone with the corpse. Was the crowd unaware a father was preparing to take his boy home for burial? And if so, would it have mattered?
Tears began to pool in Dillinger’s father’s eyes as he looked upon the bullet-torn face of his son. Thirty-one years prior, he’d gazed upon that same face, welcoming him into the world.
And now he would say goodbye.
On the metal gurney lay the small and slender Dillinger. At 5’7”, his corpse fit easily inside the low gurney walls, which looked more like a copious baking pan than an undertaker’s slab. A white sheet tucked up to his neck revealed the lopsided grin, sharp nose, and closely cropped, wavy brown hair. Above, an overhead bulb cast a flat lemony light across the dank staleness of concrete walls and cement floor. A wicker casket sat waiting like a lonely widow, to transport Dillinger home to Indianapolis.
Dillinger’s father was overcome with emotion. He was too distraught to speak. What had flashed through his mind viewing his dead son? In his mind’s eye, did he see his boy when he was newborn crying at birth and how he’d hold him and wished for a better life than his? Or did he think of his first wife, Mary Ellen, “Molly,” who died from a stroke when Dillinger was only three years old? Without a motherly figure, Dillinger’s older sister, Audrey, had filled the void until his father eventually met Elizabeth “Lillie” Fields and remarried in 1912. Dillinger reportedly had initially disliked his stepmother, but in time had grown to love her. However, tragically, Lillie had gotten sick before Dillinger was paroled and died before he returned home. A little over a year prior, Dillinger’s father had buried Lillie, and now he was tasked with bringing his son home to rest in the family graveyard.
Throngs of spectators had already seen Dillinger’s corpse in a public viewing at the Cook County Morgue, enthusiastically lining up, big smiles, with hands pressed on the large storefront-type window that separated them from Dillinger. Perhaps, they wanted to witness the corpse of the man, who had different personas and who Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director J. Edgar Hoover deemed America’s first Public Enemy Number One. Or were they endeavoring to view the criminal Prosecutor Robert Estill had struck a friendly pose with at the jail at Crown Point; or the Houdini-type escape artist who no jail could hold; or maybe, the simple common man who revolted against a national economic and banking system that left Americans impoverished, unemployed, and starving? Dillinger’s friendly disposition and charismatic smile made him easily relatable.
Dillinger’s father and half-brother stood there, soaking in the images. Without their permission, two latex death mask impressions of Dillinger’s face had been cast. The masks captured his pencil-thin mustache and a bullet’s exit wound below his right eye. They are believed to be the only death masks taken of a criminal during the 20th century. It was not necessary since advances in photography provided an easier medium for commemorating the dead. But, the face of a newly emerged icon was apparently different. Hoover was infuriated. He would later launch an investigation, which discovered that the Chicago Police cleared the room as the impressions were taken, and that the deputy coroner allegedly took cash during an earlier, unsuccessful attempt. But, the person who gave the permission to take the impressions was not uncovered.
But now, the thrill-seeking spectators were held at bay. This moment was not about experiencing an iconic day in American popular culture. It was a private family matter–a deeply emotional matter.
Dillinger’s father and Hubert examined Dillinger’s corpse. Not long before, Dillinger’s father had successfully petitioned to get him released from prison. After being paroled on May 10, 1933, Dillinger had promised his father he would go straight. He vowed to cut his way through a world of souplines and breadlines, and dust, and somehow with his little education and seedy criminal past, find a way to make things right. But he had lied. Dillinger was not going to find honest work. Instead, he tried to raise enough money to spring his prison buddies from the clink.
Debate over whether Dillinger should have been paroled commenced in the summer of 1934. But what would it matter anyway? What’s done was done. And any distant chance of Dillinger going straight had been stomped out two days prior when a hail of bullets struck him down outside the Biograph Theatre in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.
The account of Dillinger’s death took on legendary proportions in succeeding generations. Charles Winstead is the lawman credited with shooting Dillinger. Winstead’s obituary tells what happened outside the Biograph Theatre when the picture show “Manhattan Melodrama” let out. Winstead recalled Dillinger tried to run into an alley and reached for his gun. At this time, the agents opened fire simultaneously, causing Dillinger to “spin like a top, and fall dead.” Laboratory analysis determined two of the bullets that hit Dillinger were shots from Winstead’s pistol. In 1998, police Sgt. Martin Zarkovich’s 1905 Smith & Wesson .38 caliber revolver that also was used to kill Dillinger was sold at auction for $25,875.
It was time to leave. There would be no more propping Dillinger’s corpse upright so spectators could view, or frenzied photography or unauthorized castings of his facial image or further body inspections to determine which lawman fired the kill shot. The corpse was released to the family and had become a private matter. This presented another issue since there was concern somebody would dig up Dillinger’s bones; therefore his father had a three-foot-thick reinforced slab of concrete poured over the grave.
Dillinger’s corpse was transferred from gurney to casket. Overcome with emotion, Dillinger’s father nearly collapsed. Hubert held him up, escorting him outside to the worn hearse, in which yesterday they had made the trip to Chicago with the undertaker they hired. Dillinger’s wicker casket covered with black oilcloth was loaded into the hearse. Spectators lined the streets. Before them were 200 miles of road back home to Indianapolis. They set off and sped through Lincoln Park and into the heavy traffic of Michigan Avenue, where onlookers and reporters gawked through the hearse’s glass windows. Photographers in automobiles followed them, affirming the making of a legend and folklore that would turn Dillinger from a nobody who had become a desperate bank robber, into a two-dimensional caricature, the quintessential image of the mythologized 1930s American gangster, for generations ahead.
George Beck is a police detective, award-winning journalist, and managing editor of NJ Blue Now magazine. He’s a Ph.D. candidate at Drew University. He is the author of The Killer Among Us and several other books. His nonfiction and short stories have been featured in magazines and anthologies nationally and internationally.