Little Johnnie Dillinger was a bad boy. The older he got, the worse his delinquency became. Johnnie was born in a quiet middle class Indianapolis neighborhood on June 22, 1903. His father, John Wilson Dillinger, was a somber, church-going grocer who did his very best to inculcate into his son his own strict moral standards. While his father was a stern disciplinarian, it did not stop him from indulging the lad with material goods, bicycles and toys.
Johnnie's mother died of a stroke when he was only three years old. His sixteen-year-old sister Audrey took over as the woman of the house. This arrangement did not last long as in a little more than a year, Audrey married and began a home of her own. When Johnnie was nine, his father married a young woman named Elizabeth Fields. While, the boy was initially jealous of the warmth and affection that his father gave to his new bride, eventually Johnnie came to admire and adore his stepmother.
Not long after, Johnnie became the leader of a kid gang called the Dirty Dozen. Eventually the gang started stealing coal from the Pennsylvania Railroad cars that came through the neighborhood. Inevitably, they were caught and taken to Juvenile Court. Dillinger was the only one of the kids that wasn't intimidated by the courtroom and judge. Almost as a precursor of things to come, "Dillinger stood arms folded, slouch cap over one eye, staring steadily at the judge and chewing gum. When the judge ordered him to take off the cap and remove the gum, Dillinger smiled crookedly and slowly stuck the gum on the peak of his cap." (Toland)
Dillinger and his closest friend, Fred Brewer, who was the product of a broken marriage, were together constantly. The two boys often played in a wood veneer mill and learned how to run the saw when nobody was around. One day they tied another boy on the carrier and turned on the large circular saw. It was only when the boy was a yard away from death, that Dillinger turned it off.
His father was becoming increasingly concerned about Johnnie and he had every right to be. Beatings and other punishments just made Johnnie more defiant. One afternoon, when he was thirteen, he and his buddies grabbed a girl and took her into an old shack where they each took a turn with her.
Against his father's wishes, he quit school at the age of sixteen and went to work at the veneer mill. He demonstrated great mechanical aptitude, but the job was boring and he quit. Then he got a job as a mechanic. All was well for a little while and his father breathed easier. But Johnnie's good behavior didn't last. Soon he was staying out until the early morning hours, totally focused on the opposite sex.
Dillinger's father made a major decision: he was ready to retire and indulge in his dream of owning a farm, so he sold his grocery store and several houses he owned. Then they all moved to the wholesome rural atmosphere of a farm in Mooresville, his second wife's place of birth.
Again, Johnnie behaved well initially and enrolled in the local high school, but he had no interest and failed every subject except "applied biology." Teachers at the school requested that Dillingers father come meet with them to discuss his sons problems, but he refused stating that he was too busy. Shortly before Christmas vacation Dillinger quit school for good.
His behavior made living in the house with his father intolerable, so he moved to Martinsville where he could spend all of his spare time hanging around the pool hall and seducing one girl after another. One girl alone commanded his respect his uncle's stepdaughter Frances Thornton. He was ready to renounce his wild life and marry her, but the uncle forced the relationship to break up. It had a lasting effect on him.
Although Johnnie did lousy in school, he enjoyed reading about the Wild West and would bore his friends with stories about his favorite hero, Jesse James. Jesse had Robin Hood qualities and impressed young Johnnie not only with his daring, but his kindness to women and children.
Johnnie was seeking something, whether it was love, which he obviously was not getting at home, or just sex wasnt quite clear. He loved women and always seemed to be pursuing a relationship. He began spending time in Martinsville, Indiana, and after being rejected by most of the young women there, he headed back to Indianapolis where he began spending time with local prostitutes. This eventually got him a case of gonorrhea.
Johnnies relationship with his father continued to deteriorate as the elder Dillinger became increasingly incensed with his sons lifestyle. This reached a head on July 21, 1923 when Johnnie had a date with a young lady from Indianapolis, who was rumored to be pregnant with his child. When his father refused to allow him to use the car, Johnnie walked to a local church and stole one. He was later found by a police officer roaming aimlessly through the streets of Indianapolis. The policeman questioned Johnnie and becoming suspicious of his explanations, pulled him over to a call box. Johnnie broke loose and ran. Knowing he couldnt go back home, the next day he joined the United States Navy.
Although he made it through basic training, the regimented life of the Navy was not the lifestyle Johnnie had been seeking. Assigned to the ill-fated battleship, the Utah, Johnnie hopped ship while docked in Boston and headed home to Mooresville. His military career had lasted less than five months.
The year 1924 would be a banner year in Johnnies life. During that year he became a husband, chicken thief, local baseball star, robber, and inmate. After deserting the Utah in December, he returned home and met 16 year-old Beryl Hovias. On April 24, Dillinger and Hovias marched arm-in-arm into his fathers farmhouse and announced they had just been married.
Family life had little effect on settling Johnnie down and in a few weeks he was arrested for stealing 41 chickens. His father was able to work out a deal to keep the case out of court, but this did little help their relationship. Their arguments continued and Johnnie and Beryl moved out his cramped bedroom. The newlyweds now moved in with her parents in Martinsville and Johnnie got a job as an upholsterer.
During that summer, Johnnie played shortstop on the Martinsville baseball team where he became friends with Ed Singleton, one of the umpires. A distant relative of Johnnies stepmother, Singleton was described as a weak, tortured man with webbed fingers who drank heavily. Years later, it would be this drinking problem that would cause him to pass out on the railroad tracks and be decapitated by a passing freight train. In the meantime, Singleton became Johnnies first partner in crime.
On a Saturday night in early September, Dillinger, armed with a .32 caliber pistol and a bolt wrapped in a handkerchief, assaulted a local grocer who was on his way to the barbershop. Johnnie had been told by Singleton, that the grocer would be carrying his daily receipts with him. This was not the case. Dillinger whacked the grocer over the head with the bolt, but the grocer fought back grabbing at the gun and forcing it to discharge. Johnnie, thinking that he has shot the grocer, took off running down the street to where Singleton was supposed to be waiting with the getaway car. No one was there.
Convinced by the local prosecutor that if he pleaded guilty the court would be lenient on him, Dillingers father persuaded his son to confess. Johnnie appeared in court without a lawyer. His father, who had once been too busy to meet with his sons schoolteachers, was now too busy to attend the trial. The judge threw the book at young Dillinger sentencing him to 10 to 20 years at the Pendleton Reformatory. Upon entering the prison, the 21-year-old, but cocky confident, Dillinger was brought before the superintendent and calmly told him, I wont cause you any trouble except to escape."