Digging Dillinger

John H. Dillinger’s grave often has coins, flowers, and a host of offerings left at the grave, and the marker has had its edges chipped off by the most zealous visitors.

On July 25, 1934 a crowd of perhaps 5000 people gathered at Indianapolis’ Crown Hill Cemetery to glimpse the final rites of John Dillinger. Sergeant Otis Baker was in charge of a detachment of police officers instructed to stand guard over the grave when the services ended, and the Indianapolis Star reported that “down the road from the Dillinger lot a group of Negroes was seated quietly on the grass, watching the proceedings with solemn and eager eyes. Sergt Baker said one of them had approached him, carrying a tin cup; he wished, the Negro explained, to `get him a cupful of earth off’n Dillinger’s grave,’ but Sergt. Baker declined to let him or any one else inside the roped-off enclosure.”

This fabric fragment is among the relics gathered at the scene of Dillinger’s death reputedly soaked with the gangster’s blood.

The African-American man hoping to secure earth from Dillinger’s grave was simply one of many people seeking the souvenirs of America’s most celebrated criminal. Just three days before, Dillinger had been killed outside the Biograph theatre in Chicago by federal agents, and his corpse and bodily trappings instantly became relics. As Dillinger was being removed from the Chicago sidewalk, “Chicago thrill seekers dipped their handkerchiefs and rubbed their shoes in Dillinger’s blood on the street.” Offers of $1,000 were made for the outlaw’s shirt and $100 for the bricks stained by Dillinger’s blood, and pieces of paper with Dillinger’s blood sold for a quarter. Dillinger’s “blood-stained” hat was being exhibited in the Justice Department within weeks of Dillinger’s death, where “Dillinger relics were first placed in a glass case in the anteroom of the office of J Edgar Hoover chief of the investigation bureau. So many employes [sic] took time off to inspect the new display that Hoover moved it to his inner office.”

Curiosity in Dillinger’s remains was revived this summer when his nephew applied for an exhumation permit to confirm that the Crown Hill grave actually holds Dillinger. In July it was revealed that a permit had been approved by the Indiana State Department of Health to exhume the gangster from the family plot at Crown Hill. The History Channel planned to document the excavation, ostensibly to resolve whether the body buried at Crown Hill is in fact John Dillinger. In August the Indianapolis Star reported that the nephew professed “doubts about whose remains are buried in the family plot,” arguing “that the only way to know for sure is to disinter the body and conduct testing.” A month later, though, the History Channel backed out of the project, and Crown Hill registered its resistance to the exhumation. Nevertheless, this month a new permit has been issued approving the exhumation of Dillinger with re-internment on December 31st. Breathless and poorly informed press coverage has suggested that there has long been doubt about the identity of the body buried at Crown Hill, but in 1934 there was no evidence that Dillinger had escaped death at the Biograph. Indeed, a long line of his family and associates inspected his corpse and confirmed that the body was indeed Dillinger’s. Eventually, though, a 1970 book proposed that Dillinger had sent a body double to the Biograph in his place, and a handful of newspaper accounts borrowed from that account and claimed Dillinger had survived in California. However, there is no substantial evidence to suggest that anybody other than John Dillinger was buried in Crown Hill in 1934.

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Above: This image of Dillinger was taken in Mooresville, Indiana alongside the final casket in which he was buried.

A crowd gathered at the Biograph Theater hours after John Dillinger had been killed there after seeing Manhattan Melodrama.

The ruse that a scientific study might now confirm Dillinger’s fate avoids the significant possibility that his body was disturbed if not pulverized after burial. Post-burial disturbance and settling is typical in even the most predictable stratigraphy, and the Dillinger grave is an especially distinctive deposit. Dillinger’s father John W. Dillinger reported he had been offered $10,000 from promoters to place his son’s corpse on exhibition (oilman H.G. Cross confirmed he telegraphed Dillinger an offer of $10,000 for his son’s body). After rejecting that bid his alarmed family had “concrete placed on the coffin after it was reported attempts might be made by ghouls to steal the body.” The Indianapolis News reported that 2 ½ tons of concrete were poured onto Dillinger’s fresh grave where Dillinger was buried in a “cheap pine casket” (another source described it as a “$165 coffin,” and photographs of the casket suggest it was not an unadorned plain casket).

It is not certain how Dillinger’s grave was prepared before it was covered with concrete. His casket was possibly placed in a concrete or metal vault, a burial method that began to be increasingly common in the inter-war period. Vaults were enclosed containers introduced in the late-19th century that could take the form of wood, slate, brick, stone, or cement receptacles holding the casket (liners, in contrast, had no base, so the casket was set onto a soil surface). Vault marketers championed them for the “respect” they paid to the deceased by preserving the casket and body in a sealed, burglar-proof receptacle. A 1900 advertisement for Indianapolis’ Van Camp Burial Vault Company included two testimonials from residents who had interred their relatives in cement burial vaults in Crown Hill, but in 1915 no more than 10% of American burials used a vault.

Vaults may have been marketed as respectful preservation, but they really were designed to control the settling of grave shafts as caskets inevitably decomposed and surface weight (e.g., lawn mowers) risked accelerating the grave’s settling. Nevertheless, even in the presence of a vault the massive volume of concrete atop John Dillinger’s casket certainly settled and may have even crushed the grave’s contents.

The fascination with Dillinger’s mortal remains is less about forensic analysis than it is about the distinctive popular imagination of mortality and its intersection with the celebrity body. On the one hand, the History Channel and its basic-cable peers are simply interested in profitable narratives that they camouflage with rhetorical appeals to history and science. Their superficial invocation of science and scholarly research masks the ways their discourse is driven by unsubstantiated challenges to established historical and scientific facts, painting their conspiracy theories and scientific fantasies as commensurable with rigorously research history or scientific investigation. With no expectation that their pronouncements must weather critical examination, they are free to challenge previously unquestioned historical evidence that John Dillinger is dead (or devote countless hours to the argument that aliens built monumental architecture rather than past peoples).

This death mask of Dillinger is pictured alongside an eyebrow removed from the gangster after his death.

On the other hand, our fascination with Dillinger’s corpse reflects the symbolic power of even long-dead celebrities. Rather than dismiss our curiosity with John Dillinger’s dead body simply as ghoulish enchantment, Dillinger’s body and his corporeal materiality are powerful because of their direct association with a revered person. Dillinger is typical of secular figures that are so celebrated that their body and materiality become part of ritual practices in which we collect material things associated with them, visit places that are critical in their history, and often leave offerings in those places. There are of course religious parallels to such revered materiality like fragments of the True Cross, the Holy Nails, and the Holy Chalice that are venerated for their holiness. John Dillinger lays no claim to divinity, but his adoration if not deification in popular imagination separated Dillinger from everyday people even as he was understood to be a common person like scores of other young men in central Indiana.

Dillinger’s rich hagiography variously paints him as a Robin Hood figure, a charming criminal resisting bourgeois discipline, or a clever gangster who wins our grudging respect. Despite these caricatures, much of Dillinger’s biography is indeed relatively typical, and pilgrims hoping to encounter the landscape of his youth will find much of it remains relatively well-preserved. John Herbert Dillinger was born on Cooper Street (now Caroline Street) on Indianapolis’ northeast side in June 1903 to grocer John Wilson Dillinger and Mary Ellen “Mollie” Lancaster (the son was not technically John Dillinger Jr., since he and his father had different middle names, but he often was referred to as “Junior” in the press and is labeled that way on the current Crown Hill grave marker). John and Mollie married in Indianapolis in August 1887 and in 1889 they had their only other child, daughter Audrey. The Dillingers moved to Cooper Street in 1891, where just a block away John’s brothers James and Earl were living alongside their father Matthias. Matthias was born in 1831 in Metz, a region of Alsace-Lorraine at the border of France and Germany that was French at the time of his birth. Dillinger migrated to the United States in about 1846, marrying Mary Brown in Indiana in September 1863. Matthias, Mary, and their three children (John, Nora, and James) were farming in Shelby County in 1870, and a decade later there were five children in the household farming in Franklin Township in southeast Marion County. Matthias and Mary Dillinger eventually had 10 children, though only five were still alive in 1900.

In 1875 the Oak Hill subdivision had just been laid out. The Dillingers’ future home on Cooper (later Caroline) Street is at the arrow (original here; for a current Google Map view click here).

In 1883 Matthias and Mary Dillinger moved the family to Indianapolis’ Oak Hill subdivision, a northeast Indianapolis neighborhood that began to be settled in the early 1870s (compare this 1872 Indianapolis News advertisement). Their oldest son John W Dillinger married Mary “Mollie” Lancaster in August 1887, and the couple and daughter Audrey moved to Cooper Street in 1891. John W Dillinger opened a grocery in about 1897, initially managing a store in their home before moving the grocery into the neighboring property in 1898 and then moving the grocery less than a block away to a store on Bloyd Avenue in 1906.

Mollie Dillinger died of meningitis in February 1907, when son John was just three years old, and she became the first Dillinger to be buried at Crown Hill. John H. Dillinger’s sister Audrey had married Emmett Hancock only months before in September 1906, and she and her husband were living in the home alongside her father and young brother when her mother died. By most accounts Audrey Hancock assumed much of the everyday parenting of her younger brother. Their father remarried in 1912, and he and Elizabeth “Lizzie” Fields Dillinger would have three children.

John W. Dillinger’s grocery on Bloyd Avenue began to be managed by Margaret Connor in 1918. He appeared in the 1920 census on Cooper Street as retired, living with Lizzie, John, and two children from his second marriage, Hubert and Doris. John H. Dillinger had dropped out of school in 1919, and in 1921 he and his parents moved to Mooresville. Emmett and Audrey Hancock had likewise moved out of Oak Hill in 1920, relocating to the southwest to the Maywood suburb just over five miles southwest of downtown Indianapolis along Kentucky Avenue.

John Dillinger was being hotly pursued in 1934 (FBI image)

John H Dillinger engaged in petty crimes, but after a botched robbery in Mooresville in September 1924 he was arrested. Dillinger received a surprisingly stiff 10-year sentence for assault and battery and arrived at the Indiana State Reformatory in September 1924. In 1929 he was transferred at his request to the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, and in May 1933 he was finally pardoned. But returning to a modest farm in small-town Indiana in the midst of the Depression, there were few opportunities for the ex-convict. Dillinger engaged in some modest crimes, but in June 1933 Dillinger and two associates stole $10,000 from a New Carlisle, Ohio bank. Dillinger was subsequently identified in the press as one of the two men who robbed a Daleville, Indiana bank of $3500 on July 15th, initiating a wave of roughly 24 bank robberies by Dillinger and his “gang” leading up to his death.

After Dillinger’s death in Chicago on July 22, 1934 his body was first taken to the Cook County morgue. The mass fascination with Dillinger was reflected in a Chicago Tribune report on the 24th that the morgue “was a lively spot yesterday and last evening as crowds of spectators jammed in to get a view of the body of John Dillinger,” and scores of photographs were taken of visitors inspecting Dillinger in the morgue “covered carelessly with a sheet, the body of the robber and murderer lay unpleasant and ugly on a slab in the house of the dead.” A morgue attendant was reportedly compelled to eject one curious woman, with the attendant complaining that “`She was sneaking around with a pair of scissors trying to get a lock of his hair.’”

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Above: A long line of visitors was allowed to view John Dillinger’s body in the Cook County morgue through a sheet of glass, with Dillinger’s body propped up on a morgue table.

Dillinger was taken from Chicago to his father’s home in Mooresville in a wicker temporary casket (compare film of the temporary basket being taken from the morgue to a hearse). The basket eventually became part of the exhibit at the John Dillinger Museum in Crown Point Indiana alongside a pair of pants that were identified as those he wore to the Biograph (the museum closed in August 2017). In Mooresville Dillinger’s corpse was viewed by 3500 people as he lay on a mortician’s slab awaiting embalming by Indianapolis mortician L.W. Howe. Another line of local visitors again passed by Dillinger’s body after he had been dressed and laid in his casket (video here).

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Above: Crowds gathered outside the Mooresville funeral home where John Dillinger’s body was being prepared.

Crowds rapidly began to gather at Audrey and Emmitt Hancock’s home the day after Dillinger’s death when it was reported that his funeral would be held there. Dillinger was taken from Mooresville to Audrey’s modest home in Maywood for his funeral services, when “it was reported that an attempt would be made to steal the body” and police were stationed along the route. The Indianapolis Star reported that 15,000 people had gathered in Maywood, and about 2500 passed through the Hancock home on Tuesday evening July 24th to view the dead gangster, though very few were in attendance when Reverend Charles M. Fillmore delivered the short service on Wednesday the 25th. Thousands of people lined the route from Maywood to Crown Hill to see Dillinger’s coffin pass despite a driving thunderstorm, and about 5000 people had gathered near Crown Hill’s gates on Boulevard Place, but the hearse avoided the crowds by entering at 32nd and North West Streets.

On the day of the funeral the Indianapolis Star decried the funerals of celebrities in which “souvenir hunters denuded the grave of flowers, swarming over the burial lot in the frenzied quest for a memento of the occasion. A similar example of morbidity’s extremes was provided by Chicago folk who dipped handkerchiefs in the blood of the slain Dillinger and in the offers made for his clothing and even for the bricks on which he collapsed.” The Star believed Hoosiers would not repeat such behavior, but they acknowledged that “morbid folk already have visited the Dillinger lot and carried away part of the sod.” After the burial the newspaper suggested that crowds resisted “the ghoulish, barbarous scenes that marked the end of the Dillinger trail in Chicago,” but they did nonetheless secure relics of the funeral: for instance, “a lot of people were to be seen carrying sprays of gladiolus … dropped from the casket as it was carried from the hearse, or from the bouquets carried by eight women friends of Mrs. Hancock.” Another newspaper story reported that “a souvenir hunter was caught taking a tin cup full of dirt from the grave of the outlaw in hallowed Crown Hill cemetery here. Police made him return the dirt but did not hold him.”

On July 30, 1934 Indianapolis’ Lyric Theater advertised the first of five days of public conversations with the Dillinger family.

The day after the funeral John W. Dillinger admitted that he hoped to offset the funeral expenses and pay his farm’s mortgage and would “’accept negotiations for the personal effects of John but will not sell his body.’” It is unclear what effects Dillinger may have sold, but on July 30th he appeared with his son Hubert, daughter Audrey Hancock, and her husband Emmitt in a show in Indianapolis’ Lyric Theater. Over five days the family discussed John H Dillinger’s life, and John W. Dillinger and his two youngest daughters toured much of the country with a carnival after the Lyric engagement ended.

The 2019 permit to exhume John Dillinger is not the first one approved to disinter the famous gangster. John W. Dillinger secured a permit to exhume his son’s body on August 1st 1934 after being told the Chicago morgue had removed the gangster’s brain. His father was aghast that his son’s most significant relics—portions of the body itself—had apparently been removed for souvenirs, but he was reassured that the samples were taken purely as part of a normal autopsy. However, he had no doubt about the identity of the body at Crown Hill. In the Lyric Theater show John W. Dillinger was asked if the body buried at Crown Hill was his son, and he replied that “`I know it’s my son,’ the elderly farmer answered without hesitation. `I wish to the Lord Almighty it wasn’t.’”

John W. Dillinger had no doubt that the corpse of his son was buried in Crown Hill, and there is no substantive evidence that the gangster somehow escaped the law to live out his days in some distant place. Subsequent visitors to Crown Hill commonly take pictures of the family graves, leave various offerings like pennies and flowers, and even chip away fragments of the grave marker. This sort of patterned ritual reflects the ways Dillinger remains deeply embedded in our collective fantasies, but it does not provide any concrete reason to pilfer his grave with the hope we can encounter his remaining corporeal materiality.


The Dillinger family plot at Crown Hill holds John W. Dillinger (died 1943), his son John H. (1934), John W.’s first wife Mollie (1907), his second wife Lizzie (1933), his father Matthias (1912), and mother Mary (1909).


Biography Theater July 22 1934 wikimedia Associated Press image

Dillinger Death Mask wikimedia

Dillinger Fabric Fragment from David (flick’r)

FBI Wanted Poster image from FBI


John Beineke

2014 Hoosier Public Enemy: A Life of John Dillinger. Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis.

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Above: This image of John H. Dillinger was taken with his father, probably around 1915.


Posted on October 14, 2019, in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Alex Meier (Rodenbeck)

    Enjoyed this post as a Mooresvillian & 2007 Anthro Major graduate from IUPUI. Reminded me of doing a gravestone marker project in one of your classes !!

  2. I really enjoyed your article. It’s one of the best I’ve read and I appreciate your thoughts regarding the exhumation. Audrey is our grandmother and as a result we’re contacted by the History Channel to be a part of the documentary. Knowing how much Audrey was devastated by her brother’s death and identifying him by the scar on his calf we didn’t hesitate and declined their offer. By the way, there are many other relatives from Audrey who are also against the exhumation of our Great Uncle.

  3. I happen to be the Great Nephew of John Herbert Dillinger. Let’s get this straight. John was NOT junior! Simply put. His father was named John Wilson Dillinger! Not to mention. My family was of French descent. The French language does not pronounce a long G! Get it right! Oh, yeah. These. so called family ( not descendant ) were of John Wilson’s second wife. Not Molly Lancaster. That was his real mother. So? Now you have it! Please get it straight!

    • The post clearly indicates “the son was not technically John Dillinger Jr., since he and his father had different middle names, but he often was referred to as `Junior’ in the press and is labeled that way on the current Crown Hill grave marker.” I am pretty certain I did not suggest how to actually pronounce the last name.

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