John Dillinger (Courtesy Corbis)


No case had a greater impact on J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI than the pursuit of Public Enemy No. 1 — bank robber John Dillinger. Hoover’s obsession with Dillinger began after his jailbreak in 1934. Just a year earlier, the federal government had launched a “war on crime” after four lawmen — including FBI Special Agent Raymond J. Caffrey — died in a Kansas City shootout. Depression-weary Americans were captivated by newspaper tales of Dillinger and other gangsters, including “Machine Gun” Kelly, “Baby Face” Nelson and “Pretty Boy” Floyd.

Dillinger was the best-known of the group, possessing a roguish charm that gave him almost folk-hero status. His daring exploits robbing banks, dodging the law and breaking out of jail — twice — captured headlines for months. Despite FBI mistakes and inexperience, agents learned from their errors and brought down the criminals one by one. Gunning down Dillinger outside Chicago’s Biograph movie theater was a climactic triumph for the FBI — and Hoover’s biggest public relations coup. Dillinger’s demise was front-page news across the nation, often accompanied by lurid photos. In the end, the “war on crime” took a heavy toll on the FBI: Four agents were killed in shootouts with gangsters.

Related link: Inside Media: Public Enemies vs. the FBI

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