Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

John Dillinger

Controversial Death

As with the deaths of many famous and infamous people, there was much controversy following the shooting of Dillinger. In 1970 writers Jay Robert Nash and Ron Offen authored the book, Dillinger: Dead or Alive. The dust jacket claimed that it was not John Dillinger but his double who was slain in Chicago in 1934. The book was re-printed in 1983 as The Dillinger Dossier. In his books on Dillinger, there is more than a casual collection of evidence to raise legitimate questions about the outlaws demise.

(clockwise from upper left) John Dillinger, Fred Barker, 'Pretty boy' Floyd, Homer Van Meter, Alvin Karpis, and 'Baby Face' Nelson (CORBIS)
(clockwise from upper left) John
Dillinger, Fred Barker, 'Pretty Boy'
Floyd, Homer Van Meter, Alvin
Karpis, and 'Baby Face' Nelson

There is much talk about the plastic surgery that was performed on Dillinger. Did it really change his appearance? Plastic surgery didnt seem to keep some of his contemporaries from being recognized like Van Meter, Alvin Karpis and Freddie Barker. One has to wonder how effective this procedureis even 60 years later. After plastic surgery was performed on Sammy Gravano in the mid-1990s, the Bull told an Arizona newspaper reporter that strangers still recognize him on the street. They come right over to me, Gravano says. Some shake my hand...Some want an autograph.

One is left to wonder how on July 22, 1934, with his picture in the paper constantly, Dillinger was able to walk down a street filled with hundreds of people, enter a crowded theatre and not be recognized. Documentaries on Dillinger discuss the fact that Purvis was positioned near the theatre entrance because he had met and could recognize Anna Sage. Why was he waiting for Sage? There is reason to believe that Purvis was waiting for Sage because with her would be the lamb, whoever he was, that was being led to the slaughter.

With approximately 20 law enforcement officers outside the theater, none of whom were Chicago police officers, is it unreasonable to assume that maybe they could have tackled this man? Dillinger historian Joseph Pinkston reported that when agents did fire they were so close that powder burns were found on the victims neck. Nash presents a re-creation of the shooting that concludes the dead man had to have been in a prone position when shot otherwise the only way to explain the wounds suffered by two female bystanders was that an agent was firing from a lamp post.

Of course the FBI would not have shot an unarmed man. Well, lets forget about Eddie Green. We all know Dillinger pulled a gun that night, the FBI told us he did. Agents retrieved the weapon and it has been on display at FBI headquarters in Washington DC. However, Mid-West Crime Wave expert, William J. Helmer reports in Dillinger: The Untold Story, that Nash caused the FBI some embarrassment by confirming that the gun in the bureaus showcase had not been manufactured until after Dillingers death.

There can only be one of three conclusions to what happened outside the Biograph Theatre that steamy hot July night in 1934. First, that the man killed was indeed Dillinger and we are left with many legitimate unanswered questions. Second, that the person was not Dillinger and once the FBI realized their mistake they quickly devised a plot to deceive everyone into believing it was the notorious bank robber. After all, in the wake of the Little Bohemia debacle, the public was crying for both Hoovers and Purviss heads. Can anyone imagine the FBI announcing it had just shot down another unarmed, innocent man?

The third conclusion, and this is what Nash alludes to, is that the man shot outside the theater had been set up in an intricate plot which involved the FBI, Anna Sage, Martin Zarkovich and, of course, Louis Piquette. One of the facts that lends credence to this theory, at least in this writers opinion, is that Sage wanted more than anything else to stay in this country. Why else would she have offered to make a deal with the government? So she could have some spending money in Rumania?

The government was embarrassed in its efforts to capture Public Enemy #1 and aghast that the public saw Dillinger in the role of a popular, modern day Robin Hood. The FBI had killed and wounded innocent men in their pursuit of this outlaw, not to mention losing one of their own. In view of this, why wouldnt the government trade even up for Dillinger and allow the brothel keeper Sage to stay in America. Were her crimes so heinous or her deportation order more important to the government than the uproar Dillinger was creating? Why was it so important to deport her after the shooting?

Nash cites a number of physical discrepancies between what is known about Dillinger, including his medical and dental history, and the corpse of the man the FBI says was Dillinger. Most persuasive is a close up picture of the corpses face showing a full set of upper front teeth. Dillinger was missing his right front incisor, which was apparent from photographs and newsreel footage taken at Crown Point.

John Dillinger, Public Enemy No. 1 (CORBIS)
John Dillinger,
Public Enemy No. 1

If Dillingers body were ever exhumed, with todays DNA technology they could certainly ascertain if the corpse was that of the outlaw. I would be convinced just on the examination of that right front incisor. If that tooth actually belongs to the corpse buried there, how would the demise of John Dillinger and the legend of the FBI be viewed then. With all the death and tragedy this infamous bank robber brought about, wouldnt it be ironic that he alone survived?