Dillinger: Public Mystery Number One?

By Mary Beth Schneider

INDIANAPOLIS – Two descendants of John Dillinger, the famed Indianapolis-born bank robber, don’t believe that it’s his body resting in Crown Hill Cemetery – and they want to find out for sure.

Michael Thompson of Monrovia and Carol Thompson of Mooresville both filed sworn affidavits in June with the State Department of Health seeking a permit to dig up whomever is in the grave with Dillinger’s headstone.

The goal: DNA samples that can determine once and for all if it really was Dillinger – the so-called Public Enemy Number One – who was gunned down by the FBI as he left the Biograph Theater in Chicago.

Portrait of American criminal gang leader and bank robber John Dillinger circa 1934.
Photo by American Stock Archive / Getty Images

In their identical affidavits, both Michael and Carol Thompson said that “it is critical to learn whether Dillinger lived beyond his reported date of death of July 22, 1934. If he was not killed on that date, I am interested in discovering what happened to him, where he lived, whether he had children and whether any such children or grandchildren are living today.”

The Thompsons’ grandfather, John Wilson Dillinger, was the gangster’s father. Their mother, Frances H. Dillinger Thompson, was Dillinger’s half-sister.

They are far from the first to question whether it really is Dillinger who was buried in Crown Hill. According to the website HistoricMysteries.com, “Before the corpse was cold, doubts began to register (about the identity.) First off, after seeing the body, John Dillinger’s father flat-out denied the corpse was his son.”

“Additionally, the pathologist’s official report merely added fuel to the fire. He noted that, while the face looked very much like Dillinger’s, the corpse’s eyes were brown (Dillinger’s were blue), the corpse had a life-long rheumatic heart condition (Dillinger would never have been able to join the Navy with such a condition), known scars on Dillinger’s body were not found on the corpse, and the body was shorter and fatter than Dillinger’s known measurements.”

The Thompsons’ each cited those discrepancies in their affidavits, saying they had been “presented with evidence that demonstrates that the individual who was shot and killed at the Biograph Theater in Chicago on July 22, 1934, may not in fact have been my uncle, John H. Dillinger. This evidence includes the non-match of his eye color, the ear shape and protrusion from the head, the fingerprints not matching, the existence of a heart condition and the apparent non-match of the anterior teeth.”

And, they write, if that’s not their uncle “it is also important to identify the man in the grave at Crown Hill Cemetery.”

Both acknowledged they understand this means disturbing the grave, exposing the body, moving it to a forensic laboratory “and possibly removing a bone or bones for DNA testing.” They also gave their consent to the remains being photographed and the examination of them being videotaped. The History Channel told CBS News that it is covering the exhumation as part of a documentary on the Depression-era robber.

Just getting the coffin out of the ground won’t be as simple as digging a hole.

Susan Sutton, a historian and director of digitalization at the Indiana Historical Society, said that a few days after the funeral, Dillinger’s father returned to the cemetery and had them rebury the casket with a cap of concrete and scrap iron.

“Then on top of that they put four big reinforced concrete slabs,” Sutton said.

It’s not your typical gravesite but, Sutton said, “typically people don’t offer you huge sums of money to exhibit your loved one’s corpse. So Mr. Dillinger was afraid people would try to dig up the casket. And, of course, Dillinger was shot out in the street and he lost so much blood that afterward people were dipping handkerchiefs and even their dress hems in the blood.”

Sutton, who has fielded media calls on Dillinger from as far away as London since news of the exhumation broke, said that according to reports she has seen, Dillinger’s sister Audrey identified the body, recognizing a scar on his leg.

“But, if the family is concerned about that, not only will (the exhumation) put their minds to rest but it will put to rest some conspiracy theories,” she said. “Or of course it could just blow up the conspiracy theories.”

No date for the exhumation has been made public, but the permit requires the body to be reinterred by 10 a.m. Sept. 16.

Mary Beth Schneider is an editor with TheStatehouseFile.com, a news site powered by Franklin College journalists.






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