THE LAST WORD: Planned exhumation of Dillinger’s body revives legend of Hoosier gangster

Kerry Hubartt

The news that two relatives of 1930s gangster John Dillinger plan to have his remains exhumed because they have “evidence” the body buried in an Indianapolis cemetery may not be him has resurrected the legend of the infamous bank robber/killer.

Good thing or bad, Dillinger has been a subject of fascination and legend in Indiana, and connections to his exploits have been the stuff of stories and conversations throughout the more than 85 years since his well-documented death.

Dillinger’s footprints have been left throughout Indiana, including the Fort Wayne area, and it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction in legends such as his. So the suggestion that he wasn’t actually killed as thought blends more flights of fancy into the historical record.

A spokesman for A&E Networks says the as yet unscheduled exhumation, if carried out as planned, will be part of a documentary on Dillinger for The History Channel. Mike Thompson and Carol Thompson Griffith, who say Dillinger was their uncle, wrote in affidavits that they have received “evidence that demonstrates that the individual who was shot and killed at the Biograph Theater in Chicago on July 22, 1934 may not in fact have been (their) uncle, John H. Dillinger.”

The state approved an exhumation and reburial permit in July. The affidavits released by the Indiana State Department of Health say the relatives have asked that “a body purported to be John H. Dillinger” be exhumed from Crown Hill Cemetery for a forensic analysis and possible DNA testing.”

The FBI immediately disputed the Dillinger family members’ contention that agents may have killed someone other than the desperado at the theater on a tip from the infamous “woman in red.”

Dillinger, who was born in Indianapolis, was one of America’s most notorious criminals. His gang reportedly killed 10 people during a bloody series of bank robberies across the Midwest in the 1930s. But at a time when banks foreclosed on homes and farms during the Great Depression, many Hoosiers and others considered the gangster a folk hero.

He wasn’t such a “hero” to Pat Beisner of Fort Wayne, the subject of News-Sentinel.com reporter Kevin Leininger’s column in 2008. Beisner’s grandfather, William Patrick O’Malley, her grandfather and a 43-year-old East Chicago police detective, was shot and killed by Dillinger while he was robbing a bank of $20,000 on Jan. 14, 1934.

“You can talk all you want about how many Americans idealized robbers and killers during the Depression, when people often found it hard to make an honest living,” Leininger wrote. “But our fascination with killers doesn’t seem to have lessened. Why does that cruelty fascinate us so? Why do killers’ names linger in the public consciousness far longer than the names of their victims?”

Why, indeed? But they do. And Dillinger’s fame lingers today in anything that may have been connected with the criminal’s legend.

One unverified story has it that Dillinger and gang member Homer Van Meter, a Fort Wayne native, cased the 2-year-old Lincoln Tower bank from across the street in 1932 before deciding such a robbery would be too risky.

Verified police records, on the other hand, show on Oct. 14, 1933, members of the Dillinger gang entered the Auburn Police Department and robbed it of bullet-proof vests, ammunition and several firearms, including a .45-caliber Thompson submachine gun, which was recovered by the Tucson, Ariz., Police Department and eventually returned to Auburn in 2014 to be put on display at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum.

Another location that has evidence of Dillinger’s crime is about 20 minutes north of Auburn, in the small town of Hudson. Eli’s Bar and Grille was formerly the Farmers State Bank, which Dillinger and his gang are said to have robbed of $1,700 in the early 1930s. The original bank safe that was robbed can be seen behind the bar. Customers will also see many News-Sentinel clippings in the restaurant about the bank robbery as well as the door to the old bank.

A story in the Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly quoted Steuben County Tourism Bureau Director June Julien as saying there is no definitive proof Dillinger himself was involved in the Hudson bank robbery, because he was in jail at the time.

The story also said Dillinger allegedly stayed at Lake George between his criminal exploits throughout the Midwest and that a sign at a cottage at Lake George owned by Van Meter’s uncle read, “Dillinger slept here June 27, 1932.”

We may never know the whole truth behind the Dillinger legend. But maybe the planned exhumation of his body will at least put the story of his demise to rest once and for all.

Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.

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