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G. 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


This 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of a series of articles on Dillinger in 1934, was still alive a few blocks away on Chicago’s North Side and had an unpublished manuscript on the colorful outlaw.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 out.

What 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.

Banks 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.

John 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.

With 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 lines.

Dillinger’s 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 as Scotland.

George 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.

Helmet 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.

It 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 movie.

Though 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.

Hoover 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.

Dillinger’s 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.

Helmer, 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 reader.

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