By Ray Balogh
WARSAW — Old Jail Museum, located at the corner of Indiana and Main streets in downtown Warsaw, will host a two-day commemoration of John Dillinger’s bold 1934 invasion of the local police station, in which his gang stole three bulletproof vests and two service pistols, on Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 11 and 12.
The event, sponsored by the Kosciusko County Historical Society, will feature special tours of the museum, which contains an impressive array of Dillinger artifacts and memorabilia; a classic car show; food and craft vendors; and exhibition of the jet black 1934 V-8 Ford Dillinger heisted when he escaped from the jail in Crown Point on March 3, 1934.
The festival will run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Greg Steffe, the museum’s co-director, has immersed himself in the history, lore and myth surrounding the infamous Public Enemy No. 1.
He noted some misconceptions about the man and his notorious career, separating fact from fiction whenever given the opportunity.
For example, like the fisherman’s story of “the one that got away,” Dillinger’s career seems to grow larger with each retelling.
How many banks did Dillinger rob?
“It depends who you ask,” said Steffe. “Anywhere from 10 to 24 banks in Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa and South Dakota.” Dillinger is estimated to have stolen a total of $500,000 in today’s money.
“He robbed his first bank in New Carlisle, Ohio, on June 21, 1933. We have the .32 caliber Colt semiautomatic pistol he used to rob the Merchants National Bank in South Bend on June 30, 1934. It was the last major crime Dillinger committed.
“He was killed by FBI agents in Chicago on July 22, 1934, exactly one month after his 31st birthday.”
Thus his bank robbery career lasted one year, one month and one day.
How many men were in his gang?
“There were three separate Dillinger gangs. He formed the first when he was paroled in 1933. Membership in those gangs was a fluid structure, and they functioned as independent contractors, chosen for their skills.
“Harry Pierpont, not John Dillinger, was actually the leader of the gangs.”
What about Dillinger’s personality?
“He had a sense of humor,” said Steffe, citing from memory two Dillinger quotes on display at the museum:
“I rob banks for a living. What do you do?”
“These few dollars you lose here today are going to buy you stories to tell your children and great-grandchildren. This could be one of the big moments in your life; don’t make it your last.”
Dillinger displayed occasional surprising flashes of gracious humanity. When he and fellow escapee Herbert Youngblood took police officer Judd Pittinger hostage during his Warsaw raid, Youngblood took Pittinger’s service revolver and wanted to shoot him.
“Dillinger stopped him. He saved Pittinger’s life,” said Steffe, who noted descendants confirmed the story.
In addition, when Dillinger stole Lake County Sheriff Lillian Holley’s car from a nearby garage after his Crown Point breakout, he released the two hostages — a garage mechanic and a police officer — at the edge of town, paying them a little something for their extra time and apologizing, “Sorry I don’t have more cash with me.”
What was the significance of stealing the sheriff’s car?
Ironically, driving the car to Illinois (it was found the next day, still running, abandoned on a street in Chicago), first got the FBI involved.
“At that time, bank robbery and murder were not federal crimes, but transporting a stolen vehicle across state lines was.”
Steffe will be on hand to recount the details of the Crown Point and Warsaw events, and visitors can get an up-close-and-personal look at the getaway car, now owned by Mark Love of Arizona, which will be displayed in the parking lot east of the Old Jail Museum.
For more information, call (574) 269-1078 or visit www.kosciuskohistory.com/old-county-jail or the museum’s Facebook page.