A night at the Biograph

As the Great Depression deepened in the early 1930s, and Americans’ anger toward bankers and the wealthy rose, a new kind of anti-hero emerged: the prairie bank robber. Through the early 1930s newspapers were filled with increasingly thrilling accounts of brazen heists and getaways by characters like Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde, Machine Gun Kelly, Alvin Karpis and perhaps the most famous of the 1930s bandits, John Dillinger.

Some became famous for their style and panache, or just for striking a blow against those whom an increasingly desperate and angry American public blamed for the seemingly endless misery of the Depression. Floyd was said to burn mortgage papers at the banks he robbed, freeing impoverished farmers from the debts which were crushing them. To many, these were the modern incarnations of the Robin Hood story.

The truth was, of course, quite different. Lost in the re-telling of these tales was the murder and tragedy often left in their wake. Police officers and innocent bystanders were killed by these outlaws, and the rising tide of violence seemed to be reaching its crescendo as the weather turned warm in 1934.

After at least 13 murders, Bonnie and Clyde were gunned down by a posse of Texas lawmen alongside a country road in Louisiana in May. Floyd died while fleeing police and FBI agents in Ohio in October, with ten murders believed to be on his record including the 1933 “Kansas City Massacre.”

But none of these frontier outlaws captured the public imagination quite like John Dillinger, who met his end outside a Chicago theater on July 22, 1934.

Dillinger’s brush with fame was short: just ten months from September 1933 until his death the following summer. But in that time he and his gang stole over $300,000 in at least eleven bank robberies and were believed to be responsible for 10 murders and seven other shootings, a trio of prison escapes and a long series of robberies of everything from banks to police stations.

He was never credited with burning mortgage paperwork or helping the needy – the proceeds of his robberies went straight into his pocket.

Dillinger sought to escape a troubled childhood in Indiana by joining the Navy, but found service at sea not to his liking, and he quickly deserted. He came home to Indiana and soon was in trouble with law. A botched grocery store robbery ended with Dillinger and another thief in police custody.

Dillinger’s accomplice pled not guilty, was tried, convicted and sentenced to two years. Dillinger confessed, but got a much harsher sentence of 10-20 years in state prison. Paroled after eight and a half, he emerged bitter and angry at the system. Four months after he was paroled he robbed an Ohio bank and was captured again.

Meanwhile, eight of his friends made a violent escape from an Indiana state prison, shooting two guards. Days later they arrived at the Ohio jail where Dillinger was being held, claiming to have been sent to return Dillinger to Indiana for parole violation. Sensing that their plan was not working, one of the gang pulled a gun and murdered the sheriff, then freed Dillinger from the jail and fled.

Now on the run from authorities in two states, Dillinger and his gang armed themselves for battle, raiding two Indiana police stations and stealing machines guns, pistols, ammunition and bulletproof vests. They made their first strike in Illinois on December 14, killing a Chicago police officer in the process. Another officer was killed in a robbery in East Chicago, Indiana.

Fleeing to Arizona in January, Dillinger and three members of the gang were arrested when they were recognized after a fire broke out in their hotel. Many of the guns and some of the money from the East Chicago robbery were seized. Dillinger was returned to Indiana to await trial for the East Chicago robbery and murder, but he escaped from the “escape-proof” jail using a whittled wooden gun covered in black shoe polish. Dillinger took the guards’ real weapons and vanished, once again free and heavily armed.

John Dillinger wanted poster. 
As part of his getaway Dillinger swiped the sheriff’s car and raced back to Illinois. By crossing the state line in the stolen car, he broke the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, a federal law which now brought the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation actively into the manhunt.

Meanwhile the remaining members of the gang hit banks across Minnesota and Wisconsin. A suspicious landlord alerted agents to the whereabouts of Dillinger and his girlfriend, Evelyn Frechette, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Surrounded, the couple shot their way out of the apartment and got away, but not before Dillinger was wounded. They made their way to Dillinger’s family farm in Indiana where he recovered from his wound. Frechette went home to Chicago, where she was picked up by federal agents.

Still on the run, Dillinger and an accomplice once again stole guns and armor from a police station in Indiana then headed north, narrowly avoiding capture after a wild shootout at a lodge in northern Wisconsin in April 1934.

After this latest getaway, Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover escalated the manhunt. He dispatched a special agent from headquarters in Washington, Samuel Cowley, to work with the special agent in charge of the Chicago field office, Melvin Purvis, and take control of the investigation. They began methodically running down every lead and whisper they received from the Chicago area.

Matters accelerated in mid-July when the trackers received a tip from a madam in Gary, Indiana, Anna Cumpanas who was facing deportation proceedings back to her native Romania. In exchange for reward money and help in preventing her deportation, Cumpanas; using the alias Anna Sage; told Cowley and Purvis that she, Dillinger and another woman were planning to escape the summer heat by visiting an air-conditioned Chicago theater the next evening.

On the boiling hot afternoon of Sunday July 22, Cumpanas called to tell agents that the trio would either be at the Marbro Theater on the west side or the Biograph in Lincoln Park. Cowley and a team of agents and police officers would stake out the Marbro, Purvis and his group would be at the Biograph. To make it easier to spot the three theatergoers amidst the crowd, Cumpanas told agents she would wear an orange dress.

Samuel Cowley and Melvin Purvis 
One of Purvis’ men spotted her around 8:30 p.m. outside the Biograph. John Dillinger, who had undergone cosmetic surgery and had been laying low in the city under the alias Jimmy Lawrence, was close behind, wearing a pair of fake eyeglasses. As they entered the theater to see Clark Gable and Myrna Loy in the gangster film Manhattan Melodrama, Purvis summoned the other team of agents from the Marbro. He then placed a call to Hoover to report in. Fearful of a gunfight inside the theater, Hoover ordered Purvis to wait until the show ended and the fugitive emerged back out onto the street.

Purvis stationed his 20 men around the exits to the theater. When he spotted Dillinger he would light his cigar, signaling the agents to swarm in and make the arrest. While he was talking, the theater manager took note of the large group of men gathering around his building. Convinced that he was about to be robbed by a gang of thieves, the manager called the police. Responding officers were shooed away by federal agents, their weapons concealed inside their coats.

The show ended around 10:30 p.m. and theatergoers began to file out. Purvis spotted Dillinger and struck his match, but only a few agents were close enough to spot the signal on the crowded sidewalk. One person who did see the signal was Dillinger, who quickly realized he was surrounded by men wearing overcoats on a sweltering night. He drew a .380 Colt automatic pistol from the right side pocket of his gray slacks and ran for the alley. The three agents nearest him opened fire.

Dillinger was struck three times, falling face down as more agents rushed in. He was taken to Alexian Brothers Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 10:50 p.m.

Three agents, Herman Hollis, Charles Winstead and Clarence Hurt fired their weapons at Dillinger, though it was never established who had fired the shot which killed him. All three were recognized by Hoover for their courage.

Dillinger was buried in Indianapolis’ Crown Hill Cemetery. But the story doesn’t end there.

With Dillinger dead, the dragnet continued to round up the members of his gang. In November Agents Cowley and Hollis were killed in a shootout in Indiana with one of them.

The morning after the shooting at the Biograph, the Chicago Tribune led with the banner headline “Kill Dillinger here” along with the full story of the stakeout and confrontation, “Slain by U.S Agents as he Leaves Theater.” Inside pages carried details of Dillinger’s heists and his life story, including a series of photos of his “characteristic poses.” Another newspaper account told of spectators using handkerchiefs to collect daubs of Dillinger’s blood as souvenirs.

The death of the man identified by authorities as “Public Enemy Number One” was as big a story as his life had been. Over the next 24 hours, as many as 15,000 people came through the Cook County morgue to see Dillinger’s body.

Over the years, the Dillinger legend grew. The first movie about Dillinger was released in 1935. It was followed by a dozen more films either about Dillinger or featuring fictional characters closely based on him. Recent moviegoers will remember the 2009 film Public Enemies starring Johnny Depp as Dillinger and Christian Bale as Purvis. Much of the final scene was filmed at the Biograph, which still stands on Lincoln Avenue.

Stories spread that Dillinger had not been killed outside the Biograph, that it had been a look-alike. According to the Justice Department, agents took fingerprints from the body before it was placed in the ambulance. These prints, as well as another set taken during the autopsy, matched Dillinger’s.

The Biograph in 1934 
The role of Anna Cumpanas, aka Anna Sage, was also embellished. As the story was repeated, the color of her dress changed from orange to red – an FBI history of the case opines that “red tends to be a more alluring color and apparently sounded better in a headline,” – and the tale became one of Dillinger being “betrayed by a lady in a red dress.” Cumpanas received the reward money for her role, but was still deported back to Romania.

Dillinger’s death in that Chicago alley, combined with the captures or violent deaths of several other prairie outlaws in the summer of 1934 brought an end to the Depression’s gangster era, though the age of the “celebrity criminal” was far from over.

They also catapulted the federal officers who brought the outlaws to justice to heights of fame once enjoyed by the criminals they pursued. Soon the Hollywood image of the unflappable “G-man” became all the rage, and J. Edgar Hoover (having shoved Melvin Purvis out of the spotlight following the Dillinger killing) set out to squeeze every last bit of publicity he and his agency could get from it.

Riding the wave of public acclaim that came from having saved the nation from Public Enemy Number One, in 1935 Hoover became the director of the newly created Federal Bureau of Investigation – the nation’s leading G-man. He would remain at the helm of the FBI until his death in 1972.

John Dillinger