At the height of 1930s era crime and depression, criminals that under normal circumstances would be looked upon with scorn, became larger than life iconic figures whose daring bank robberies and shootouts with policy became stuff of legend. The brazen thefts in the middle of broad daylight accomplished with the use of the Thompson Sub-machine Gun (Tommy Gun) and the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) catapulted America into a new and deadlier form of crime. In response, the Federal Bureau of Investigation under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) stepped into the foray and within a one-year stretch, arrested or executed America’s most wanted. At the top of this list was the late John Herbert Dillinger (1903-1934).
John Beineke has captured the outlaw’s life in this straight to the point biography of his life of crime and sudden death. It is neither praise or vindication of Dillinger but a look at the life of the legendary figure. The story begins in Indiana, Dillinger’s home state. After the death of his mother, the young boy slowly makes his way into a life in crime resulting in stint at Indiana State Prison after a conviction for robbery and assault. Paroled nine years later, it would be the last time that Dillinger served time in prison. In fact, he vowed never to return to a prison cell, a vow he kept until his final moments. But what is it about Dillinger that captivates people even today? In 2009, director Michael Mann brought Dillinger’s life to the big screen again, enlisting Johnny Depp in the starring role. The film was released under the title Public Enemies, and also portrayed the FBI’s pursuit of Lester Gillis, a.k.a George “Babyface” Nelson (1908-1934) and Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd (1904-1934). Christian Bale stars as FBI Agent Melvin Purvis (1903-1960), tasked with capturing the outlaws at all costs. The film was solid and with an all-star cast, Mann recreates the feel of depression era America.
Here, Dillinger is the star and he has his own supporting cast of criminals, each of whom would meet their own violent ends. To say that Dillinger’s life was extraordinary would be an understatement. As we learn in the book, not only did he excel in knocking over banks, but no jail could seemingly contain him and incredibly, he often hid from authorities in plain sight. It is literally a story that no filmmaker could write. The pace of the book picks up early and it never slows down. And with each heist, Dillinger becomes more infamous to authorities and more a folk hero to thousands of Americans who believed the banks were the real enemies, profiting off the misery of the average citizen. In comparison to some biographies, mundane information is excluded leaving the reader with the facts peppered with occasional sub-stories between the major characters. Politics inevitably enters the story as America grapples with a rising crime wave and Washington reconsiders the tenure of the FBI’s longest-serving director whose job might have ended if not for the apprehension of Dillinger and others.
Less than one hundred years ago, John Dillinger used Midwestern banks as his own personal ATM. His escapades filled newspapers, filled with tales of crimes by fellow outlaws such as Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, Pretty Boy Flood and part-time accomplice, Baby Face Nelson, who enters and leaves this story on multiple occasions before parting ways with Dillinger for good not long before both would be gunned down. Today such a crime spree is unthinkable but in Dillinger’s era, a time before two-way radios, cellphones and social media, bank robberies and shootouts with cops were common occurrences. Beinecke has taken us back in time to relive the decade that Dillinger made a name for himself. Curiously, although the end of his story is widely known, the story still pulls the reader in with its engaging descriptions of the Dillinger gang’s exploits and graphic descriptions of the deaths that occurred as a result. The outlaws will always be romanticized in American culture. In fact, they are as American as apple pie. Dillinger has been dead for more than eighty years but if you research depression era gangsters, his name will appear on every single list. He lives on in infamy and is idolized by some as a rebel who fought against the corrupt banking establishment as a modern-day Robin Hood. To the FBI, he was a public enemy whose capture was more important than anything else. In the end, they would get their man but not before Dillinger left his mark and became part of history.