On the evening of July 22, 1934 a dapper-looking man wearing a straw hat and a pin-striped suit stepped out of the Biograph Theater in downtown Chicago where he and two girlfriends had watched a film called Manhattan Melodrama starring Clark Gable. No sooner had they reached the sidewalk when a man appeared and identified himself as Melvin Purvis of the FBI. He ordered the man in the straw hat to surrender.
Several shots rang out and the fleeing man in the straw hat fell dead to the pavement, his left eye shredded by one of the shots fired by the other agents who lay in wait. So ended the life of John Herbert Dillinger, the most prolific bank robber in modern American history and the general public's favorite Public Enemy No. 1......
or did it?
One of the most famous haunted theaters in the history of Chicago is the Biograph Theater, located on North Lincoln Avenue in downtown Chicago. It was here, in 1934, that John Dillinger supposedly met his end.... The theater has gained a reputation for being haunted, but the story of the ghost seen here actually revolves around the alleyway outside. But the theater, and the surrounding businesses, have banked on the criminal's name for many years. On the day after the fatal shots were fired, the bar next door placed a sign in the window that read "Dillinger had his last drink here". Theater patrons can examine a window in the box office that describes the set-up of Dillinger by the FBI. They can sit in the same seat where Dillinger sat nearly 65 years ago and after the film, they can emerge into "Dillinger's Alley.... it is here where the ghost is said to appear.
But what really happened in the final moments of Dillinger's life? To answer the strange and perplexing questions surrounding his possible death, we have to first look at his bloody and violent life.
On the evening that he was killed, Dillinger left the theater in the company of Anna Sage (the famed "Lady in Red") and with another girlfriend, Polly Hamilton. He had been hiding out in her North Halstead Street apartment but for months he had been pursued diligently by Melvin Purvis, the head of the Chicago branch of the FBI. Purvis had lived and breathed Dillinger (and would, after the robber's death, commit suicide) and had narrowly missed him several times at a State Street and Austin Cafe; at Dillinger's north woods hideout in Sault St. Marie; and at Wisconsin's Little Bohemia, where FBI agents recklessly killed a civilian and injured two others.
It was finally at the Biograph where Purvis caught up with Dillinger and put an end to his career.
The criminal life of John Dillinger started in 1925 when he held up a grocery store in his hometown of Mooresville, Indiana. Pleading guilty, he was sentenced to serve 10-20 years in prison while his accomplice, who claimed not guilty, only received a sentence of 2 years. Dillinger spent the next 8 years in jail but when he was released in May of 1933, he robbed three banks in three months and netted more than $40,000. Thus began Dillinger's wild spree of crime.
Dillinger was captured in September 1933 and imprisoned in Lima, Ohio. In three weeks, his gang sprung him in a dangerous escape and again were back to bank robbing. In January 1934, Dillinger shot and killed a police officer in East Chicago, for which he was arrested in Arizona and jailed in Crown Point, Indiana to await trial. He escaped a month later, using a fake gun that he had carved from a bar of soap and blackened with shoe polish.
He eluded the police for another month, shooting his way out of an ambush in St. Paul and dodging the FBI near Mercer, Wisconsin. Dillinger arrived in Chicago in late June and proceeded to rob a South Bend, Indiana bank and kill a police officer and four civilians. In just over a year, Dillinger has robbed six banks, killed two cops, two FBI agents, escaped from jail twice and had escaped from police and FBI traps six times.
In the process of all of this violence, Dillinger managed to become an American folk hero. It was the time of the Great Depression and here was a man striking back at poverty by taking from those who could afford losing their money the most. Stories began to circulate about Dillinger giving away much of his stolen money to the poor and the needy. Were these stories true? Who knows? But the American public believed it, which was more than the government could stand. Dillinger had to be taken, and soon.
He had become J. Edgar Hoover's "Public Enemy No. 1"... and the heat was on.
Dillinger knew that his luck could only hold out for so long and in May of 1934, he contacted a washed-up doctor who had done time for drug charges named Loeser. He paid him $5000 to perform some plastic surgery on his recognizable face, getting rid of three moles and a scar and getting rid of the cleft of his chin and the bridge of his nose. The doctor agreed to the surgery and left Dillinger in the care of his assistant to administer the general anesthetic. An ether-soaked towel was placed over Dillinger's face and the assistant told him to breathe deeply. Suddenly, Dillinger's face turned blue and he swallowed his tongue... and died!
Dr. Loeser immediately revived the gangster and proceeded to do the surgery. Dillinger would have no idea how close he had come to death. Ironically, just 25 days later, he would catch a bullet in front of the Biograph Theater.... or so they say.
When Dillinger walked into the theater that night he had been set up by Anna Sage, who had taken him there at the request of the FBI. She had promised to be wearing a red dress for identification purposes. Sixteen cops and FBI agents waited over two hours outside the theater, waiting for the unknowing Dillinger to exit. They even walked the aisles of the theater several times to make sure that he was still there.... how could the clever gangster have not noticed them?
Finally, Dillinger left the theater and was met by Melvin Purvis. He stepped down from the curb, just passing the alley entrance and tried to run. He reached for his own gun, but it was too late... four shots were fired and three hit Dillinger. The gangster fell, dead when he hit the pavement.
Purvis ordered Dillinger rushed to nearby Alexian Brothers Hospital. He was turned away at the doors as he was already dead and Purvis and the police waited on the hospital lawn for the coroner to arrive.
A mob scene greeted the coroner at the Cook County Morgue where curiosity-seekers filed in long lines past a glass window for a last look at Dillinger. Little did they know that the man they were looking at may not have been the famed gangster at all.....
The scene at the Biograph Theater was also chaotic. Tradition tells that passers-by ran to the scene and dipped their handkerchiefs in the blood of the fallen man, hoping for a macabre souvenir of this terrible event.
And it is at this theater where the final moments of John Dillinger have left a lasting impression. It would be many years after before people passing by the Biograph on North Lincoln Avenue would begin to spot a blue, hazy figure running down the alley next the theater, falling down and then vanishing.
Along with the sighting of this strange apparition were reports of cold spots, icy chills, unexplainable cool breezes, and odd feelings of fear and uneasiness. Local business owners began to notice that people had stopped using the alley as a shortcut to Halstead Street.
The place certainly seemed haunted.... but is the ghost of the man who has been seen here really that of John Dillinger?
I would hazard a guess to say that it is not!
Ever since the night of the shoot-out at the Biograph, eyewitness accounts and the official autopsy have given support to the theory that the dead man may not have been Dillinger. Rumors have persisted that the man killed by the FBI was actually a small-time hood from Wisconsin who had been set up by Dillinger's girlfriend and Anna Sage to take the hit.
There are many striking errors in the autopsy report.... the dead man had brown eyes while Dillinger's were blue; the corpse had a rheumatic heart condition since childhood while Dillinger's naval service records said that his heart was in perfect condition; and the man who was killed was much shorter and heavier than Dillinger and had none of his distinguishing marks.
Police agencies claimed that Dillinger had plastic surgery to get rid of his scars and moles, but also missing were at least two scars on Dillinger's body!
And there is more conflicting evidence to say that the FBI killed the wrong man...
On the night of the shooting, a local man named Jimmy Lawrence disappeared. Lawrence was a small-time criminal who had recently moved from Wisconsin. He lived in the neighborhood and often came to the Biograph Theater.... he also bore an uncanny resemblance to John Dillinger.
In addition, a photograph taken from the purse of Dillinger's girlfriend shows her in the company of a man who looks like the man killed at the Biograph... a photo taken before Dillinger ever had plastic surgery! Could Dillinger's girlfriend have made a date with Jimmy Lawrence to go to the Biograph, knowing (thanks to Anna Sage) that the FBI was waiting for him there?
Some writers have suggested this is exactly what happened. Respected crime writer, Jay Robert Nash, an expert on Dillinger, reported in his book The Dillinger Dossier that Dillinger's girlfriend and Anna Sage rigged the whole affair. According to Nash, Sage was a prostitute from England who was in danger of being deported. To prevent this, she went to the police and told them that she knew Dillinger. In exchange for not being deported, she would arrange to have Dillinger at the Biograph, where they could nab him. She agreed to wear a bright, red dress so she would be easily recognized. While FBI agents waited, "Dillinger" and his girlfriends watched the movie and enjoyed popcorn and soda. When the film ended, the FBI agents made their move.
Nash believes however, that they shot Jimmy Lawrence instead of Dillinger.
He also believes that when they learned of their mistake, the FBI covered it up, either because they feared the wrath of J. Edgar Hoover, who told them to "get Dillinger or else", or because Hoover himself was too embarrassed to admit the mistake.
So, what happened to the real John Dillinger? Nobody knows for sure, but some claim this American Robin Hood, who supposedly only robbed from banks and gave some of his spoils to the poor, married and moved to Oregon. He disappeared in the late 1940's and was never heard from again.......
The Biograph Theater is located on North Lincoln Avenue in Chicago.
© COPYRIGHT 2000 BY TROY TAYLOR. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.