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Dillinger Preserved

May 2024
1min read

The John Dillinger Historical Museum, a few hours’ drive from Chicago in sleepy Nashville, Indiana, reflects something of its subject’s rural origins and modest tastes. Proprietor Joe Pinkston, a former Pinkerton investigator and the co-author of Dillinger: A Short and Violent Life , has amassed a thorough and wide-ranging assortment of memorabilia. He’s turned his collection into an intriguing museum, complete with wax figures of the Dillinger gang members and a genuine 1933 Hudson Terraplane—“John’s favorite car,” he notes.

We can read original letters that Dillinger wrote to family members from prison. They display a boyish sentimentality. One, to his wife, Beryl, is signed, “Love from hubby—XXXOOO.” The love didn’t last; she divorced him before he was paroled.

Particularly fascinating are the notes the gang prepared in order to direct their getaways from bank robberies. The directions carefully break the route down to tenths of a mile, cite crossroads and landmarks along the way, and warn about stretches of bad road.

Also on display is the wooden gun that Dillinger used to break out of a Crown Point, Indiana, jail watched over by vigilantes and National Guardsmen. The recently published book Dillinger: The Untold Story , edited by William J. Helmer, reveals that this gun was actually constructed on the outside and smuggled in to Dillinger.

The museum also covers the GH-man craze that swept the nation during the 1930s. The FBI agent Melvin Purvis, credited with “getting” Dillinger, was later forced out of the bureau by J. Edgar Hoover, who didn’t want individual agents grabbing headlines. Purvis served briefly as the head of the Post Toastie Junior G-Man Corps. In 1960 he shot himself to death.

During April of 1934, in the middle of the most intense manhunt in history, John Dillinger and Evelyn Frechette visited his family home in Mooresville. They stayed two days. Pinkston, who has contacts with the Dillinger family, displays the original snapshots taken during that visit.

A quote at the museum by one of the outlaw’s confederates states the case in the simplest terms: “We can’t all be angels.”

—J.K.

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