“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The iconic line is spoken by a fictional reporter in the closing moments of John Ford’s classic western “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” I have long felt the quote may shed some light on why many “good” people in Terre Haute still celebrate the city’s connection to the notorious John Dillinger. It is astounding that a Hoosier farm boy whose career as a bank robber lasted only a few months has iconic status 75-plus years after he was gunned down in a Chicago alley. How does this happen? Perhaps it is because a well-seasoned legend always trumps the truth.
I confess that I had been fascinated with the mystique of John Dillinger long before fate brought me to town as a reporter in the 1980s. As a youngster my father had taken me to the alley near the Biograph Theater in Chicago and pointed to the spot where Dillinger’s life ended at the hands of Melvin Purvis’ G-Men. Movies like “The FBI Story” whet my appetite to know more about the derring-do of the good guys versus the bad guys. I cheered loudly as FBI uber-agent Jimmy Stewart shot down Dillinger on behalf of the ultimate lawman, Mr. Hoover.
My budding career as Junior G-man ended abruptly however. A couple of older relatives, who were hammered hard by the Depression and lost their modest farms to the bank, weighed in on John Dillinger. The killjoys in overalls actually saw Dillinger as heroic .They made him seem like Robin Hood and recounted a variety of third-hand stories to support their case. I was really hooked on the legend after that. It never occurred to me that Dillinger was a real flesh and blood fellow who may have a wart or two of his own.
Once I landed in Terre Haute, the local audience wasted no time in regaling me with tales of Dillinger incarnate meandering in and around the Crossroads of America. The tales rekindled my boyhood interest in a flash. I was excited whenever I heard there may be some folks around who actually claimed to have known the bad man, or another gang member, a robbery victim, or even just a friend of a friend of Dillinger. I listened to scores of Dillinger in Terre Haute stories. But there always seemed to be several degrees of separation between the teller of the tale and what would reasonably pass for a primary source.
I met the late Joe Pinkston by chance in Brown County several years ago. The former Pinkerton agent was a friend of the Dillinger family, had penned an acclaimed biography and memorialized the Mooresville native in a fascinating, albeit disturbing, wax museum in Nashville, Ind. Joe possessed relics such as the famous wooden gun used in the break-out at Crown Point, a ghoulish death mask cast while the outlaw was on the slab, and even the bloody trousers the bandit was wearing when he died. Joe told me that the pants were a gift from Dillinger’s older sister who had raised the boy after his mother had died. Pinkston had helped the woman with legal issues involving Monogram Studios when they were shooting one of the earlier Dillinger films.
The museum was crowded the day we met. I asked Joe, “Why the fascination with this guy?”
“You have to factor in the times of the Depression,” Pinkston told me, “America had shut down. They needed a hero of some sort. Dillinger certainly represented one guy against the system. A lot of people saw him as being on their side and against the banks. The banks weren’t too popular at that time and they foreclosed on a lot of people.”
Pinkston knew many who had crossed paths with Dillinger and he claimed virtually everyone liked him. His personality was described as easy-going and good-natured. Stories of his popping into Vigo County roadhouses and buying the house a round are quite common. A female hostage after one robbery told the press Dillinger was a gentleman who chided his fellow robbers for using profanity in her presence as she rode in the getaway car.
It was widely reported that John was outraged and sickened in October 1933 when fellow gangster Harry Pierpont shot Sheriff Jesse Sarber in cold blood when they broke Dillinger out of a Lima, Ohio, jail. Pierpont had an arrogance and murderous streak that some say profoundly disturbed Dillinger. But Dillinger had provided the guns for Pierpont and nine others to escape from the Indiana State Prison several days earlier. Pierpont was determined to return the favor when he learned John had been arrested in Dayton. Pierpont eventually went to the electric chair for that decision. Pinkston called it, “A sort of honor among thieves moment” that probably kept John from exploding altogether.
“Dillinger was not prone to violence as a rule and avoided it when he could,” Pinkston said, “just a guy who inserted himself in the wrong kind of business.”
The young Dillinger’s introduction to the crime business was plagued by beginner’s “bad” luck from day one. He went to jail for almost 10 years in 1924 for the first recorded crime he ever committed. He attempted to rob a local grocer in Mooresville with an older friend Ed Singleton. The robbery was a complete failure and he was fingered immediately in the small town. At his father’s insistence, he threw himself on the mercy of the court. It was a mistake. John received a very harsh sentence, while his partner in crime received leniency from another judge. That experience seemed to have “bent the twig” for good.
Dillinger later admitted as much in a poignant letter to his father in 1933. He wrote: “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.”
The folks of Mooresville apparently agreed that Dillinger had been done an injustice as 184 of them, including his first victim, signed a petition for early release as Dillinger’s stepmother was dying. He was released on parole from Michigan City State Prison, but the woman had died before he arrived home. Within three weeks, he robbed his first bank in Ohio. He had learned the trade in jail from the worst of the best in the business.
Pierpont and Dillinger teamed up with other Michigan City Prison alumni after the two escapes and hid out in Terre Haute. The gang included two locals, a seasoned criminal from Vigo County named Russell Clark and a hometown driver Ed Shouse. Dillinger had paid a Kokomo brothel owner Pearl Elliott $27,000 to purchase the would-be hideout at 2531 Fenwood in Terre Haute. The gang planned to rob the Central National Bank in Greencastle while hiding out in Terre Haute. They robbed the Peru Police Department of guns, ammo and nine bullet proof vests on Oct. 20 and hit the Greencastle bank in broad daylight three days later.
The late Gordon Sayers was in the bank that day and told me that he didn’t know Dillinger when the gang barged in, but he recognized a robber who was wearing a bullet proof vest as a fellow he knew from around town named Harry Pierpont.
“Pierpont had a sawed off shotgun and he herded us back to the vault,” Sayers recalled, “Bill Stiles (a teller) somehow slipped out behind the cages…and tried to find some tacks to throw under their tires. It didn’t work.”
The only known person to die by Dillinger’s hand occurred in East Chicago during a bank hold up in January 1934. Wearing a bullet proof vest, the robber was shot several times by Officer William O’Malley. Dillinger was unharmed and fired a Tommy gun blast at O’Malley’s legs. The rapid fire weapon killed the policeman when the shots took his legs out from under him and brought his head directly into the line of fire.
The gang was later captured in Tuscon, Ariz. Dillinger was sent to Crown Point for the killing of O’Malley with much fanfare. The legend has it he escaped under heavy guard by using a wooden gun. In subsequent years it has been revealed that the gun was smuggled to him through arrangements of his shady lawyer, who also bribed a number of people to ensure success. The next time the general public saw Dillinger was on a steamy July night outside the Biograph Theater where he had been betrayed by the notorious Lady in Red, Anna Sage.
My personal quest to meet someone who personally knew Dillinger appeared to arrive through a call to WBOW in 1988. A man claiming to have known the legendary outlaw invited me over to his Terre Haute home for an interview. I remember the night well.
“Yer needin’ to know about John Dillinger,” the old man wheezed. He blew his words directly into my face with a breath fouled by six decades of nicotine abuse. He hit the “g” hard with a sort of a growl when he said the celebrated outlaw’s last name. I knew from my research that this was how folks who really knew the family down around Mooresville always pronounced “Dillinger.” The newsreels had unwittingly altered it decades earlier to a soft “j” sound. That bit of trivial knowledge excited my reporter’s instincts to think that the old guy may be the real deal like he claimed. Did he really serve time in Pendleton and later ride with the legendary gangster during those wild months of 1933-1934?
I wanted it to be true, but that familiar little devil of skepticism sat on my shoulder and demanded the facts be checked with no assumptions permitted to fog my mind. I thought of how I had almost ignored his invitation.
The dark dilapidated house in a seedy Terre Haute backstreet was surreally fit for a tale of ancient crime sprees, gun molls and murder. A cold winter nighttime drizzle completed a made-to-order film noir formula. This thin unshaven prune of a man looked like an aging prison gangster direct from central casting. He sat pillowed in a vintage hospital bed replete with a crank or two in what had once been a living room.
It was obvious to me he was dying, just as the visiting nurse had confirmed in whispers when she opened the door. She knew he had summoned me and therefore didn’t object to my being there. He had apparently listened to my “Openline” broadcast on WBOW radio with Joe Pinkston. The sickly man’s neighbor had called our studio on his behalf with the invitation earlier in that week. He had promised to tell the “honest-to-God” true story of the legendary robber whom he had known personally.
I sat down next to the bed and paused until he finished drawing another deep breath from his oxygen mask. I was armed with a dozen or so reference points in order to verify his stories. I hit the record button and the cassette rolled. We talked for two uninterrupted hours about the Dillinger days. The interview was one of the most intriguing I had ever had, rich with detail and personal reflections of living history.
I’ll never know for certain if he really rode with Dillinger. He produced a prison I.D. from Pendleton the same time Dillinger had been there. He told detailed stories of Pierpont, Dillinger and Billie Freschette closing down a road house south of Terre Haute. He says the group stole a baby buggy off a Terre Haute porch. He describes rolling it into the roadhouse himself with Pierpont playing a baby riding inside. His laughter rang true when he told the tale. As I was heading to the door, he had me look inside an old dresser next to him. I opened it, pulled out what appeared to be a heavy jacket vest and noticed the letters stenciled across the back. P-P-D. I looked at the old man.
“Peru Police Department,” he said grinning. “Borrowed it.”
I returned home late, placed the tapes on my desk to transcribe later, and turned to the more immediate demands of being a reporter with deadlines and a four a.m. beat run to the “cop shop.”
I never saw him again. Within days my source had died along with my precious interview. My teenage daughter (whom I love unconditionally to this day) had inadvertently covered my interview tapes with the pop hits of 1988.
Mark Edwards is the emeriti director of marketing.