Infamous person. Born John Herbert Dillinger on June 22, 1903, in Indianapolis, Indiana. As a child he went by “Johnnie.” As an adult he was known as “Jackrabbit” for his graceful moves and quick getaways from the police. As a legend, he was known as “Public Enemy Number One.” His exploits during the depth of the Great Depression made him a headline news celebrity and one of the most feared gangsters of the 20th century.
As a boy, John Dillinger was constantly getting into trouble. He would commit small time pranks and petty theft with his neighborhood gang, “the Dirty Dozen.” Most of his neighbors would later say he was generally a cheerful, likable kid who didn’t get in to any more mischief than other boys. But there were also accounts of severe juvenile delinquency and malicious behavior as a teenager. To a degree, both of these perceptions are correct and were evident in his adult life. Like any celebrity, accounts describing his early life were shadowed by his later exploits and added either positively or negatively to his reputation.
John Dillinger was the youngest of two children born to John Wilson Dillinger and Mary Ellen “Molly” Lancaster. The elder Dillinger was a somber, church-going small businessman who owned a neighborhood grocery store and some rental houses. He was simultaneously a harsh disciplinarian who would beat Johnnie for his insubordination, and then turn around and give him money for candy. Later, when Johnnie was in his teens, Dillinger, Sr. would alternate between locking Johnnie in the house all day and then, later in the week, letting him roam the neighborhood for most of the night.
Johnnie Dillinger’s mother, Molly, died of a stroke when he was not quite yet four years old. His sister, Audrey, who was 15 years his senior raised him until his father remarried in 1912. Dillinger quit school at age 16, not due to any trouble, but because he was bored and wanted to make money on his own. He was said to be good employee with a talent for working with his hands. His father, however, wasn’t pleased with his career choice and tried to talk him out of it. John showed his obstinacy and refused to go back to school. In 1920, hoping a change of venue would provide a more wholesome influence on his son, John Dillinger, Sr. sold his grocery store and property to retire to a farm in Mooresville, Indiana. Ever defiant, John, Jr. kept his job at the Indianapolis machine shop and commuted the 18 miles on his motorcycle. His wild and rebellious behavior continued with nightly escapades which included, drinking, fighting, and visiting prostitutes.
Matters reached a head on July 21, 1923, when young John Dillinger stole a car to impress a girl on a date. He was later found by a police officer roaming aimlessly through Indianapolis streets. The policeman pulled him over to question him and, suspicious of his vague explanations, placed him under arrest. Dillinger broke loose and ran. Knowing he couldn’t go back home, he joined the United States Navy the next day. He made it through basic training, but the regimented life of military service was not for him. While assigned to the U.S.S. Utah—the same U.S.S. Utah that was sunk at Pearl Harbor in 1941—he jumped ship and returned home to Mooresville. His five-month military career was over, and he was eventually dishonorably discharged.
Upon his return to Mooresville in April 1924, John Dillinger met and married 16-year-old Beryl Ethel Hovious and attempted to settle down. With no job or income, the newlyweds moved into Dillinger’s father’s farm house. Within a few weeks of his wedding, he was arrested for stealing several chickens. Though his father was able to work out a deal to keep the case out of court, it did little to help his relationship with his father. Dillinger and Beryl moved out of their cramped bedroom and into Beryl’s parents’ home in Martinsville, Indiana. There he got a job in an upholstery shop.
During the summer of 1924, John Dillinger played shortstop on the Martinsville baseball team. There he met and befriended Edgar Singleton, a heavy drinking individual who was a distant relative of Dillinger’s stepmother. Singleton became Dillinger’s first partner in crime. He told Dillinger of a local grocer who would be carrying his daily receipts on his way from work to the barbershop. Singleton suggested Dillinger could easily rob the elderly grocer for the cash he would be carrying while Singleton waited for him in a getaway car down the street. The incident did not go well. Dillinger was armed with a .32 caliber and pistol and a large bolt wrapped in a handkerchief. He came up behind the grocer and clubbed him over the head with the bolt, but the grocer turned and grabbed Dillinger and the gun, forcing it to discharge. Dillinger thought he had shot the grocer and took off running down the street to meet Singleton’s getaway car. There was no one there and he was soon caught by the police.
The local prosecutor convinced Dillinger’s father that if his son pleaded guilty the court would be lenient. However, that was the extent of his legal assistance. Dillinger, Jr. appeared in court without a lawyer and without his father. The court threw the book at him: 10 to 20 years in prison, even though it was his first conviction. Singleton, who had a prison record, was also caught. He served less than two years of his two to four year sentence, thanks to having a lawyer.
John Dillinger was sent to the Indiana State Reformatory in Pendleton. He played on the prison baseball team and worked in the shirt factory as a seamster. Dillinger’s remarkable manual dexterity came into play just as it had during his time at the machine shop. He frequently completed twice his quota in the prison factory, and would secretly help fill other men’s quotas. As a result, he made many friends within the prison population. It was at the state reformatory that Dillinger met Harry Pierpont and Homer Van Meter, two men who would someday join Dillinger in his life of crime.
As his prison years went on, Dillinger’s wife and family visited him frequently. He often wrote letters to Beryl full of affection, “Dearest, we will be so happy when I can come home to you and chase your sorrows away…For sweetheart, I love you so all I want is to just be with you and make you happy…Write soon and come sooner.” But Beryl was not doing well with the separation. She obtained a divorce on June 20, 1929, two days before his birthday. He was devastated and later admitted the event had broken his heart.
Dillinger was dealt a second blow when he was denied parole. He had not been an exemplary prisoner, after having tried to escape a few times. But not seeing he was much responsible for his circumstances, he felt bitter and angry about the denial for parole. In a letter he wrote to his father in October 1933, he confided, “I know I have been a big disappointment to you but I guess I did too much time, for where I went in a carefree boy, I came out bitter toward everything in general… if I had gotten off more leniently when I made my first mistake this would never have happened.” He quit the baseball team, one of his few passions, and asked to be sent to Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, Indiana. Dillinger told prison officials it had a better baseball team, but the truth was he wanted to join friends Pierpont and Van Meter who had been transferred there earlier.
John Dillinger found prison life much harsher and disciplined. He was surprised to see so many men his father’s age spending the rest of their lives in prison. He became depressed and withdrawn. He didn’t join the baseball team, but instead buried himself in his work in the prison shirt factory, producing double his quote to help other inmates.
It was during this time that John Dillinger learned the ropes of crime from seasoned bank robbers. In addition to reconnecting with Pierpont and Van Meter, he became friends with Walter Dietrich who had worked with the notorious Herman Lamm. A former German army officer, Lamm had emigrated to the United States in the late 1800s. He was famous for planning his bank robberies with the precision of a military tactician. Dietrich had studied the man’s method well and was a good teacher, instructing his students in how to investigate the layout of a bank, the entries and exits, windows, and the location of the nearest police station.
Pierpont and Van Meter had longer sentences than John Dillinger but they weren’t planning on serving out their full terms. They had already begun planning bank heists for when they were out. Upon leaving prison, they would bribe a few key guards, get a few guns, and grab a place to lay low for awhile. But they would need money to finance their jail break. Knowing that Dillinger would be freed sooner than they, Pierpont and is colleagues brought him in on their scheme and gave Dillinger a crash course in the art of robbery. They gave him a list of stores and banks to hold up and contact information of the most reliable accomplices. They also provided him with guidance on where to fence stolen goods and money.