Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

John Dillinger

Biograph Encounter


John Dillinger's wanted poster  (AP)
John Dillinger's wanted poster (AP)

By mid-July Martin Zarkovich and Anna Sage had their plan formulated. The $15,000 reward, which Sage was not concerned about, would be split three ways to include Captain Timothy ONeil. They had a ready script as to how everything came together. In Dillinger: The Untold Story, George Russell Girardin relates:

According to the carefully rehearsed narratives broadcast to the world by Sage, Zarkovich, et al., the Rumanian brothelkeeper had never laid eyes on Dillinger until a few days before his death. He was then brought to her house, as merely a visitor, by her young friend Polly Hamilton, who had met him entirely by chance in a cabaret. Anna Sage professed total ignorance of Dillingers identity until she recognized his picture in a newspaper. Then she became horrified and frightened, and hurried to tell Sergeant Zarkovich, who dutifully informed the federal agents, and that is how it all happened.

Polly Hamilton would serve as the innocent bait to hold the victim until the trap could be prepared.

As the events unfolded, one of the stories was that Zarkovich and ONeil went to see Captain John Stege, head of the Chicago Police Departments Dillinger Squad. They would provide Stege with information to trap Dillinger, but only if the Chicago police would kill the outlaw on the spot. Stege allegedly turned down the offer stating, Id even give John Dillinger a chance to surrender.

Plan B was quickly launched. The East Chicago cops would approach the FBI. In the book Dillinger Days, author John Toland states that, After the Little Bohemia incident, Hoover sent Special Agent Sam Cowley to take over the Special Squad in Chicago but Purvis remained head of the field office with its many responsibilities. Before Cowley left for Chicago he was told by Hoover, Stay on Dillinger. Go everywhere the trail takes you. Take (arrest) everyone who ever was remotely connected with the gang. Take him alive if you can but protect yourself. The contrast between Purvis and Cowley was sharp. Purvis was small and excitable, while Cowley was big and laid back. Cowleys judgement was sound, but he moved slowly and deliberately.

On Saturday afternoon July 21, Zarkovich and ONeil telephoned Purvis and told him they wanted to meet in a secluded place to discuss turning over Dillinger. Purvis claims that he had previous contact with the pair and had exchanged information with them. Purvis arranged a meeting in Cowleys room at the Great Northern Hotel at 6:00 that night. The plotters told Purvis and Cowley that Dillinger and Polly Hamilton were frequent visitors at the home of Anna Sage and the three were in the habit of visiting neighborhood theatres. Zarkovich told the agents it was Annas wish to make contact with the federal government officials.

The contact was set for 9:00 that night on a dark north side street. Jay Robert Nash claims Purvis enjoyed a coup by engineering the meeting so that only he was present to speak to Sage. When the two cars arrived at the designated location, Purvis and Zarkovich were in the first car and Cowley and ONeil in the second.

In Melvin Purviss autobiography American Agent he describes the meeting:

About nine oclock Anna Sage appeared. She walked past our car and down the street, seeming to survey the situation to determine that there was no trap set for her. She returned and on a signal got into the car. We drove for a while and finally stopped at a secluded spot by the side of Lake Michigan. There she told the story of her acquaintanceship with John Dillinger.

She was at the time under an order of deportation for violation of a law of the state of Indiana. She seemed to be primarily interested in whether she could trust me. We then came to the point of discussing her desire to remain in the United States. She seemed particularly anxious to do so and had a great fear of deportation. She had reared a son in the United States. It was natural that she should wish to stay here.

Purvis claims he made it clear that his authority was limited. However, he states he agreed to recommend that Sage be allowed to remain in the United States before Anna said she would contact him the next time Dillinger (who she says was using the name Jimmy Lawrence) came to her home. Sage told Purvis that they Dillinger, Polly and herself sometimes went to the Marbro Theatre and it was possible they might go there again soon. That same night Purvis had agents surveying the theatre making notes and maps showing all the exits and fire escapes. The following morning, Sunday, July 22, a meeting was held at FBI headquarters in the Bankers Building to review the notes and maps and create a plan of action.

At 5:00 that afternoon, while the agents were still reviewing their plans, Purviss private phone rang. It was Anna Sage. In a whispered voice she said, Hes here, hes just come in. We are leaving in five minutes. We will go to either the Biograph or the Marbro. With that she hung up.

This created one of the first mysteries of the nights events. Sage lived right around the corner from the Biograph, which was showing the new gangster flick, Manhattan Melodrama, starring Clark Gable (the Marbro was presenting Little Miss Marker with Shirley Temple). At 5:00 she claimed they were leaving in five minutes. The trio wasnt spotted until 8:15. Where had the three been for the last three hours and fifteen minutes?

Jay Robert Nash tried to add to the intrigue by stating that the Marbro was some nine miles away. Would they be walking there in the 100-degree heat wave that had been choking the city? Part of that mystery was cleared up by Sages son Steve Chiolak who claimed that many times they took taxis to different nightclubs, cabarets and restaurants around the city.

Two agents were sent immediately to the Biograph to retrieve the same information that was developed about the Marbro. Their instructions were to return to the office immediately and provide the information to the men who would eventually take up positions there. Even though Sage had first mentioned the Marbro the night before and again in her hurried phone call, Purvis decided to stake out the Biograph instead. Meanwhile two other men were posted at the Marbro. Historians tell us that one of these men was Zarkovich, since he could spot Sage. The plan was to call the office every five minutes to see if Dillinger had been spotted at either location.

If and when Dillinger was spotted, the information would be relayed back to the office and those at the Bankers Building and the men observing at the other theatre would rush to pre-assigned positions. Purvis sat in an automobile sixty feet south of the Biograph. At approximately 8:15 Dillinger, Hamilton and Sage came around the corner from North Halsted onto Lincoln Avenue. As Dillinger purchased the tickets, one of Purviss first thoughts was that he was glad to see the man was not wearing a jacket, because it meant that he could not have many weapons concealed on his person.

Purvis purchased a ticket and entered the theatre, hoping to find three open seats behind his quarry, but claims he could not find the trio in the darkness and left instead of moving further down the aisle and possibly drawing attention. Purvis left the jammed theatre and waited for the other agents and the five members of the East Chicago Police Department. Nobody from the Chicago Police Department had been notified.

It was believed that when the trio left the theatre they would take the same way back to Sages apartment. Therefore Purvis stationed himself just south of the theatre entrance with the plan to light a cigar when Dillinger and his companions passed. With advertisements and newsreel footage the movie would run two hours and four minutes. This gave the agents, most wearing jackets, plenty of time to sweat it out in the still plus 90 temperature.

Perhaps the most nervous man at the scene was Purvis. In American Agent he provides a candid view of his thoughts:

There is no way of knowing whether Dillinger would stay for the whole show. Some patron in the theatre might arouse his suspicions, causing him to leave before the expiration of the two hours and four minutes. Our vigilance could not be relaxed for even a split second. I bit off the end of the cigar and nervously chewed on it for more than two hours. I could not leave my post for a drink of water, and my throat was parched from the cigar, from fright and from nervousness. My knees wouldnt stay still. I knew that we could not let him escape this time. We would never have another opportunity like this.

The alley down the street from the Biograph,  where John Dillinger was killed  (AP)
The alley down the street from the
Biograph, where John Dillinger was
killed (AP)

It may have been Purviss own nervousness, and his continuous checking with the ticket booth lady, that caused her to summon the theatre manager who, in turn, called the police. When they arrived, one of the agents told them they were on a stakeout and that they should remove their squad car from the vicinity immediately, a request they complied with, according to Purvis.

It is interesting to note that in all of the biographies of Dillinger they include the fact that the Chicago police showed up and were quickly instructed to leave. However, in the Chicago Daily Tribunes first report of the shooting the following is revealed:

...(the agents) actions seemed, to the theatre manager and to the observers in the neighborhood, to be so suspicious that the Sheffield Avenue police were notified. Policemen Frank Slattery, Edward Meisterheim and Michael Garrity, who investigated, were shown federal badges by the watchers.

Further into the article, under the sub-headline, Narrow Escape for Policemen, we get an interesting contradiction:

Policemen Slattery and Meisterheim, who were in civilian clothing, were near the scene of the shooting when it occurred. According to Slattery, one of the agents told him after it was over that he was among the luckiest of men.

When we got the signal you were close to Dillinger, said the agent. You looked like Dillinger and I was about to shoot you when the other fellows let loose and killed the right man.

If this is true, and it was reported the night of the shooting, not at some later date when it could be made up, then it destroys the myth that no Chicago policemen were at the scene. It also indicates that there was no attempt on the part of the FBI to capture Dillinger by any means other than to shoot him.

Just after the squad car was ordered away from the area the theatre began to let out. Purvis strained his eyes desperately looking for one man as the patrons exited. He soon spotted Dillinger between the two women. He looked into my eyes; surely he must have seen something more than casual interest in them, but apparently he didnt recognize me, and I struck the match and lit my cigar, Purvis recalled.

Purvis recalls that as he gave a signal to close in, the officers were slow to react and his heart began to pound, but then Dillinger was surrounded. He states, I was about three feet to the left and a little to the rear of him. I was very nervous; it must have been a squeaky voice that called out, Stick em up, Johnnie, we have you surrounded. Purvis recalls that he ripped every button off his jacket drawing his own weapon, which he didnt get a chance to fire.

The .38 special that killed Dillinger (AP)
The .38 special that killed Dillinger

Dillinger began to take off, allegedly reaching into his pants pocket to draw a weapon. Lawmen with drawn guns were on top of him and fired. He dropped halfway into an alley. He was turned over, but he couldnt speak, he was dead. Purvis describes the scene:

Probably I will never forget, although I would like to, the morbidness displayed by the people who gathered around the shooting. Craning necks of curious persons, women dipping handkerchiefs in Dillingers blood. Neighborhood business boomed temporarily. The spot where Dillinger fell became the mecca of morbidly curious.

Purvis says that he had a spot of Dillingers blood on his pants cuff and a few days later was offered $50 for the trousers.