John Dillinger Died For You!
Like the Little Italy capo who aspires to move out of the old neighborhood and into the more respectable surroundings of, say, Fort Lee, New Jersey, MOBSTER TIMES has recently taken stock of itself and has noted with great pride the addition of some formidable contributing writers‘ names on the inter-office mail boxes. The neighborhood of MOBSTER TIMES has certainly soared in real estate value since our first issue, especially with such additions as noted author Gay Talese, who continues to take us “inside”,- Playboy magazine’s William J. Helmer, whose book, The Gun That Made The Twenties Roar, is reviewed in these pages; prison-author (Playboy, Redbook, Ladies Home Journal, Esquire) Jimmy Valentine, who tells us how to fatten our bank interest legally; noted radio personality Alex Bennett, whose lead-off article, Are You A Criminal, is bound to be taken seriously by over 80 percent of our readers; and our regular, though renowned, pack of wroughters (to read “rotters”), D.A. Latimer, Yossarian, Michael Perkins and Brad Holland, who ever enhance the turf of MOBSTER TIMES. With a staff like this, we’ll be moving into our cul-de-sac Long Island fortress in no time!
But now we’d like to announce the addition of yet another contributor of note gracing our pages: The Chief Assistant Treasure of the “John Dillinger Died For You” Society (of which William Helmer is also a member), Robert Anton Wilson. “RAW” (take the first letter of each of his names) Wilson, formerly an editor with Playboy (there’s that brush with greatness again) has most certainly raised our neighborhood into a higher hack’s bracket with his extreme closeup portrait of that great American folk hero, John Herbert Dillinger, and the same’s oft-quoted instruction, “Just lie down on the floor and keep calm,” might best be passed on to you after you pore over Wilson’s captivating insights. But do us a favor, huh? After you read the article, don’t go writing MOBSTER TIMES with all kinds of questions on how to join the John Dillinger Died For You Society, okay? Just take a look at our masthead. We got class. Breedin‘. Do you think the likes of our staff would bother with somethin‘ so classless as that?! We’re outta dat neighborhood!
John Herbert Dillinger—you remember, the big 1930’s hold-up man who looked like Humphrey Bogart—lit a flame in the hearts of Ma and Pa America which no other major criminal has equalled, unless you include a few recent Presidents.
Hollywood made a full-length movie about him, starring Lawrence Tierney, an actor who looked almost as much like him as Bogart did. Bogie himself got his first break playing “Duke Mantee,” a character obviously based on Dillinger, in the play and film called The Petrified Forest, and then played “Ray Earl,” another Dillinger-like character, in High Sierra, perhaps the closest thing to a genuine Greek tragedy in the history of gangster movies. TV did an hour-long special on Dillinger two years ago on the 35th anniversary of his death. Numerous 8-page porny comics of the ’30s celebrated Dillinger’s sexual exploits, real or fantasized, and the legend of his 23-inch penis still survives.
That folk-tale, in fact, not only survives; one might say that it flourishes, or even, as Faulkner would have it, prevails. When I was working as an editor at Playboy a few years ago, we received a letter from a reader asking “The Playboy Advisor” if it was true that Dillinger’s 23-inch weapon was preserved in an alcohol jar at the Smithsonian Institute. I asked one of the ladies in the research department to check that out, and when she called the Smithsonian and began, rather nervously, “I have a very silly question—,” the man on the other end said, “Is it about Dillinger’s penis? We get that one about once a week.”
Alas and goddamn, he added that the legend isn’t true.
However, that’s just what he claimed. Another version of the folk-tale is that the Smithsonian always says that to the public, but the relic really is there, to be shown only to high-ranking officials of other governments or famous movie actors and similar celebrities.
The most notable sign of Dillinger’s enduring popularity is the “John Dillinger Died For You Society,” in which I have the honor of being Chief Assistant Treasurer. (All members are Assistant Treasurers, meaning that the take is split evenly. John would have wanted it that way.)
Our Society was founded about ten years ago in Austin, Texas, by Dr. Horace Naismith, who is sometimes rumored to be John’s illegitimate son. The rumor, however, seems to have been started by ole Doc Naismith himself and is probably without foundation, although it is only fair to add that some members, claiming that the take isn’t always split evenly, have added that the Doc does often act like an illegitimate son of somebody.
To tell the truth, the John Dillinger Died For You Society was actually founded during a beer-party and had only a kind of beery whimsicality for its first several years. Then some pot-heads in Chicago joined in and it began to take on a kind of weird surrealist intensity. Today it is almost entirely real.
We have, for instance, donated some handsome decorations to the lobby of the Biograph Theater (where John was shot by the infamous FBI finks on June 22, 1934). One is an official membership card in the John Dillinger Died For You Society, made out to J. Edgar Hoover (who has never come around to collect it). Another is a “Ballad of John Dillinger,” written by Doc Naismith himself. A third is a fact-sheet on John, written by myself, which I hereby reproduce for your edification and instruction:
“WAS ST. JOHN ACTUALLY A COLD-BLOODED MURDERER? Not at all. John Herbert Dillinger was never convicted of murder in any court at any time. While this was partially due to the inability of lawmen to hold him in one place long enough to stage a trial, the fact remains that, on the record, St. John has never been proven to be a killer. Can any recent U.S. President say the same of himself? (The bank guard who got plugged in East Chicago when St. John was making a rather unorthodox withdrawal doesn’t count. Some historians claim St. John was in Miami at the time, and the matter never came to court.)
“WAS ST. JOHN THE WORST THIEF OF HIS TIME? Again, the answer must be negative. While some of St. John’s banking transactions were a bit irregular, one must remember that this all occurred during the hard Depression years when all of us were a bit hungry. Besides, as the people of his hometown, Moorseville, Indiana, wrote in a petition for clemency which they sent to the governor, ‘The banking institutions themselves have robbed the people far worse than John Dillinger ever did.’
“COULD ST. JOHN WALK THROUGH WALLS? While many accept this as the explanation for his celebrated escape from the allegedly ‘escape-proof’ Crown Point Jail, the John Dillinger Died For You Society does not require this as an Article of Faith from members. It is enough to admit that Johnnie was a lot smarter than most cops.
“DID ST. JOHN MAKE ANY POSITIVE CONTRIBUTIONS TO SOCIETY? Undoubtedly. Left-wingers must recall that their favorite tactic of the non-negotiable demand was pioneered by St. John and his ‘gang’; in fact, it is documented that St. John never left a bank, or other establishment institution, until all his demands were satisfied and the power-structure capitulated on all points. Right-wingers should remember, too, that St. John exemplified old-fashioned American individualism, and his career proves that even in hard times a good man can solve his own economic problems without waiting for Welfare to come to his rescue. And all of us should treasure his Oriental wisdom and his preaching of a Zen-like detachment, as exemplified by his constant reminders to clerks, tellers or others who grew excited by his presence in their banks: ‘Just lie down on the floor and keep calm.’
“IS IT OBLIGATORY TO PRAY TO ST. JOHN? This is best left to individual conscience, but—in St. John’s own words—‘You can get more with a simple prayer and a Thompson sub-machinegun than you can get with a simple prayer alone.’”
WENT TO THE MOVIES WHEN HE SHOULD HAVE BEEN IN THEM
Despite the tone of burlesque which creeps in here and there, this fact-sheet is not really a put-on, except for the final quote (which is from Milton Berle, not John Dillinger). The people of his hometown did get up a petition for clemency, and they did say that the bankers were worse crooks than the Dillinger gang.
The secret of Dillinger’s popularity was that he actually saw himself as a romantic figure. He liked to make dramatic Douglas Fairbanks-style leaps over partitions during his hold-ups and this led the newspapers to dub him “The Leaping Bandit” at the beginning of his career.
John also had a sense of humor and a bravado right out of Scarlet Pimpernel and other adventure books for young boys. One of his hobbies was approaching cops on the street and, with his best down-home accent, asking to take their pictures to show the folks back home what a real big-city policeman looks like. If he had a girl with him, he’d pose with the cop and she’d take the photo.
He also returned to his home-town, Mooresville, and posed for pictures with his neighbors at the time when the FBI manhunt was at its most intense. None of them finked on him and they all treasured the photos for years after.
The caper that most endeared him to the public, though, was his break from the “escape-proof” Crown Point jail early in 1934. Legends still abound about this, and best known is the yarn that he got out of his cell with a balsa-wood imitation gun which he had dyed black with shoe polish, after which he quickly collected some real munitions, as he passed through the eight gates and nearly a hundred National Guardsmen and regular jail guards who stood between him and freedom.
Probably, the real truth is, as suggested by Toland in his book, The Dillinger Days, one of the celebrities admitted to see “the nation’s top bank robber” had smuggled a pistol in to him. Toland claims to have the facts from a reliable source and says the celebrity was actually an Indiana Supreme Court justice.
DILLINGER DONE IN
Dillinger’s crime record was hardly heinous. He bungled an attempt to rob a grocer in 1924 and was sent up for 14 years, after making a deal with the district attorney, who promptly double-crossed him (Hence his famous witticism, “Never trust an automatic pistol or a D.A.’s deal.”)
After serving nine years, John got out in spring 1933 and promptly began showing society what he had learned in stir. He robbed 23 banks and three police stations (the banks evidently being serious, money-making work, and the three police stations being Art For Art’s Sake). Captured twice, he escaped both times; surrounded by the Feds at Little Bohemia Lodge in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, he escaped out a back window, while Hoover’s Heroes shot lots of holes in four vacationing businessmen who walked out the front door at the wrong moment.
The last little boo-boo made lots of bad vibes for the FBI, as you can imagine, and it took all of Hoover’s genius for publicity and promotion (the only genius he really had) to restore the Bureau’s tarnished reputation.
Melvin Purvis, the unfortunate goof who led the Feds at Little Bohemia, finally got a chance to vindicate himself by leading the squad that waited outside the Biograph Theater on June 22, 1934, to blast John down when he came out after seeing Clark Gable die heroically in Manhattan Melodrama.
“If I can’t live as I please, let me die when I choose,” were Gable’s last words in that flick, incidentally. They make a nice epitaph for John, don’t they?
Some civil liberties buffs and other troublemakers still criticized the Bureau, even after John was gunned down. They pointed out that Purvis seemed as trigger-happy at the Biograph as he had been at Little Bohemia, since all the evidence indicated that the fugitive hadn’t been given a chance to surrender. Hoover always denied that and insisted John had drawn a gun before the Feds fired, and a gun was (of course) produced.
Nevertheless, Hoover was none too pleased with Purvis, either for giving the civil libertarians something to bitch about or for hogging too much personal publicity. In the familiar pattern, Purvis was hounded out of the Bureau. He finally became director of the Post-Toasties Junior G-Men, and subsequently committed suicide.
“Purvis,” as old Doc Naismith tells the tale, “couldn’t bear to live with the knowledge that he’d killed a far greater American than himself or J. Edgar.”
Then again, maybe Purvis didn’t shoot Dillinger at all.
IS THERE A DILLINGER IN THE HOUSE?
This is the thesis of a book called Dillinger—Dead or Alive? by Jay Nash and Ron Offen, which was published by Henry Regnery in 1969.
According to Nash and Offen, the man killed at the Biograph was actually Jimmy Lawrence, a petty criminal who looked a little like Dillinger. The FBI discovered their mistake, Nash and Offen claim, as soon as they compared fingerprints—but covered it up. They had already received plenty of criticism for shooting the four businessmen at Lake Geneva and didn’t want folks to know they’d followed that up by shooting another wrong man.
Nash and Offen back this up with various bits of circumstantial evidence, such as the fact that Dillinger’s eyes are described as green by those who knew him (and in his Navy records) while the corpse at the Biograph had brown eyes according to the coroner’s report.
If you’ve read any of the Kennedy assassination books, you know how easy it is to find discrepancies like that in the records of any historical event. The strongest point unearthed by Nash and Offen concerns the pistol allegedly found on John, which he supposedly pulled out when ordered to surrender. The gun was a .45, and they point out that it is extremely implausible that John would have been packing such an enormous weapon that night, since his corpse—or the corpse—was wearing only slacks and a sport shirt without a jacket. (The temperature was boiling on June 22, 1934, in Chicago; 23 people actually died of heat prostration.) Try wearing a .45 anywhere in such an out-fit and see how inconspicuous you are.
It does seem fairly sure that the FBI was lying in part of their story about what happened that night. Nash and Offen also have a letter from an old gent in Los Angeles who claims he is John Dillinger.
JOHN’S SOCIETY IS SPLIT
All this has caused a certain amount of theological dispute in the John Dillinger Died For You Society, as you can imagine. The sad truth is that we have split into three factions.
The John Dillinger Died For You Society (Orthodox) holds that John Dillinger did by God die for you, and to hell with modern “higher” criticism. If you don’t believe it, Doc Naismith adds vehemently, you will be turned into a Mao button and stomped by Birch policemen at a peace riot.
The John Dillinger Died For You Society (Reformed) accepts the Nash-Offen book and says that John is alive and well in California and will return to make war on the bankers again, the next time they unleash a Depression on us.
Finally, the John Dillinger Died For You Society (Conservative) holds that John did die at the Biograph but rose again and is now eating a healthy soy-bean diet in Los Angeles. Furthermore, as long as he stays there the San Andreas Fault won’t open ever again. Of course, if the Indiana authorities ever extradite him, we can’t guarantee the future of California…
In the four years since I have been with the Society, I have only encountered religious bigotry twice. The first time was when I was distributing tracts outside McCormack Place in Chicago the night Billy Graham was crusading for Christ inside. A group of Jesus Freaks, angered by my leaflet, surrounded me and told me I was a mocker. I denied this vigorously and, after staring at me in silent horror for a while, they went away, after one of them told me “I pity you!” I didn’t believe that: she sounded more like she hated me.
My other encounter with intolerance occurred when I participated in a demonstration to end the prison system and release all convicts, which was staged by some Chicago anarchists and the Industrial Workers of the World, the only revolutionary labor union still surviving in these States. The anarchists didn’t object to my “John Dillinger Died For You” sign, but one of the old Wobblies was quite upset by it and kept saying that it “destroyed the dignity of the demonstration” and “offended the people we’re trying to reach.”
The only conclusion I can draw from this is that young Jesus Freaks and old Lefties are the two groups most lacking in that eutrapelia, or sense of humor, which Aquinas thought was the virtue most needed by theologians.
I close with the explanation offered to all new members of our Society: We are not a heavy put-on masquerading as a new religion; we are a new religion masquerading as a heavy put-on.
And may you meditate long and profitably on the mantra which always concludes our meetings:
“Just lie down on the floor and keep calm.”
John Dillinger Died For You!
by Robert Anton Wilson appeared in Mobster Times, Issue 3 in December 1972.