What inspired you to write about such a controversial figure in Indiana and American history?
My dad was an Indianapolis News paperboy during the 1930s and told stories of how John Dillinger would slip in and out of Indianapolis and Mooresville to visit family. And, of course, the newspapers he carried told of the bank robberies and escapes. I never forgot hearing those stories. I also wanted there to be a book on Dillinger for young adults and to place him in historical context--the Great Depression, the rise of the New Deal and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the role technology played, from high-powered automobiles and weapons to the scientific method used to rob banks. There is a strong move in public schools to include more nonfiction in the curriculum. A biography about a figure who was emblematic of the time he lived and also a figure who captured the public’s imagination both then and now seemed a great match with Dillinger.
Was it difficult to separate the facts from the myth when writing about Dillinger?
Yes, on some stories where there were multiple versions I had to ask myself “Did this really happen?” Some sources would leave out a certain bank robbery, have him in two states at the same time, or not know where he was for a period of time. I tried to use eyewitness sources as to the bank robberies. Most people knew if it was Dillinger or not--and for most, such an event was the most exciting thing that ever happened in their lives. Some have said he robbed a bank or two in Kentucky, but I could not verify that. When I didn’t know where he was I said so. A good example of “myths” would be the “fake” gun used to break out of the Crown Point Jail. Some say it was real, others say it was carved from soap, but most think it was carved from wood and blackened with shoe polish. I put the different theories out there with the evidence I found and will let the reader decide.
How was Dillinger treated by newspapers during his prime--as a villain or a “Robin Hood” type of figure?
Good question. At first a “Robin Hood.” Letting a farmer keep the money on the bank counter saying it belonged to the man, yet at the same time emptying the safe. Whose money was that? The Mooresville newspaper was sympathetic to him for a while, but that may have been that the citizens respected his hard-working father. After the policeman was shot during an East Chicago bank job in early 1934 and Dillinger was accused of being the gunman, things turned sour in the press. (It is still disputed he was even in East Chicago that day.) Even up until the end, though, many people liked him because they didn’t like banks. The storyline that he spent far too long in prison (nine years) for a botched robbery and that caused him to “go bad” also gained him support in eyes of the public. Finally, being shot in the back didn’t seem fair to some. But after fourteen months of robberies and escapes, almost all newspapers thought him a villain rather than a hero.
Why do you think Dillinger continues to be such a fascinating figure?
His exploits, his personality, and the fact he remains an icon in popular culture all testify to the ongoing public fascination with him. The name Dillinger even sounds a dangerous. He is both hero and desperado. This book’s cover makes that point with his menacing countenance staring at the reader while there is a simultaneous passing resemblance to movie star of the era of Humphrey Bogart. Other examples abound. There have been about a dozen books on him over the past fifty years. Four motion pictures--the latest starring Johnny Depp--and also several documentaries. There is a Dillinger tour that begins in the Wisconsin lodge where he escaped FBI agent Melvin Purvis and then moves to Chicago’s Biograph Theater the scene of his death. The tour ends in Indianapolis at Crown Hill Cemetery, the location of his grave. There is a Dillinger Museum in Lake County in northern Indiana. A few months back Dillinger's father’s farmhouse in Mooresville appeared in a real estate advertisement and the home wasn’t even for sale. Earlier this year a political commentator on NBC, when asked if Hillary Clinton was going to run for president, answered, “Does Dillinger rob banks?” He used the present tense as if Dillinger were still alive! And he didn’t have to identify the reference to Dillinger, dead eighty years in July.
What is your next project about?
I am working on a long scholarly piece on Indiana University president Herman Wells’s leadership and how he built IU by supporting controversial researchers, such as the sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. There are two other Indiana ideas bouncing around in my mind. One would be to focus on the early years of World War I flying ace Captain EddieRickenbacker. His strong connection to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as both racer and track owner plus his involvement in the automotive industry of the 1920s. While from Ohio, not Indiana, Rickenbacker had a flamboyant and adventuresome personality and might make for a good young adult book. The other thought I have had is something on the theme of Indiana gas stations. My grandfather and father owned a “Hoosier Pete” filling station in Marion, Indiana from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s. Maybe a pictorial book with commentary on the role these stations played in popular culture from the 1920s to the present.