A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Did John Dillinger really die outside the Biograph Theater?

August 1, 2003

Dear Cecil:

Did John Dillinger really die outside the Biograph movie theater in Chicago in 1934? And does his allegedly prodigious pecker really reside pickled in a secluded corner of the Smithsonian or some other hallowed ground?

Cecil replies:

I'm answering these questions mainly to get people to quit asking them. Answer number one: Yes. Answer number two: No. Hoping for something a little more expansive, were you? Try this: Of course not, you nitwit. Details below.

Bank robber John Dillinger, declared Public Enemy Number One by the U.S. attorney general, was the most notorious of the violent criminals whose exploits fascinated America during the Depression. He learned the bank-robbing trade while in prison for a holdup, and when paroled in 1933 helped orchestrate the escape of ten confederates from the Indiana jail where he'd been confined. Dillinger and several of the escapees then formed a gang and pulled off a series of daring daylight bank holdups throughout the midwest — by one count they netted roughly $300,000 in 11 heists. Along the way they got into several bloody scrapes with the authorities; if you count gang members and folks the police shot by mistake, 26 people were killed and 19 wounded.

Arrested on the lam in Tucson, Arizona, in early 1934 and extradited to Indiana for the murder of a cop, Dillinger broke out of a jail there, allegedly using a wooden gun he'd carved from a washboard. He soon arrived in Chicago, where he underwent plastic surgery at the home of a local bar owner. On the evening of July 22, tipped off by a female companion later made famous in the newspapers as the Lady in Red (actually she wore an orange skirt and white blouse), agents from the Justice Department's Division of Investigation, soon to be renamed the FBI, ambushed Dillinger as he left the Biograph theater. Five shots were fired; at least two struck the wanted man, who died in minutes. His body was put on view at the Cook County morgue, then sent home to Indiana.  Dillinger was buried under layers of concrete, scrap iron, and chicken wire to foil grave robbers.

But was the dead man Dillinger — or a patsy? I take it that's what you're asking, Horace, and as it happens that was the question posed by crime writer Jay Robert Nash and researcher Ron Offen in the 1970 book Dillinger: Dead or Alive?, which was expanded and republished in 1983 as The Dillinger Dossier. Nash claimed he'd been shown letters, dated 1959 and 1963, from someone who said he was Dillinger. The letters were accompanied by a photo of an older man bearing a vague resemblance to the deceased bank robber. Nash never tracked down the man — who wasn't the first purported Dillinger — but nonetheless persuaded himself that this fellow was genuine. His theory: The man killed at the Biograph was not Dillinger but a double, set up by the mob to take the fall.

Nash's evidence for this implausible tale consisted primarily of niggling discrepancies between official records. For example: (1) In the autopsy report the age of the dead man was estimated to be 32; Dillinger was actually 31 years and one month old. (2) The body was five foot seven and weighed 160 pounds; Dillinger's navy records indicated he was around a quarter inch taller, and a DOI wanted poster listed his weight as 153. (3) The classification numbers assigned to the DOI's three sets of Dillinger fingerprints (one taken from the corpse, two others obtained previously) differed slightly. You're thinking: That's it? Pretty much. Notwithstanding Nash's quibbles (and Dillinger's attempt to efface his fingerprints with acid), all three sets of prints matched. Dillinger's sister positively identified the body. Even the best piece of evidence Nash offered — that the body's eyes were brown, while Dillinger's were bluish gray — doesn't necessarily prove a thing. A later Cook County medical examiner theorized that the corpse's eyes might have darkened in the 100-degree July heat.

Some aspects of Dillinger's death have never been fully explained, though. Chicago police didn't participate in the ambush; instead, DOI agents were assisted by cops from East Chicago, Indiana. Some say East Chicago underworld figures helped Dillinger escape from the Indiana jail, then ratted him out to collect the reward money. (The Lady in Red, Anna Sage, had a friend on the East Chicago force and a motive of her own — she was a Romanian brothel keeper who vainly hoped that betraying Dillinger would help her avoid deportation.) It's also odd, to say the least, that the feds made no real attempt to apprehend Dillinger before shooting him down — the story is he reached for a gun, but the weapon supposedly taken from the body wasn't manufactured till after his death.

As for Dillinger's "prodigious pecker," well, that story probably got started with help from a morgue photo where the dead man's arm creates a suspicious bulge under the sheet. Dr. David Fisher, who assisted at the autopsy, was quoted in a 1984 Chicago Tribune story as saying, "I have no recollection of it being of an abnormal size. . . . I definitely would have noticed." (No comment on that "definitely.") Dillinger's family complained because his brain had been removed during the autopsy; surely they would have beefed had other parts of the body also been absconded with. The Smithsonian has denied possessing any portion of Dillinger's anatomy. One hopes forlornly to put the matter to rest, but undoubtedly this is yet another story that will never die.

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