On this Day… On this Day… Dillinger gets blown away!
Yes, it was on this day back in 1934 that John Dillinger was gunned down shortly after having seen (and apparently enjoyed) Manhattan Melodrama at the Biograph movie theatre in Chicago.
It had been a withering, incapacitatingly hot day in the city. If you look at the photo of the cinema, you’ll see that the air conditioning is advertised in huge letters – much larger than the name of the film. Just about everyone who could was desperate to get into an air conditioned building that night. FBI agent Melvin Purvis and his team had apparently staked out both air conditioned movie theatres in central Chicago that night, but since the Biograph was showing a crime drama starring Clark Gable, and the other one was showing a Shirley Temple movie – the Biograph was the hot (or cool) favourite.
Manhattan Melodrama incidentally, begins with the General Slocum disaster of 1904 – the very tragedy that is the global news flash that focuses so much public discussion in Joyce’s Ulysses.
Whether or not Dillinger had drawn a weapon or was about to draw a weapon or looked as though he might be about to draw a weapon or was just executed in cold blood is nothing something that will ever be satisfactorily established at this point. It does seem likely, however, that Purves and his team were never expecting the sort of scenario where anybody got read their rights.
In twentieth century crime mythology, DIllinger emerges as something of a Robin Hood figure. He avoided killing civilians and he was best known for robbing banks at a time when everyone (or nearly everyone) hated banks. Banks were the heartless profiteers who foreclosed on peoples’ farms at the height of the Great Depression. You could say that he robbed from the rich.
He didn’t exactly give to the poor. He didn’t systematically redistribute his wealth. Or give it to a charity. Or funnel it through a political movement devoted to social justice.
But he did at least buy a lot of drinks. He was generous with his money. He made no long term saving plans.
I’m interested in the rival mythologies of highwaymen and piracy. And I’m troubled by the fact that pirates are apparently way sexier than highwaymen – according to every survey I’ve ever conducted. Dillinger was the last great mythological highwayman. Now of course, in reality, scratch the surface of any romanticised highwayman biography and you tend to find a vicious mugger with a brisk and heartless attitude to the craft of highway robbery. Pirates, meanwhile have always occupied a strange liminal space. Francis Drake – pirate or government agent? Captain Morgan started out as a pirate and wound up as Governor or Jamaica. Captain Kidd was sent out to hunt pirates and ended up being hanged as one. The very term “privateer” highlights this liminality, this sense of operating on both sides of a notional law and order divide. And up until the nineteenth-century, royal naval captains were encouraged to get rich from the proceeds of the individual “prizes” they secured in battle.
Governments have always been less indulgent to highwaymen. Banks and bankers of course have always enjoyed greater legal protections that the rest of us apparently deserve and you’ll always earn a longer sentence for robbing a bank than robbing anything else. And of course the very concept of Dillinger “the Public Enemy” was always designed to secure J. Edgar Hoover a bigger office, more staff and nicer chairs.
Of course, pirates are officially sexy now, because the world belongs to pirates. The world is run for the more or less exclusive benefit of people who bury their wealth on islands in the Caribbean so that nobody can get at it.
I still prefer the romance of the road. Living from day to day. No place to bury the loot.