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A Public Enemy’s Life in the Fast Lane

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Wanted Poster of John Dillinger, 06/25/1934 (ARC 306713)

The National Archives is known for maintaining and preserving documents like the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. But among America’s historic documents, there are also records of bank robbers, bootleggers, and gangsters.

In this week’s “True Crime at the Archives” spotlight is America’s first public enemy—John Dillinger.

A cunning and sophisticated bank robber, Dillinger led a string of violent robberies during his short yet infamous criminal career.

So why did auto theft prove to be his most costly crime?

It all began in 1933, when Dillinger was paroled from the Indiana State Prison after serving eight and a half years for robbing a grocery store. Within months, Dillinger organized a group of his closest criminal associates and began a notorious crime spree.

From September 1933 until January 1934, Dillinger and his fellow outlaws managed to evade law enforcement. And while  Americans struggled during the height of the Great Depression, the gang stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from Midwestern banks.

After a robbery of the First National Bank of East Chicago turned violent, national publicity intensified. The gang then fled to Arizona, where they were caught by local police on January 23.

Dillinger was extradited to Indiana to await trial for the murder of a police officer. But while he was sequestered in what officials called an “escape proof” jail, Dillinger deceived two guards and broke out.

Then the infamous bank robber made a crucial mistake.

Dillinger fled the jail in a stolen car and drove from Indiana to Illinois. That placed him in violation of the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, which made it a Federal offense to transport a stolen motor vehicle across state lines.

The Federal charge enabled the FBI to lead the nationwide manhunt. Director J. Edgar Hoover made Dillinger’s capture the FBI’s top priority. Hoover sent his top lieutenants to the Chicago field office, where agents used an informant to locate the country’s top public enemy.

FBI agents planned to catch Dillinger outside of Chicago’s Biograph Theater on the evening of July 22. But as he left the theater, he  reached for his gun. Several agents opened fire. Dillinger was shot three times before being pronounced dead at 10:50 p.m. on July 22, 1934.

For more information about John Dillinger and Chicago’s notorious organized crime syndicates, visit the National Archives at Kansas City for their exhibit “They’re Not Going To Get Me: Crime in the 1930s.”

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