Russell Girardin & William J. Helmer, Dillinger:
The Untold Story (Bloomington, Indiana University
Press, 2004, $19.95, 378 pages, ISBN-0-32556-0)—Thomas
J. Mayock, Annandale, Virginia
is a revised edition of an unusual and interesting book.
The original appeared in 1994 after Helmer, a crime
buff and Playboy writer, discovered that Girardin,
author of a series of articles on Dillinger in 1934,
was still alive a few blocks away on Chicago’s North
Side and had an unpublished manuscript on the colorful
outlaw. Girardin died shortly before their book came
made his testimony unique was his access to Louis Piquett,
Dillinger’s shady lawyer. For the uninitiated, John
Dillinger was the leader and most engaging of a gang
of bank robbers whose stamping out contributed to the
rise of J. Edgar Hoover with his national police force.
They hit about a dozen banks for something like three
hundred thousand dollars, several million in today’s
money. These operations killed around two dozen people
including all the robbers, and wounded nearly as many
in the wild shootouts featuring sub-machine guns, which
are immortalized in the movies. The government probably
spent a million. The gang’s exploits were lavishly reported
by the media and the public sympathized with Dillinger,
an attitude, incidentally, shared by our authors.
and bankers weren’t all that popular in 1934. Thousands
of them had recently failed; many under circumstances
which seemed to justify the saying that the best way
to rob a bank was to own one. Their classic granite
buildings made impressive saloons now that Prohibition
was gone: marbled tellers’ cages became elegant bars
and the directors’ sanctum sheltered parties of humble
citizens. Robbing those that survived seemed like the
go-ahead citizen’s efforts to recoup losses inflicted
by the Great Depression.
Herbert Dillinger grew up on a farm near Indianapolis,
by all accounts a likeable but wild youth. His first
robbery bought him ten to twenty years in an Indiana
prison, of which he served eight. He was apparently
drunk and his take would have been about $75. He never
made that mistake again.
some of his acquaintances from the penitentiary he promptly
organized a spree of robberies and a prison outbreak
that deeply embarrassed the state authorities. Local
police in 1934 were handicapped by the ease with which
criminals vanished across state lines. Federal police
were fragmented and lacked authority to help. Prohibition
enforcement had been a joke and Attorney General Mitchell
Palmer’s Anti-Red Crusade in Woodrow Wilson’s time had
left a bad taste. But Hoover successfully lobbied Congress
for authority to enter cases where crooks crossed state
greatest coup set the FBI on his trail. He had been
nabbed in New Mexico and incarcerated in Indiana’s Crown
Point prison. Not only did he escape using a wooden
gun but he succeeded in locking up everyone on the prison
staff “except the cat.” Fleeing to Chicago, he crossed
the Illinois line. That winter Dillinger and his friends
decided to take a holiday in the lodge in the Wisconsin
woods but the innkeeper got word out and the FBI Director
sent a hastily assembled force under one Alvin Karpis.
Karpis organized a survey of the grounds and then attacked.
Not only did the gang get clear away, but agents were
killed, as well as people who just happened by. This
drew unfavorable comment from the press, including Will
Rogers who predicted that Dillinger wouldn’t be taken
unless he mingled with innocent bystanders. Instead
of a crack federal unit, Hoover’s FBI looked more like
Hollywood’s Keystone Cops. It didn’t help that Dullinger
was simultaneously reported in places as far afield
Russell Girardin was a man of parts. He was to run a
flourishing advertising agency and became something
of an Orientalist. Realizing not long after Dillinger
died that the outlaw was the object of intense popular
interest, he parlayed a chance acquaintance with Louis
Piquett into a collaboration on a series of articles
which he sold to the Hearst newspapers. He also wrote
a manuscript, which he had put aside until Helmer came
knocking on his door in 1990.
preserves most of Girardin’s original, including what
must be judged an antique style more suited to contemporary
boys’ books. Clearly, Girardin preferred the miscreants
to the forces of law and order, describing one worthy
as “of a quiet and retiring nature” when not in action.
Far from cloying, this style takes us through a welter
of detail spiced with the excitement of the robberies.
Besides Dillinger’s, the book covers the careers of
Homer Van Meter and Baby Face Nelson, and debunks FBI
myths such as gun-toting Ma Barker.
reflects the enduring dislike of other federal and local
police for the FBI. By midsummer of 1934 Dillinger was
hot. He had been dodging among hideouts arranged by
Louis Piquett and had undergone surgery to change his
fingerprints and disguise his face. He said that you
could never trust “an automatic pistol or a woman.”
Events were about to prove him right. Hoover was offering
$15.000 for him, dead or alive. On July 22 Anna Sage,
a Romanian national in danger of being deported for
moral turpitude, betrayed him at the Biograph Theater
in Chicago, where a crime film starring Clark Gable
was showing. Purvis had laced the house with agents
who shot Dillinger from behind as he issued from the
she wore an orange skirt Anna Sage was immortalized
as the “Lady in Red.” Sympathy set in almost immediately.
In the alley where he fell women dipped handkerchiefs
in his blood. When he was taken to the Cook County morgue
thousands of people filed by his body. Like Elvis, he
was sighted in various places. Chicago’s reaction recalled
the Saint Valentine’s Day massacre the previous year.
had got his man. Stealing a line from the gangster movies
he called Dillinger “a dirty yellow rat.” He took full
credit for the ambush but the newspapers tended to feature
Melvin Purvis, who had been on the scene. This, say
our authors, was the cause of intense jealousy on the
part of the Director which drove Purvis into retirement
and eventual suicide.
demise swelled the box office receipts for Manhattan
Melodrama, and the studio used it to hype the movie,
to the point where the star Myrna Loy was moved to protest.
The film which was well-made went on to win an Oscar.
Despite Purvis’s talk about intervention, Anna Sage
was deported to Romania. Piquett served time and shortly
before he died was pardoned by Harry Truman.
who has written on the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre
and on Baby Face Nelson, supplies abundant detail to
the narrative. One defect is the cluttered table of
contents whose organization and typefaces confuse the