Taking Down a “Public Enemy”

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posted on July 14, 2009
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Most of us think of bank robbery and bank robbers in connection with the frontier days of the American West. But one of the earliest—if not the earliest—bank robberies was committed in 1831 by one Edward Smith to the tune of more than $200,000. And he did the deed on Wall Street, in New York City.

Regardless, it took those stylish boys from Missouri, the James and Younger Gang, to turn bank robbery into a regular source of income. Jesse, Frank and Cole learned their hit-and-run tactics from their guerilla service with Capt. William Clark Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson during the War of Northern Aggression, as Southerners were inclined to refer to the Civil War. The same tactics they used on Union soldiers worked quite nicely after the war, when Jesse and the boys decided that some of the banks needed to be relieved of their assets.

Today, many historians suggest that the ways of the American frontier were over and done with by the year 1900. They may suggest that, but they never convinced Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch, Henry Starr, the Newton Gang and many other outlaw groups who continued robbing. The James/Youngers may have started the bank robbery trend, but the man who put the finishing touches on the art form (if any criminal act can be called such) was John Dillinger.

John Herbert Dillinger was born on June 22, 1903, in Indianapolis, Ind. His mother passed away in 1907, and John grew up with a chronic resentment for authority and a distinct lack of interest in working for an honest living.

During a stint in the Indiana State Prison, Dillinger associated with several career criminals. Then, as now, prisons tend to be the finishing schools for those inclined to live a criminal life, and Dillinger was no exception. Even before his release, John Dillinger hooked up with a group of bank robbers, including Harry Pierpont, Harry Copeland, Walter Dietrich, and a young fellow named Lester Gillis. Gillis would come to be known as “Baby Face” Nelson.

Beginning in 1933, Dillinger and his newfound associates undertook a series of bank robberies in the Midwest. From 1933 to 1934, Dillinger and his gang robbed approximately a dozen banks, taking away loot totaling about $300,000. That’s a lot of money today, so one can imagine how much it was in those early Depression days.

Dillinger put numerous finishing touches on bank robberies. He and his gang meticulously cased the banks before pulling a heist, paying special attention to the number of entrances and the number of guards employed. In addition, they drove every possible escape route that could be used to make their getaway. Just prior to the robbery, they would steal a getaway car and then ditch it as soon as possible, making the rest of their escape in legally purchased vehicles.

Finally, John Dillinger seemed to realize that the gang should avoid unnecessary shooting. Robbing a bank was one thing, but killing innocent people would really bring the heat down on them. It was to be avoided if at all possible. Legend has it that this caused friction between Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson, because Nelson really seemed to enjoy shooting people. John Dillinger would rather awe the crowd by vaulting over a bank counter and playing the Robin Hood character to the hilt.

Bank robbers of the Dillinger era used a wide assortment of arms. Many of them are known to have still been carrying the old Colt Single Action Army. The most common handguns, however, were the various double-action revolvers made by Colt, Smith & Wesson, Harrington & Richardson, Hopkins & Allen, and several others. Shotguns, of course, were very popular, too. They used Winchester pumps, Remington semi-automatics and a wide assortment of double-barrel shotguns....

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