Grave Sightings: John Dillinger

Stacy Conradt
Stacy Conradt / Stacy Conradt

For years, every time we so much as touch a toe out of state, I’ve put cemeteries on our travel itinerary. From garden-like cemeteries to boot hills, whether they’re the final resting places of the well-known but not that important or the important but not that well-known, I love them all. After realizing that there are a lot of taphophiles (cemetery and/or tombstone enthusiasts) out there, I’m finally putting my photo library of interesting tombstones to good use.

Eighty years ago next week, one of the world’s most infamous gangsters met his match. John Dillinger was not killed in the middle of a shootout, or even mid-heist. He was simply walking out of a movie theater in Chicago.

In 1924, at the young age of 21, Dillinger and a pal unsuccessfully attempted to rob a local grocery store in Mooresville, Indiana. He received an unduly harsh sentence and ended up serving nearly nine years in prison. While he was there, his stepmother died —his real mother had died when he was just three—and his wife left him. “I will be the meanest bastard you ever saw when I get out of here,” he said while incarcerated, and it seems he followed through on that threat.

Having nothing to go home to, Dillinger used his time behind bars to network with other gangsters and robbers, gathering tips and tricks for how to best swindle banks out of their cash stores. When he was finally paroled on May 10, 1933, he put his plans into action almost immediately.

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The crime spree that ensued was intense, but actually rather short-lived. His first post-prison robbery was on June 21, when he relieved the New Carlisle National Bank in New Carlisle, Ohio, of $10,000. He robbed at least four more banks that summer before his shenanigans caught up with him and he was jailed—but not for long. Some of his buddies from the Indiana State Prison had recently escaped, thanks in part to guns smuggled to them by Dillinger. They returned the favor and helped him bust out of jail, killing the sheriff in the process.

The Jackrabbit robbed at least three more banks in the fall and winter of 1933-34, including a massive $74,802 heist at a bank in Greencastle, Indiana, in October. He and his gang also brazenly busted into the state police arsenals to steal machine guns, rifles, ammo, and bulletproof vests. In January, he and three of his gang members were captured in Tucson. Dillinger was extradited to the jail in Crown Point, Indiana, a building that had been dubbed “inescapable.” Despite this, and despite the fact that the jail posted extra guards, Dillinger escaped yet again. Though it has famously been claimed that he used a razor to carve a gun out of wood or soap, PBS reports that it was actually just a clear cut case of bribery.

From March to July, Dillinger robbed four more banks and got himself a little plastic surgery. He was involved in a couple of shootouts, including one that killed a few of his cohorts. His girlfriend got arrested. But he also had some fun—Dillinger enjoyed a super secret picnic with his family back in Indiana, and even made it to a few Cubs games. J. Edgar Hoover was infuriated that Public Enemy #1 was just gallivanting around the midwest as he pleased, and formed a special task force meant to take Dillinger down. It was this task force that received a call from a woman who said she could help them get their man if they would prevent her from being deported. The agents agreed, and Anna Sage said that she and her friend Polly, Dillinger's new girl, would be accompanying the gangster to the movies on the afternoon or night of July 22, 1934.

Agents were waiting to ambush the group as they walked out of the Biograph Theater in Chicago around 10:30 that night. When the three of them exited the theater, agent Melvin Purvis lit a cigar to signal to the other agents that the target was in sight. Dillinger realized what was happening and may or may not have pulled a gun as he ran into the nearby alley (reports vary). The agents opened fire, with three of their five bullets finding their mark. He died shortly thereafter and was buried in the family plot at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis, where people sympathetic to the gangster still leave pennies to this day. The current tombstone is at least the fourth version—the others became too damaged by souvenir hunters.

Stacy Conradt

See all entries in our Grave Sightings series here.