Public Enemy Number One. That’s what they called him. John Dillinger led a gang that in just a few months between 1933-1934 wrought havoc and terror across the American Midwest. During that time, the gang carried out 24 bank robberies, organized three jailbreaks, wounded seven people, and murdered 10 others.
Dillinger and his gang were not the only ones robbing banks and stores at gunpoint during that year. Many other gangs and gangsters terrified citizens of the Midwest during that time. People like Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd, Frank “Jelly” Nash, and Ma Barker along with her sons Fred and Arthur were just some of the killers and robbers the police were chasing that year.
Their cutesy names, the attempts to portray them as Depression-era Robin Hoods, and especially the many movies which romanticized their exploits, mask their cruel and shocking thefts and murders. With their technological advantage over the cops they seemed for a short while to be virtually unstoppable.
They wore bullet-proof vests and were armed with Thompson sub-machine guns, known colloquially as “Tommy” guns (or by a variety of other nicknames including “Street Sweeper,” “Annihilator,” “Chicago Typewriter,” “Trench Broom,” “Chicago Submachine,” “Chicago Piano,” “Chicago Style,” “Chicago Organ Grinder,” “Drum Gun” and “the Chopper”). These machine guns were invented by John T. Thompson in 1918 and could fire up to 800 bullets per minute.
The gangsters had fast, V8 cars capable of outrunning any vehicles the police had. And this was a time when many states did not even have a statewide police force.
Up in Washington, J. Edgar Hoover, who had been running the Bureau of Investigation since 1924, when he was just 29, was tasked with bringing an end to this wave of crime. The BI wouldn’t become the Federal Bureau of Investigation until 1935. Hoover’s men (they were all men) were mostly lawyers by training. Very few of them had any law enforcement training. And most of them did not carry guns.
The criminals earned a certain amount of sympathy from the people of the Midwest. Banks were seen as oppressors during the Great Depression. Dillinger, in particular, became somewhat of a hero for his bravado and colorful personality. He would leap over bank cages during raids and despite being arrested several times, he and his men kept breaking out of jail.
Dillinger began his life of crime as a teenager, committing a series of petty thefts. He joined the Navy in 1923 in an attempt to break out of his cycle of crime but deserted just a few months later.
In 1924, the 21-year-old Dillinger, who played shortstop, hatched a plan with a local baseball umpire named Ed Singleton to rob a local grocery store. During the robbery, Dillinger fired a gun, though did not hit anyone. As he was leaving the store, he hit the store’s owner over the head with a machine bolt wrapped in a cloth. The criminals were recognized by a local minister who reported them to the police, and they were promptly arrested.
Singleton pled not guilty and was sentenced to two years in jail. Dillinger’s father convinced his son to plead guilty in the hopes of getting a lighter sentence. Instead, Dillinger was convicted of assault and battery with intent to rob, and conspiracy to commit a felony and sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison. In total, he and Singleton had stolen $50 from the grocery store.
Dillinger spent nine years in jail, and used the time to learn everything he would need for his future criminal career. He was mentored by veteran robbers including Harry “Pete” Pierpont, Charles Makley, Russell Clark, and Homer Van Meter, who themselves had learned from the German-American criminal Herman Lamm.
It was Lamm who transformed a bank heist from a simple stick-up into a carefully planned crime. It was he who came up with the concept of “casing” a bank, of meticulously planning escape routes, and assigned members of the gang specific roles, including the lookout, the getaway driver, the lobby man and the vault man.
Dillinger was a good student, and when he was released from jail on May 10, 1933 at the height of the Depression it took him only a few months to assemble a group of like-minded criminals and rob his first bank. On June 21, 1933, he and his men stole $10,000 from the New Carlisle National Bank in New Carlisle, Ohio. By the beginning of September when Dillinger was arrested by police, the gang had also held up The Commercial Bank in Daleville, Indiana, Montpelier National Bank in Montpelier, Indiana, Bluffton Bank in Ohio, and the Massachusetts Avenue State Bank in Indianapolis, Indiana.
After his arrest, Dillinger was taken to the Allen County Jail in Lima. Upon arrival, officers searched him and found a piece of paper that appeared to be an escape plan. And on October 12, members of his gang dressed as police officers, arrived to rescue him. During the jailbreak, a sheriff who questioned their credentials was shot dead.
Between October 1933 and January 1934, the gang carried out another four bank heists. In January he was again caught and jailed in Crown Point, Indiana. By March he had once again escaped from jail and within days was back robbing banks.
Soon afterwards, the Associated Press gleefully reported that Dillinger, “With a submachine gun in his hands and a big green sedan awaiting him, shot his way out of a police trap today and once more foiled the law.”
By chance, freelance photographer H.C. Kunkleman was filming the First National Bank on March 13, 1934, when John Dillinger and his gang showed up. One of the criminals told Kunkleman to turn off the camera, saying, “We’ll be the only ones doing the shooting.” Kunkleman started filming again as soon as the gang left the bank.
Incredibly, the video footage is available on YouTube.
Dillinger’s final heist was on June 30, 1934, taking $30,000 from Merchants’ National Bank in South Bend, Indiana.
In July, a Chicago brothel owner named Ana Cumpănaș, informed police and recently-armed federal agents that Dillinger was planning on going to the Biograph Cinema on July 22 to see Clark Gable in the crime drama Manhattan Melodrama. Federal agents surrounded the cinema. As Dillinger left the movie, he realized he had been caught. He ran into an alley, chased by three officers, and as he went to draw his gun he was gunned down.
The death of Public Enemy Number One was a huge success for the soon-to-be FBI. But also ended the months-long crime spree that had been headline news across the country. This was the beginning of the end of the gangster era. According to an Associated Press report of Dillinger’s death, “Souvenir hunters madly dipped newspapers in the blood that stained the pavement. Handkerchiefs were whipped out and used to mop up the blood.”
But even after he had been so publicly killed, rumors began almost immediately that the Feds had got the wrong guy. Some claimed that a small-time Chicago crook named Jimmy Lawrence had been killed instead. Lawrence mysteriously disappeared on the same night that Dillinger was shot and was never seen again.
Kathy Weiser, on the Legends of America website wrote:
After the shooting, the body was taken to the Cook County morgue for an autopsy. Though the corpse had a gunshot to the side of the face, witnesses would say that it did not look like the notorious gangster, John Dillinger. Furthermore, the first words from Dillinger’s father upon identifying the body were “that’s not my boy.” Autopsy reports made no sense. The corpse was too tall and too heavy, the eye color was wrong, and it possessed a rheumatic heart, which was not a condition from which Dillinger suffered. Even the fingerprints on the body didn’t match.
Perhaps the FBI, afraid of J. Edgar Hoover who had told them to get Dillinger “or else,” simply covered up the fact that they’d killed the wrong man. Maybe Hoover himself was in on the plot, not wanting this to be the third time they’d killed with wrong man while chasing Dillinger. Jay Robert Nash wrote a book, The Dillinger Dossier, laying out the evidence that Dillinger survived and moved to California.
In 2019, Dillinger’s family sued to have the body exhumed for a biography on the History Channel to prove once and for all whether the man in Dillinger’s grave was actually Public Enemy Number One. A few months later, the TV station dropped the idea and the body was never exhumed.
Dillinger went from being a notorious criminal to a mythological bogeyman, the worst of the worst who could survive even his own death.
In Judaism, Public Enemy Number One has always been the tribe of Amalek. This group was descended from Esau’s son and became the eternal enemies of the Jewish people.
In Exodus 17:8-16 the Torah describes the first battle with Amalek.
Amalek came and fought Israel in Rephidim… And Joshua weakened Amalek and his people with the sword… And God said to Moses, ‘Write this as a remembrance in the book, and place it in the ears of Joshua. For I will surely destroy the memory of Amalek from under the heavens’… And He said, ‘For his hand is on the throne of God, there is a war of God against Amalek throughout the generations.’
Even though Amalek had been defeated and severely weakened, he remained a constant threat. Just over a year later, as described in this week’s Torah reading, Moses sent spies to Israel. They returned with a report that not only were the inhabitants of the land too strong to defeat, but Amalek was there too. In Numbers 13:29 the spies state that:
Amalek dwells in the south of the land…
The Israelites spent the night crying at the fear of Amalek, the futility of their mission and the impossibility of ever conquering the land they had been promised.
God punished them for their lack of faith, saying that none of those who believed the report of the spies would ever reach the land of Israel, but would all die in the desert. He tells them they will spend 40 years in the Sinai desert. They should immediately head off in a different direction to avoid confrontation with Amalek (Numbers 14:25):
The Amalekites and the Canaanites lived live in the valley. Tomorrow turn and travel to the desert towards the Red Sea.
On hearing this, some of the Children of Israel decide that they will go to Israel anyway, and set off. They were all killed, as the Torah reports (Numbers 14:45):
The Amalekites and Canaanites who lived on that mountain descended and smote them and destroyed them entirely.
Amalek seemed to be everywhere. In the south of the land of Israel. In the valley on the path to Israel. On the hill overlooking the road to Israel. A small tribe almost annihilated just a few months earlier was in cahoots with every enemy wherever the Israelites turned.
Years later, Saul, the first king of the Israelites, was tasked with destroying every last man, woman and child from the tribe of Amalek (I Samuel 15:1-7):
Samuel said to Saul… ‘Go and attack Amalek and destroy everything he has. Have no mercy on him. Kill everyone, man, woman, child and baby, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’
Saul and the people went and killed the entire tribe. They left nobody alive but Agag, the Amalekite king, and a few choice sheep and cattle.
God was furious at Saul for not destroying them entirely and sent Samuel to tell him that he would no longer be king because he had failed to follow the instructions. Samuel himself killed Agag (I Samuel 15:33), yet the threat of Amalek remained through later generations.
Haman, the arch-villain of the Purim story, was from the tribe of Amalek (Esther 3:1):
After these matters, King Ahasuerus elevated Haman, son of Hamdata, the Agagite and raised him, placing his seat above all the other ministers that were with him.
In 1956, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik addressed Yeshiva University (later published as Kol Dodi Dofek) and told them:
At a meeting of the Mizrachi…I repeated, in the name of my father (of blessed memory) that the notion of “the Lord will have war against Amalek from generation to generation” is not confined to a certain race, but includes a necessary attack against any nation or group infused with mad hatred that directs its enmity against the community of Israel. When a nation emblazons on its standard ‘Come, let us cut them off from being a nation so that the name of Israel shall no longer be remembered’ (Psalms 83:5), it becomes Amalek. In the 1930’s and 1940’s the Nazis, with Hitler at their helm, filled this role. In this most recent period they were the Amaleikites, the representatives of insane hate. Today, the throngs of Nasser and the Mufti have taken their place.
More recently, certain rabbis have even accused Israeli politicians or rival communal leaders of being Amalek – sometimes with tragic consequences. The rhetoric that Yitzchak Rabin was Amalek likely encouraged the assassination of the prime minister.
Amalek remains Public Enemy Number One. Any individual or nation who scares us is branded as Amalek. Even millennia after the tribe was entirely wiped out, the threat of Amalek can incite hatred and murder.
As individuals we also imagine our own personal Amalek. We mentally label groups who scare us or threaten us as the enemy. We justify our fear of those who are different than us with anecdotes which terrify us.
The irrational fear that the spies in the Torah portion created by mentioning Amalek still remains with us today.
Dillinger was killed by federal agents decades ago. The last member of the tribe of Amalek was killed by the prophet Samuel millennia ago. Yet we still quake in fear of Amalek – the Jewish Public Enemy Number One.