During the bleak days of the Great Depression, news of economic hardship often took a backseat to articles on the exploits of an outlaw from Indiana—John Dillinger. For a period of fourteen months during 1933 and 1934 Dillinger became the most famous bandit in American history, and no criminal since has matched him for his celebrity and notoriety.
In Hoosier Public Enemy: A Life of John Dillinger, ninth volume in the Indiana Historical Society Press’s Youth Biography Series, John A. Beineke delves into Dillinger’s life from his unhappy days growing up in Indianapolis and Mooresville, Indiana; his first unlucky brush with the law; his embracing of a life of crime while behind bars at the Indiana Reformatory; his exploits as the leader of a gang that terrorized banks and outwitted law enforcement in the Midwest, earning a reputation as a Robin Hood-style criminal,; and his headline-grabbing death in a hail of bullets on July 22, 1934, at the Biograph Theater in Chicago.
Dillinger won public attention not only for his robberies, but his many escapes from the law. As Beineke notes in the book, Dillinger’s breakouts, getaways, and close calls were all part of the story. The escapes he made from jails or “tight spots,” when it seemed law officials had him cornered, became the stuff of legends. While the public would never admit that they wanted the “bad guy” to win, many could not help but root for the man who appeared to be an underdog.
Another reason that the name Dillinger still resonates with the public is that his raids on banks coincided with the rise of new crime-fighting methods. These modern approaches were employed by newly created agencies of the government to battle the innovative technologies used to carry out the crimes. Powerful automobiles and modern and deadly weapons were used by the men (and some women) who were labeled as “public enemies.”
There was also the Dillinger personality. He was viewed as the gentleman bandit, letting a poor farmer keep the few dollars on the bank counter rather than scooping it up with the rest of the loot. He was polite and handsome. Women liked him. One of Dillinger’s girlfriends, Polly Hamilton, once said, “We had a lot of fun. It’s surprising how much fun we had.” All this made good copy for newspapers around the country. It seemed like a Hollywood movie and Dillinger was the star.
Although his crime wave took place in the last century, the name Dillinger has never left the public imagination. Biographies, histories, movies, television and radio shows, magazines and newspapers, comic books, and now Internet sites have focused on this Indiana bandit. If the public enjoyed reading about the exploits of these “public enemies” or viewing the newsreels in the movie theaters of that day, so did Dillinger. Ironically, it was outside a theater screening a movie about gangsters that his life ended.
Beineke is distinguished professor of educational leadership and curriculum and also professor of history at Arkansas State University. He has been a public school teacher, university administrator, and program director in leadership and education at the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. Beineke is the author of And There Were Giants in the Land: The Life of William Heard Kilpatrick; Going Over All the Hurdles: A Life of Oatess Archey; and Teaching History to Adolescents: A Quest for Relevance. An inductee of the Marion High School Hall of Distinction and an Outstanding Alumnus of Teachers College Ball State University, he has also been a summer research fellow at Harris Manchester College Oxford University. Beineke and his wife, Marla, live in Jonesboro, Arkansas.
Hoosier Public Enemy costs $17.95 and is available from the IHS's Basile History Market.