Sunday, July 19, 2015

A bit about Dillinger

Firepower made Dilly dangerous.
It has been said that John Dillinger is a product of an environment and social fabric that he was born to inhabit.

Dillinger, despite his protestations in letters and interviews, was basically just a "bad seed" who was nurtured in a time when breaking the law was sometimes considered the only real alternative to a life in poverty -- a different kind of prison.

Dillinger, for all the excitement and thrills that surrounded his short reign of terror in 1933-34, is emblematic of what millions of Americans probably wanted to do themselves:

Break the back of the robber baron.

It takes a step or two before Dillinger becomes part of the Hoosier history, though any analysis of the 1920s will make it clear that crime and desperation were rampant during that time. What put Dillinger in prison was his unwillingness to endure his future without fighting back.

And for that, many called him a hero, a Robin Hood with a machine gun.

What Dillinger had was arrogance, ambition and a disregard for decency.

The oncoming depression that crippled the planet in 1929 had begun long before that on Indiana's farms and factories. As the wealthy got wealthier, the working conditions in the towns and countryside got worse.

Most who farmed the land were tenants and they lived largely off what they grew. It was seldom enough.

In the factories, laws regulating hours, wages, conditions ... largely ignored by a government too predisposed to present itself as having controlled the evils of drinking.

When the crash came in October 1929, the tenant farmer and the laborer found they had something in common with the landowner or the factory owner:

They were all out of work.

Nobody had a clue.

Discussion of the causes and effects of the Great Depression are extensive. I won't evaluate those works because it's relevant only to illustrate life in the world of a criminal like John Dillinger.

The Indianapolis-Mooresville man was once called "Public Enemy No. 1" by a feisty FBI agent named Melvin Purvis. Dillinger had gone to jail in 1924, given 10 years for pistol-whipping and robbing a Mooresville man.

Dillinger was not a model prisoner at Pendleton, was sent to Michigan City ostensibly to play shortstop for the prison's baseball team ... and to learn how to be a much better criminal. He learned well, made alliances who were loyal to him until the end, and he came out of Michigan City to face a world he could not understand.

Elliot Gorn, whose book "Dillinger's Wild Ride," captures the events that began in 1933:

"A 30-year-old ex-convict with an uneven work record and a dishonorable discharge from the military did not stand much of a chance in the labor market, particularly as hard times ground on."

Dillinger was a disaster.

He turned to crime, blamed everyone else for causing it ... and finally decided that he was going to be the best bank robber in history after some frivolous claims to his family that he had learned his lesson and would try to go straight.

Arguably, he succeeded -- as a bank robber.

Dillinger rampaged across five states before he was gunned down on July 22, 1934, outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago, ratted out by Anna Sage, a Romanian-born prostitute.

It is estimated that the authorities spent $2 million tracking down Dillinger. The feds and the news media fed into the frenzy. The public was mesmerized.

And many who were suffering silently were rooting for Dillinger and the other bank robbers of the time, not so much that these criminals were taking what they didn't deserve, but that they were taking from people who had been stealing in the first place.

Farm foreclosures, bankruptcies ... the poor did not profit. The capitalists did.

And many people became "communists" as a result.

I can't find any evidence to suggest Dillinger spent any time in Franklin County, though he did have allies and underworld connections in Hamilton, Ohio.

As an aside, it's known that the "other" Public Enemy No. 1, Al Capone, drove from Chicago to Cincinnati on occasion, taking U.S. 52, the main street of Brookville. Perhaps Alphonso stopped for dinner?


Van Camp
Virgil Davis, in his 1958 work that coincided with the 150th anniversary of the settlement of Brookville, condenses the Roaring Twenties to a few sentences.

"The Twenties, with radio, the Charleston, miniature golf, get-rich-quick schemes, coon-skin coats, the flappers and the Babbits whose provincial minds would finally contribute to financial disaster, were endured.

"Brookville and the county was shocked on Aug. 20, 1923, when Sheriff William Van Camp was murdered by two hoodlums in a woods near Mt. Carmel. The murderers were never apprehended."

2018 addendum: A 1924 newspaper account reveals that the killers were indeed apprehended. Burton Carter and Eugene Webb, who were already in prison in Ohio, were indicted and convicted. They had been sentenced for bank robbery that occurred after Van Camp's death. Justice indeed moved swiftly.






WHAT'S A BABBIT? (Wikipedia) 

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