Crown Hill Cemetery is usually a peaceful place. Its lush, landscaped 560 acres overlook downtown Indianapolis. It is the final resting place of presidents and poets, including Benjamin Harrison and James Whitcomb Riley. However, not all of Crown Hill’s residents are as respectable, and this has on occasion disrupted the cemetery’s peaceful atmosphere. The grave at Section 44, Lot 94 is one such example. It was the scene of a media circus 85 years ago, and now it appears that it will be so once again.
The nominal resident of this plot is John Herbert Dillinger Jr., and he is still capable of drawing a large crowd even eight decades after his death. Dillinger was arguably America’s first celebrity criminal. For a period of 14 months in 1933 and 1934, Dillinger and his accomplices made headlines with a series of bank robberies, jail breaks and amazing escapes from the law. On July 22, 1934, John Dillinger was supposedly gunned down outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago. While many citizens breathed a sigh of relief at the end of Dillinger’s career, there were quite a few others who were saddened and outraged.
Immediately after the Biograph shooting, the scene was mobbed by onlookers and souvenir hunters. People dipped handkerchiefs and scraps of newspaper in Dillinger’s blood for mementos. At the morgue, thousands of people filed past the body on the slab, many going through the line multiple times. At the burial service in Crown Hill, the crowd of 5,000 was on the verge of rioting, with some attendees assaulting reporters and smashing their cameras. Some vowed revenge for Dillinger’s death.
The scene at the burial was such a circus that Dillinger’s father became concerned about grave tampering. Shortly after the burial, he had the coffin reburied under huge slabs of concrete and scrap metal, to deter ghoulish souvenir hunters. In the decades that followed, Dillinger’s grave became a tourist attraction. Many visitors chipped off a piece of the small headstone as a keepsake. This vandalism has resulted in the cemetery replacing the headstone at least four times.That section of the cemetery may again become a spectacle for the history-minded and morbidly curious.
That section of the cemetery may again become a spectacle for the history-minded and morbidly curious. On July 29, 2019, the Indiana Department of Health issued a permit to disinter the remains of John Dillinger. The request was filed by Michael Thompson, Dillinger’s nephew, and is being undertaken as part of a History Channel documentary. Not all of Dillinger’s relatives were keen on having their kin’s remains disturbed. Dillinger’s great-nephew Jeff Scalf was unhappy with the decision, telling an Indianapolis TV station that he believes that it actually is Dillinger’s body in the grave, and that disinterring it would be disrespectful. “I don’t believe in desecrating the dead,” he said. “I think it’s been 85 years. It doesn’t matter.”
Crown Hill cemetery has had second thoughts about the project as well. Fearing that “the complex and commercial nature of this exhumation could cause disruption to the peaceful tranquility of the Cemetery,” Crown Hill is now balking at the disinterment. Michael Thompson has instituted legal action to compel Crown Hill to cooperate. At this point, it seems that only the lawyers are happy with the situation.
It’s clear that John Dillinger still has a grip on the public imagination that’s nearly as strong as it was in the 30s. During his heyday, he was seen as a Robin Hood figure. Many viewed the banks Dillinger robbed as being responsible for the Depression, and were receiving their just deserts. One popular story had it that Dillinger was on his way out of a bank during a robbery when he spotted a farmer standing with his hands in the air. There was a pile of bills stacked on the counter in front of him. “Is that your money or the bank’s?” Dillinger asked. When the farmer indicated that it was his, Dillinger told him to keep it, and continued on his way.
Dillinger wasn’t just a working-class icon; he also provided unparalleled entertainment. He was involved in a number of fantastic jail breaks and getaways that kept the public glued to the newspapers and had them cheering during the newsreels. It was little wonder that many were upset when he was gunned down outside the Biograph Theater. For them, the nation had lost a hero—or at least an anti-hero.
For a while, Dillinger faded from public consciousness. There were other Public Enemies for the FBI to hunt down and kill. By the time World War II ramped up, interest in Dillinger’s exploits had been relegated the pages of crime pulps and B-movies. Most of these were long on “you dirty rat” gangster tropes and short on historical accuracy.Dillinger wasn’t just a working-class icon; he also provided unparalleled entertainment.
The “historical Dillinger” came back to life in the early 60s. Historian John Toland realized that there were still quite a few people alive who had been witnesses to the exploits of Dillinger and his associates. Toland realized that these eyewitnesses wouldn’t be around forever, and he was able to interview many for his 1963 book The Dillinger Days. A number of other well-researched accounts of Dillinger’s career followed.
Interest in Dillinger seems to come and go in cycles. In 1967, the success of the movie Bonnie and Clyde spurred renewed public interest in Depression-era gangsters. A few years later, Dillinger was the subject of his own movie treatment, with Warren Oates in the starring role. The most recent resurgence was with the 2009 movie Public Enemies, featuring Johnny Depp as Dillinger.
The Dillinger saga resonates with Americans on a deep level. Dillinger fan clubs have existed since the 60s, and there are now a large number of social media groups and websites dedicated to Dillinger. The David v. Goliath story of an outlaw underdog prevailing over a greater domineering force is always popular in America. Perhaps this is due to the similarity with our own country’s history of liberation from the British Empire. As with other outlaws, Dillinger gave people something to aspire to: absolute fearlessness. Dillinger demonstrated that perhaps it was possible to stand up to huge, impersonal forces and come out ahead—at least for a little while.
People often don’t want to let such heroes go. It’s was only natural that someone as idolized as Dillinger would be rumored to have survived. Not long after the Biograph shooting, stories spread that it hadn’t been John Dillinger who was gunned down, but a minor-league crook named Jimmy Lawrence. This was the reason given on Thompson’s exhumation request: to prove whether or not John Dillinger’s body is in the grave.
Such rumors of faked deaths frequently happen with larger-than-life pop idols. People claimed to have seen Elvis Presley and Jim Morrison years after their deaths. Outlaws have also been the subject to this treatment; William “Billy the Kid” Bonney was rumored to have lived until the late 1940s.
A 1970 book called Dillinger: Dead or Alive? by Jay Robert Nash and Ron Offen collected evidence to support the “wrong man” theory, including letters supposedly written by Dillinger in the 60’s. I had read Dillinger: Dead or Alive? for a junior high history project, and the story has stayed with me over the decades. The conspiracy angle had great appeal to my eighth-grade sensibilities, when it was becoming apparent that the world wasn’t as straightforward as had been made out, and authority figures were not always in the right.
A few years ago, I decided to try to put some flesh on the bones of this conspiracy theory, and began writing a book called Jackrabbit. The story explains how the switch between Dillinger and Lawrence may have occurred, and why. The idea made for some interesting narrative problem-solving. It also gave me the opportunity to cover the actual events of Dillinger’s career, which are fascinating stories in their own right.
With Dillinger in the news once again, his story has another opportunity to provide the public with a thrill. There are plenty of tabloid-esque elements to grab the public imagination: legendary crime sprees, relatives squabbling over the legacy of a famous ancestor, the hint of conspiracy and cover-up, and all of it swirling around an all-American anti-hero with a flair for self-promotion.
The outcome of the planned exhumation is still up in the air. Occam’s Razor suggests that it is John Dillinger in Section 44, Lot 94 of Crown Hill Cemetery. Then again, we won’t know for sure until the tests take place. With the way the legal documents are flying, the issue could be held up in the courts indefinitely. The process could be hampered by the concrete and metal that John Sr. put in place. The coffin could turn out to be filled with bricks. Or if the remains are actually tested, the results could be inconclusive.
Given John Dillinger’s acute interest in the press coverage he received during his career, I can’t help but think that he’d get a good laugh out of the attention that is currently being afforded him. His story especially resonates now, in an era of institutional distrust and “fake news.” Regardless of the results of this latest adventure, it’s clear that the legend of John Dillinger is going to remain firmly embedded in American culture for a long time to come.