Dillinger was born on June 22, 1903 in the Oak Hill section of Indianapolis. His father, John Wilson Dillinger was a local Grocer, who was known to be very strict. His mother, Mollie Dillinger died three years after his birth. His sister, Audrey Dillinger, thirteen years his senior, took care of him after his mother's death until she married a year later. After his sister's departure Dillinger's primary care giver was his father. Dillinger's father, being very busy with the grocery, would sometimes lock Dillinger in the house while he spent all day at the store; other times he would simply let Dillinger wander the neighborhood until he came home for the night. Dillinger spent most of his time with his only friend, Fred Brewer, who would later become one of his partners in crime (Toland 5-6).
In Dillinger's Ninth year his father remarried. Dillinger's new stepmother was Elizabeth Fields, who Dillinger saw as a stranger and at first distrusted. This year also saw Dillinger and Brewer starting a neighborhood "Kid" gang, called "The Dirty Dozen." Along with general mischief this gang committed several high volume thefts of coal from the local rail depot of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The gang was so successful in its endeavors that some of the local women, whom the boys had been selling the coal to, offered to help the boys move the coal from the depot. When confronted by a Railroad Detective, the boys escaped, the women did not. The next day, all of the boys were rounded up and taken before the juvenile court (Toland 7).
Dillinger and Brewer continued their unruly and delinquent activity. They would frequently break into a sawmill and horseplay with the machinery, stole whiskey from boxcars, and even managed to wreck some coal cars with a switch engine. Dillinger's father would frequently lecture and beat Dillinger in an effort to dissuade his son from his illegal activity (Toland 8).
When Dillinger turned sixteen years old he decided to drop out of high school and get a job. His father was opposed to the idea and called Dillinger a fool. Nevertheless Dillinger who, "Was a poor student academically, but good at baseball or anything mechanical (Peterson 104)", wanted his independence. He took a job at the same sawmill which Brewer and he had broken into. He excelled at his job there but soon grew bored and quit. He then worked as a mechanic and did well, worked hard and was at work reliably. Unfortunately he had a habit of staying out on the town late, much to his father's consternation. His father retired from the grocery, sold his property, and he and his family moved to the rural town of Mooresville, Indiana. (Toland 8-9)
While in Mooresville his father forced him to attend the local high school in the fall, but he again dropped out in December due to poor grades. He went to work for a company in Indianapolis, commuting 18 miles. The move to the country did little to curb his rebellious activities. He spent most of his time in the city of Martinsville, sixteen miles away. He would stay out late, frequent pool halls, and was sexually promiscuous with the girls in the town. (Toland 10-11)
His only interest in women was sexual, and he was known to frequent prostitutes. The only woman he had an interest beyond sexual was his uncle's step-daughter Frances Thornton, who his uncle convinced to reject him. This rejection affected him profoundly and only caused him to become more rebellious. On July 21, 1923 after attempting to persuade his father to borrow the family car for a date in Indianapolis, he stole a car from the local church parking lot and used it for the date. The next morning he was stopped by an Indianapolis police officer while walking on the street. Dillinger managed to make an escape from the officer and the next morning he impetuously enlisted in the Navy. (Toland 11)
His stint in the Navy didn't last long. When his ship docked in Boston, five months later, he deserted. He then made his way to Indianapolis, and when asked about the incident he would lie and say that he was kicked out of the Navy. He returned to Mooresville the next March, and on April 12, 1924 he was married to 16 year old Beryl Hovius. (Peterson 104; Toland 11-12)
Regrettably his new wife had little influence on his behavior, less than a month after his marriage he was arrested for stealing forty-one chickens from a farmer. Dillinger's father somehow got the case dismissed. He and his father still could not get along however, and Dillinger and his wife moved in with Beryl's parents. There he met Ed Singleton, and they formulated a plan to rob a local Grocer while he had the day's income in his pocket. While attempting to rob the grocer Dillinger used a weapon to hit him in the head. Dillinger was also carrying a gun which discharged during the ensuing scuffle. After the gun went off Dillinger fled the scene. (Toland 13; Peterson 104)
Two days later Dillinger was arrested by the county sheriff for assault and attempted robbery. Dillinger at first denied the charges, but was convinced by his father and the prosecutor that he would receive leniency if he pled guilty. The Judge in the case felt differently however, and Dillinger was sentenced to 10 - 20 years in prison. (Toland 13-14; Peterson 104)
This was his first conviction and he had never been to prison before. He was sent to Pendleton Reformatory. It was during his time here that he met Harry Pierpoint and Homer Van Meter, two convicts that would become his friends and partners in crime. Here he was interacting with hardened criminals and learning new and better ways to commit crime. Dillinger, after a few failed escape attempts, was mostly a model prisoner. The same cannot be said for his two friends, Pierpoint and Van Meter. After a series of incidents of misconduct they were transferred to the Michigan City Penitentiary. The transfer of his friends, and his deteriorating relationship with his wife weighed heavily on Dillinger. His wife Beryl filed for and was granted a divorce in 1929. This same year, five years into his sentence, Dillinger was granted a parole hearing. Parole was denied, but his request to be transferred to Michigan City was approved, due to impressing the governor with his baseball skill during an exhibition game.
When Dillinger arrived at Michigan City Penitentiary he was at first seen as an immature and petty criminal, a beginner. Unlike Pendleton, Michigan City was full of hardened, experience criminals. Dillinger spent a few years building up his reputation in the prison and maturing into a level headed inmate. In 1932 Dillinger was approached by Pierpoint, who was at this point in charge of a small gang in the prison, about planning an escape. Pierpoint and his associates, John Hamilton, Charles Makley, and Russell Clark, had devised a way for his gang to escape, but the plan required someone on the outside to provide assistance. They wanted Dillinger to be this man, knowing that he would soon be up for a parole hearing. Dillinger agreed to the plan and was assured a place in the gang as reward for his help. On May 22, 1933 Dillinger was granted parole, a short time later Van Meter was also released. (Toland 23-34; Carlson 37)
After his release Dillinger went on to commit multiple bank robberies. Pierpoint had given him a list of his associates and Dillinger contacted them. They were robbing banks and payrolls for profit and Dillinger was going to use the money as part of the escape plan for Pierpoint's gang. These robberies were the first major crimes that Dillinger had ever committed. At first he was somewhat inept but as he went on he acquired a certain confidence and skill. He began using charisma and panache during his robberies. His trademark was the "counter vault." During one robbery some of his associates were captured and confessed to the crime, saying that it was them and "Dan" Dillinger who committed it. "Dan" was an alias that had mistakenly been given to Dillinger when he was introduced to some of his cohorts. His flair while robbing banks gave him a certain local celebrity and he was dubbed with the nickname "Desperate Dan." (Toland 63-74)
When he finally had the money to purchase guns and set the escape plan in motion, Dillinger purchased four guns and went to Michigan City to smuggle them in. Dillinger was able to get weapons into the prison. Unfortunately for him, before the break was made, Dillinger was captured while visiting his girlfriend near Dayton, Ohio. (Toland 103-109)
Pierpoint and his gang, not aware of Dillinger's capture, were able to make their escape from Michigan City. When they learned that Dillinger was being held in a Lima, Ohio jail they promptly set about making a plan to set him free. They met with other conspirators and holed up in a safe house near the Ohio/Indiana border. They robbed a bank in St. Mary's, Ohio in preparation for the break out. On October 12, 1933 they broke John Dillinger out of the jailhouse in Lima; Sheriff Jess Sarber was killed in the process. (Toland 111-131)
After the escape Dillinger and his gang went on to commit some of his more well known robberies. Peter Carlson offers a short account:
Soon the well-armed gang commenced robbing banks. In October 1933, they hit one in Greencastle, Ind., emptying the vault of nearly$75,000. In November, they raided one in Racine, Wis., wounding a teller and a cop and escaping in a blast of gunfire. In January 1934, after a three-week vacation in sunny Florida, they hit a bank in East Chicago, Ind., stealing $20,000. A cop fired at Dillinger, hitting his bulletproof vest. Dillinger was unhurt, but the cop was killed with a blast from a Tommy gun. (37)
Dillinger was captured a week later in Tucson, Arizona. He was brought back to Crown Point, Indiana where he was to be held by the sheriff awaiting trial. It was here that he was interviewed by reporters and the famous photo of him leaning on the local prosecutor's shoulder was taken. He was treated as a celebrity and a folk hero, not as the murderer he was. In March he made his escape from the jail using a fake wooden gun and stealing the sheriff's personal car. (Peterson 104)
After the escape Dillinger met up with Van Meter, and along with "Baby Face" Nelson and others started a crime spree across Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin. This drew the attention and jurisdiction of the FBI due to crossing state lines. They were pursued by Melvin Purvis, an agent appointed by J. Edgar Hoover to capture Dillinger. After several near captures, Dillinger and his gang went to Little Bohemia, Wisconsin to lay low. The FBI acting on a tip from one of the residents staged an ambush of their hideout. During the ensuing gunfight, Dillinger again escaped. ("Biography for John Dillinger." IMDb.com)
Dillinger again attempted to lay low, and even had plastic surgery to alter his appearance. He lived in Chicago and often visited his girlfriend of the time, Polly Hamilton. Hamilton's roommate, a local Madam and illegal immigrant, was facing deportation. She contacted Purvis with information in exchange for her being able to remain in the U.S. On July 22, Dillinger took Polly and Sage to the "Biograph Theatre" where he was ambushed by FBI and police. He was gunned down on the sidewalk outside the theater and died on the scene. (Peterson 104)
Throughout this paper I have reported to you what John Dillinger did; how he grew up and what crimes he committed. This information is essential to really understand what his motivations were for the crimes he committed. It is my opinion that Dillinger committed these crimes after making a clear and rational choice. Although some of his experiences growing up may have influenced his sociological view of the world, I don't think that there is enough evidence to suggest that this took away his ability to make a rational choice. Therefore I believe that the theory that most applies to John Dillinger is Cesare Beccaria's Choice Theory.
Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794) was the originator of the "Classical School of Thought" of Criminology. In fact, He may be the originator of Criminology itself. His pamphlet, An Essay on Crimes and Punishments, was one of the first works in which the question of why crimes were committed is addressed. (Jones 3)
The Rational Choice Theory is heavily influenced by Beccaria's Classical School. This Theory holds that offenders weigh the benefits and consequences of the crime they are about to commit. If the Pros outweigh the cons then the offender will commit the crime. Conversely if the offender fears the punishment more than he wants the reward then he will not commit the crime. (Siegel 72-73)
John Dillinger was not a madman; he was a level headed criminal who planned almost every detail of his crimes. Although in his earliest crimes it may seem like no thought went into them, they were indeed planned, but by an amateur. As Dillinger got more experienced and learned more of his trade from comrades his methods improved, showing his desire to become better at his chosen trade. This chosen trade was robbing banks. He had tried other jobs in his day but always chose to leave them in favor of the life of a criminal.
The life of a criminal suited Dillinger. He enjoyed the notoriety and respect that his infamy afforded him. The rewards of the path he chose were definitely sweeter for him than the possible consequences. The possible consequences didn't even seem likely to occur, after his many escapes from justice.
Dillinger was an incessant narcissist who reveled in the fame that his exploits gave him. He enjoyed the money he received from each robbery, seeing it as an easy way to attain wealth and status. He did not fear the possible punishment. His blatant disregard for the authorities was clearly evidenced by his demeanor and actions during his confinement prior to the "wooden gun breakout." He very rationally weighed the benefits: wealth, fame, adoration of the public; versus the consequences: possible prison, possible death.
After each successful escape the possibility of being stopped by the authorities seemed more and more distant, until he was almost caught in Little Bohemia. After this ambush he made the choice to stop robbing banks. He changed his appearance and tried to live a "normal" life in relative obscurity. At this point the cons outweighed the pros. It was too dangerous to continue his crime spree. Unfortunately for him, his notoriety had followed him, and he was betrayed by someone he trusted.