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The Lookout

June 2024
3min read

When the name John Dillinger is mentioned, most people think of a notorious bank robher. My memory is of an unshaven shadowy man who stood behind a dirty screen door and motioned to my father.

Daddy was a feature writer for an Indianapolis newspaper in 1933. His articles were almost always controversial. When you read a Robert A. Butler by-line, you knew the story would contain the unexpected, and a bias toward the underdog.

While other papers were running headlines about the many banks being robbed, all supposedly by Dillinger, Daddy was writing different stories. He tried to point out that the criminal couldn’t be in two places at once, that the distance between two banks was too great for Dillinger to have robbed them both on the same day.

Apparently Dillinger took note of what my father had written, for he asked to meet with him. Dillinger’s father lived in a farmhouse in Mooresville, Indiana, just seven miles from our home, and he invited my father to visit there. Most of Our neighbors knew when Dillinger was in town, and I can remember Daddy shaking his head and saying, “I saw John just last night, and here he is, supposed to have robbed a bank clear up north. He must have a look-alike.” We went to the farmhouse, my father and I, a nine-year-old left in his care for the day. We drove into the lane, which was empty except for a nondescript dog. We walked up the steps, and Daddy motioned to a porch swing. I sat down, making sure my skirt was where it belonged, and started the creaky chains in motion. After a moment, an old man, Dillinger’s father, joined me. I can recall little about him except that he smelled much like the barns I loved to visit.

We were lookouts, Daddy told me. We were to alert the shadowy figure I saw behind the screen if anyone drove close by. I could think of little to say to the old man, and my eyes continually strayed from the road to a swaybacked horse in the pasture. I was hoping to be invited to ride, and I know I must have hinted about it several times. That black horse was much more interesting to me than anything going on in the room behind me. But Dillinger’s father didn’t respond to my hints as we sat and watched the lane.

I don’t remember how long we waited while Daddy talked to Dillinger. Once, when a car came up the road, driving slowly, I hopped down ready to do my job. The old man shook his head and said that they were neighbors, not out to get John, and that we’d best not interrupt what was going on inside.

When my father came out, he tipped his gray felt hat to old Mr. Dillinger and motioned for me to go to the car. I remember that he was very quiet on the way home, smoking his usual tipped cigarette in its amber-colored holder. I asked him why he would talk to a bad man instead of calling the police. Wasn’t he scared?

“If I thought Dillinger was as dangerous as the police make him out to be, I would not have taken you with me,” he replied. “The young man wants to surrender.”

Dillinger was bad, but not nearly as bad as the police made him out to be, my father explained. Then he gave me one of those moral lessons that parents of the day were wont to offer. “When you are older, you’ll realize that no one is all good or all bad. Sometimes people are accused of things they haven’t done. It’s up to newspapermen like me to try to point that out.”

I could certainly understand what he was saying. My brother was always getting in trouble for things I did.

“If the police catch Dillinger,” he said, “he’ll probably be gunned down. John knows that. It’s a simple way to close the files on many crimes.”

Daddy was to meet Dillinger at a Chicago drugstore in a week’s time and take him to the police. The outlaw had told him it was the only way he could be arrested without incident, that they wouldn’t dare kill him as long as a wellknown reporter was by his side.

The day arrived, and my father stood and waited outside the drugstore. He had left the motor running in his black La Salle coupe. When Dillinger arrived, they were to jump in the car and head straight for a police station where my father had friends.

Unfortunately, at the same time Dillinger showed up so did a police car. The officers just wanted some ice cream from the drugstore fountain, but Dillinger, thinking that he had been set up, ran away unseen.

One week later what he feared most happened. He was set up, this time by a woman, and he was gunned down just as he had anticipated he would be.

My father was sad about his failure to accomplish the surrender. He went to see John’s father and came home a bit poorer after financing a new shirt and haircut for the old man. I’ve often wondered what would have happened if the police had come by the Mooresville farmhouse that day. Would it have mattered that a little girl, her legs too short to touch the floor, was sitting on a porch swing outside the outlaw’s hiding place? Would it make a difference today if there were more old-time writers dedicated to reporting truths even if they are less sensational?

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