June 29, 2009

75 Years After Death, Dillinger Still Captures Headlines

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Seventy-five years ago this month on July 22, 1934, John Dillinger died in an FBI shootout outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater.

Dillinger, and friends Anna Sage and Polly Hamilton, had gone to see the movie "Manhattan Melodrama," starring Clark Gable. Dillinger was unaware that Sage — in trouble with the law for operating a brothel — had tipped the FBI to the gangster’s plans. Sage told the FBI she would wear red. After Dillinger was killed, she would become known in newspaper headlines as "the lady in red."

As FBI agent Melvin Purvis spotted Dillinger, he lit a cigar to signal his agents. Realizing he was surrounded, Dillinger reached for his .38. The agents shot him. News of his death — like his law-breaking life — made front pages across the country.

Dillinger’s legend lives on in "G-Men and Journalists," the Newseum’s popular exhibit on the top news stories of the FBI’s first century. The exhibit displays evidence from the FBI stakeout that brought down Dillinger, including his guns, the hat he wore the night he died, a cigar from his pocket, his eyeglasses and the FBI’s stakeout map.

Dillinger’s headline-making story has inspired a new movie, "Public Enemies," starring Johnny Depp as Dillinger. Why has Dillinger’s story continued to fascinate the public?

"Dillinger came to symbolize the gangsters of the 1930s, this class of violent criminals who were going around kidnapping, robbing and extorting people," says FBI historian John Fox. "Dillinger had some panache, some style. He was a guy who seemed to come across as a Robin Hood kind of character. He really caught people’s attention and still does today."

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