Dillinger's final stand

July 22, 2011

Chicago was sweltering through another day of 100-degree heat on July 22, 1934. In the working-class Lincoln Park neighborhood, many people tried to cool off by taking in a movie at the air-conditioned Biograph Theater. The feature was a Clark Gable crime picture called Manhattan Melodrama.

Among the crowd at the Biograph that Sunday evening was a 32-year-old Indiana farm boy named John Dillinger. He was the most famous criminal in America.

Dillinger had started making his name in the summer of 1933. With a half-dozen other thugs, he staged a series of gaudy bank robberies, mostly in small Midwestern towns. There were ambushes, shootouts, high-speed car chases through crowded city streets and over dusty country roads. Once the cops actually caught Dillinger--and he bluffed his way out of jail with a wooden gun.

He had become a national celebrity. It didn't seem to matter that Dillinger and his associates had killed over 20 people during their exploits. In the middle of the Great Depression, here was one independent operator sticking it to the fat cats!

Dillinger himself had a fine nose for public relations. He could be charming when it suited his purposes. He claimed that he only robbed the rich. Of course, there was little profit in robbing the poor.

So now, in July 1934, America's Bank Robber was hiding in Chicago. Dillinger had undergone plastic surgery and grown a mustache in an attempt to alter his famous face. He was working as a clerk under an assumed name, planning his next move.

Dillinger was seeing a woman named Polly Hamilton. She knew his true identity. Hamilton innocently passed the information on to her friend Anna Sage. Sage went to the FBI.

Immigration authorities were trying to send Sage back to Romania. Sage told the FBI that Dillinger was taking Hamilton to the movies. Sage was going with them. If the feds promised to let Sage stay in the country, she'd set Dillinger up.

That's why 16 FBI agents and policemen were fanned out on the street around the Biograph when Dillinger and the two women entered at 8:30 p.m. Two hours went by. Then Dillinger emerged. Sage was with him, wearing a bright reddish-orange dress, so she could be easily spotted in the crowd.

As Dillinger walked down the sidewalk, the FBI agents began closing in. He saw them and ran into an alley. Before he could get his gun out, he was knocked to the pavement in a hail of bullets. He died on the way to the hospital.

Dillinger was dead, but the legend continued. Soon after the shooting, his fans were in the alley, sopping his blood off the pavement with handkerchiefs. The Dillinger saga has been retold in numerous movies, most recently in 2009's Public Enemies.

Dillinger's notoriety allowed the Biograph Theater to survive into our own time. Today the building at 2433 North Lincoln Avenue presents stage plays as the Victory Gardens Theater. The iconic 1934 exterior remains.