Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

John Dillinger

The Terror Gang

They were initially called The Terror Gang because of their boldness and impudence. Once Dillinger had been freed, they all headed back to Chicago to put together the most organized and professional bank robbing scheme ever devised in the county. One thing they needed was the very best in guns, ammunition and bullet-proof vests.

What better place to get such equipment than from the police themselves. A week after Dillinger's escape from the Lima, Ohio, jail, he and Pierpont decided to hit the enormous police arsenal in Peru, Indiana. A month earlier, Dillinger and Homer Van Meter posed as tourists there and asked what the local policemen had in the way of fire power if the Dillinger Gang ever showed up in those parts. The officers proudly showed the two "tourists" the kinds of weapons they would use against the Terror Gang.

Captain Matt Leach (CORBIS)
Captain Matt Leach (CORBIS)

Late on the evening of October 20, 1933, Pierpont and Dillinger entered the arsenal, subdued three lawmen and made off with several loads of machine guns, sawed-off shotguns, ammunition and bullet-proof vests. When this loot was added to the guns and ammunition they had stolen earlier from an Auburn, Indiana, police station, they were ready for business.

Law enforcement officials were outraged at the brazenness of the gang. Captain Matt Leach, who was afflicted with a serious stutter, wanted to try a bold approach of his own. He knew that both Henry Pierpont and John Dillinger were men with very large egos. Often the gang had been referred to in the newspapers as the Pierpont Gang. What if Captain Leach could persuade reporters to start calling it the Dillinger Gang instead. Maybe a leadership fight would break out amongst the gang members and they would split up. The newsmen agreed to his proposal.

Toland says that there was never a struggle for leadership, despite the spate of stories that started to appear calling Dillinger the leader: "Pierpont knew [the stories] were false and he was too grateful to Dillinger to be jealous. Dillinger, however, read and reread every story and even saved the clippings; but instead of becoming boastful, his manner and dress became more conservative. The gang lived quietly in expensive Chicago apartments, the men drinking only beer and little of that. According to Pierpont's code, a crime not only had to be committed without the benefit of drink or drugs but prepared in sobriety...the men would sit around the living room discussing future plans much like any group of respectable businessmen. Usually Pierpont assembled their various ideas. Sometimes it would be Makley. But everyone had a chance to voice an opinion, no one overriding a majority."

Jay Robert Nash in Bloodletters and Badmen agrees: "There was no real leader... Pierpont was the most daring and nerveless of the group, but his impulsiveness oft-times outweighed his considerable intelligence. Hamilton was the old pro. Whenever any bank job was discussed, he could offer the soundest advice based on experience. Makley and Clark, for the most part, listened. Pierpont appreciated and more or less encouraged Dillinger's role as leader...telling him that [the name Dillinger] was both euphonic and memorable since it reminded everyone of the pistol, derringer."

With their finely-honed precision system for bank robbing, they executed the first target in their plan on October 23 when they pulled up to the Greencastle, Indiana, Central National Bank. Hamilton stayed outside the door to watch, while Pierpont, Makley and Dillinger went inside. Using "Baron" Lamm's method, they already knew the inside of the structure well since they had cased the bank thoroughly a few days earlier.

Dillinger, the showoff, leaped over a high counter into the teller's cage and started to scoop up money, while Pierpont and Makley made sure that nobody moved. Hamilton, standing by the door with a stopwatch so that they didn't overstay their five-minute time limit, looked up to see an elderly, foreign-born woman walk out of the bank. He told her to get back inside.

Completely disregarding the gun had in his hands, she walked calmly by him, saying "I go to Penney's and you go to hell!"

Jay Robert Nash tells the story of the farmer standing at the teller's cage with a stack of bills in front of him. Dillinger saw the money and asked, "that your money or the bank's?"

"Mine," the farmer told him.

"Keep it. We only want the bank's."

With no other surprises or any gunfire, the gang left the bank with almost $75,000 an enormous sum in those Depression years.

Dillinger enjoyed making fun of his pursuers whenever he had the opportunity. During the summer of 1933 he had taken Mary Longnaker to the Chicago Worlds Fair and amused himself by asking police officers to pose for pictures despite the fact he was wanted for several robberies. After his arrest in Dayton, Ohio, Matt Leach, a captain in the Indiana State Police, interrogated him. Leach had a propensity to stutter when excited. Dillinger took note of this and would call and taunt him over the telephone referring to him as the stuttering bastard. Later, when the Dillinger Squad was formed by Captain John Stege of the Chicago Police Department, Dillinger would call and taunt Sergeant Frank Reynolds, a key member of the unit.

During November 1933, the gang fired two members. Ed Shouse, who had been hitting on Dillingers girlfriend Billie, was talking about robbing a bank on his own. The other gang members tossed him a roll of bills and told him to hit the road. He did so, taking Red Hamiltons car and heading to California. Next was Harry Copeland who had been drinking so much that the gang considered him unreliable. Two days after his ouster, he got drunk in a Chicago bar and began slapping around a woman he met. Police were called and he was arrested and eventually sent to Michigan City. On November 15, Dillinger and Billie were almost caught by Chicago police outside a doctors office near the Loop. A Dr. Charles Eye was treating Dillinger for a minor skin condition. The two escaped pursuit after a wild chase in which Dillinger impressed the police with his driving ability.

The gang moved to Milwaukee where they planned the robbery of the American Bank and Trust in Racine, Wisconsin. On November 20, 1933, the good-looking, well-dressed Henry Pierpont confidently walked into the bank with a roll of paper under his arm. Then he pasted up a big Red Cross poster in the picture window of the bank, which happened to block the tellers' cages from being seen from the street. Mrs. Henry Patzke, the bookkeeper noticed, but didn't think anything of it.

Shortly afterward, Dillinger, Makley and Hamilton walked into the bank and went up to the window where Harold Graham, the head teller stood. "Go to the next window, please," he told them. Graham had heard someone say that it was a stickup, but the phrase was often bantered around as a joke.

Makley repeated his order more forcefully, "Stick 'em up!" Graham made a sudden movement and Makley fired, hitting Graham in the elbow and hip. Graham fell and set off the silent alarm that rang in the police station.

Pierpont ordered everyone to the floor, flat on their stomachs, while Dillinger got the cashier and bank president to open the vault. Shortly afterwards, two policemen walked to the bank, expecting that this was just another false alarm, like many other ones before it. When they walked into the bank, Pierpont relieved one of them of his gun and told Makley to "get that punk with his machine gun!"

Makley fired at Sergeant Hansen and wounded him twice, but not too seriously. It was enough to start a panic: women inside the bank were screaming hysterically, a crowd was gathering outside and armed men were appearing from police cars. They grabbed several hostages, but only two Mrs. Patzke and the bank president went with them in the getaway car. Not long after, the two hostages were let go unharmed.