If you've seen the new movie Public Enemies, you already know how John Dillinger died (and if you haven't seen it, you probably knew anyway - Neatoramanauts are smarter than the average bear). What you may not know is that the incident that finally took down Public Enemy #1 happened on July 22, 1934. Since today's the anniversary of Dillinger's demise, I thought it would be appropriate to revisit how some of America's most notorious gangsters were finally brought down. We'll start with Mr. Dillinger himself.
In 1934, Dillinger escaped from the Crown Point, Indiana, county jail by holding up the guards there with a gun he whittled out of wood (some accounts say it was soap). He boldly stole the sheriff's car and hightailed it from Indiana to Chicago. Because he had crossed state lines with a stolen vehicle, the FBI got involved and started to relentlessly pursue Dillinger. He laid low for a few months, holing up with his girlfriend in a St. Paul apartment under the alias of "Mr. Hellman." The landlady got suspicious, though, when "Mr. and Mrs. Hellman" refused to let the apartment caretaker in to make routine repairs and checks. The police were called and a shootout ensued. Dillinger escaped, but sustained a gunshot wound that needed to be treated. From there, the duo went back to Indiana and stayed with his father for a while, then Dillinger robbed another bank in Indiana, then moved on to upper Michigan, then settled down at the Little Bohemia Lodge near Rhinelander, Wisconsin. Another shootout occurred at the Little Bohemia, but Dillinger evaded them yet again. It wasn't until July 21, 1934, that the infamous woman in red (who was actually wearing orange) contacted officers with the information that she and a “girlfriend of hers,” according to the FBI, although the “girlfriend” was probably a fellow prostitute, would be attending the movies with Dillinger on July 22. She offered the information in exchange for assurance that they would try to stop her deportation, which was currently under way. They also told her that she would receive a $10,000 reward if he was captured, which was clearly stated on the wanted poster. This deal sounded good to her, and she followed up with agents the next day to let them know that they would be attending one of two theaters: either the Biograph or the Marbro. Agents were set up to stake out each place, and at 8:30 p.m. on July 22, as promised, the trio strolled into the Biograph Theater to see Manhattan Melodrama starring Clark Gable. J. Edgar Hoover instructed his men not to follow them in because of all of the innocent bystanders that could be hit, so they waited until the movie got out at 10:30. As soon as they exited the building, Melvin Purvis, Special Agent in charge of the Chicago office, lit a cigar to signal to his men that it was time to close in. Well, he tried to – he had trouble getting it to catch, but luckily, his men realized what he was trying to do. Unfortunately, so did Dillinger. He saw the men descending on him and went to pull a gun from his pants pocket. Preferring to fire than be fired upon, Purvis’ men fired off five shots, three of which were direct hits. Dillinger collapsed face-down on the cement and was pronounced dead at hospital 20 minutes later. Photo from the FBI.
Pretty Boy Floyd
Charles Arthur Floyd, AKA Pretty Boy, was bestowed the “Public Enemy Number One” title upon Dillinger’s death, largely because he was wanted for the murder of two policemen and two FBI agents in an event known as the Kansas City Massacre. Knowing he was next on the FBI’s checklist, he was trying to lay low in Buffalo, New York, where he and his girlfriend shared an apartment with Adam Richetti, a member of his gang, and his moll. By October, 1934, the rumor is that Floyd wanted to gather up his mother and family in Oklahoma and head for Mexico. The gang bought a car and headed for Sooner country on October 18, but only made it as far as Ohio before Floyd wrecked the car by skidding it into a telephone pole. The two gangsters armed themselves and prepared to wait outside of town while the women took the mangled vehicle into Wellsville, Ohio, for repairs. Someone reported two suspicious men loitering, and when the police came to investigate the situation, Floyd and Richetti shot at them. A gun battle ensued, and Floyd managed to escape into the woods. He spent days hiding in the woods, living off of berries and fruit, before he managed to scrape up a final meal at a farmhouse. Shortly thereafter, he was discovered. At least three different stories as to how he was discovered and killed exist, but I’ll give you the FBI’s version first: they had been patrolling the area looking for Floyd and talking to people about any suspicious activity they may have seen when they saw a car inch out from behind a corn crib on a farm. They were headed to question the vehicle when the vehicle crept back behind the crib, apparently deciding that it wasn’t a good time to leave. As the officers approached the car, Floyd jumped out of it with a gun, so they shot at him. “I’m done for, you’ve hit me twice,” he reportedly told them when they closed in on him. He was right – he died 15 minutes later. At least one other account says that story is total bunk, created to give the FBI all the credit for bringing down the newest Public Enemy Number One. Chester Smith, a retired policeman and skilled sharpshooter, said that he was called in to help them capture Floyd. When Floyd appeared from behind the corn crib, Smith says he shot him twice in the legs, enough to bring him to the ground but not kill him because Melvin Purvis had specifically requested that he wanted to speak with Floyd. Purvis questioned the wounded Floyd, and when he was done, he told agent Herman Hollis to finish the job. Hollis then shot Floyd at point-blank range. So, that’s the story according to Chester Smith, which has been verified by several witnesses. But the FBI never changed their report, so you can choose your own ending. Photo from PBS.
Baby Face Nelson
A member of Dillinger’s gang, Baby Face Nelson had only been on the FBI’s radar for a couple of weeks before the raid at Little Bohemia. His actions during the shootout – taking hostages and killing officers - earned him a spot on the top five most wanted list and took him right up to #1 after Pretty Boy Floyd’s death. After Dillinger died, Baby Face, his wife, and fellow gangster John Paul Chase basically roamed the country freely, going to California, New York and even back to an old hideout in Wisconsin. The FBI finally caught up with him in Barrington, Illinois, not too far from Chicago. The three outlaws were headed through town when Nelson passed a car with plates he recognized. He hated law enforcement so much that he memorized the license plates of certain Feds so he could be sure to take shots at them or vandalize their cars if he saw them. The plates he spotted on this fateful day happened to belong to FBI agents Thomas McDade and William Ryan, who had spotted Baby Face at the same time he spotted them. Like something out of a cartoon, they both did U-Turns in preparation to give chase and passed each other again. After a few back-and-forth moments like that, it ended up with Nelson, his wife, and Richetti chasing after the Feds. He didn’t know that they had called in backup, though, and soon he was being chased by a car containing agents Herman Hollis and Sam Crowley. When he spotted them, he veered off into a nearby park and stopped, peppering the agents’ car with bullets when they came in right after him. Hollis and Crowley both died. Nelson was also shot – nine times, to be exact - and died at about 7:35 that evening. His body was dumped in the ditch in front of a Catholic church and “someone,” probably Helen Gillis, tipped off the police as to its whereabouts. Photo from the FBI.
Kate Barker – better known as “Ma” – probably didn’t have much to do with the crimes her sons and their friends committed. She was definitely an accomplice and was very much aware of what they were doing, even taking care of them after their robberies, kidnappings and murders were committed. “It would not have occurred to her to get involved in our business, and we always made it a point of only discussing our scores when Ma wasn't around,” gang leader Alvin Karpis said. “We'd leave her at home when we were arranging a job, or we'd send her to a movie. Ma saw a lot of movies." Bank robber Harvey Bailey backed Karpis up on his description of Ma, saying that Ma “Couldn’t plan breakfast,” let alone plan a bank robbery. Nevertheless, the FBI painted a picture of Ma Barker that made it look like she was the ringleader of the notorious Barker-Karpis gang that wasn’t afraid to kill innocent bystanders and had kidnapped the likes of brewery magnate William Hamm and banker Edward Bremer, Jr. The FBI had been quietly tracking Ma’s letters for months – she and son Fred were holed up in Lake Weir, Florida, and she was keeping in touch with the other three. They traced her to the Lake Weir cottage, where she and Fred died in a flurry of bullets. The FBI says Ma died with a Tommy gun in her hand, but anyone who knew her says that’s preposterous. Some theories say that she killed herself after Freddie died because she was too scared to come out of the house, and the embarrassed FBI spread the rumor that she was just as vicious as the rest of them just to cover their butts. What do you think? Photo from Biography.
The original Scarface probably would have preferred to die in a blaze of “glory” instead of how he really died – but we’ll get to that in a second (you probably already know the punchline anyway). You already know what a bad dude Al Capone was - he was responsible for the Valentine's Day Massacre, he illegally smuggled liquor and he was involved in a gang war with Bugs Moran. As his speakeasies got busted by Eliot Ness, Capone decided to (or was convinced to, by some accounts) go to the Eastern State Penitentiary for a while to lay low and avoid drawing attention to himself. It worked - maybe too well. When he got out and went back to his home base in Chicago, he found that his finances and legal issues were a total mess. The U.S. Treasury Department had been building a tax evasion case against Capone, his brother, and two other gangsters while he was away. He stood trial and on June 16, 1931, pled guilty to tax evasion, telling the judge that he had arranged a deal for a two-and-a-half year sentence only. The presiding judge smirked and informed Capone that he was under no obligation to consider any sort of a prior deal Capone may have made and promptly sentenced him to 11 years in Federal prison. He served seven years, six months and 15 days of that sentence before he was released, his health in severe decline from syphilis he had contracted when he was a much younger man. Although he took treatment for it immediately after leaving prison, he was never the same again. By 1946, he was reduced to the mentality of a 12-year-old child, according to his doctor, and would rant about Bugs Moran, Communists and immigrants. He had a stroke on January 21, 1947, and died from cardiac arrest four days later. Photo from PrairieGhosts. A roundup of a few others: