Semi-pro ballplayer, Cubs fan, good seamster, LP County inmate. Who? John Dillinger.

 

A “wanted” poster for Dillinger.

A vintage La Porte County Historical Society photo shows Indiana State Prison inmates standing in front of their cells for inspection.

By La Porte County Historian Bruce Johnson

(Click photos to enlarge) 

John Dillinger, Jr., was an infamous gangster and bank robber known as “Public Enemy No. 1.” He was born in Indianapolis on June 22, 1903. His father had a grocery store, and his mother died when Johnnie was 3 years old. His father remarried in 1912 to a good and kind woman, but Dillinger never got over the loss of his mother.

Bruce Johnson

Dillinger’s teachers said he was polite, had an alert mind, was above average in writing and enjoyed reading, especially about the Old West and Jesse James. But he was always restless and refused to go to high school when he was 16.

His father bought a farm in Mooresville for a new life in rural Indiana. John moved there with his father and stepmother, but he preferred the big city and took the interurban to Indianapolis, where he tried various jobs and even joined the Navy – but went AWOL.

In 1924, he married 16-year-old Beryl Hovious in Martinsville, Ind., where he played semiprofessional baseball.

Later, Dillinger met and came under the influence of Eddie Singleton, an ex-convict, who convinced John to rob Frank Morgan, a Mooresville grocery store owner, of his daily sales receipts. Dillinger hit Morgan in the head with a makeshift weapon, but Morgan fought back. John panicked and ran, but Singleton had already sped off in the getaway car. The deputy sheriff pieced the case together, and John’s father convinced his son to confess to the prosecutor and judge in hopes that it would bring about leniency and a light sentence for the 20-year-old.

A vintage photo of the exterior of Indiana State Prison.

Instead, on Sept. 15, 1924, Judge Joseph Williams gave Dillinger the maximum sentence of 10 to 20 years at the Indiana State Reformatory in Pendleton, Indiana. After 4 years, John applied for parole, was denied, and his young wife divorced him.

Following these disappointments, Dillinger made the unusual request to be transferred to Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, La Porte County. He loved baseball, was a huge Cubs fan, and heard that the prison had a better baseball team.

On July 25, 1929, he was moved to Michigan City, where he was assigned to work in the Indiana State Prison shirt factory. John soon became a skilled sewing machine operator, applying the yoke lines on the back of shirts. It was in the shirt factory where he met the hardened criminals who would eventually become part of the “Dillinger Gang” and he learned how to lead a life of bank robbing.

Meanwhile, John’s father along with his pastor, Judge Williams and more than 180 other Mooresville citizens signed a petition requesting Dillinger’s parole. His stepmother had suffered a stroke, was near death, and John was needed on the farm. On May 22, 1933, John was handed 5 dollars and walked out of the Indiana State Prison. On the day he arrived home, Johnnie’s stepmother died.

On the night of July 16, 1933, Dillinger left Mooresville and began one of the most famous crime sprees in U.S. history. In Indianapolis, he met some contacts and started robbing banks in order to get money to buy guns and help his prison buddies escape from Michigan City. The guns were hidden in a box of thread being delivered to the prison’s shirt factory. On Sept. 26, 1933, 10 Indiana State Prison convicts carrying bundles of shirts gathered in the prison basement, found the thread box marked with an X, grabbed the guns, overtook the foreman and guards and escaped.

Dillinger and his gang eventually robbed more than $300,000 from several Midwest banks, including those in Daleville, Montpelier, Indianapolis, Greencastle, East Chicago, and South Bend in Indiana.

On July 22, 1934, Dillinger was shot and killed by FBI agents after walking out of the Biograph Theater in Chicago. He had just turned 31.

John Dillinger is buried in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.

A local footnote from Bruce: “In August 2020, a huge crane lifted a steel holding cell door out of the basement of the Superior Courthouse in Michigan City. It was thought that maybe Dillinger had been held in that cell. As a result, it was installed in the La Porte County Historical Society Museum basement. I then began a research project on Dillinger in Indiana and specifically in La Porte County. I feel that there would have been no reason to put Dillinger in that holding cell because he was simply transferred from Pendleton by his own request. He was not on trial here.”

Bruce R. Johnson is an educator, historian, genealogist, lecturer, musician, photographer, and world traveler. He serves on numerous boards of directors, including the La Porte County Historical Society. Email him at mrjsc@csinet.net.

7 Responses to “Semi-pro ballplayer, Cubs fan, good seamster, LP County inmate. Who? John Dillinger.”

  1. E. Ness

    Aug 17. 2021

    While I appreciate the research Bruce did and I understand this history is important. Given Dillinger’s notoriety, it is absolutely important to note and report this story. If we are wise, we learn from history.

    That said, Dillinger and his ilk were responsible for the murder of several police officers in Indiana and other states. The Easton and Brady gang all aspired to be like Dillinger and they too were responsible for the deaths of several police officers.

    Dillinger should be remembered for nothing more than a murderous thug and should never be glamorized.

    Reply to this comment
  2. B. Grage

    Aug 17. 2021

    “Eliot Ness”. Ha! I get it.

    Reply to this comment
  3. Julie Kessler

    Aug 20. 2021

    I understand the desire to keep the murderer either forgotten or cloaked only in his crimes. But history is.what it is and I appreciate Bruce Johnson’s dedication to finding and preserving historical facts. In this story I don’t see anything that glamorizes Dillinger — in fact from this I learned more about Dillinger’s criminality than I had known. Also, there are connections to our state in this story, and those, too,, are part of our Hoosier history.

    Reply to this comment
  4. Phyllis Lay

    Aug 21. 2021

    Had John Dillinger had loving care as a chuld, had he been given real reform training like job core, perhaps he would not have made bad friends and his life would have been way different and all those police would not have been killed or those banks robbed

    Reply to this comment
  5. June Hess

    Aug 21. 2021

    Interesting piece. Reading in KS on my way West to visit National Parks and Monuments.
    Thanks.

    Reply to this comment
  6. Marcia Johnson

    Aug 21. 2021

    Great story, Bruce

    Reply to this comment
  7. Paul D. Harwood

    Aug 22. 2021

    As always Bruce for presenting a fact based story. I never knew the part about Dillinger playing, & liking baseball. Keep up the Great work that you do.

    Reply to this comment

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