My blog buddy Barry, himself a first-class writer and storyteller, always liked my off-the-wall posts about history and such, so I think he’d get a kick out of this repost from last July.
I must confess that I have a sneaking fondness for the Depression-era outlaw John Dillinger. Bank robber, prison escapee and ruthless killer he may have been, but Dillinger had style and wit. (You gotta love a man who called Bonnie and Clyde “clodhoppers who give decent bank robbers a bad name.”)
On July 22, 1934, Dillinger died in a hail of bullets fired by FBI agents outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater. Or did he?
The basic outline of the story, which I first read in crime historian Jay Robert Nash’s 1995 edition of his encyclopedic Bloodletters and Badmen, goes something like this:
Dillinger’s myriad escapes and spectacular bank robberies, his style and wit, were making a hero of him in some quarters, including some of the print media of the day. In turn, this made the FBI look incompetent, especially following a shootout during a raid on a Dillinger hideout in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, in April 1934, in which the entire Dillinger gang got away unscathed but three civilians, totally uninvolved in the raid, were shot dead by FBI agents. Will Rogers, the legendary humorist, joked following that debacle that the only way the FBI would ever kill Dillinger was if he got caught in the midst of a crowd of innocent bystanders.
All things considered, there was much pressure, especially from Hoover, to eliminate Dillinger. The story to this point is straightforward: a friend of Dillinger’s girlfriend was threatened with deportation as an illegal immigrant if she didn’t give Dillinger’s whereabouts up. This woman, Anna Sage, agreed to help. She was the “lady in red” who accompanied Dillinger and girlfriend Billie Frechette to the Biograph on July 22, 1934, to see the new Clark Gable picture Manhattan Melodrama. The FBI fired on the man with whom Frechette and Sage left the theater. He was killed and identified as Dillinger.
Nash, however, claims that he was told by an oldtimer who knew Dillinger that the dead man who was identified as Dillinger was actually a small-time hood named Jimmy Lawrence. In this scenario, Dillinger had gotten wind of the plot against him and vanished, and Billie Frechette was accompanied to the theater that night by Lawrence, who bore a vague physical resemblance to Dillinger. The oldtimer also claimed that the autopsy done on “Dillinger” proved he did not have scars Dillinger was known to have from past run-ins with the law; that the dead man had an undiagnosed heart ailment which Dillinger did not have; and that the dead man had brown eyes, while Dillinger’s were a vivid blue.
The one thing the theory does not cover, in short, is this: Nobody ever heard a peep out of Dillinger again. It seems surpassingly strange that a career criminal like him would desert his profession–and his sardonic pleasure in making fools of the law–and settle down to a quiet life in suburbia.
So, it seems, the man who died in an alley outside the Biograph was Dillinger after all.
But it does make a heck of a story.