Will Irwin bears one of the most illustrious names in American journalism. As a young reporter, he covered the San Francisco earthquake and wrote of it so memorably that his dispatches appear in journalism anthologies and text books. Still a crack working reporter in 1933, Mr. Irwin wrote this dramatic account of John Dillinger.
This is how Uncle Sam's police — whom the underworld calls the "G-men" — cornered and killed that poisonous little rat John Dillinger, to the satisfaction of all.
On the afternoon of Sunday, July 22, J. Edgar Hoover, who directs the Division of Criminal Investigation, Department of Justice, sat in his Washington home, reading a frivolous novel and taking his rest after a hard week. The telephone rang. He had given instructions that he was to be disturbed only in case of really important business; and even before he lifted the receiver his mind said, "Dillinger." For three months the little force of federal agents had been pursuing that elusive killer through a maze of hard luck. Four times they had almost cornered him; and each time fate had played on his side. His hairbreadth escapes, his weird luck, had made him a symbol of defiance for law.
And Dillinger's name, disguised in a rough-and-ready code, was the first word to come over the wire. Agent M. H. Purvis was speaking from Chicago. "He is going to the movies tonight," said Purvis in code. "Either the Marboro Theater or the Biograph. He'll have two women with him. The boys are looking over the land right now. We'll get him when he goes in or when he comes out. Wish us luck, and good-bye!" And Hoover settled down to the most anxious six hours of his life.
Purvis had to cover both theaters, but the Biograph more closely than the Marboro. For it was showing a gangster film, and they knew Dillinger's tastes. The human instinct was to fill the environs with plain-clothes men. But Dillinger, that creature of instincts, would take alarm if he saw an unusual number of men loafing about the theater. Moreover, shooting by a large posse might turn into a fusillade; and Purvis found himself more concerned with the lives of women and children crowding in and out of the theater than with his own life and that of his agents. Three or four men at each theater, dead shots all, would be enough. The police of East Chicago, Indiana, bent on avenging a comrade whom Dillinger had murdered in cold blood, were following his trail amost as closely as the federal men and had given invaluable help. They deserved a place in this operation. If Dillinger showed signs of resisting arrest, each man was to shoot only once — and to the spot.
So, when the crowds began entering the Biograph and the Marboro, four men loafed inconspicuously about each entrance. Purvis himself was at the Biograph. Neither he nor his associates had ever seen the enemy in the flesh. But Purvis had studied Dillinger's face in photographs and newsreels until he felt that he knew him like a brother.
A little man escorting two women stepped to the box office. He was in his shirt sleeves, for it was a hot night; but he wore a straw hat. Dillinger! Or was it? He was wearing spectacles, and the face seemed oddly changed. Then he spoke, and Purvis caught a characteristic expression which he had noted in the newsreels — caught it a tenth of a second too late. The Sunday night crowd pushed in close. Shooting would mean a massacre. Before an opening appeared, Dillinger and his two girls had entered the theater. A delay. (In Washington, Mr. Hoover was walking the floor, consulting his watch every five minutes.) They would get him when he came out.
A messenger brought over the force from the Marboro. Quietly Purvis deployed his troops; at the entrance, he and two other federal agents; at the curb, one federal agent and the East Chicago policemen. After an interminable wait the audience began to emerge. Purvis lighted a cigar. Here he was — Dillinger! Purvis dropped his cigar. That was the signal. Dillinger's animal intuition stayed with him to the end. The motion had occurred behind him — but he glanced nervously over his shoulder and his right hand shot to the automatic pistol in the pocket of his trousers. It caught in the vent of the pocket. He jammed it down to get it free — and three shots exploded almost as one. Staggering, glassy-eyed, bleeding, he ran down the street toward an alley. The squad at the curb closed in. But it would not be necessary to fire again. At the entrance of the alley he pitched forward on his face. In twenty minutes he was dead.
He had been hit three times in different spots. The federal men had thought out even that detail before hand. Traditionally, the safest plan for a man in a life-and-death gun fight is to aim at the heart. Even if you miss a trifle, you've probably inflicted a fatal or disabling wound. The bulletproof vest has somewhat altered that rule. Dillinger might be wearing armor under his shirt. So one marksman had fired at his torso, one at his head, and one at his leg, so that he could not run away. All hit the mark. The woman bystander wounded in the fracas took a bullet which went clean through Dillinger. As for the men behind the guns — "Never mind," said Director Hoover at the time. "They have families." However, we know now that agents Hollis and Cowley, who four months later died heroically while ridding us of "Baby Face" Nelson, were in the federal squad.
At half past ten Hoover's telephone rang again. Chicago was speaking: "We've got him — he's dead!"
"Any of our boys killed?"
"Not one! A woman in the crowd wounded, but not badly, we think."
Publication Date: 1934