Chicago has long been known for larger than life gangsters like Al Capone. But in nearby Crown Point, Indiana, another notorious outlaw was shunned for many years.
John Dillinger was once held at the Lake County Jail there – before he escaped. A lot of folks in town never really got over it.
But this week, workers began installing a new Dillinger museum inside the basement of the Old Lake County Courthouse. Speros Batistatos, executive director of the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority, says it’s about time.
“[He’s] Public Enemy number No. 1. The very first one. The fact that J. Edgar Hoover made a national manhunt for this. All of the things that happened, the state police got radios in their cars because of John Dillinger,” Batistatos said.
Even though Dillinger was born and raised in southern Indiana, Batistatos says his connection to Northwest Indiana, and especially Crown Point, is undeniable.
“The most infamous acts of where or what put him on the map took place here. We’re the natural place to tell the story,” Batistatos said.
But for decades, Crown Point’s natural connection to Dillinger didn’t allow for a museum to open here. The original one opened 15 years ago miles away at the Lake County Visitors Center in Hammond.
That was mostly due to one very influential resident.
“While Lillian Holley was alive there was an appropriate and careful consideration for the family,” Batistatos said.
Lillian Holley was one of the first females to serve as sheriff anywhere in the U.S. She became sheriff in 1933 when her husband Roy Holley was gunned down while responding to a call in Ross, Indiana, which is now Merrillville.
Dillinger ended up in the Lake County jail on January 1934 following his arrest for the murder of an East Chicago, Indiana police officer.
Unfortunately for Holley, despite the jail being surrounded by state and federal authorities, it was on her watch when Dillinger escaped using her personal car.
It was an embarrassment for her that this actually happened,” said Jonathan Forgey, vice president of the Old Sheriff’s House Foundation in Crown Point. “In respect, we did not deal with it at all until she passed away.”
Holley died 20 years ago at the age of 103.
Forgery said it’s always been tough to raise funds without drawing on the Dillinger connection.
“We’ve always had to juggle this thing with Dillinger because there’s the bad aspects of his reputation and I guess he was somewhat of a Robin Hood,” Forgey said.
Forgey said Universal Pictures poured at least $200,000 into the old jail to restore portions of it for the filming of Public Enemies in 2009. Actor Johnny Depp played Dillinger in the movie and shot many scenes in Crown Point, including inside the original jail.
Forgey said another reason Crown Point kept Dillinger at bay for so long was because during a robbery of the First National Bank in East Chicago, Indiana, he allegedly killed responding officer William O’Malley.
O’Malley’s granddaughter lives near Crown Point and had opposed the creation of a museum or anything commemorating Dillinger.
Beyond O’Malley’s death, the recent slayings of two Northwest Indiana police officers has renewed a debate over how to remember Dillinger.
Not everyone thinks a museum is appropriate.
As far as I’m concerned, the man’s a criminal and he’s a murderer,” said longtime Crown Point resident Mike McPhee. “I wouldn’t make a museum to the man. If you’re going to glorify the man then that’s wrong. He broke the law. He murdered somebody. There’s nothing good about that.”
But former Lake County Sheriff Roy Dominguez says he’s gradually changed his mind about Dillinger.
Although he once threatened to melt down one of the criminal’s famous Tommy guns, he now says ignoring the gangster is ignoring history.
“It isn’t for John Dillinger. It’s about John Dillinger and his time here in Crown Point. But no question about it, it’s about tourism, it’s about dollars. It helps our business locally. It will help the foundation, it will help the Sheriff’s association,” Dominguez said. “You have to remember it happened over 70 years ago.”
That history – the good and the bad – will be on full display next spring when the John Dillinger Museum officially opens.
Michael Puente is WBEZ’s Northwest Indiana Bureau Reporter. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.