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John Dillinger
An excerpt from Dustbowl Desperadoes

Charismatic and easy-going, John Dillinger nonetheless was Public Enemy Number One in the era of Depression desperadoes. He took more money in a year of robbing banks than Jesse James did during 16 years as an outlaw. Dillinger supposedly was shot to death outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago in 1934 but, as we read in this excerpt from Stone Wallace’s “Dustbowl Desperadoes,” Dillinger may have simply vanished in thin air.

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Dillinger was alone and lonely because Billie Frechette had been taken into custody right before Little Bohemia and was now serving a two-year jail sentence. He began seeing a 26-year-old waitress named Polly Hamilton, whom he’d met in a Chicago restaurant. Polly’s co-workers, although charmed by her new boyfriend, began teasing her by saying that he “looked a lot like Dillinger.”

Polly was a recent divorcee, and she roomed with an older woman who called herself Anna Sage. Her real name was Anna Cumpanas, and she was facing deportation for operating a brothel. She was desperately seeking a way to stay in America. So when she discovered the real identity of Polly’s new beau, she quickly contacted an old acquaintance, Sergeant Martin Zarkovich of the East Chicago Police Department, with a proposition.

She told Zarkovich that she knew where John Dillinger was and would help set him up for capture if she was paid the reward money and got her deportation order stayed.

Apparently, Zarkovich first went to Chicago Police Captain John Stege with Sage’s information, adding that he would reveal her proposal only if Dillinger was killed, not captured. Stege bluntly refused the cold-blooded proposition, so Zarkovich went directly to Melvin Purvis. Purvis approved the plan and later met with Anna Sage. While he told her that he could offer no guarantees regarding her deportation, he promised to do what he could for her.

Purvis relayed the information to J. Edgar Hoover in Washington, whose instructions were succinct: “Get Dillinger at all costs.”

Sunday, July 22, 1934, was swelteringly hot. Downtown Chicago registered temperatures in excess of 101°F. Anna Sage told Purvis that Dillinger would be taking both her and Polly to a movie in an air-conditioned theater that night, but they hadn’t decided which picture to see. They’d narrowed their choices to the Marbro or the Biograph.

Purvis stationed agents at both theaters. He personally staked out the Biograph, where he watched for a woman wearing a bright orange dress. It wasn’t difficult for Purvis to spot the “Lady in Red” (which was the color her dress appeared under the marquee lights) as two women and a man entered the theater shortly before the 8:00 PM feature.

Melvin Purvis later admitted that he could not truthfully identify the man accompanying the two women. He recalled that the man was dressed casually in a light-colored shirt and was wearing wire-rimmed sunglasses and a straw boater. Still, Agent Purvis knew that he was looking at his quarry. The plan was to get Dillinger as he exited the theater. The wait began.

John Dillinger

John Herbert Dillinger, the most colorful and charismatic outlaw of the era, who patterned his own criminal exploits after his boyhood hero, Jesse James. U.S. Library of Congress

The FBI hadn’t notified the local police of the stakeout, and when the theater manager grew suspicious of the men loitering across the street, he summoned the police. Purvis and his men promptly ushered them out of the way.

The movie that Dillinger and his companions had chosen was Manhattan Melodrama, a gangster picture starring Clark Gable. It ended at approximately 10:30 PM with its famous final scene of Gable cheerfully walking the last mile to the electric chair. The theater patrons walked from the air-conditioned coolness of the theater into the still-stifling night air. Purvis’ hands trembled as he prepared to light a match to his cigar. This was his signal to his fellow agents that Dillinger had left the theater. Then, his squinty eyes focused on the red hue of Anna’s dress. Anna and Polly flanked the young man as the three walked arm-in-arm by Purvis.

After two unsuccessful tries, Purvis finally lit his cigar, and the agents moved in.

“Stick ’em up, Johnny!” Purvis was reputed to have ordered.

The man broke free of his companions and dashed towards an alley. It is said that he reached into his pocket for his gun, a Colt automatic. But before he could draw the weapon, agents opened fire. The man pitched face forward onto the pavement.

Only two shots actually penetrated their target. One lodged in the victim’s left side; the other was a 100-to-one shot that entered his stooped back and exited out his right eye.

Pandemonium ensued. Upon hearing that it was John Dillinger who had been shot, crowds converged on the scene, many hoping to obtain macabre souvenirs—handkerchiefs, paper and even torn pieces of clothing were dipped into the dead man’s blood.

The carnival atmosphere continued at the Cook County morgue where the body was transported. After the corpse was washed, photographers and the public were allowed inside. Lines outside the morgue stretched for more than a quarter mile, with people coming back two or even three times for a viewing.

A macabre scene was played out in the aftermath of the killing. A barker passed through the crowd outside the morgue selling watches stained with the dead man’s blood. Even the police were not exempt from such ghoulish behavior—one Chicago officer actually shook the corpse’s hand. But most macabre of all was that the slain man’s brain mysteriously disappeared following the autopsy.

In the aftermath of the shooting, Melvin Purvis rushed to call J. Edgar Hoover, who was elated by the news. A little boy at the scene, however, displayed another emotion.

With tears streaming down his face, the boy tugged at a spectator and asked, “Is it true, mister. Did they really kill John Dillinger?”

To this day, the truth behind John Dillinger’s death remains in question. While all “official” reports are quite clear that it was indeed John Herbert Dillinger who was killed outside the Biograph Theater, there are those who, upon closer examination of the evidence, have come to the conclusion that the slain man was not Dillinger, but a small-time hoodlum named James Lawrence.

To support their theory, they have presented several arguments. Firstly, Dillinger was intelligent. He’d eluded the law on numerous occasions thanks to his smarts and razor-sharp intuition. Since Little Bohemia, he’d kept himself out of the spotlight (except for one suspected bank score), realizing that he’d lost public sympathy and that he was fair game for anyone looking to collect the $20,000 reward. It therefore seems inconceivable that a man taking such careful precautions would risk exposing himself in a crowded movie theater.

Secondly, Dillinger never really trusted women, even Billie Frechette, about whom he once warned gang members: “She’s an Indian. Never give her a drink.” If Dillinger could express these doubts regarding the one woman who remained consistently loyal to him, he surely would have been wary of Anna Sage, an immigrant whorehouse proprietor whom Dillinger must have suspected had her own opportunistic agenda.

Also, it is necessary to take into account Dillinger’s character. He was not a mad-dog killer like Baby Face Nelson, ready and eager to shoot it out with the cops. Rather, he was a man who preferred to avoid gunplay. It simply was not in his nature to recklessly draw on federal agents he could never hope to outgun.

Finally, the compelling postmortem evidence displayed physical inconsistencies between the dead man and John Dillinger. Morgue photographs show a face only remotely resembling Dillinger’s famous visage, the more prominent discrepancies not attributable to the plastic surgery Dillinger had undergone. Dillinger’s eyes were blue; the dead man’s were brown. The corpse was shorter and heavier than Dillinger’s recorded height and weight. The body possessed scars (including one from abdominal surgery that Dillinger had never undergone), wounds and birthmarks which Dillinger’s records fail to report. And there was evidence that the dead man had a congenital rheumatic heart condition, which certainly would have precluded Dillinger’s famed athletic abilities. Such evidence points to the conclusion that John Dillinger had escaped his own execution.

The theory is that the gangster suspected a trap and that he either persuaded James Lawrence to take his place that fateful night or that Lawrence volunteered to prove to Dillinger that his suspicions of being lured into a trap were unfounded. A third consideration is that Lawrence was deliberately set up as the fall guy in a scheme of intricate intrigue.

And why was Martin Zarkovich, a man with strong underworld ties, so insistent that Dillinger not be taken alive? Was he actually part of a conspiracy that was arranged with heavy cash payments from Dillinger’s lawyer Louis Piquett to ensure the gangster’s escape? He could not allow Dillinger to be taken alive because it would not be Dillinger who would be arrested.

If this theory is correct, then Anna Sage’s role in subsequent events must be investigated. Perhaps she, like so many other women, was charmed by the charismatic gangster. And while she could not bring herself to betray Dillinger, she still had her own interests to consider. It is logical that through her association with Martin Zarkovich, a compensation package was arranged through Louis Piquett (from Dillinger’s substantial bankroll). With her cooperation, the package would be further enhanced by FBI reward money (authorized by Melvin Purvis). She was guaranteed that her participation would be limited to fingering a lookalike decoy.

Although there may never be a definite solution to the puzzle, it is known that Anna Sage received only $5000 of the posted reward money and that her request to remain in America was denied. In 1938, the infamous “Lady in Red” was sent back to her native Romania. Reputedly, it was J. Edgar Hoover himself who used his considerable influence to block Sage’s stay of deportation.

Theories abound, but John Dillinger’s “death” remains one of history’s truly unsolved mysteries. Except, of course, by John Dillinger himself. With the heat finally off, it is easy to imagine this Depression Day good/bad guy making his final escape into a life of peaceful (law-abiding?) anonymity.

Excerpt from “Dustbowl Desperadoes,” by Stone Wallace; ©August, 2004, Lone Pine Publishing. All rights reserved. Used with Permission. Media wishing to use this excerpt are asked to contact our publicity department at 1-800-661-9017 or by emailing for permission. Thank you.