AP NEWS
Click to copy
Click to copy

AP Was There: The killing of gangster John Dillinger in 1934

August 1, 2019
1 of 2
FILE - This file photo from AP Corporate Archives shows an original typescript story on John Dillinger's death, as written in the AP's Chicago bureau on July 22, 1934. Two relatives of notorious 1930s gangster John Dillinger who plan to have his remains exhumed say they have "evidence" the body buried in an Indianapolis cemetery beneath a gravestone bearing his name may not be him and that FBI agents possibly killed someone else in 1934. (AP Corporate Archives via AP, File)
1 of 2
FILE - This file photo from AP Corporate Archives shows an original typescript story on John Dillinger's death, as written in the AP's Chicago bureau on July 22, 1934. Two relatives of notorious 1930s gangster John Dillinger who plan to have his remains exhumed say they have "evidence" the body buried in an Indianapolis cemetery beneath a gravestone bearing his name may not be him and that FBI agents possibly killed someone else in 1934. (AP Corporate Archives via AP, File)

CHICAGO (AP) — Two relatives of notorious 1930s gangster John Dillinger want his remains exhumed because they believe FBI agents possibly shot the wrong man in 1934 and the body buried in Indiana is not him. The FBI says that is a “myth” and there is overwhelming evidence that federal agents killed Dillinger outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago 85 years ago.

The planned exhumation will be part of a documentary on Dillinger for The History Channel, a spokesman for A&E Networks said.

The Associated Press was there and published this story on July 23, 1934, the day after Dillinger was killed in Chicago.

___

CHICAGO (AP) — John Dillinger lay on a cold slab in the Cook County morgue today. He was slain by three bullets fired by unnamed federal operatives last night after they had been “tipped off” by a woman.

Crowds of the curious milled through the gloomy building, seeking to view the body of the notorious desperado and to verify to their own satisfaction that federal crack shots had finally ended the incredible crime career of the internationally known hoodlum.

In a drab coroner’s office just removed from the ice-filled vault where Dillinger’s body lay, a solemn jury wrote the last chapter.

It read: “Justifiable homicide by officers of the federal government.”

The man who ran him down was not present; the man whose bullet killed him was not named, and the informant who led him to his death was not mentioned.

The entire investigation of the life of the man who was sought for months lasted less than 20 minutes.

Two women were held incommunicado as having been the thug’s companions at a movie theater on Chicago’s North Side and from which he emerged into the federal trap.

But the dogged government operatives who had tracked him from coast to coast did not wait for the formalities of an autopsy.

They began a drive immediately to bring in all the henchmen who had ranged the Midwest with the leering Hoosier leader, who had turned from a quiet farmer to a ruthless killer.

Melvin H. Purvis, chief of the Chicago staff of the federal department of investigation, who arranged the ambush that resulted in the phantom fugitive’s death, announced a wide search for Homer Van Meter, gunner-in-chief for the Dillinger mob, George “Baby Face” Nelson, John Hamilton, Alvin Karpis, Fred Barker and the other raiders.

“Bring them in,” was his tense order to his forces

Capt. John Stege, head of the Chicago Police Department’s Dillinger detail, echoed the command to his charges.

The pace of the hunt for the gangsters, never relaxed during long months of futile effort, was stepped up to a new high speed and placed on a “dead or alive” basis.

Purvis said, however, that he had not determined whether the gang champion was accompanied when he went into the show house. A file of film fans entered and left the place at the same time as Dillinger did, precluding definite establishment of whether he was alone. Earlier, Purvis had said that Dillinger was by himself, and he denied that two girlfriends of the outlaw had been seized by his operatives, as reported by two Chicago detectives who witnessed the slaying of Dillinger.

Concerning the information that led to the trap, Purvis said:

“All I can say is that the tip was not given by a sweetheart of Dillinger. The name of the man who gave us the information will never be known.”

The “finger woman” was reported to have gone to the movie on Dillinger’s pistol arm but to have tarried behind him as he sauntered from the lobby to his tryst with death a few hours later. Despite police stories of the woman involved, Purvis insisted that his version was correct.

“The bullet that killed Dillinger,” Jerome Kearns, coroner’s physician, announced, “was the one that entered the back of his neck right at the shoulder, ripped through into the head, cutting the spinal column, and emerged through the right eye.”

He also said he believed that only two bullets had punctured the desperado, one in the neck and the other in the left side.

“This slug,” he continued, “cut through the eighth rib, missing the heart by two inches and emerging from the left side.”

There were rumors that Purvis fired the shots which dropped Dillinger, but Purvis denied it. Known as a crack shot, the slight young Southerner collects guns as a hobby.

East Chicago police in the raiding squad said “two Department of Justice men” executed the desperado, but would not name them.

Dillinger had been planning his biggest escape when federal agents killed him, it was reported. The desperado was trying to obtain a fake passport, police were informed, which would have let him flee the country. Presumably he intended to go to South America, in view of his known ambition to retire from crime and become a rancher there.

Dillinger swaggered from the neighborhood theater into the raking fire of government guns. Too late he saw the gleaming steel of the trap set for him.

His hand went for his gun. Too late. Three bullets tore into him — one in the neck, two in the body. He staggered, fell.

The hour was 9:40 p.m. Central Standard Time. The place was just outside the Biograph Theater, a neighborhood movie at Fullerton and Lincoln avenues, on the northwest side, in territory where the blood of many a Chicago gangster has flowed before.

Had the climax of this bank robber-desperado-killer’s career been prearranged, it could have been no more sensational. There was even an audience, loitering about the vicinity of the theater, drawn by the presence of so many Department of Justice agents, that for a time some believed a holdup was planned.

Dillinger, his hair dyed a darker hue, telltale scars on his cheeks lifted by plastic surgery, gold-rimmed spectacles framing his shifty eyes, his nose straightened, a carefully groomed black mustache adorning his leering lip, and the whorls of his fingertips obliterated by acid, strode through the lobby and sauntered down the street.

He passed, apparently without recognition. Purvis, seated in a parked car, moved his right arm in a casual signal. Several agents leaped forward, their pistols glistening in the garish light.

Suddenly the mask of insolence dropped from the phantom freebooter’s countenance. He darted into an alley, reaching for a pistol as a five-shot fusillade cut him down. Three of the bullets struck him. Two missed their mark and whizzed past him, striking the legs of two gaping women spectators.

The infamous fugitive sprawled on the pavement in a crumpled heap. There was a tense silence. Then the scores of horrified witnesses, the agents, two Chicago detectives and five officers from East Chicago, Ind., hurried forward.

A cordon was thrown about the body. The curious were herded away, despite their efforts to crowd closer for a glance at the broken gangster. Eerie rays of the blinking marquee lamps flickered over his gray visage. Dark splotches spread over the broad expanse of his silk shirt and natty tie and soiled his flannel trousers and white sports shoes.

The vehicle transporting the wounded Dillinger made for the Alexian Brothers Hospital. He died without a word or motion, before medical aid could be administered, at a street crossing en route to the hospital.

The body was laid on the green lawn of the hospital. Four government operatives stood guard. A deputy coroner arrived, and the dead outlaw was borne to the county morgue. Stripped, cold and colorless as marble, the body was put on a slab. A small group gathered. A surgeon spoke. The slug which ended an amazing crime career had struck in the neck and coursed up to emerge beneath the right eye. The others had pierced the left breast, one cleaving the tip of the heart, the third striking two inches farther down.

One federal man, Purvis said, had fired five shots. He declined to reveal his identity.

Officials searched through the clothing. In one of Dillinger’s pockets, into which the lion’s share of the estimated thousands of loot he and his brigands had gathered in daring raids was reputed to have gone, was found just $7.80.

___

The AP Corporate Archives contributed to this story.

All contents © copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.