John Dillinger tours look at his life and crimes

LA Times | Travel

It must have been hard for most folks (with the exception of FBI agents) not to take a shine to the gentlemanly John Dillinger. His chosen career was one that -- during the Great Depression -- seemed almost noble: He robbed banks. \"We don't want your money, mister, just the banks',\" he is sa...

By Jay Jones // 06.26.09

It must have been hard for most folks (with the exception of FBI agents) not to take a shine to the gentlemanly John Dillinger. His chosen career was one that -- during the Great Depression -- seemed almost noble: He robbed banks.

"We don't want your money, mister, just the banks'," he is said to have told a terrified customer during one stickup. While fleeing from another heist, he stopped the getaway car to drop off one of his hostages outside her home.

"Everybody had just been robbed by the banks. He was just getting some of it back," says Craig Alton, a history buff who leads tours past some of Chicago's more infamous landmarks, including the alley in which the man friends called "Johnnie" was gunned down on a sweltering summer night in 1934.

Seventy-five years later, another "Johnny" -- one with the last name Depp -- is reviving the memories of the legendary gangster in the movie "Public Enemies." The movie's release on Wednesday turns the spotlight on places in and around Chicago where the movie was filmed, places where Dillinger lived and, eventually, died. Several tourist attractions -- including the supposedly escape-proof jail from which the gangster, well, escaped -- are gearing up for what's expected to be a barrage of visitors.

Dillinger grew up (and spent nine years in prison) in Indiana, so the Indiana Welcome Center along Interstate 80 just a few miles east of the Illinois state line seems an appropriate and convenient place to tell his story.

That's what's done at the John Dillinger Crime Doesn't Pay Museum.

Just beyond the racks of tourist brochures, to the right of the restrooms, visitors enter the museum through the facade of Chicago's Biograph Theater, where Dillinger watched a gangster movie the last night he was alive.

Dillinger's life is depicted chronologically, beginning with scenes from his childhood on the family farm outside of Indianapolis. As a kid, he loved baseball; a pair of his cleats hangs in a display case.

Johnnie dropped out of school at age 16, but it wasn't until five years later that he and a friend beat and robbed a local grocer. The mug shot taken after his arrest is among the museum artifacts.

Even though it was his first serious brush with the law, Dillinger got the maximum sentence. He blamed the lengthy incarceration for his historic crime spree that followed his release.

"I went in a carefree boy," he wrote in a letter to his father. "I came out bitter toward everything."

Dillinger is widely thought to have fired the shots that killed a police sergeant after the robbery of an East Chicago, Ind., bank, but that saga has recently been sanitized by this museum.

The text referring to that slaying has been rewritten to make it clear that Dillinger was never convicted of the killing. The changes are part of the settlement of a lawsuit brought by the gangster's great-nephew, Jeff Scalf, who for years has fought to erase people's notions that Dillinger was a killer.

The settlement also provides Scalf, who lives in the Dillinger family's farmhouse, with a part of the museum's proceeds. He says the money goes toward paying his legal bills.

Scalf might never have had a case if his great-uncle had been tried for the slaying. But before his court date, Dillinger escaped from the Lake County Jail, in Crown Point, Ind., using a mock Colt .38 pistol he carved from a wooden washboard. A replica of the legendary fake gun is on display.

The museum also features a wanted poster describing Dillinger as public enemy No. 1. The title was bestowed on him by the FBI on June 22, 1934, his 31st birthday. Exactly one month later, federal agents -- who'd been tipped off by the "Lady in Red," an immigrant trying to escape deportation -- shot and killed Dillinger as he walked through an alley beside the movie house.

The Biograph, now home to a theater company, is one of the stops on Alton's Untouchables Tours. Alton is careful to share with his guests the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

"The city wasn't happy with us doing gangster tours," Alton recalls of his business launch 21 years ago. "We felt that if we were historically accurate, they wouldn't jump all over us."

Despite the passing of time, Chicago hasn't been able to shake its notoriety as the host city to such Depression-era crooks as Al Capone, Baby Face Nelson and, of course, Dillinger. It's that reputation that draws many foreign visitors to the Windy City.

"Chicago was a violent city in the old days," says Morgen Hansen, a tourist from Copenhagen as he steps off Alton's tour bus.

"It was great to hear of some of the dark sides of Chicago."

Alton has a new bit of trivia for his guests: Last year, he got to rub shoulders with Depp during the filming of "Public Enemies" on Chicago's North Side. He auditioned for, and got, one day's work as an extra, playing a Chicago cop on stakeout duty.

"The costumes, the cars, the stuff in the store windows was all authentic from 1934," Alton says of his few seconds on camera.

"I even had underwear on that was from the 1930s."