Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

John Dillinger

After Little Bohemia

After the shoot out at Little Bohemia, the Dillinger Gang scattered in several directions. In Park Falls, Wisconsin, Dillinger, Hamilton and Van Meter commandeered an automobile and headed toward St. Paul. While on the way, they heard news reports that law enforcement was awaiting them. They turned around and headed for Chicago. While resting south of St. Paul, they came under fire from sheriffs deputies shooting at them with a high powered rifle as they slept on a deserted country road. Dillinger and Van Meter stood on the running boards and returned fire, forcing their adversaries to flee. One of the officers bullets had ripped through the trunk of the car entering Hamiltons back and lodging in his intestines.

There are different stories as to what happened next. The older version goes that Hamilton was taken to a safe house where the gang stayed with members of the Barker Gang outside St. Paul. Other sources claim Hamilton was driven back to Chicago where Dillinger tried to get medical help for him from the infamous Dr. Charles Moran. A later writing claims Hamilton was taken to an old shack near an abandoned mine near Jenkinsville, Wisconsin. He died there between four and six days after the Little Bohemia raid. His body was taken to Oswego, Illinois and buried after lye was poured on his face and hands to discourage identification. In August 1935, it was alleged that tips from Barker Gang members led to the discovery of Hamiltons body. Like Dillinger, there would be stories that Hamilton had survived the shooting and continued to live on.

Ironically after the deaths of Dillinger and Nelson, Hamilton would be named Public Enemy Number One after he was identified as having taken part in a bank robbery in Kansas. He was removed from the Most Wanted List in August 1935 after his body was discovered in a gravel pit grave over a year after his death.

After the death of John Dillinger in 1934, George Russell Girardin, an aspiring advertising executive, was introduced to Louis Piquette. Girardin had followed the exploits of the infamous bank robber like most Chicagoans, but his chance meeting with the outlaws attorney led to a renewed interest. Working with Piquette and his private investigator, Arthur OLeary, Girardin agreed to a collaboration, which resulted in a weekly column published in the Saturday edition of the Hearst newspapers from October 1936 through January 1937. In addition, Girardin prepared an extensive manuscript, but when the Hearst organization wanted a cut of the profits from a book deal the project was shelved for over 50 years.

In the late 1980s William J. Helmer, recognized as one of the outstanding historians of the Mid-West Crime Wave era, with the help of Dillinger expert Joseph Pinkston, was able to contact Girardin, who to Helmers astonishment was still alive. Although Girardin died shortly after the two met, the manuscript, laced with Helmers additional knowledge and research, was published as Dillinger: The Untold Story in 1994. A good portion of Girardins narrative was provided by OLeary, whom Girardin stated, enjoyed recreating conversations between himself and Dillinger. The story helps clear up much of the mystery surrounding the outlaws movements between Little Bohemia and the Biograph.

One fact that Helmer confirms, that Jay Robert Nash pointed out 25 years earlier in his controversial book Dillinger: Dead or Alive, was that Louis Piquettes influence permeated all of Dillingers activities.

According to OLeary, after Dillinger and Van Meter buried Hamilton, they made their way back to Chicago arriving around the end of April. They purchased a red truck and over the next few weeks they spent most of their time in a timbered region near East Chicago. When not sleeping in a small shack they came across, they took turns sleeping in the truck, which they outfitted with a mattress. During this time they were joined by Tommy Carroll, who arrived on a freight train from St. Paul disguised as a hobo.

Dillinger was concerned about Billie Frechettes trial, which was taking place in St. Paul. She would eventually be convicted of harboring Dillinger and sentenced to two years in a federal prison in Milan, Michigan.

Dillinger continued to live in the truck until Piquette made arrangements for a safe house in late May. One of the places Dillinger stayed was a tourist camp in Crown Point. Girardin says OLeary questioned him about his choice of shelter. Werent you afraid to go back there?

Dillinger chuckled, Why, Crown Points the safest place in America.

Girardin explains, Strange as it may seem, Piquette was approached by a number of people who wanted to harbor the famous outlaw. It wasnt because they were fans of the desperado willing to take the chance of facing a harboring sentence of six months; a conspiracy to harbor sentence of two years; or, worse yet, an invasion of Little Bohemia type proportions they were taking the risk for the money.

One of these potential harborers who questioned Piquette was James Jimmy Probasco. A fringe member of the Chicago underworld, Probasco had a reputation of avoiding conviction for the various crimes he had committed over the years. In addition, he had been a casual acquaintance of Piquette for nearly 20 years. Probascos insistence with Piquette came down to, I have to raise some money. His charge was $50 per day for room and board.

At the same time, Dillinger had been talking to OLeary about a secret hideout and plastic surgery which would enable him to move about with less fear of detection. Selected to perform the surgery by Piquette was Wilhelm Loeser, a German doctor who had spent three years in Leavenworth for a narcotics violation. OLeary found an assistant to help Loeser, Dr. Harold Bernard Cassidy.

On May 27 Dillinger moved into Probascos home on Crawford Avenue after agreeing to a reduced rate of $35 a day. The night he arrived he met Piquette and OLeary there and plans were made to have the surgery performed the following day. The price was $5,000. Cassidy would receive $600 and the balance would be split equally between Loeser, Piquette and OLeary.

Dillinger, the brazen bank robber who had survived countless shootouts with law enforcement, nearly met his end before surgery could begin. Girardin writes:

Dillinger, however, seemed to be fighting the anesthetic, and Cassidy administered the entire contents of the can in an effort to put him under. Suddenly a bluish tint began to creep over his face, as his breathing and heartbeat stopped. Cassidys countenance whitened and he staggered against the wall, unable to utter a word. OLeary, noting the consternation of the young physician and alarmed at Dillingers appearance, shouted for Loeser.

The German fairly flew into the room and began applying artificial respiration. Probasco, hearing the commotion, hurried to the scene and stood in the doorway.

My God, hes dead! he kept shouting, sobered probably for one of the few times in recent years. Oh, my God, oh, my God! OLeary threw open the bedroom window to allow the ether fumes to escape, and then hastened to silence the clamoring Probasco.

Despite the brush with death it was decided that the surgery would continue, but under a local anesthetic. The doctors removed three moles from Dillingers forehead, a small scar on his upper lip, flesh below the ear lobes, and pulled the cheeks tighter. In addition there was some work on the nose of the outlaw and tissue from the cheeks was used to fill in the dimple on Dillingers chin. It was not an easy operation as Girardin describes:

Dillinger remained in a groggy state even under the local anesthetic, and would wince and squirm as the cuts were made. He bled profusely, so that the bed was soaked, and the doctors were much hampered by his violent vomiting throughout the operation

Whether the surgery provided the required results is in some dispute. Dillinger was said to have been greatly pleased with the results and even talked Homer Van Meter into having the procedure done days later. OLeary felt that Dillingers looks had changed considerably. On the other hand, Piquette told the bank robber that he looked like he had been in a dogfight. Piquette later stated, Loeser couldnt remove feathers from a pigeons tail.

Van Meter would not be happy with the results of his surgery and even threatened to kill Loeser. To appease Van Meters anger the versatile Dr. Loeser provided new birth certificates for both men.

The month that Dillinger spent at the Probasco residence was the longest period of time that the bank robber had spent in one place since he left Michigan City. As the surgical scars healed Dillinger began to venture out. He went to baseball games at Wrigley Field, made two trips to the Chicago Worlds Fair and attended theatres where he was passionately fond of gangster movies. In addition, he enjoyed the nightlife and company of women, sometimes prostitutes. He was occasionally joined by Van Meter who was now living at the Probasco dwelling at the reduced rate of $25 per day. Dillinger was said to have dyed his hair black, grown a mustache and began wearing glasses.

During the time Dillinger was at Probascos home, Piquette and OLeary visited often. OLeary arrived almost every other day. It would take him two hours to complete the fifteen-minute trip as he was always on the look out for tails from the FBI or the Dillinger Squad.

Dillinger and Van Meter listened sadly to a radio report on June 7 that announced that policemen in Waterloo, Iowa had killed Tommy Carroll. The group that had left for Little Bohemia seven weeks earlier consisting of six gang members was now cut in half. Baby Face Nelson, who would make occasional visits to the Probasco home, was still around the northern Illinois area refusing to stay in one place more than two nights in a row. His wife Helen had recently joined him. She was granted probation instead of jail time by a sympathetic judge after her conviction for harboring in the wake of Little Bohemia.

Marie Comforti (center) escorted from courtroom  (CORBIS)
Marie Comforti (center) escorted
from courtroom (CORBIS)

On June 21 Van Meter, missing his girlfriend, Marie Comforti, drove to her home and the two left for a rooming house in Calumet City, Illinois. Van Meter lived there on and off with her, returning to the Probasco home at various times.

While Dillinger was enjoying himself in Chicago, reports of his presence were being reported all over the United States and in Europe. OLeary and Piquette were visited on several occasions by beautiful women who claimed they were acquaintances of Johnnie, but the two men believed them to be female government agents. Harry Pierponts mother arrived at Piquettes office one day with a note for Dillinger from his former partner who was languishing on death row. Pierpont was requesting if there was anyway possible for Dillinger to rescue him and Charlie Makley. A layout of the section the men were in accompanied the note. Pierpont signed off saying, If you cant make it, Johnnie, Ill see you in hell. Harry.

On a sort of comical note, OLeary one day returned to the law office and informed Piquette that Dillinger and Van Meter had formulated a plan to rob three banks at once in the town of Platteville, Wisconsin the attorneys home-town. Piquette and OLeary drove immediately to the Probasco home where the lawyer pleaded with the two bank robbers to abandon the plan because his family and friends could be affected and that it would appear as though he had cased the banks for them. After Piquette threatened to drop him as a client, Dillinger relented. As Piquette and his investigator left the house, Van Meter glared at OLeary and grunted, Why dont you keep your mouth shut, anyway?

On June 30, 1934 the Dillinger Gang robbed its last bank. Shortly before noon on this warm Saturday morning, the gang arrived at the Merchants National Bank in South Bend, Indiana. There are several versions of the robbery. Discrepancies involve how many robbers were there, who they were, and who was inside the bank as opposed to standing guard outside. Despite all the inconsistencies in what took place one thing is for certain it was Dillingers bloodiest encounter ever.

John Paul Chase (right) (CORBIS)
John Paul Chase (right)

In Dillinger: The Untold Story, Girardin claims four men Dillinger, Van Meter, Baby Face Nelson and an unidentified man made up the gang. William J. Helmer, although co-writing Girardins effort wrote in his own Public Enemies: Americas Criminal Past, published in 1998, that the group consisted of six men. In addition to the previously mentioned, he identifies John Paul Chase, an associate of Nelson, and suggests that the other two were Jack Perkins, another Nelson associate, and Charles Arthur Pretty Boy Floyd.

According to one account, a man, believed to be Floyd, fired his machinegun to get everyones attention inside the bank. It also got everyones attention outside the bank. Police officer Howard Wagner came on the run. Using a stalled car with occupants as a shield, the officer took several pot shots at Van Meter as the lookout was battling other defenders. When the automobile took off leaving Wagner exposed Van Meter cut the officer down, killing him.

A jewelry shop owner ran out of his store with a pistol and fired at Nelson. Saved by his bulletproof vest, Nelson spun around and fired wildly wounding two pedestrians. As he did so, a 16-year-old tried to stop him by jumping on his back. Nelson was wondering what the hell was going on with the citizens of South Bend. One had taken a shot at him and another jumped on his back and was trying to choke him. Nelson twisted violently and flung the young attacker through a plate glass window. Stepping back, he fired hitting the youth in the hand.

Dillinger and the others were now exiting the bank with hostages as police and citizens with weapons fired away trying to hit the bandits, but instead were wounding hostages their greed for the reward money spurring them on. As the gun battle raged, Van Meter was hit in the head and was dragged into the getaway car by Dillinger. Lucky to get out of town alive, the gang headed for a hideout. The last ride of the Dillinger Gang had netted the robbers only $4,800 a piece.

The wound to Van Meter was caused by a .22-caliber revolver. The bullet entered his forehead near the hairline, burrowed under his scalp creasing his skull and coming out six inches away. Probasco, a one-time veterinarian treated him, before Dr. Cassidy arrived.

After recovering from the harrowing experience for a few days, Dillinger and Van Meter vacated the Probasco home without notice on July 4, while their host and Piquette enjoyed a drunken stupor together.