It’s August 14th, 1933 at a bank in Bluffton, Ohio.
As the notorious bank robber, John Dillinger approaches two bank tellers, he flashes a thousand-watt smile.
Behind him, three of his men carrying submachine guns storm into the bank.
One of the men fires into the air to show the employees that they mean business. Still smiling, John slaps a burlap sack on the counter and demands money from the safe. The bank tellers have no choice but to comply.
But one of the bank employees triggers the alarm. John frantically stuffs whatever cash he can get his hands on into the burlap sack, and then he and his men rush out the front door.
Outside, they fire their guns into storefront windows along the street to frighten off any pursuers.
John and his men then hop into their car and speed away.
John Dillinger is the newest member of a gang led by a criminal named Harry Pierpont. John met Harry when they were both locked up in an Indiana state prison. Before John made parole, Harry gave him clear instructions to amass enough money to pull off a daring mission to break Harry out of prison. So John robbed this bank in Bluffton to add to his war chest and move one step closer to the goal.
And in a matter of weeks, John will have the money he needs to pull off the prison break. He will purchase guns and smuggle them inside the prison to Harry and other members of the gang. And once Harry escapes, he and John will join forces on the outside. Soon, John Dillinger will transform from a small-town bank robber into one of the most notorious criminals in American history. But before long, justice will find the man known as “Public Enemy Number One”, and John Dillinger will end up behind bars himself scheming to make his own daring escape on March 3rd, 1934.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is March 3rd, 1934: John Dillinger’s Jailbreak.
Act One: John robs a police arsenal
It’s October 20th, 1933 outside a police station in Peru, Indiana. John Dillinger and Harry Pierpont sit in their car, looking out at the station. They feel confident as they run through their plan for tonight’s raid.
Earlier that day, John sent one of their gang members into the station posing as an insurance agent. The man asked the police officers on duty to show him all of their weapons, so he could give them a quote on how much it would cost to insure them. The officers obliged. And now, John and Harry are here to steal those weapons.
John takes a breath and nods to Harry. They grab their guns, step out of the car, and march into the police station. Storming inside with their weapons drawn, they take the small group of officers on duty completely by surprise. And once they have them subdued, John and Harry make their way to the weapons’ arsenal. They grab a sawed-off shotgun, several pistols, pump rifles, a bulletproof vest, and a Thompson submachine gun, better known as a “Tommy Gun.”
With the stolen weapons in hand, John and Harry head for the exit. But before John leaves, he tells the police officers to stay inside the station for fifteen minutes, or he’ll kill them all. John and Harry rush outside, get in the car and drive off.
With a growing arsenal of weapons, John, Harry, and the rest of the gang are ready to pull off large-scale bank robberies throughout the Midwest. And on October 23rd, 1933, just three days after the raid on the Peru police station, the gang hits the Central National Bank in Greencastle, Indiana. They walk away with $75,000, the equivalent of 1.6 million today.
The following month, they head to Racine, Wisconsin to rob the American Bank & Trust Company. John and the boys make off with $27,000, over half a million today, but the robbery comes with a price. In Racine, things get hairy. The gang ends up taking hostages and wounding two people. As a result, the law takes notice of John Dillinger.
Midwestern police departments circulate photos of John to every newspaper possible. And the images find their way into the newsreels that are shown at movie theaters before the main feature plays. But instead of turning the public against the violent bank robber, this attention turns John into a celebrity.
In late 1933, America is coming out of the Great Depression, but much of the country is still experiencing deep financial distress, and countless Americans are facing foreclosures on their homes. Many see banks as the enemy, and they see bank robbers as heroes. Outlaws like Baby Face Nelson and Bonnie and Clyde have already captured the public imagination. Now, audiences cheer when John’s handsome face appears on screen.
Tales of John’s exploits are spreading all across the country. One story gained attraction claims that while John robbed a bank, he came across a farmer who was there to make a deposit. John asked if the cash in the farmer’s hands was the bank’s money. When the farmer said it was his own, John allegedly told him, “Keep it. We only want the bank’s.”
Stories like these help John Dillinger become a household name. By the end of 1933, what was known as the Pierpont Gang, gets a new name, the Dillinger Gang. And John relishes his newfound fame. Harry doesn’t mind the name change either. As far as he’s concerned, as long as the gang is successful and profitable, the newspapers can call them whatever they like.
But John knows the notoriety isn’t all fun and games. As his legend grows, so does the police’s interest in him. John knows the authorities will do everything in their power to catch him.
In December 1933, John, Harry, and other members of the gang decide to escape the harsh Midwest weather and head to Florida. But soon after they leave, a member of their gang who stayed behind gets into an altercation with a Chicago police officer and kills him. The Chicago Police Department blames the murder on the Dillinger Gang as a whole, and quickly forms what will come to be known as the “Dillinger Squad,” a group of highly-skilled officers hellbent on bringing John to justice.
In early 1934, as the Dillinger Squad gets to work in Chicago, John will go into hiding. But on the way to safety, John will make a fateful decision that will land him behind bars.
Act Two: John kills a police officer.
It’s January 15th, 1934 inside the First National Bank in East Chicago, a city in Indiana.
John and another member of the Dillinger Gang head for the exit with a haul of close to $20,000, nearly half a million today. But as John approaches the front door, he hears police sirens closing in. He knows his escape won’t be clean. So John raises his Tommy gun and gets ready for a fight.
After spending a brief time in Florida, John and Harry decided the gang needed to go into hiding. The Dillinger Squad and other midwestern police forces were ramping up their search. And John and Harry became too recognizable in Florida to remain undetected for long, so they decided to head to Arizona. But on the way, John returned to the Chicago area to pick up his girlfriend, singer Billie Frechette. Then, on his way out of town, John decided to pull off one more robbery. But now, as the cops close in, John is starting to regret that decision.
When John and his fellow gang member step outside of the bank, a police officer named William Patrick O’Malley opens fire. John is wearing a bulletproof vest, so he stands his ground. But his partner is wounded in the fight. Desperate to get away and pull his partner to safety, John fires his Tommy gun at Officer O’Malley who falls to the ground, dead. John and his wounded partner escape from the scene.
In the future, while discussing the shootout with his lawyer, John will say, “I’ve always felt bad about O’Malley getting killed, but only because of his wife and kids. He… kept throwing slugs at me. What else could I do?”
Not long after the First National Bank robbery, John and his girlfriend Billie head for Arizona. The couple’s drive out west is uneventful, and John hopes that when they arrive and meet the rest of the gang, things will calm down for a while. When they do arrive, John and Billie check into a motel. No one seems to recognize John, and he and Billie go about their business undisturbed. But when John meets up with Harry and the other gang members, he learns that things haven’t gone according to plan in Arizona.
Harry tells John that the hotel where the gang is staying caught fire not long before John and Billie arrived in Tucson. The fire was an accident and the gang had nothing to do with it. But Harry is worried the incident will bring them unwanted attention. And indeed, when police officers responded to the blaze at the hotel, some of them recognized Harry and other members of the Dillinger Gang from photos in the press. But instead of arresting them, the police decided to wait and see if John would show up.
Then on January 25th, 1934, the cops corner John and Billie and take them into custody, along with Harry and the rest of the gang. John is extradited to Indiana for the murder of Officer William Patrick O’Malley, while Harry and three other gang members are sent to Ohio for murder of a sheriff there back in 1933.
But from the moment John is brought into custody, the whole affair turns into a media frenzy. On January 30th, 1934, John arrives in Indiana. Robert Estill, the attorney set to prosecute John’s case, makes sure he gets a photo-op with the notorious criminal. In the picture, John puts his arm on Estill’s shoulders and flashes his famous smile. That photo will cause a scandal and eventually end Estill’s future hopes of running for governor.
But getting close to the prosecutor doesn't stop John from being put behind bars. While he awaits his murder trial, John’s confined to the Lake County Jail in Crown Point, Indiana; a facility that many call “escape-proof.” But soon, John Dillinger will shatter that myth, and bolster his own legend, by pulling off a daring escape.
Act Three: John escapes from “escape-proof” jail
It’s March 3rd, 1934 in the Lake County Jail in Crown Point, Indiana.
John sits in his cell, his adrenaline pumping. He’s waiting for a guard to come let him out for his daily exercise. But John’s not interested in going for a walk. Today, he intends to put a well-crafted plan into motion.
Previously, John had whittled a fake gun out of a block of wood and painted it black with shoe polish. Now, he’s going to use the fake weapon to make his escape.
Soon, he hears the sounds of footsteps approaching. When the guard opens the cell door, John thrusts the wooden gun into the man’s side and marches him down the corridor. As other guards approach, John uses his fake weapon to force them into empty cells. And next, John frees a fellow inmate who is in on the plan.
John knew that he and his companion would need more than a fake pistol to pull this off. So prior to the breakout, John instructed his attorney to pay off people on the inside to help. Soon, John and his companion are rushing to a spot where he knows real weapons are waiting.
Now with machine guns in hand, John and his companion meet with little resistance. They head outside, steal a sheriff's car, and drive away bound for Chicago.
John’s jailbreak will add to his already-growing legend. But in the process of pulling off his daring escape, John makes a costly mistake. He drives the stolen sheriff's car across state lines, thus committing a federal crime.
The feds immediately go on the hunt for John, declaring him “Public Enemy Number One”. And months later, on July 22nd, 1934, federal agents catch up with John in Chicago and gun him down outside the Biograph Theater.
Much like the tale of Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger's story is a meld of fact and folklore. Some believe John never whittled a wooden gun, and that he broke out of jail using a real pistol that was smuggled into him. Others suggest the bribes paid by John’s attorney allowed him to just walk out of the jail unimpeded. But regardless of the truth, there is no doubt that John Dillinger became popular at a time of great economic fear and insecurity, a feeling of desperation that had many Americans making outlaws into folk heroes. The legend of John Dillinger was born out of this moment and was etched into history when John busted out of the Lake County Jail on March 3rd, 1934.
Next on History Daily. March 4th, 1461. King Henry VI of England is deposed and replaced by Edward IV during the War of the Roses.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.