Dillinger Days: Chapter 1
Meeting John Herbert Dillinger
By JOHN NELSON
Tailgate News Editor
The year is 1892 and it is Sept. 6. My parents should be having a baby in their house about now. I guess you could say that was the start of me.
My name is John Hans Nelson and I am a farmer. I write this to you as I remember my life in 1942. The United States has gone through a depression and is now involved in World War II. My son, little Johnny, is 14. My wife Marvel is here with me on the farm near Hagerstown, Indiana. We work hard and bother no one…
My personal war has been over for a number of years. In this book, I will describe to you what led up to my involvement with John Herbert Dillinger and how I used his name while robbing 18 banks in the middle 1930s.
I do not want to bother you with exact historical details. If you want to know dates and places, you can look them up in your history books. The trip I am going to take you on is the story of how I fought the law and beat the system so that I could be a moderately successful farmer the rest of my life.
After a 5-year courtship, I got married in 1918 to the love of my life, Marvel May Woolard and made her Marvel Nelson. She and I struggled through life for awhile and tried our hand at farming, which is the trade I know. I also worked straightening cam shafts at the local factory to pay for the farm a bit quicker.
We bought a small farm called the Cheesman Place. I sold it and bought the Allen Place. I kept that Allen Place hill farm and then bought this 80 acres out here on Highway 38.
We had our one and only baby, Little Johnny, on March 9, 1928. John Woolard Nelson was what we named him, to honor Marvel’s family and mine. He is as smart as a whip and we are very proud of little Johnny. I work a lot of hours and so he knows his mother a lot better than he does me.
When Johnny was about 5 years old, I lost all of my hogs one year to the cholera. It looked like we might have to start all the way over on the farm. As a young man, growing up in Morris, Illinois, where I was born in a farm house, I learned how to play pool and poker as a teenager and became pretty good at both. I told Marvel when we lost the hogs I would go try my luck at cards and pool to make up the difference.
She agreed and I took off for a joint (bar) in Indianapolis, had some luck and then took off for some more joints in Chicago, around the area where I was raised. My good luck held out.
One night I headed back to Indy and decided to try one more joint to make a few more dollars before going home to buy a few hogs. I found a veterinarian in there some where and learned how to vaccinate for hog cholera to avoid the same disaster again.
When I walked into that last joint, I saw a man that was shorter than me with brown eyes – but his features were otherwise very similar to mine. He told me his name was John Herbert Dillinger and that he had just got out of the pen in Joliet (Illinois). He did 8 years for attempting to rob a grocery store and was on his way home to Mooresville to see his Dad. I told him I was a farmer down on my luck but had a small steak from pool and cards, and that I was headed home to Hagerstown to give full-time farming another go.
He said he wanted to get a job but nobody would hire him because of his police record. He said he loved mechanics and working with his hands and believed he would be pretty good at farming too. Dillinger said his Daddy raised him on a farm in Mooresville, Indiana, but he wanted to make his own way in life instead of just moving back there. That town was not all of that far from Hagerstown where me and Marvel had our farm.
We laughed awhile about both being named John and how we looked so much alike. Of course, he was 5’7” or so and I was about 6 feet tall. He had brown eyes and I had blue eyes, but our faces looked alike and we both had a rural upbringing.
John Dillinger said he had a girl friend in Chicago named Birdie Lawrence. He and Birdie had not been together long, but he was grateful for her interest as his wife divorced him while he was in prison. We had another shot of whiskey and stared out the window a bit.
I told him I did not have enough of a steak to really go home and make the farming thing work, but I was determined to try. Dillinger said he knew a way we could help each other. I smiled and thought that perhaps a good lie would entertain me so I asked him to continue with his story.
Banks, he said. I looked at him with curiosity. We could rob banks and split the loot. You could take my name and me and Birdie could run your farm for two years. During that time, you could rob a series of banks. If you got caught, you could tell them you were me. That way the Nelson name stays clean and we get some good out of this Dillinger name.
Then when Birdie and I get married, I could go by Johnny Lawrence and take her good name. I would have my split of the bank robbery money to buy a farm of my own and keep going. You and Marvel could return to your farm and have the life on the farm you say you have always dreamed of having.
We shot down a couple more whiskeys and I sat there in silence. I told him my in-laws would have to keep Little Johnny as I did not know him and Birdie very well. He said nothing. After a few moments, he gave me some names of some guys he knew that were educated in robbing banks. I told him I was going to call it a night and that I would get back to him in the morning.
I got a room and slept on this idea. I called Marvel and told her what had been said. These were desperate times and the United States Great Depression was making people jump out of windows. After a brief moment of silence, Marvel said if you want to do this we will give it a go. She said something about stashing herself in Indianapolis or Chicago and becoming a flapper (dancer) so that I could sneak around and still be with her as often as possible.
The next 18 months would be a whirlwind of meeting some of the most dangerous men and women on the planet and of using my wits and horse sense to survive. But I would make it through the maze. I went to snoring after I talked to Marvel and met Johnny Dillinger for breakfast. I would have to learn a lot about this guy if I was going to be him for two years.
God had blessed me with a genius level IQ and my wheels were turning as I listened to this Dillinger character. I thought about all of those poor devils out of work and determined that if we succeeded I would help as many down and outers, widows and orphans as possible. I wanted the money to farm and be left alone, but I also wanted to send Uncle Sam a clear message.
To me, it was time those potentates up there in Washington D.C. thought about the working guy a little and nobody seemed to have the guts to make that clear to them. My wheels turned some more as Dillinger rattled on. I was already thinking about how to go about this thing, with never a thought that our plan might fail. I always thought of myself as a winner and that has been the way it has always stayed.
1933 and 1934 would not change my opinion of myself, but my activities during that time did open my eyes to why liars were the one form of humanity on this earth that I would never have any use for. I also learned that a secret was only a secret if you never told a soul. I tell you this story now, not from my farming days in 1942, but rather thinking back on how I felt in 1942. That is why I added the phrase at the beginning of this story “as I remember my life in 1942.” I am a ghost now and actually died on Jan. 22, 1989 at the age of 96. So you see, this story can not hurt me anymore, or anyone. So I might as well get it off my chest.
Editor’s Note: This story is based on stories told to me by my grandfather for the better part of 30 years.
Dillinger Days, Chapter 2: The particulars of getting away with bank robbery
By JOHN NELSON
Tailgate News Editor
Well after I left John Dillinger I began calling the numbers he gave me on a pay phone. I set up meetings with a half of a dozen guys I had never met before.
Among them were Bugsy Malone and Baby Face Nelson. Baby Face was known for being a hair trigger, but Dillinger said he knew what he was doing. I suppose my method for robbing banks was pretty strange and that is why it worked so well.
I told the boys there would be no killing and no shooting unless it was self defense. But we would all have loaded Tommy guns (early forms of machine guns) and we would go into the banks during a dead time, say 2 in the afternoon when everyone was working and the early morning deposits as well as the noon deposits were already in there.
My goal was to go after pretty large banks and get as close to $100,000 as possible from each job. In the 1930s the banks were insured by the federal government for up to $100,000 so the working people would not lose anything from their accounts if I limited the takes to be under that amount.
I would case a job alone and then find the quickest path to a hide out, preparing for afterwards as best I could. There was only one hitch with the shoot outs. Baby Face Nelson shot a sheriff’s deputy once. I fired him the next day.
He was definitely no relation to my family, as the man had the IQ of a rabbit and he could not seem to follow my order to stay completely sober before and during a bank job. Again the bank robberies were set up to surprise folks. We would pull up our two get away cars to the front door, walk straight in with our Tommy guns moving from side to side watching for any one with fire arms and I would announce to them in a loud thundering voice that I was John Dillinger and I was here to rob your g#$ da&% bank!
I would tell them they had 30 seconds to put all of the money they could find in bags because our motors were running. I would count to 30 out loud as we were collecting the bags of money and then we would calmly walk out to our cars. We placed the loot in the trunks for safe keeping. I would later find out my odd method of robbery would be the most successful in bank robbing history. Once in the cars with the money, we would drive away real nice and slow, heading out of town on the pre-conceived path to the prepared hide away. We were careful to keep our guns out of sight during the get-aways.
After the first couple of banks, Chief FBI Investigator Melvin Purvis was always just a few minutes behind us so our tracks had to be covered really well. But my premeditated bank robberies worked again and again. They did, however, find one of our hide-outs and a shoot out happened one night around 2 a.m.
I had already planned, with the owner of the hide-out, how I would get out if something like that happened. The shooting started. I went to the back of the house where a hammer awaited me and busted out a window. Then I jumped through that window into the back of an old pickup truck and pulled a tarp over myself. Bugsy was already in the truck waiting for such a catastrophe and started the engine. He drove down an old orchard road with his lights out that we had scouted out earlier and the rest of the gang and us met up miles from there, at another pre-arranged stop.
The key to my success, and how I got the nick-name “Jack Rabbit,” was to think up ways of disappearing from one location and reappearing at another one just as fast as an old jack rabbit might run for his hole. My farm boy raising came in handy. I had watched how the real jack rabbits did such disappearing acts many a time back in Morris, Illinois. It also helped that the public began thinking of me as some sort of folk hero, helping me in my quests when they could.
Back then disappearing and reappearing was probably a lot easier than it would be in a few years, but my war on poverty took place in an era when times were hard and funding was short. Cops were not given very much to work with and I stayed just enough ahead of them to keep winning my freedom again and again.
When we shook the cops, we divided the money and pooled a little to go on the lamb separately. We all had our own vehicles and stayed to ourselves during the month-long rests to make the trail even colder. Me, I would go to Chicago to see my best girl Birdie (Marvel) and took her to Florida on more than one occasion. We even had a place picked out down there where we could retire on a house boat.
During those early bank robbery days, the cops did catch me twice. One time, when they took me to Joliet prison under the Dillinger name, my gang members got me out that night, with Tommy guns a blazing and a street truck driver paid off. While they were raising hell in the prison, I took advantage of the diversion and simply drove through the prison gates in the big street truck.
After all, who would expect a bunch of gangsters to break into a prison? Again, the success was due to timing, planning and the element of surprise. My philosophy has always been never do anything before you think it through and keep the element of surprise on your side.
All you needed in the 1930s was a lot of luck and a good head for planning. And, of course, you could not spook easy. Your nerves had to come back in place if you panicked momentarily in such a manner that you never even broke a stride as you changed to an unexpected direction.
The other time they caught me was when I was laying low in Kendelville, Indiana for a while. I was enjoying a cup of coffee and Purvis and his bunch finally got the surprise on me. They took me to Kendelville jail and did some sort of movie film clip to prove what big men they were. I was to have been transferred to federal lock-up the next day.
I remember speaking into the movie making contraption and answering a reporter’s questions. He asked me what I thought about getting caught. I told him I did not like it much because the cops had my gold pocket watch, had confiscated what money I had on me and they ruined a date I was planning that evening with my best girl Birdie. Marvel took Birdie Lawrence’s name during our robbery days to divert suspicion from the idea that we had switched identities with the real John Herbert Dillinger and the real Birdie Lawrence.
Once I got in the jail, I was watching a large bar of soap and I noticed a can of shoe polish was available. I put my finger to my lips and motioned for the cell mate, a middle aged black fellow I had never met before, to be quiet. I took a tooth brush and turned it into a carving tool. Pretty soon that bar of soap had a gun barrel on it and was polished up black. When the jailer brought our lunch the next day, I waited until he turned around and put the soap gun in the middle of his back.
“Now you know I don’t want to hurt you, or anyone,” I told him. “Sure Johnny, I know you never have,” the cop replied. “But I do need those keys to this cell and your gun,” I said.
The officer complied and soon became the occupant of that cell while me and my cell mate went up front, retrieved my stuff and walked out of the door. Again, that soap gun was an element of surprise. And surprise was the key to my survival for the better part of 18 months and 18 bank robberies.
The Kendelville jail would be the last incarceration for me and I am sure glad to say that. Again, I normally waited about four weeks between jobs, giving the men a pre-arranged place to meet and instructions about the next job but allowing them time to play and enjoy the fruits of their labors. I had about a week to kill before our next meeting place and next heist. They knew all about it and so did I, but no other souls were told a thing. Again, that element of surprise, and letting a trail get cold, kept us from ever seeing the inside of a jail or prison again.
Soon the quest to get John Dillinger became a heavy embarrassment for the FBI. J. Edgar Hoover, the then bureau chief, was a corrupt old bastard, but Hoover’s job depended on producing a John Dillinger “public enemy number one” for the world to see in shackles. He made many a deal with many a criminal and so I skull noted that and would eventually make a deal with him of my own.
In the meantime, Birdie (Marvel) and I were stashing stacks of $20 bills in her dance hall locker in Chicago. She was one rich flapper, considering she was simply a farmer’s wife praying right along with her husband to make enough money to return to the farm and be left alone.
My wife took up smoking Chesterfield cigarettes and drinking the kind of Coca Cola that still had that kick of cocaine in it. I had to break her of both habits once we got back to Hagestown, but for the moments when she never knew if seeing me would be for the last time, I let her do what she must to fight the worry. I spent my time away from the gang with Birdie (Marvel) when I could, but many times just did a little pool playing or played some poker – just like I had been doing the night I met John Herbert Dillinger. If I would win a few dollars, I would give it away to widows and unemployed families.
One of them told her story about me showing up when she was putting out washing behind her house and handing her a stack of $20 dollar bills – saying now don’t tell anyone but Johnny Dillinger gave you this money to fight back a few hard times. I gave her the money, walked away and got into my old Ford car unseen. I somehow ended up with a lot of Ford cars and Dodge trucks in what turned out to be quite a long life. The help I gave that widow spread like wild fire and helped my Robin Hood reputation and the folklore spreading about me.
I gave away $20s on several other occasions to the poor and downtrodden. Believe me, I had no trouble finding them during the Great Depression that still hung on to our country. Next time I will jump ahead a bit and tell you about the deal I made with J. Edgar Hoover. It would have worked like a charm but Hoover’s men got gun shot crazy, just like old Baby Face Nelson did. In the end, their love for killing would cost me a dear friend.
Chapter 3: The deal with J. Edgar Hoover
By JOHN NELSON
Tailgate News Editor
In the last chapter of this account, I told you a little bit about how to pull off a successful bank robbery. I mean that element of surprise saved our necks back in the 1930’s on so many occasions.
But I promised to tell you about my thoughts on how it would all end, what with Marvel and me wanting to get back into farming and Johnny Dillinger wanting to marry his Miss Birdie and make a good daddy to their baby. He wanted to be Jimmy Lawrence and act right. I wanted it for him too. We had become good friends.
Dillinger was good with his hands. He could build a Model A or Model T Ford in the dark, just like me. He had just had a bad start. And that was what this bank robbery scheme was all about; fresh starts…
So I put my thinking cap on and tried to picture just how ending our careers in the robbery/impersonation business would occur – without doing prison time of course.
I knew it would not be easy. Johnny Dillinger wanted to change his face. We both had already burned off our fingerprints on hot Model T motors at my farm. But the facial resemblance could present a problem in the future and both of us wanted to change back to straight lives.
One evening in Chicago, when Marvel was asleep, and still going by the name of Birdie Lawrence the dancer, I made up my mind to call the law. I told the FBI who I was and demanded to talk to the god d..n fellow in charge… I wanted to talk to someone who knew something!
To my surprise, I heard the voice of J. Edgar Hoover, head man for the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Phone taps and traces were in their infancy back in that day, so I knew I probably had a little time before they could possibly get my location.
Mr. Hoover said he appreciated the call. I told him my name was John Hans Nelson, but I was the guy the public called Johnny “Jack Rabbit” Dillinger, Public Enemy Number One, and I had hopes of changing my career back from bank robbery to farming. Hoover listened intently and then said, “I would have to have a sacrifice.”
I asked him what he met and he explained. He said the public would need to know that John Dillinger was behind bars and then the whole folk hero stuff that made his department look stupid would come to a stop. He had it figured that even though I was the bank heist man, if I agreed to stop robbing banks at the same time they caught Johnny Dillinger the public would assume it was John Herbert Dillinger who had been robbing the financial institutions.
I thought about his proposition. I asked him if the real John Dillinger would get hurt? He said no and he would figure a way to get him off with light time. I told him Johnny Dillinger was farm sitting with his girl friend in Hagerstown, Indiana and letting me handle the dirty work. I told him of Johnny Dillinger’s plans to come to Chicago for a face remodeling.
We worked it out to where Johnny would be caught after taking Birdie to the Biograph theater while Dillinger was making sure his new face would not be recognized before he married the girl and changed his name to Jimmy Lawrence.
I got Hoover to promise me that Dillinger would be hauled in and booked, letting the whole world know the bank robberies were over and the era had ended. Then Hoover would get flustered over the face change and no prints, and the judge would let Johnny go because of the lack of a positive identification. After all, with no DNA tests available, no fingerprints, a fake ID saying he was Jimmy Lawrence of Chicago and all, it would not be the first time the law had to let someone go free because they just did not have enough evidence to hold them.
Hoover said the arrest and publicity would detain Johnny Dillinger about two months, making his department agents look like they were doing their jobs and restore the public faith when the bank robberies came to a stop during Johnny’s time in jail. That, he said, would be good enough for him – especially if the bank robberies stopped after the hoax was over.
No more robberies would give the public the idea that Johnny Dillinger got away with it and was smart enough to quit while he was ahead – after a couple of months in the slammer. Joe Blow on the street would figure Johnny was laying low or simply walked away with all of that money. After 14 minutes, I told Hoover I was going to get off the line as I had another robbery to plan. But I promised him the robberies would stop as soon as they arrested Johnny for the fake out.
I realized how my antics were making fools of his agents and so I agreed to my part of the deal, just as he did his part. By leaving the robbery world and becoming John Hans Nelson again, I could go about my business of paying for my farming expenses in the tail end of the Great Depression and figure out how to plow with mules like I had in the old days. When I got off the phone, I was feeling very optimistic about this wild life style ending.
I had done my duty for family and maybe changed a few political minds about leaving orphans and widows with no way to eat on a regular basis. But I wanted out. J. Edgar Hoover needed a Dillinger. We both thought we had it figured out. But as I said in the other chapter, the blood lust of the killing instinct threw us a curve ball. It was agreed that I would not tell Johnny Dillinger about our plan as it would not hurt him much anyway to sit in jail a couple of months, and the Lady In Red, his land lady from Norway, would do her part and be allowed to stay in this country.
She was facing deportation and so the U.S. Government offered her citizenship if she fingered Johnny “Jack Rabbit” Dillinger. I think the poor woman felt terrible after the way it all turned out. I know I did. Oh, I got what I wanted, plus I had a black mail ace that made the law keep their word about leaving me alone to farm unless they wanted to look like bigger fools than they already did.
In other words, the bank robberies would start again if they ever bothered me or mine and the world would know that the wrong man had been shot by the Biograph Theater in Chicago.
Hoover understood and he did keep his end of the bargain to me. I would go back to the straight life and farm for more than a half of a century, dying at age 96 with my son becoming a doctor and my grandson a journalist.
But sometimes late at night, I do think on how the J. Edgar Hoover deal killed Johnny Dillinger. Oh, my friend understood that we both risked our lives for a stake of money to start over. But he trusted my planning. And it would have worked too, if not for Melvin Purvis and the other agents killing Johnny instead of just catching him… It also occurred to me that Hoover just may have ordered Johnny killed. The pubic went crazy. They ripped his shirt off and kept pieces for souvenirs. This public hero thing had gotten so out of hand…
I thought a little about doing a couple of more jobs in revenge for Johnny dying at the hands of Hoover’s trigger happy agents, but I knew it would never bring him back to life. Besides it would mean I no longer had an ace to save my own skin from prosecution. So, I took a ragged breath and plowed another row…
In the next chapter, I will tell you how Johnny Dillinger’s son, who eventually took the name of Lawrence Hoover, married a Hagerstown, Indiana girl named Mable and became my best fishing buddy for several decades.
I was so glad the lad did not hold it against me the way Purvis and his agents shot his daddy in the streets of Chicago – back in another time and in another world.
Lawrence Hoover only lived about 50 years, so revealing his true beginnings won’t hurt him either. He did have a son of his own, another Jimmy Lawrence, who I understand wrote a book on his grandparents and me. That’s all for now. In the next chapter, I will tell you what I told Lawrence Hoover that so inspired his own son to write a novel about the body double heists and how variations of the body double scheme also worked in other countries.
Pardon me, I need to get up from my writing to dance a dance with the love of my life – both in and out of the body, my Marvel May… Dancing in the clouds is fun. I hope you get to try it some day.
My grandson, John Hancock Nelson, led Marvel and me to Jesus Christ back in the 1970’s. I am so glad he did. Those of you still renting physical bodies should give it some thought. Even guys like me and the thief on the cross can make their peace with God.
As my grandson would say growing up, see you in the next chapter – on the flip side.
By the way, we may make yet another chapter about Audrey Hancock. That name was given to a sister of John Herbert Dillinger and another lady with the same name just happened to be the mother of my grandson. Small world right?
Remember, life is like a river. You see one part, but there are always under currents…
Dillinger Days; Chapter 4, Succeeding at bank robbery means careful planning
By JOHN NELSON
Tailgate News Editor
Perhaps, after all of these years, you might be interested in knowing how a farmer carried out 18 successful bank robberies, escaped prison and jail, and finally returned to the life of an isolationist farmer in central Indiana.
As my grandson could tell you, I repeated many stories to him growing up. For this book, he pieced together many of the things I said, using his writing skills to clarify those stories and interpret to you what he believes I was saying “under the current.”
If I were going to rob a bank, I would have to have motivation. Going broke by losing all of my hogs to cholera was mine. Back then, bankruptcy would have offered me little chance to stay in farming or to help my family. It was the middle of the Great Depression in America.
I used the results of my motivation and planning skills to educate him as to what to do if a similar circumstance ever came up in his life. I taught John Hancock Nelson how to create a way to insure the survival of himself, and/or a life-long dream. To do so, you have to think a plan through, legal or not, and return yourself to a righteous path as soon as possible. That was what the deal with John Herbert Dillinger was to me; a way to save myself, my hopes and my aspirations, and then go on with my life as a farmer.
So I am now going to tell you what happened when the real John Dillinger introduced me to some felons with bank robbery experience, gun experience and experience successfully staying out of the way of the law.
I gathered these arrogant criminals together in Chicago, in a joint (bar) called Clarence’s, and I asked the owner for permission to hold a business meeting in his back room. My dirty dozen or so men came in one at a time, in suits and dress coats, as was the custom of city dwellers in the 1930’s.
We shut the door and I got up in front of them to speak. My brother, Gussie Nelson, of Morris, Illinois where we grew up, was present to recant my behavior at that first meeting.
“Your grandfather got up in front of the group and told them to be quiet,” he said. “John Hans was a big and strong young fellow, but the group kept yapping amongst themselves. My brother simply went up to the first two he came to that were talking, lifted them out of their chairs and bounced their heads together in a very ugly and loud manner. The small crowd of crooks shut up and Johnny Nelson returned to the front of the room to speak. Everyone was quiet from that point on.”
Gussie was right. I got their attention in that manner. By that time, we were all packing pistols and our Tommy Gun machine guns were in the corner of the room. The guns had been moved in separately in suit cases days before, and one suit case at a time, so as not to attract attention when we entered our meeting hall.
When I cracked those two heads and busted their two chairs in the process, the piano player in the joint next door just played a little louder and livelier. Nobody came to check on us. That is the way I had ordered it, complete privacy.
Once I got their attention, I informed the group that they were going to be part of the John Dillinger Gang, and that the gang was going to rob banks for 18 months without shooting any aggressive shots inside of a bank. I told them I did not want anyone innocent hurt from what we were about to do. Nobody laughed, as my crazy stunt with the two front runners had secured their silence and attention.
I told them anyone in a robbery with me would get an even cut of the pay for taking the risk and that I would need four volunteers to back me in each robbery. We would go into the institution, five men with Tommy Guns, and I would do the talking.
Our car would be parked outside with the trunk popped and ready for loading. We five would enter the bank with Tommy Guns swinging and pointing. I would tell the first teller I came up to that I was John Dillinger and “I am here to rob your god damn bank.” You have 30 seconds to load as much money into bags as possible, bring the bags directly to me and my boys. Then we would be the hell out of there in an unhurried and orderly fashion.
“At the end of me counting out to 30, the four of you, and myself, will pick up the bags of money, exit the bank quietly and load the trunk of the car. Then I will enter the driver’s seat, placing my Tommy Gun by my side out of sight. The man riding shotgun will do the same, as will the three in the back seat,” I told them.
I would later vary this procedure with two get-away cars from time to time, involving 10 men instead of five, but my original plan was to involve just one car. I moved the plan to two cars because I came to trust Bugsy Malone to drive the second car, another name from the history books. He had nerves of steal and thought a lot like I do.
I would drive the car away in an orderly manner you see, not taking the risk of some one else in my gang having a panic attack. I would drive very casually to an appointed dispersion point, say on a deserted road out of town that I had cased, or in an old deserted farm house. Later we used barns owned by families that did not mind a bit if we met there.
When the Dillinger Gang became a folk legend, those cooperative citizens were easier and easier to find. The word had spread that I was loose with cash, after I put my cut away to make my own dreams come true. I always split a take evenly among the men who took the risk, but if a farmer provided us a good barn to divide our loot, we all pitched a few $20s his way to thank him.
The 18 robberies averaged $100,000 take per heist. I planned it that way for a reason. The federal government insured that amount and I did not want to rob from families, just an overtaxing, unconcerned American government that stood in the way of me farming all of my life and seemed hell bent to starve out those who were not able bodied.
But I digress. Let’s get back to that first meeting. I was not trying to be mean to my men, but it seemed to me that if I was going to use what my family and schooling had told me was an extremely high IQ to organize something, I was not obligated to let a bunch of jack-assing mess it up! So I took charge and I stayed in charge for 18 bank robberies in 18 months. And I could have probably gone on robbing banks every month for the next five years using my connections, talents and pardon from God. But I believe that same God told me when enough was enough and when it was time to quit.
So if you figure my take up, which was between $10,000 and $30,000 per heist, depending on what we got in a robbery and how many men had taken the risk, it does not take a rocket scientist to see I walked away with about a quarter of a million dollars…
My crew varied, so what they kept varied. I was not concerned with that. I knew what I wanted and I knew I would return to Hagerstown, Indiana with the loot. I already had a huge iron safe ready to hold the $20s. As the years went by, I paid off my land, some 80 acres on one farm and 169 acres on the other, bought equipment as I needed it and ran my farms.
I put a lot of the money in area banks, $20,000 here or $50,000 there, with no one questioning serial numbers or where I got it. That J. Edgar Hoover deal made sure of that. When I died, I owned those two farms, the buildings on them and had paid out nearly $100,000 in medical bills and final expenses by my 1989 death. My grandson was told after my death, once a six-week search had been completed to find all of my accounts, that I had $465,000 in cash and two farms paid for.
That was the result of many years of fairly successful farming, being a good saver and investor in government bonds, and clean living starting back in 1935. I always said if the government went down we were all done anyway so why not invest in government bonds?
But 1933 and 34 were years of a very different story in my life. My name has always been Nelson, as I used to tell my grandson, but during those two years I was known as Johnny Jack Rabbit Dillinger. I had a bank robbery a month to plan out completely, pull off without a hitch and lay low for four weeks before another one popped up by surprise. Again, one of the biggest keys to pulling off a bank robbery is the element of surprise, thus the nickname Jack Rabbit.
I am fully aware that my techniques would have to be modified extensively to work in your time era, but they did the job in the 1930’s.
THE SHOOTING OF THE SHERIFF’S DEPUTY
I mentioned hiring and firing a fellow named Baby Faced Nelson, who was trigger happy and drank too much. But I never got around to finishing my story about how Baby Face nearly got us killed one April afternoon in Indianapolis. After pulling off a successful heist in Chicago that March of 1934, I had taken my best girl (Marvel was her real name) to Florida on the lamb for a week, and then brought Birdie Lawrence (Marvel’s stage name) back to her Chicago dance hall, stashed our usual $18,000 or so of $20 bills in her room trunk (I called it a locker before but it was more like a huge hope chest at the foot of her bed) and then I left… I liked to spend the last two weeks on the lamb alone.
I needed the time to locate a new bank, pick my crew of five to 10 men (that included me, the driver of the front car and usually the only car as I rarely used the two car version), visit with the men individually about their exact actions during the bank robbery, make sure I went over the mechanics of the car or cars personally and that I checked each gun for efficiency and workmanship, and last but not least plot a get away route and a place to divide the loot for another month on the lamb.
As I said before, I liked 2 p.m. as a time for an actual robbery. I would study the deposit schedules and sometimes even open a small savings account there under my real name, John Hans Nelson, as nobody connected those names until the end of our body-double scheme. Once the public got on our side, I even had a couple of bankers tell me how they would have the money bagged and ready if I wanted them to so I could leave quicker. I just smiled and winked.
When I blew into a bank, I always said the same thing. I am John Dillinger and I am here to rob your god damn bank! You have 30 seconds, and I will count them, to fill bags with money, get those bags up here to me and my boys and then I will leave, with no one getting hurt.
But on that April afternoon, during an Indianapolis bank heist on the First National Bank, west side, main branch, Baby Face Nelson got in my way. When a sheriff’s deputy just happened to be inside of the bank, probably making a withdrawal or deposit, the man saw the Tommy Guns twisting, heard my speech and heard me start to count to 30. He wanted to be a hero and started to pull a gun. I had him in my sights and was going to use my Tommy Gun to blow his pistol out of his hand – but Baby Face had other ideas…
My shot-gun riding Baby Face, on that April afternoon, shot the sheriff’s deputy full in the head and chest and killed him. If Baby Face Nelson would have stuck to the plan, the man’s shooting arm and weapon would have been obliterated beyond future use for pulling a gun on John Dillinger, but he would have lived.
I paid Baby Face Nelson off at a barn outside of town where we divided the loot, gave him a couple of thousand in bonus and fired him. He objected and said we had to kill the fellow. I knocked the shit out of him and his body ended up about 20 feet away in a hay bale.
He got up, looked at me and sized up my anger, took his money and left. I understand he got killed in a shoot out some months later while in his car, drunk and still shooting wild with his Tommy Gun. It does not pay to go against the will of a bank robbery planner such as I was. I was playing for keeps and intended to come out alive and free – which I did.
Hoover mentioned the sheriff’s deputy when we made our deal some months later but he took my word for it when I told him the death was the result of Baby Face Nelson, too much whiskey and a Tommy Gun gone wild. I hated it that the poor fellow got killed just trying to do his job. My normal method of killing a man was to shoot him right between the eyes, but that only happened outside of banks when someone was trying to take me to prison. And it only happened if I was wedged in. I never did like killing anyone, unless it was me or him.
I taught my grandson my old rule many years later. Never pull a gun on a man unless you intend to use it and when you raise it shoot him right between the eyes and be done with it. This eliminated questions when it came to bullet proof vests and the possibility of someone getting up to shoot you in the back.
The inside of banks were sacred places to me. They contained money sure, but also innocent people trying to do their jobs or conduct business. I am awful sorry that sheriff’s deputy got shot and killed. Like I say, that small hand gun he had did not present that big of a threat. I fully believed a few rivets from my Tommy Gun could have knocked it from his hand and sent him to the floor in pain from a disabled arm.
I still might have had to kill him myself if he did not accept my invitation to stay down on the ground and kiss it until we had left the area. But I had made it through all of those robberies without killing anyone inside of a bank before Baby Face did what he did and I would have given that man a chance to live to tell his kids that he lost the use of his right arm in a gun fight with John Dillinger.
So yes, I enjoyed the first two weeks after a heist, usually with my best gal and some fresh loot, but the second two weeks I went to work planning every detail of the new robbery, checking every possible screw up I could imagine.
But in life my friends, there is sometimes a wild card in the deck. That sheriff’s deputy was a wild card I did not count on. By this time, the news services put it like this, Johnny Jack Rabbit Dillinger, also known as (AKA) Public Enemy Number One, at a First National Bank on the west side of Indianapolis this afternoon, stole around $120,000 and a sheriff’s deputy was killed in the line of duty.
The sheriff’s deputy, making a withdrawal, went for his gun during the robbery and was shot to death by one of the robbers with Dillinger. The Tommy Gun packing man obliterated the deputy, signifying the first in-bank killing of the notorious gang. Dillinger left on schedule, after his 30 count, and disappeared quietly, within the speed limit as usual…
Dillinger Days: Chapter 5 – The Crowd Behind The Crowd…
By JOHN NELSON
Tailgate News Editor
By this time, many of you have realized that my crazy schemes to rob banks, and keep it going, had to have taken more than just my ears and eyes to pull off.
I mean I did have cock roach like feelers for nerve endings, but the cops were a lot smarter than I have so far given them credit for being. It is just my family, Dillinger’s family and some mighty good friends covered for me and Marvel on probably 100 different occasions.
I made mention that my son married a girl named Audrey Hancock, one of 11 Cherokee/English children from Indianapolis. It just so happens that old Pop Hancock also had a sister named Audrey Hancock and a half brother named John Herbert Dillinger…
When John Dillinger’s father went to claim his body from the Biograph Theater shooting, John’s half sister Audrey offered to take it back to Indianapolis for burial. Audrey Hancock, John Herbert Dillinger’s sister, looked out for me the entire 18 months I was a professional bank robber. She hid me, she fed me and I knew her niece Audrey before my son met her in medical school.
I don’t know if I was much of a match maker, but she married my son, John Woolard Nelson, and they stayed married 9 years. They produced my grandson, who is writing this book for me. Even if I were alive, John Hancock Nelson would have to translate this book. I am a story teller, but he is a story teller and writer.
So you see, the web was a bit more complicated in 1933 and 1934 than I have revealed so far. I would rob a bank and then disappear with a different family member just long enough for the trail to get cold before I went on the lamb. The truth is, Marvel (Birdie at the time) and I would usually wait the better part of that first week in hiding. A crowd behind the crowd car would pick me up at the barn, or where ever we were dividing the loot. And I would change cars in the next 24 hours about six times. Then, when I was convinced the trail was cold, Marvel and I would go to Florida or wherever we wanted to go… Still, we had necks like pivots, always aware a cop might show up.
When you have a dozen people spreading rumors about a man “going that away,” and you figure a too eager Melvin Purvis was sure they could not all be lying, it becomes doable to stay afloat when you relax (days on the lamb). You have to realize the 1930s made up a different world than yours. I credit the Cherokee Indian blood as to how I dodged the cops as well as I did. Cherokees, back in those persecution days, were used to hiding out very effectively. And Omar (Pop) Hancock had married a pure-bred Cherokee lady named Anna Galbraith.
We used our limited, but yet vast, crowd behind the crowd members to move me here there and yonder for a time. And then we got fans. When the folklore of John Dillinger being some sort of modern day Robin Hood started, and all of the rumors about me giving money away to the poor were in full swing, I made some investments in six other body doubles. These guys all dressed in dark blue suits with a striped blue and black tie and business hat, just like Johnny Jack Rabbit Dillinger did at every bank robbery. And they all had pencil mustaches.
These hired doubles would find a widow or some gal with a half dozen kids to take care of, and go up to her in her back yard while she did laundry and give my same old speech, “I am John Dillinger and here are a dozen or more $20 bills to help you a little while to make it through this Great Depression. You don’t owe me a thing. It is my gift to you.”
They all described me as about 6 foot tall, a white guy in a dark blue suit, with a striped blue and black tie and a thin mustache – otherwise clean shaven. Years later, when I reached the age of 96 and passed away, I was buried in a suit that looked just like that. It was the very suit I wore during all 18 bank robberies.
I wore that suit to my grandson’s high school graduation and then to his Journalism School graduation at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. I had worn it to his dad’s graduation from high school, college and medical school. Mostly, the suit stayed in my closet and I wore overalls – after July of 1934…
THE DEATH OF JOHN HERBERT DILLINGER
I was actually planning to wear that suit once more as the active bank robber body double, but a disturbing phone call stopped me.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was on the other end of the telephone line. He said, “John, this is J. Edgar Hoover. I am afraid things did not go as we planned.”
I asked the man what happened? He told me John Dillinger was shot down by six FBI agents, on the orders of head agent Melvin Purvis, in front of the Biograph Theater when John Herbert Dillinger refused to put up his hands and surrender. Instead he ran down the street…
“Remember when we caught you that time and took you to Joliet State Prison in Illinois?” he asked. “I said yes, I remember it well.”
“You just threw up your hands and smiled,” he said. “Then you said don’t get excited boys, I will go peacefully.”
I realized I had not schooled Johnny Dillinger on how to react to the law, as Hoover and I had decided he should be kept in the dark about the Biograph Theater fingering by the Lady In Red and subsequent arrest…
“I should have clued him in on how to act like me and take a jail cell like an easy chair had been offered,” I told Hoover. “Damn it.”
There was silence on the other end of the phone. Hoover offered an apology, but also said his officers acted according to legal instruction when a felon was fleeing… They were supposed to shoot to kill if Dillinger attempted to escape on foot.
I figured there would be ample time to grieve over the failed plan later, when I would explain to Birdie how I felt partially responsible for her “husband’s” death. If only I had taken him under my wing, told him the plan straight up and told him how to turn himself in without giving the cops an excuse to use their guns…
But I assumed Johnny Dillinger had the same survival instincts as me. When a man is cornered, a prison cell is preferable.
This is especially true when you have a small Army behind you that will find a way to bust you out – that is if you have a crowd behind the crowd…
One or two things might have happened. Either John Herbert Dillinger wanted to get shot that night, and that is why he ran down the street, or he broke a gangster rule without thinking. That rule, as the Cherokee say, is, “He who panics last wins.”
I honestly believe, Public Enemy Number One or not, if John Herbert Dillinger has simply smiled and said, “Come cuff me coppers, I am unarmed” and then turned his back and put his hands behind them, standing spread eagle and awaiting arrest, there were too many witnesses for even Melvin Purvis to have shot him right then and there. Dillinger, the biological one that is, would have gone to jail that night instead of to the morgue to await his sister and father coming after his body…
At any rate, getting back to my conversation with J. Edgar Hoover, I realized I had to confirm my own destiny and began to think on my feet. I figured a threat would be my first order of defense.
“OK Mr. Hoover. Our plan did not work. I still want to go into farming but I am going to have to have certain assurances,” I told him. “I am sitting on a quarter of a million dollars of $20 bills. I have to have your promise that bank records of the serial numbers of every single dollar in all 18 bank robberies will suddenly be misplaced by the law.
“If even one of those bills ever comes back on me, I will start this whole thing over. And in the first bank I rob see, I will tell everyone that J. Edgar Hoover’s coppers shot a stool pigeon. Then I will tell them I am John Dillinger and I am here to rob your god damn bank. I will tell them they have a 30 count to stuff as much cash in each bag as they can and that after that my four accomplices and I will leave peacefully – with no one getting hurt!”
There was dead silence on the line and he finally spoke. “We killed a legend tonight. My men are heroes in the eyes of the citizens who believe the law always wins and John Dillinger got what he deserved. History is now on our side,” he said.
I said nothing in return. Dead silence. I finally spoke, “I also want complete amnesty from any connection to the 18 robberies and I keep the cleaned up quarter of a million. If I don’t get what I want, the next robbery has already been scheduled. My suit has been pressed and as usual you will have no idea which bank I have chosen…”
“You son of a bitch,” Hoover said. “You can not blackmail the US government!”
I told him fine, we would play it his way. I told him I had to go get one of my other body doubles and a woman lined up that would pass for me and Marvel to work our farm, and so I needed to get off the line.
“You are serious aren’t you?” he said. “OK Mr. Nelson, you win. We have no warrants on John Hans Nelson. We have no record of any serial numbers involved in the John Dillinger bank robberies, and we welcome you home to Hagerstown from your 2-year stretch as a ranch hand in Wyoming, where you raised a little cash to start farming again in Hagerstown, Indiana. I don’t often admit this, but I have been outsmarted.”
I told him he had my word I would stay a farmer from then on, as long as he held up his end of the bargain. Hoover agreed. I never heard from him again. And I never robbed any more banks… I did steal a mini bucket once from a friend’s boat, but I returned it my next fishing trip. My grandson and I needed that bucket temporarily until we got home to our own bucket.
I also showed him how my old truck could be started from under the hood with no key in the ignition. I told him to turn his head and then hesitated, making sure he was watching.
I also taught my grandson many other ways to think like me, just in case Hoover, or those legal birds who came after him, ever changed their minds about the Nelson family amnesty. My grandson can shoot a gun with all of the accuracy I had. He knows rifles, shotguns and revolvers. He can also shoot a bow and arrow pretty nearly at a bulls eye every time… Of course he shoots Cherokee Indian style, with the arrow on the right side of the bow.
Some day there just might be a need for another “John Dillinger” body double caper. Again, there were six body doubles who roamed around giving out money. In all aspects of this type of organized crime, there was a crowd behind the crowd.
OK, let me be honest here. I sent one of the body doubles to Chicago where John Herbert Dillinger, then known as Jimmy Lawrence, was hiding out after his nose and face operation. I trusted a one-eyed relative of Marvel’s to do the job of informing Johnny, as Forrest Woolard was a smart man and master communicator. We fitted Forrest with a dark blue suit, light blue shirt and black and blue stripped tie. He grew a pin sized mustache. His glass eye was hard to see.
In my opinion, I might have done a better job convincing Johnny D. to turn himself in proper if I had gone myself to Chicago to school him on the bust… But he knew. Dillinger knew those cops would be waiting outside of that theater. It is anybody’s guess why he ran that night. Maybe he believed the coppers would kill him where he stood and was running to protect Birdie and his unborn son from Tommy Gun fire. Your guess, in this case, may be just as good as mine.
I went to his funeral in my one and only suit. I held Birdie in front of Marvel and she patted Birdie’s back at the service. Birdie was four months in a family way at the time… The crowd behind the crowd dispersed after the funeral of John Herbert Dillinger. We all went on with our lives the best we could and nobody else ever heard a peep out of the FBI or any other law enforcement agency.
It was over. I had won, but the cost was awfully high if you ask me. Would I do it again if I knew how it would turn out? Hell yes.
In the next chapter, I will reveal how our hide-out, shoot-out came to pass where Bugsy Malone drove me out through an orchard in a pick-up with a tarp over me. After that, I will tell you a little about what led up to me going to Joliet State Penitentiary, and how the crowd behind the crowd got 20 gunners into the prison to stage the diversion that gave me time to drive a street truck, after the original driver was paid off, to the outside of the prison gate and down the road to a hide-out that was never found.
I am tired now though. I am enjoying telling you this, but I need to get up early and plow another field. For you see, they need farmers in heaven too. By the way, it is true. For the saved outlaws, we are in charge of west heaven, “where the outlaws never die,” just like the song says. This is Johnny Jack Rabbit Dillinger, AKA John Hans Nelson, signing off until the next chapter.
Dillinger Days: Chapter 6 – The Prison Escape and Living Through An Ambush
By JOHN NELSON
Tailgate News Editor
It is me again, Dillinger. This time I am going to take you along for a trip down one of my darkest memories and tell you how to get away from the law – if you ever visit the spring of 1934.
It all started with that damn bank heist where Baby Face Nelson shot the sheriff’s deputy in his drunken over reaction. It seemed like for some reason the law did not take kindly to one of their own being shot and killed.
The result was they stepped up the heat to catch me and my gang and showed us just what Uncle Sam could do in a pinch. Figuring we had drawn fire so to speak, I began to do a bit different type of planning from the get go.
When I got to the hide out where we would divide the loot, I fired Baby Face and gave him his bonus, plus I knocked him down for good measure. Then I began to look around at me and the rest of the gang and realized we had stepped in it this time. We were not only wanted bank robbers, there was a murder involved now.
The straight society would be putting the pressure on good ole J. Edgar to catch his man; me. You know, John “Jack Rabbit” Dillinger, AKA to a few as John Hans Nelson. I was also now called Public Enemy Number One. That murder had really stirred up a hornet’s nest and things were going to get rough for awhile.
I figured Melvin Purvis would catch up to me no matter what it took, so I began to plan a prison break. We were an Illinois and Indiana gang mostly so I planned my escape from Joliet State Penitentiary in the great state of Illinois. I was right. That is exactly where they took me. The first thing I did was go on a deep hiding spree right after the murder. I needed time to think about the day I came out of the hole.
I knew they had put me and Birdie (Marvel) together and they were watching her place in Chicago so after I got my acting plan together, I planned my capture in Chicago – at a neutral hotel, with Marvel and me sitting down to dinner. I knew they did not have anything on her so I knew she would be there when they carted me away in case I had any message for the “crowd behind the crowd.”
Birdie, as she was known then, had made me a nice chicken dinner, as was her Sunday habit. We had a hotel with a kitchen, one of those rent it by the week deals. Purvis and his boys arrived about 8 p.m., kicking the door in pretty much on cue. I had just finished dinner and was leaned back in my chair. I greeted Mr. Purvis and smiled. He looked like he wanted to shoot me dead away. I offered no resistance to his arrest and said I was glad to be going somewhere for a long rest.
The gang had been instructed to get me out of prison on the day after I went in, giving me time to get used to the yard and meet up with the street truck driver who had been paid off. The law was real excited about catching John Dillinger. It made all the papers and my fans were even outside the prison walls voicing their objections.
I met up with Burt, the driver of the street truck, about 1 p.m. He showed me how easy it was to drive the thing and joked around with me a bit as the other boys in the yard laughed and had a good time at the guards’ expense. Burt joked around a lot with the prisoners so to the guards I was just one more thug who had his tit in a wringer.
When the 2 p.m. bell rang in the prison yard, there was a stir outside of the wall. The guards went running toward the gun fire. My gang took on the guard at the entrance of that Joliet cage and pretty soon had him tied up. Then they broke into prison to start shooting up in the air so as to attract the attention of the other guards. I had all 20 member of my gang involved, so you can imagine that was a lot of Tommy Gun fire.
Nobody had ever broken in the joint before so this whole procedure took them by surprise. Again, the element of surprise saved me. While they were hard at the idea of getting the gang to leave, or else to take them into custody, I gave Burt a wink and he threw me the keys to the street truck. Then he began yelling, “Someone just took my truck. They hit me hard (Burt had hit himself in the face for this part of the act)!”
The guards could barely hear him for the gunfire going on, but Burt had to make it look like I had overpowered him to get his vehicle. I drove that big truck leisurely, as usual, right through the open prison gate. I heard one prisoner yell, hey, you idiots, John Dillinger just checked out of your motel! Upon seeing me in the truck and on my way out, my gang took to firing vigorously at the guards and got the hell out of there themselves. There was some guard gunfire toward my truck, but I got loose without a scratch.
THE CABIN AMBUSH
None of our bunch got hurt. I have no idea how many guards got hit and I really don’t care. I was born free and I intended to stay that way. Bugsy Malone picked me up in a pick up truck just outside of town and we deserted the street truck. Then Bugsy leisurely drove out of town another 20 miles where we were all going to rendezvous in a cabin near a lake.
That night, everybody was drinking, celebrating and crowing about the prison break except me and Bugsy. We had another plan up our sleeves. You see, by this time, I knew Melvin Purvis was after me again and would somehow find me in an attempt to shoot me while I was trying to escape. Purvis was smart in one way, but not very smart in another. He let his temper get control of him. You just can not do that in the life of crime he and I were both in. He chased. I robbed and hid. It was our way.
I nursed one glass of whiskey for about two hours. Everyone but Bugsy Malone thought I was getting drunk. I even kept raising the bottle when the others were looking. I only drank one shot and that is when I heard the law begin to pull up. I knew I would need my faculties about me if I hoped to stay alive. We had paid off the owner of the cabin for a damaged back window and parked a pick up there, just outside of that back window, with a tarp in the truck bed.
You see, my plan was to live on after this cabin ambush, as I fully intended to return to my farm in Indiana with no more jail time and with no gun shot wounds. Right on cue, long about 10 p.m., the feds stormed the place. Tommy guns blared from both sides and the engines of our dozen or so cars jumped to life. Nobody got hurt in that deal either from our side, but I can not say the same for the law. I had taught my boys to shoot folks right between the eyes or not at all.
I did not want anyone getting up to shoot again after an assault from a Dillinger Gang member. I heard later they dropped a half a dozen feds getting the hell out of there. Me, I got out a different way. I heard the gunfire start up, took the handy hammer and broke out the back window of the cabin. It was built to stay shut, cheaper that way. Then I got into the truck bed and covered up with the tarp. Bugsy was already in the driver’s seat and instructed to take the path designated, right through the nearby orchard, and not to turn on the lights of the truck until he hit the road on the other side.
Then he was to drive real slow past the federal barricade, telling the coppers, if stopped, that his grandmother lived up the road a piece and was sick. He needed to go take her to the hospital, as his father had just called and said the old broad had seemingly had a heart attack. One agent did question him, but Bugsy was dressed as a dirt farmer in overalls and the agent bought his story. I left the scene, unharmed, and never even had to fire my gun. The Tommy Gun, of course, was in the truck bed with me.
A member of the “crowd behind the crowd” met us at a farm house up the way and I got into my overalls and drove myself back to Chicago in another pick up truck. Just 48 hours after being arrested there, I re-entered the same hotel and had breakfast with Birdie (Marvel). We got a good night’s sleep and went on the lamb the next day. Nobody ever even dreamed I would go back to the place they arrested me, but what the hell, it was already paid for and I needed somewhere to sleep.
We added several layers of cop proof schemes to our last half of a dozen robberies before that Hoover phone call about John Herbert Dillinger being killed put a quietist to my robbery days. They worked too. No more shoot outs and no more jail time – ever. Not one more law enforcement agency ever came near me again, the whole 96 years of my life – at least in connection to bank robbery.
I did get a speeding ticket once. Had to pay $26 for going through Kentucky in a hurry, to help my son with his wife who was having a nervous break down. I know. It is hard to believe. Me, John “Jack Rabbit” Dillinger, driving too fast. I got excited. I wanted to help John W. and Audrey. I kept that ticket the rest of my life. My grandson found it after I died.
That was a lot of keeping too. I got the ticket in 1965 and did not draw my last breath until Jan. 22, 1989. But anyway, we lost those cops that night back in 1934. I did my usual planning for a couple of weeks and then had a ball with my new money. We stuffed Birdie’s dancing outfit trunk with $20,000 more and blew about $5,000 that trip. That robbery where the deputy got killed was one of our biggest hauls. That also added to my friend Melvin Purvis losing his temper. Jail and a shoot out had made me need some serious time off.
But in exactly one month from the robbery where the sheriff’s deputy was shot to death, after hiring those other six body doubles to confuse the cops, I picked out a small bank on the east side of Indianapolis. We only got $80,000 that heist, but at least nobody got hurt and nobody had to fire a Tommy Gun.
In the next chapter, I will tell you about another thing I discovered robbing banks, the power of the press and a fan club. With all of the money we gave away, people started talking about how the Dillinger Gang members were a bunch of modern day Robin Hoods. I loved it, and used my fame to confuse old Melvin Purivs even more. That poor man killed himself after he shot John Herbert DIllinger, was told by his boss to quit the case, yet he knew in his heart that he had shot the wrong man. You see, John Herbert Dillinger was 5’6” tall and had brown eyes.
The bank robber, which Purvis had cuffed and put in prison, was 6’0” tall and I had bright blue eyes, some say as bright as the ocean on a sunny spring day. Again, I did what they said could not be done. I black mailed the United States government and lived a peaceful life as a farmer from 1934 until 1989. I sent my boy to medical school and graduate school in neurology with some of those unmarked $20 bills. I also sent my grandson to college for journalism and psychology. Both boys made out OK.
Everybody involved did fine, except for poor John Herbert, who it turns out did run because he was trying to protect his gal Birdie Lawrence and their unborn baby. It was a gallant move, but a lousy survival tactic. But Johnny knew the risk. I will miss him. But now, I must get a bit of sleep. You guessed it, another field of corn needs plowing in the morning, up here in West Heaven.
Remember to get back to me for Chapter 7. I will explain what it feels like to be Public Enemy Number One to some and good old Johnny Dillinger, the defender of the poor, to many others. I like to think I gave the common man a bit of hope at the tail end of the Great Depression, which was essentially the time in my life when Uncle Sam left us working folks out in the cold.
Dillinger Days: Chapter 7: How to use Rock Star status as a tool to hide out
Dillinger reveals how
his fans helped him
stay out of jail…
By JOHN NELSON
Tailgate News Editor
I really don’t know how my popularity grew so rapidly, other than our government during the Great Depression forgot about the little man.
As John “Jack Rabbit” Dillinger, AKA Public Enemy Number One, I concentrated mostly on getting the bank robberies out of the way, doing what I could to protect my gang members, and looking forward to once again becoming a full-time farmer in Indiana known as John Hans Nelson.
But somehow the differences from me and other bandits of that time frame were so distinct that I started to gain a following. The history books later said the public thought of me much like they did later of an Elvis Presley type rock legend. I don’t know how true that is, although I remember my grandson seemed pretty taken by rock singers when he was a teenager in the 1970’s.
But the year we are talking about today is 1934. John Herbert Dillinger was gunned down by Melvin Purvis outside of the Biograph Theater in Chicago in July of that year. Many folks dropped the rock star worship stuff when the biological Dillinger hit the ground. Only a few noticed that Purvis shot the wrong man and that John Herbert even failed at robbing a grocery store. Oh, after knowing the guy those two years that I did, I say he might have gotten away with one bank robbery – maybe. But the real Dillinger was no master mind. Time, at least, verified this assumption on my part.
As for me, I am not an ego maniac. I did some bad stuff in my lifetime and Jesus had His hands full finding it in His heart to forgive me. Robbing banks was probably not among my more ethical and favorable accomplishments. But what was, well that is just what was…
Frankly, I was glad when 1934 was over and done with. I was, of course, watching the traffic in and out of the Gray Funeral Home in Hagerstown, Indiana, when they had my visitation – probably around Jan. 23, 1989, as I died on Jan. 22 of that year. People showed up in gold plated Cadillacs. I knew them. They had been members of my gang, or else they were descendants of Dillinger gang members. My grandson Johnny did not know them, but he did not look very surprised that they showed up.
But getting back to our story, I want to tell you what it is like to hear news reports on how you can never be caught and how you are making a fool out of the law enforcement community. This, of course, was a lie. I was just blessed by God and good luck or my grave would have been occupied a whole lot quicker than it was.
At any rate, they sang songs about me. They tried to create photos that looked like me and my gang. They even ripped John Herbert Dillinger’s shirt off his still bleeding body on the night he was killed in Chicago to have what they called something to remember me by… Personally, I thought the whole thing was a crock. But it did work to my advantage, as I could get the general public to help with my robbery plans and it was simple to find somewhere to divide the loot – once my robbery habits took hold. I did my robberies by pattern for a reason. Not only was it considered stupid by Purvis and his gang, who just knew my patterns would be the death of me, it gave others cues who wanted to help me stay free of jail and bullets. So yes, I was Public Enemy Number One, but really I was just that to the law. Most folks in the Depression, who did not have a job, wished they could successfully rob a bank too. And I shared. Between me and my six body doubles, I expect we gave away nearly $100,000 to the poor, widowed and down trodden.
And just like in your culture, most people want something free. As to how many folks claimed to have known me and were lying, that is hard to say. All I know is I kept robbing in my old blue suit, light blue shirt and blue and black stripped tie. And I always wore a hat in those banks, to give it more of a gangster effect. For a summer robbery, I did not wear my overcoat. Otherwise I did wear it too.
I remember giving away loot too. I was never afraid to look for little old ladies doing laundry in poor neighborhoods, or young ladies with kids for that matter. I liked to approach them at the clothes line because it gave us a little privacy and it was easier to get the money in their possession and for me to walk away to where “the crowd behind a crowd” could help me get down a rabbit hole fairly quickly in case the law was around.
Illustrations of my giving always made the papers. Some said they got $100 in 20 dollar bills. Others claim I gave them $200. There was no set amount. I just gave and always said the same thing, “Hi there. I am John Dillinger and I want to help you make it through this depression. Here is a few dollars I don’t need that I want you to keep. You don’t owe me a thing. It is my gift to you because I know times are hard.”
Usually, this speech brought a smile and a quick acceptance of the money I offered. And they helped keep my rock star image alive.
I taught my body doubles to say pretty much the same thing so another pattern could be established. Don’t get me wrong, nobody nominated me for a Grammies award or anything that obvious. They just needed a hero, those poor people of the 1930’s, and I reckon I was as good as any to receive their hero status. Making a living was so hard. And folks who under normal circumstances were just working stiffs were reduced to standing in soup lines. This, for a working man, is not good on the self esteem.
I hid my money well my whole life. And in my older years, I made no secret that farming after I retired, did not make me a whole lot. I kept helping my renter, Bill Harter, because I enjoyed it so much. I even took government cheese when it was offered to me free.
If they knew I was worth $465,000 cash plus I owned two farms, it never interfered with the delivery of the cheese. I do not agree with a hand out welfare system. I do agree with a leg-up system and I wish there had been a better one in the 1930’s.
When my grandson Johnny researched what the history books said about my life, he found the part about me being an old version of a rock star amusing. Had I still been alive when he discovered it, I am sure the two of us would have had a good laugh.
John “Jack Rabbit” Dillinger was really no rock star. He was a creation of mine that helped me get away with 18 bank robberies and walk away from the whole scheme with about a quarter of a million dollars. Once the thing was done, I never went back to it.
Even though the law kept its promise, so the public would not know that I was still alive, the bank robber lived, way after they shot John Herbert Dillinger, I always figured there might be an assassination attempt.
So I kept in touch with “the crowed behind the crowd” and I lived free but with some caution. My rock star status helped me stay alive for 55 more years after my last robbery.
In the next chapter, I will tell you what it was like to avoid assassination once I resumed my personal identity, and how Uncle Sam has some pretty swell paid assassins. So did I.
If you are going to black mail a government, always assume there will be repercussions. I would not be surprised if Uncle Sam attacks my grandson for writing this novel.
But alas, he knows some pretty smart killers too. We all do what we must, and what we have to, if we want to enjoy another day.
Chapter 8: Dillinger Days – Surviving as a farmer after 1934
By JOHN NELSON
Tailgate News Editor
Dillinger again. I hope this revelation of the life of a bank robber/farmer has been interesting to you. In this chapter, I will reveal to you how my survival instinct, and my desire to avoid legal confrontation, evolved after I retired from my bank robbery days.
After my last conversation with J. Edgar Hoover, and our deal that I would stop robbing banks if he would be sure to leave me and mine alone to live a peaceful life, I got off the phone and immediately began to have my doubts that the US government would let me get away with robbery – especially since one of the bank robberies involved the murder of a United States deputy sheriff by Baby Face Nelson.
Marvel and I returned to Hagerstown, Indiana and tried to get along as though none of this had ever happened. “The Crowd Behind the Crowd” knew better and kept me informed as to what Hoover had up his sleeve, if anything. For months, there seemed to be nothing to it but a bunch of cautious paranoia by me and mine.
We got the word that Melvin Purvis killed himself when he realized his bank robber was given a free pass back to the legal world, along with $250,000 in unmarked $20 bills. Purvis knew right after the shooting that John Herbert was not the man who robbed all of those banks. He saw his brown eyes and noted his 5’6” height and recalled that I had blue eyes and was about 6 feet tall…
While it bothered me that my sparing partner killed himself, I plowed another row and tried to put the whole 18 months out of my head. I got a call one night from Bugsy Malone, who said the FBI was still on his tail. If he knew anything about a secret plot to kill me, he did not say anything.
The days turned into weeks, then into months and then to years. Marvel and I raised our boy and sent him to medical school. “The Crowd Behind the Crowd” kept in touch, but Hoover never violated his agreement. I always kept a loaded 12 gauge shotgun behind my front door and fish line handy to take off a head if necessary. My grandson noted these weapons as he grew up many years later on the farm.
Once my son was accused of murder. John Woolard Nelson was in medical school and working with dead body parts for an examination. A security guard saw him putting a few in a dumpster as he finished his analysis. They cuffed the medical student and called me and Marvel. I got there within an hour or two, as he was in medical school at Indiana University in Bloomington.
I told the cop who I was and that I wanted my boy released from jail. The cop made some phone calls and released John W within the hour. I know our medical school student was very embarrassed about the whole thing, but no further investigation into the incident ever happened. I smiled to myself at the simplicity of getting him released.
That happened in the 40’s. It seemed my case was dropped. One of my grandson’s friends claimed a government assassin had shot me with a 22 bullet on my death bed at 96, but that never happened. As the years went by after 1934, it seemed the legend of Johnny “Jack Rabbit” Dillinger faded further and further into the memories of the public.
Now and then, while at the kitchen table, my wife Marvel would talk of her dancing days, her Chesterfield cigarettes and Coke when the cola still had kick. I usually did not respond to her speech. We had set out to get a stake of money to farm and that is what we did. It really never crossed my mind to go back to bank robbery.
I felt lucky to have gotten out of the profession and to have another chance to think more on raising hogs, milking cows and plowing fields of corn and soybeans. In other words, I could now afford to live my dream and to even help the poverty stricken farmers around me.
So really, as far as cops and robbers stuff after July of 1934, there is not much to tell. Nothing, that is, except what myself and good friends went through to check and double check on a regular basis. We had spys all over the federal legal system listening for a plot to kill me that never happened.
The only thing that I could ever figure was that Hoover kept his word so as not to risk the embarrassment of it coming out that John Dillinger the bank robber got off Scott free. The rumor was Mr. Hoover was just glad to be done with the Dillinger mess and really did not give a damn that I was a free man farming the land. I did manage to get some of the Dillinger gang cars brought to my farm and put on my back 40 acres. My grandson asked me when he went back there to hunt what all of those holes were from in those old car bodies?
I told him they were made by Tommie Guns in a world way before his time. He asked what a Tommie Gun was? I told him it was an early version of the machine gun. He seemed satisfied at the time, but would connect a lot of dots in the future about the Dillinger gang and his grandfather.
My days were simple. I worked form 3 a.m. (getting up to milk 16 cows) until nearly 11 p.m. on my farming. I was one of the few farmers who did not have two or three jobs in the 10 years that followed the Great Depression.
The feed man always stopped at my place first to deliver, as I always paid them in $20 bills… cash on the barrel head. I am sure that started some tongues wagging in our neighborhood but nobody ever questioned me about it. I used to fish with the town cop and he never brought the subject up.
The 50’s saw my son in the military and United States Army Capt. John W. Nelson took a wife, Audrey Hancock. of Indianapolis (a family decendent of “the Crowd behind the Crowd”). Both were medical doctors. “The Crowd Behind the Crowd” arranged for their meeting.
The couple produced John Hancock Nelson, my grandson who is writing this book. Their careers took their time and divorce resulted after 9 years of marriage. It so happened that my wife Marvel and I took care of their child on our farm from the time he was seven months old.
As a precaution, I never signed any legal documents and so therefore the adoption of young Johnny was by Marvel. Custody papers were drawn up claiming John W. and Marvel as those in charge. For the most part, Marvel and I lived quiet and to ourselves in rural Indiana. We had many friends curious about those $20 bills we used to pay expenses, but nobody ever said anything about the bank robberies. Most apparently did not make the connection.
I had done what they said was impossible. I had taken back enough money from the government to farm and reinvest in government bonds. Since my name was not involved directly with the Dillinger gang, I could vote, I could laugh, I could love, I could live.
As the gamblers always told me, you had to know when to leave the table. There was one other instance when I got a bit worried. My grandson had become involved in trying to fight white slavery down in Florida for a couple of years and then returned to Indianapolis to re-enter college back in 1980.
The police had a meeting with him one night after he participated in busting some pimps and discussed the senseless murders committed by the Charlie Manson gang.
Manson had started out in Indianapolis and moved to Los Angeles, Calif. I heard about the meeting from “the Crowd behind the Crowd” and had my fish line in hand when I opened the door for Johnny around midnight.
I realized it was him and put the line in my pocket. Even at the age of 87, my freedom was important to me and I was not going to be invaded by a bunch of fools if I had anything to say about it. Fish line, applied with force to a neck, can cause a bit of damage in a close-up encounter…
But alas, no gooneys came to my door. It was just Johnny, wanting to go to bed. As to recommending my way of financing a business, I would hesitate to do so.
You see, it takes a lot of planning to get away with the impossible. For some reason, the good Lord must have wanted me to do so, as the whole task came natural to me.
I was simply a determined man who changed his life circumstances in a rather public way. But again, Hoover kept his word about leaving me alone in my back robbery retirement. And I kept mine about never robbing another bank. On another note, “the Crowd behind the Crowd” tried to fix my grandson up with a college girl named Julie Bigalow, another decendent of my gang. They were good friends but never got into the marriage bed.
In the next chapter, we will switch gears a bit. I will take you back to the bank robbery days and let you hear from Marvel, while she posed as Birdie, and what the transaction from peaceful farm wife to flapper dancer was like. Marvel has agreed to tell you what she thought during my comings and goings and what her life on a day to day basis was like in Chicago. And of course, she will also tell you about our trips on the lamb.
We especially loved Florida and had our eyes on a houseboat to live in when we retired from farming. But taking care of little Johnny was more important than that idea. Besides, I never did want to give up farming.
The traffic roars of the the roadsters outside of the dance hall windows, and the sounds of the 1930’s music, still echo in my head from time to time. I can still see that address post, 602 Main Street, Chicago, Illinois, where I walked in many a night out of the cold – ready for some married folk time and to just put robbing banks out of my mind for a little while.
Yes, a slice of life of one of our afternoons together, and the subsequent talk, just might interest you. Read on if you dare.
Chapter 9: Marvel tells what life was like as a wife to a bank robber
By JOHN NELSON
Tailgate News Editor
My name is Marvel May Woolard Nelson and while on earth I was the wife of John Hans Nelson, alias John “Jack Rabbit” Dillinger. I would like to start out by saying that I know my husband was a farmer from the time I met him back in 1914 at a dance in Morris, Illinois until his last dying breath on Jan. 22, 1989.
Like his grandson Johnny, who is a journalist through and through, John Hans was a farmer through and through. But one year all of our hogs died of the cholera and John Hans needed money. He had been a card shark and pool hustler in Chicago before we got married in 1918. He took a ragged breath and announced to me that he knew how to get some fast cash.
He said he could raise the $5,000 we needed to get more hogs and the vaccination serum needed to make sure the new batch did not also contract cholera. I knew what he meant. I may be the daughter of a wealthy ditch dredger and 32nd degree Mason, but I was not born yesterday. John was headed for the joints in Indianapolis and Chicago, two cities he knew very well.
My dad, Clint Woolard, would have loaned us the $5,000 in a heart beat. I also had $20,000 that I could access at anytime in my life if I needed it before my parents passed away. John Hans would not hear of it. He did not want my “god damn Woolard money.” Or so that is what he told me, as his pride swelled. He grew up a poor farmer, struggling to make it in Morris. I tried to understand. But looking back, life might have been a bit easier if he had a little less pride.
My John took off and told me he would see me when he was a bit more flush. We kissed goodbye in early 1933 and began an 18-month adventure that I will never forget. I too reside here in West Heaven, where the outlaws’ wives also never die.
I passed away on October 31, 1988 at the age of 92. I might have made it a bit longer, but I left some cottage cheese in the refrigerator that gave me food poisoning. They said my immune system could not help me recover from it. And so, a few months later, I died.
But in January of 1933, it was snowing outside on the night my husband kissed me goodbye. Oh, John always said so long. We neither one have ever really believed in goodbyes. I was always a calm, yet fairly cheerful girl. I got depressed sometimes and wrung my hands a bit when things looked complicated, but I never tried to end my life.
The night my love took off, I cried myself to sleep. I would back that man no matter what. As I told my grandson years later, “Your Grandpa may be a horse’s ass, but he is my horse’s ass!” And indeed he always has been. Oh he probably had sex before we got married with my cousin Myrtle Writer, but that was OK with me. Just like me being a virgin was fine with him. There would be time for all that stuff as life progressed, he always said.
Well I heard from him every night for the whole month he was gone from me. At first, he made a few bucks with cards and pool cues and I did not think a whole lot of this deal. I figured he would get his $5,000 and head to the house. Boy was I ever in for a surprise when John Hans Nelson met John Herbert Dillinger in a bar one night. I can not recall if it was in Indianapolis or Chicago and it really does not matter. My old man called me and said he was now a bank robber in training.
Woo Nellie, I thought. This was unexpected. He called me again and told me he was organizing the John Dillinger gang and in this movie he would play John Dillinger. I smiled. I figured the natural born comedian would find some way to be a star. And by golly he did.
I asked John where I fit into all of this? He told me I was soon to be a woman of the road, as John Herbert Dillinger and Birdie Lawrence were going to move into our farm house and look after things for a couple of years. I said, Ok so what do you want me to do? He told me I was in this movie too and the script said I had to pretend to be Birdie Lawrence, a Chicago flapper. In short, I had a dancing career ahead of me.
Since I did not know John Herbert and Birdie at the time, I asked my John if my mother, Mary Woolard, and my father, Clint, could take care of our son, John W.? Our son was 5 at the time. John Hans said sure Marvel, but Johnny will have to be brought to the farm for regular visits to make this thing look believable. I agreed without hesitation. I had always wanted to dance anyway.
John and Birdie arrived at the farm and they seemed like nice people. John Herbert was a farmer too, having grown up just down the road in Mooresville. Birdie loved John Herbert and would have followed him anywhere. She was my kind of gal.
I stayed with them about a week to get my parents and my son used to the idea and then I took off for parts unknown. Well, unknown to most. Me, I knew I was headed for a dance hall on Main Street in Chicago, Illinois. I did not have clothes for such a thing. Birdie and I were about the same size so we swapped outfits. It worked out pretty well.
When John Herbert Dillinger and Birdie Lawrence stood on our porch waving goodbye to me as I drove my old black roadster north, they almost looked like Maw and Paw Kettle at the silent picture show. I smiled and got a hitch in my trot for Chicago. My husband always complained that I drove way too fast. Wow was that Chicago dance hall different than what this Eastern Star farm girl was used to. But being in the Masonic Lodge family, I had my own “Crowd Behind the Crowd” to keep me safe. I was not worried about my safety, just about John’s.
I had all the identification papers of Birdie Lawrence. Of course, she was a brunette and I was a blonde so I had to use some of that new fangled hair coloring. I hated that part, but a girl has to do what a girl has to do.
I arrived at my new job and met my boss, someone named Machine Gun Kelley. I figured he was a pretty nice guy for having such a weird name. I smiled. He smiled and welcomed me to his establishment. Then he showed me to my rooms, a bedroom, living room and kitchenette. But for one person, it was not too bad.
I had no dance training. I just watched the other Flappers and caught on pretty quickly. As I mentioned earlier, John and I had met at a dance in Morris, Illinois and he always said I could move myself pretty good for a rich kid. I actually had a lot of fun dancing and throwing my legs up in the air on cue. Machine Gun Kelley never criticized me. He said my husband was too scary to buck. But he said it with a twinkle in his eyes.
I think Johnny Dillinger (John Hans) was right about my address. It seems to me that dance hall and boarding house was at 602 Main Street in good old Chicago. I got used to the constant sound of roadsters and horns. It was definitely different than the mooing of our cows back home. Machine Gun and I had a lot of heart to heart talks. If it was not for that, it would have been a lot harder 18 months for me. I liked the man but that was as far as it went. Johnny came to see me every month, to go on the Lamb as he called it. We usually spent about a week together after his trail cooled down from the latest heist.
There was this big hope chest at the foot of my bed. That is where Johnny and me stashed all of those famous $20 bills. I saw a side of that man I had never known before. He was still sweet and kind to me, but he did have a scary side to those people he was suspicious of, and frankly, that included one helleva lot of people.
My Johnny was concerned about my worsening addictions to Coke and to Chesterfield cigarettes. I also loved Mogen David wine. I used all three a lot in 1933 and 1934. Coke a Cola had real cocaine in it back then and of course that was my favorite addiction. Still, I made it though Johnny getting arrested twice, shot in one ambush that he has yet to tell you about and just the overall thing of being a fish out of water.
When I finally made it back to Hagerstown, my baby John W. was 6 years old. I don’t think my absence from his life hurt our relationship much. He was always a Momma’s boy and still is, or so I believe. Our grandson, who is writing this, was just the opposite. He thinks more like John Hans than he wants to admit. Well maybe he does admit that the apple does not fall far from the tree.
During our living years, I believe John Hancock Nelson would have taken down anyone who ever tried to hurt John Hans, just like John Hans would have taken down anyone who tried to hurt his grandson. They were relatives. Grandpa took the role of daddy, so to speak. But they were also best friends, and quite inseparable.
But back to 1933. I will let John “Jack Rabbit” Dillinger have his story back from here.
Well, Marvel was Birdie back then. I would show up to take her out on the Lamb about two weeks into the month before another bank robbery was scheduled. Sometimes we would take a trip. Other times we would just stay in her apartment and enjoy each other’s company. She danced every night she was there so I always went to her performances. Melvin Purvis did not come around to arrest me because Machine Gun Kelley would have killed him and he knew it. That fellow was one of my top hit men.
One afternoon with Birdie in her apartment stands out in my mind. A dream come true is all I will say… It was after bank robbery number four, which memory tells me happened about April of 1933. That heist was in Indianapolis, over by Michigan Avenue, at a First National Bank. We just used one get away car that time and so my cut was pretty good. I think I cleared nearly $30,000 in $20 bills on that one. We robbed the joint in the fashion I have described, with what I must admit was the most cooperation I had ever had from tellers and even a bank president.
The bank president’s name was George Swegman. He would later have a son named Frank Swegman, who married my wife’s cousin Barbara, her first cousin Marian’s daughter. What a couple. Frank was a few inches higher than me and Barbara was not even 5 feet tall. At any rate, George more or less had the loot rounded up and waiting for me. The Crowd Behind the Crowd had encouraged me to rob that one and I soon found out why.
Frank became vice president of a First National Bank in Richmond, Indiana, a small city about 18 miles from our farms. I used to love it when he visited. I am not sure he realized I knew his daddy. But I got my loot quick when I robbed George’s bank, headed for a nearby barn to divide it with my gang members who helped me that day, and we said our goodbyes for about three weeks when we would meet up to go over plans for the next heist.
I wanted to go straight home to Birdie, but I knew the trail had to get cold for at least a week. Besides, I had to look ahead to the next robbery and make sure Melvin Purvis was decidedly confused about me as usual. As I said before, Melvin was a smart man and a good honest cop. I think we could have been friends if I had met him earlier in life.
So I took out of Indy in my black roadster Ford, headed for one of my favorite haunts after a robbery, Blytheville, Arkansas. The place got the nickname of Little Chicago mostly because gangsters liked to party there. My grandson would be editor in Blytheville of a twice weekly newspaper about a million years later. They still called it Little Chicago in 1988, when he first moved there.
So I stashed my share of the loot in my trunk, in a potato sack underneath a bunch of farmer’s overalls, that I had taken with me from my farm. I wore overalls and my farmer’s hat when I was in hiding to throw off the law and because I wanted to do so. I got me a room and then took a drive out to Walker’s Park, where I just sat around feeding the ducks bread crumbs for a while. I liked to relax like that after a robbery to just think through things and plot. In my line of work, you had to be a plotter. And you had to convince other people you were going to do one thing and then do something totally different. It was part of the life and I knew that very well.
I plotted out a bank robbery in Chicago this time, figuring it was about time to hit the downtown Merchant’s Bank in the bad district. You know, on the south side of Chicago. I ran into Al Capone during that robbery plan. Me and him never saw eye to eye. He believed in lying too much to suit me. I shot straight with my boys. Al just did what he had to do to win at any cost.
Don’t get me wrong. He never interfered with our operation, but he did try to buy me and control me. I once pointed a Tommy Gun at his head after one of his gooneys pulled a knife on me in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Thus the historical quote, “Mr. Capone. What the hell is wrong with you? Don’t you know better than to bring a knife to a gun fight?”
I thought about icing him right then and there, but figured I could not afford the trouble. We got along after a fashion most of my two years in the crime business, but that was only because he knew I could have him killed in his sleep and there was not a damn thing he could do about it.
But back to my storyline, I sat there at Walker Park, feeding the ducks and planning the Merchant’s Bank heist in South Chicago for three weeks hence. And I had taken about $1,000 of blow money out of my trunk. I missed my gal bad and could not wait to go back to Chicago to be with “Birdie.” She was right about me. I had my share of women before I married her on November 23, 1918, but I retired from the dating scene after that. I had her and that was all I needed. I promise you I never anticipated putting my wife through the hell of worrying two years about getting a telephone call that her husband was dead, shot up or behind bars, but that is just the way it goes. All in all, she took being a bank robber’s wife pretty well. In Chapter 10, I will tell you about an ambush where I got shot in the shoulder. The damn thing always bothered me some when I had to shovel snow after that. “Arthur Ritus” I guess.
Dillinger Days: Chapter 10: The Ambush That Was Almost Fatal
Guns blaze when
the stakes are high…
By JOHN NELSON
Tailgate News Editor
In life, whether you are a bank robber or a farmer, your luck runs out now and again. That is what happened to me in October of 1933. I would go through two arrests, two escapes from those cages (one jail, one penitentiary), a successful escape from an ambush designed to kill me and a lot of rabbit traps set by the law.
It would end up being an 18-month adventure I would never forget. Johnny “Jack Rabbit” Dillinger again. Yes, this is me. And yes, I am going to tell you about an ambush that did not turn out too well. As I said, it was early October of 1933, and the corn was ready to harvest. I had set my sites on a bank on the east side of Indianapolis. It was another First National and I was feeling the heat of Melvin Purvis and his crew bearing down on me and mine. I had two cars this go around and a crew of eight guys with Tommy Guns, counting me. The robbery went OK.
We got out of the bank, put the loot in the trunks of both cars – about half in each, as always when we used two rides. But something just did not feel right. I slowly pulled the lead car away and headed back down Post to find a country road I had discovered that leads to another country road that leads to the barn where a farmer and his wife had lemonade and cookies waiting on us.
Yes, the rock star – Public Enemy Number One – image was nationwide now. This was especially true in our home base state of Indiana.
The Hanners were really nice people. My grandson would meet their descendents when he came back from his Florida adventures in 1980.
Bill and Susan made some great chocolate chip cookies. We answered a few of their questions and divided the loot evenly. Then we said our goodbyes and thank you’s to our wonderful hosts. I told the guys I would see them in three weeks and a member of the “Crowd Behind the Crowd” pulled up to take me to a safe house. I looked at my share of the money and split it up a little. Something was wrong and I knew it in my soul. The other men took off in their scattered directions.
We were about half way to Kendelville, where I was to be spending the night, when we saw the road block. Purvis… He had managed to trace me good this time. I ordered my driver, Harry Buchanan, to stop the car, or at least slow it down before the guns at the block up ahead came into range. Buchanan knew that tone in my voice. He hit the brakes and I jumped out, running with my Tommy Gun down some corn rows.
I would double back to the Hanner farm. It was a long way off, but I have a pretty good sense of direction. Sure, I had thought this out as usual, but this was definitely not my first choice ending. I ran and I ran toward that farm where I planned to re-enter the barn where more guns and ammunition were waiting. I got through the fourth cornfield and saw the barn up ahead.
I hated this. I knew that family would be waiting and willing to help, but bloodshed was my least favorite part of being a bank robber. The thought of decent people being killed or injured just made me feel awful down deep inside.
I saw the barn but I knew there was 200 yards of clear space before I could enter the building. I also knew the coppers were everywhere and had probably figured out what I was up to. I heard them before I saw them. Burning rubber was everywhere and the Tommy Guns were blazing, mine as well. As soon as I heard the familiar sound, I started rolling toward the barn. I would roll and shoot, roll and shoot and then I came to the family well. I used it as a shield but felt something warm running down my shoulder. I realized it was blood and that I had been shot.
I paid the wound no never mind. Now that I had something to hide behind I began picking off cops like they were crows back on the farm, always aiming for their heads. I killed six of them and the Tommy Gun noise stopped. I ran to the barn and Hanner threw me another Tommy Gun. It saved reload time and I was grateful to the man. Bill smiled, nodded and grabbed a gun too. Then we looked outside, expecting more coppers. All we saw was six corpses and their guns remained silent.
Apparently Purvis and the rest were still searching cornfields and I had taken out this little band that had actually discovered their prey. Bill motioned for me to come to a truck shed and I fired up his 1928 Dodge fishing truck. He smiled again and said, “Good luck Johnny D. Keep it, its paid for!”
I put the truck in first gear and heard his final words to me, “Jack Rabbit, that shoulder looks bad. You better head to the west side of Indy and have Uncle John take a look.”
I took the old man’s advice. Uncle John was a country doctor who told no tales. He was in the family of the “Crowd Behind the Crowd” and I did not need an appointment. I made it to Uncle John’s in about an hour. I had lost a lot of blood, but when I got down the road a bit I tore my shirt and wrapped the wound.”
I would not like to say that I had found a viciousness known only to those trying to survive a gun fight, but I had. As I drove to Uncle John’s, I thought of Marvel and the farm. Yes I know, she was playing Birdie on the dance floor that night, but to me, she was always my Marvel May, the rich girl who had married the poor dirt farmer. I later found out the coppers got my bag of loot out of Buchanan’s ride.
You can’t win them all. I still had my secret $10,000 in $20 bills that I took off the top for being the master mind of the Dillinger Gang. I also had a little spending money that I had taken from my loot bag before it went into Buchanan’s ride. It was in my overcoat lining, down deep in a special pouch, just next to the bigger pouch that held the 10 grand for the hope chest. I never did see any reason to walk away empty handed after working a heist.
Still, Buchanan’s truck carried $20,000 more and that had went back to the bank vaults. On that chilly October day, it was the price to stay alive – $20,000 in lost loot… I drove leisurely into Uncle John’s driveway. He recognized me from his window and came out on the porch.
“Had a little trouble Doc. Can you take a look at my shoulder?” He did not reply but just motioned for me to come on in. He removed a bullet, then another and then a final one. When you get hit with Tommy Gun fire, there is usually more than one slug in you.
Uncle John told me one of them was just four inches from a main artery. I smiled. He smiled. I got my overcoat back on over my torn shirt. Then I reached inside to the smaller pouch with the extra loot from the car bag and got my doctor some money. He put up his hand and shook his head but I put about 10 $20 bills in his hand.
“Cheap till the end,” I said. “Even for a necessary house call.”
Uncle John took the $200 and laughed. He said, “Put the rest toward farming Johnny. You will make it someday. We are all praying for you.”
I shook hands with my old friend and got back in the Dodge fishing truck. It looked like I might need some gasoline. I stopped and bought some, after changing into my overalls at Uncle John’s and stuffing the overcoat in the tool box in the truck bed. I also got my favorite old leather farmer’s hat out and put away the robbery Derby. I was not too much of a praying man back then, but I remember cranking that old truck when I left Doc’s and looking up to give God a thank you and a wink. I felt His presence smiling on me.
Still, as I headed for Chicago, I realized it might be about time to pull that black mail card we have already told you about. In fact, it was during that particular trip to Chicago that I first came up with my insurance plan to go back into farming without legal ramifications. I somehow sensed the law would catch John Herbert… And if they did corner him, I did not believe he would survive it. This is the same guy who got arrested after robbing a grocery store because his driver panicked. Judging character was part of surviving in my gangster world. I never did buy that John Herbert understood that.
Still yet, we almost had it the other way. If he had not panicked and told Birdie to run back into the theater that fatal night, nobody would have shot her. Once he saw her inside, John Herbert could have sat down in front of the crowd, with his hands up. I think J. Edgar Hoover would have honored our deal and let him go quietly within a month for lack of evidence, making sure the press never knew about his release. Their police work would have discovered, as planned by me and Hoover, that he was obviously not the guy responsible for robbing all of the damn banks.
But alas, it did not happen that way. They killed John Herbert. My black mail would have worked either way. Either way the only thing J. Edgar Hoover wanted was those robberies to stop and for the press to report that John Dillinger had been caught – or shot dead as it happened. And he knew all I wanted was to go back into farming and be left alone with my quarter of a million dollars in unmarked bills. John Herbert lost his life trying to protect the love of his life and their unborn child because of poor planning…
My shoulder hurt from the bandages over those bullet holes on the way to Chicago. It had been a long day and I was headed for Machine Gun Kelley’s dance hall, devil be damned. I did not want any more traveling or trouble for awhile. Time to hit the hay, so to speak, with Marvel (Birdie the dancer just then)and a good slug of Jack Daniel’s whiskey. I was hoping the combination would help the pain in my shoulder. It did.
Machine Gun greeted me at the door and gave a quick look around. Then he gave me the nod to park my truck and come on in. Machine Gun was one of the most vicious killers in my gang. As I said before, coppers left that dance hall alone. It stayed guarded like Fort Knox. The guards knew that if a Dillinger Gang member got shot on the way in, out or inside, by a copper or any opposing force, Machine Gun Kelley would personally send them to their graves. That was a lot of incentive to do a job right.
I took the overcoat out of the toolbox and put it on before I entered the club. I also put on my bank robbing costume hat. Machine Gun saw my shoulder and the holes in the coat that had occurred right before the bullets entered my body. Marvel would later sew up my bank robbing coat so you could hardly see those holes. She was good with a needle back then. But on that night, Machine Gun Kelley looked nervous when he saw evidence of bullet entries in Johnny Dillinger.
I told him the story of the day and he began to relax. Then he said, “Boss, I am sorry you had to ice those six cops. I know how much you hate killing.”
I smiled and put my right hand on his shoulder. The left side of my body hurt too much to raise my left arm without a lot of pain. “Thanks for being my friend Machine Gun,” I said to the man.
We entered the club and the eight deadbolts were reset. Birdie had already been told I was home early and came off of the dance stage to see why. “Have to plan the next heist from here Marvel,” I said. She looked at the shoulder and started sobbing.
This woman hardly ever cried so that sort of got to my heart. Rough heist, I said. Only got the $10,000 in the overcoat, plus maybe a couple of grand to blow. But hey, money is money.
She was not listening, just looking at the bullet holes in the coat. I told her the story of the day and she started to calm down. John, she said, I wish we could just go home…
I held my sobbing wife and silently wished the same thing. In July of 1934, our wish would come true. We actually did the last heist in June of 1934 and cleared out of the Chicago apartment at the dance hall. John Herbert and Birdie were heading for Chicago for his nose operation, which actually made him look more like the bank robber.
You see, we wanted Purvis to believe he really had the bank robber, Johnny “Jack Rabbit” Dillinger long enough to arrest him and the natural small bone bump on my nose, which my grandson inherited, was further proof for the coppers that they had the right man. Yes, John Herbert knew the plan me and J. Edgar had cooked up to get the bank robber caught and the bank jobs stopped so the farmer and his wife could go home to Hagerstown. John Herbert had plans to stay in Chicago with Birdie after his release and raise their child together on his share of the loot. He planned to start over with the name Jimmy Lawrence. I understand he wanted to buy a mechanic garage and gas station so they could live a quiet life.
But that night in October of 1933, it was me, my wife, a bottle of whiskey and a very sore shoulder. It was the first time I had ever been shot and ended up being the last time – even though I walked the earth until Jan. 22, 1989 and died in the hospital from congestive heart failure at 96. I actually stopped being pleased to live because Marvel died a few months earlier and I could not picture life without her…
In the next chapter, I will tell you about the night Marvel and I took the keys to our life on the farm back from John Herbert and Birdie.
It was a happy time and we were all four trying to be optimistic that the worst was over. I will also tell you about how Birdie came back to live with us for a while after John Herbert was killed.
She had to pick up the rest of her share of the loot and needed somewhere to have a baby. Jimmy Lawrence Jr. was born there in our farm house with Dr. Robert Miller making a house call back in 1935.
Read on and join me as I put a few more pieces of unwritten history together for you.
Dillinger Days: Chapter 11 – The real story of John Herbert’s death…
Did Dillinger want
to die or was he
trying to save Birdie?
By JOHN NELSON
Tailgate News Editor
Dillinger here. In this chapter I am going to concentrate on revealing a little about tea leaves and the night John Herbert Dillinger was shot and killed in front of the Biograph Theater in Chicago, Illinois.
Let me see now. First I must give you an approximate time of this occurrence. It was hot and it was July in 1934. The country was in a full-scale uproar about my bank robberies and we planned to make one final heist near the capital in Indianapolis. I picked my favorite banking company this time; First National Bank.
I loved those guys because of Frank Swegman’s father, George Swegman, helping me get my loot at one of the branches a few months back. We had gotten the “Crowd Behind The Crowd” and Lady Luck accustomed to all of this robbery stuff and so I had not experienced any intervention from FBI Agent Melvin Purvis in three months. We finally, or so it seemed, had a bigger organization of defense, than the United States saw fit to put out in offense to catch Public Enemy Number One, AKA Johnny “Jack Rabbit” Dillinger. Either that, or they were concentrating on a planned assassination and end to the spree without actually even coming near me.
But my robbery was set for 2 p.m. on a day about a week after the assassination attempt. John Herbert and I were as ready as we were ever going to be. I had told him about the possibility that Birdie would be by his side when the coppers got there. I had advised him to send her running back into the theater so she did not get in the way of any Tommy Gun fire. She was in a family way and so John Herbert was very nervous when I spoke with him, but he agreed to my plan.
He was to yell, “Go back in the theater Birdie and don’t worry!” Then he was to sit his ass down on the pavement, raise his hands and scream, “I give up!”
I let him know that any other course of action would get him killed. He smiled and said it would be no problem to do it my way. I smelled a rat, but smiled at him anyway. Nobody will ever know if he panicked and got killed or if he was simply tired of living. I choose to believe the former, as he had a woman ready to marry him and a child on the way – plus he had nearly $150,000 in cash that would be his in 30 to 60 days to start over with. It was his cut of the 18 robberies for letting us use his already tarnished name.
I aint no expert on suicide, but Jessie James killed himself using the law as a gun. It is certainly possible John Herbert Dillinger, of Mooresville, Indiana did the same damn thing. I hope not, but that is just me. I would have sat down on that pavement after my girl was in a safe harbor and completed the plan that J. Edgar Hoover and myself had cooked up.
But for whatever the reason, Johnny ran. Purvis and his crew of killers yelled, “Police Dillinger, stop!” I heard they only said it once. John Herbert took off down a street at full speed. Maybe he thought he could get away, but I doubt it. Birdie was left standing outside of the theater to witness the whole thing. That was something else I did not plan, and it was a damn shame…
Pardon me while I take another sip of my coffee. That is something else about West Heaven I have never told you. You can abuse your vices all you want, as nothing can really do much to a Celestial body once the transformation is complete. Thank you Jehovah God for a darn good cup of Joe.
But back to my story. John Herbert Dillinger was about 44 when he bit the dust in 1934. I was actually 42, but our ages were close enough that it never made any difference. The spray of Tommy Gun fire hit Dillinger with a passion and Purvis fired the first round. The Crowd Behind the Crowd, led by Machine Gun Kelley, killed four of his henchmen in the process – but of course history never told you about that. Still, it did no good. Kelley tried to cover me one last time. He did make it out alive. Bless his loyal heart.
When the biological Mr. Dillinger went down, innocent people swarmed his body for souvenirs. They took bloody cloth from his bullet ridden shirt and the coppers had a helleva time getting the damn body into their meat wagon. Kelley went to a pay phone and told me what had gone down. I responded with one sentence. My grandson says I cuss too much so I will not repeat it here…
And yes, a Celestial body can cry. Marvel and I are sitting at our farmhouse kitchen table in West Heaven as I tell you this, both in tears. Birdie was so hurt that day. As to Dillinger, he got what he deserved, according to the law. According to me, he took my shower of gunfire for me. But we all have free will. I certainly would have done it different if I were him, but we all choose our own story in life. Any other belief is contradictory to the Christian Bible and simply a lie some folks tell themselves when they blame others for their misfortune.
Johnny Herbert Dillinger died in a pool of blood. His father and sister claimed the body. Old Bud Dillinger and Audrey Hancock must have been told by the “Crowd Behind the Crowd” to be there at the funeral home to get him. And they were there, as planned. But what a horrible plan it was.
John Herbert Dillinger was really not a bad man, and certainly no gangster type like I am. He allowed his name to be used in what history would record as the most successful series of bank robberies in the United States of America. As far as I know, even in your 2015, I still hold that record.
Just after receiving the call from Machine Gun Kelley, I called J. Edgar Hoover on his private line. He apologized and swore he had not planned on killing John Herbert. I believed him. John Herbert killed himself, whether for Birdie or just because he was apparently tired of living. Only John Herbert knows the answer to that and his ghost is not here to tell you.
God will not tell me and Marvel what happened to Dillinger after he died. God does not allow further information to enter heaven to cause us additional pain. For all we know, he may be in another part of heaven. Marvel and I choose to hope so. And the subject is left at that – at least up here in West Heaven.
At any rate, Bud and Audrey retrieved the body and hauled it back to Indianapolis for burial. Birdie stayed in their Chicago apartment for a week and cried. She threw things. She screamed and she cried a river of tears. They held the body in stay awhile. Birdie finally made the trip to Indianapolis and they proceeded with Johnny’s funeral. Hundreds, if not thousands of rock star fans showed up.
I went to the funeral, with Machine Gun Kelley and his crew by my side. They had Tommy Guns, loaded for bear. I was unarmed and in my farmer’s overalls. Marvel wore one of those rich girl’s black dresses with a vale. I came away from that funeral mad as hell. I said nothing. And as my grandson learned many years later, silence, for a gangster, is the most deadly state known to the gangs…
Machine Gun Kelley and his crew never had to fire a shot. Purvis was there. We talked a little. He wanted to kill me, but he was not a suicidal man and figured if he gunned me down he would either die in a rain of gunfire or at least lose his job and go to jail for murder one. So he passed on his emotional feelings.
I remember the man looking into my ocean blue eyes and no doubt picturing me in my bank robber’s suit. That damn thing, and the overcoat, were hanging in my Hagerstown farm closet. I rarely wore them anymore. I black mailed J. Edgar Hoover the day before the funeral. I told him about the heist planned in Indianapolis for the next week. He called me a son of a bitch and informed me I could not black mail the United States government! I said fine. I would talk to him after the heist.
There was silence on his end of the telephone and finally I heard him take a ragged breath.
“OK, John Hans Nelson, go back to your farming with your $250,000 in unmarked bills, and yes we will allow Birdie to have her $150,000 in unmarked bills as well. Just stop the damn robberies and leave John Dillinger a corpse,” he said.
I smiled and told him I accepted his proposition and there would be no more bank robberies by me unless he ever hurt me, my family or the Crowd Behind the Crowd. If he did, we would not only rob banks again, but we would make it our personal mission to ice him in the process – plus put Mr. Purvis in a graveyard for good.
He said nothing to my threat. His voice got cheery and he told me it was nice doing business with me and he hoped I had a satisfying life plowing fields and tending hogs, cattle or whatever other animals I decided to raise. That was the last time I ever heard from the bastard. My thought was, “Good riddance.”
Within a month after the funeral of John Herbert Dillinger, Melvin Purvis shot himself and became a stiff in a photograph. I actually felt sorry for him. Hell, he could have retired and went into a more civil occupation or taken a job as town cop somewhere out of the way – perhaps in Fouke, Arkansas, where he was from. But he just could not live with the idea that he had not killed Johnny “Jack Rabbit Dillinger,” AKA Public Enemy Number One.
Two weeks after the funeral, Birdie showed up at our farm to get her $150,000. I had it in the corner in a feed sack, waiting on her. She did not bother to count it. She just put it in the trunk of a gold-plated roadster I had bought her the day of John Herbert’s funeral. The woman was damn near six months pregnant with John Herbert’s baby. She looked like death warmed over.
It was Marvel who spoke up as she started to get back in her driver’s seat. “Stay here Birdie. Have the baby out here on the farm where it was conceived. We can do some canning this fall. We love you girl,” my wife told her.
Birdie smiled. She handed me the keys to the roadster and told me to park it in my barn. I did as I was told while she talked with Marvel. Some things require a woman to woman conversation. I respected that, put the car away and chopped a few logs – a habit I still had the year I died in 1989.
The chopping action was a good stress release for me. But this whole deal nawed at me for years. Had I said something to make John Herbert panic? Should I have killed Purvis earlier in the 18 months when I had the chance? But as a friend of my grandson’s said years later, “Life is what it is, no more and no less.”
In our next chapter, I want to tell you about “Going on the Lamb” with a few of my gang members in Hot Springs, Arkansas and running into Al Capone. We will explore what led up to Capone bringing a knife to a gun fight, and what putting out your feelers to stay alive (reading tea leaves) is all about in the gang world.
As for Birdie’s baby, she named it Jimmy Lawrence Junior and took him back to Chicago. Years later Jimmy Lawrence Junior got with the Crowd Behind the Crowd and decided country life was more his way of doing things.
He changed his name to Lawrence Hoover, to honor his real Dad and J. Edgar, married a girl named Mable from Hagerstown and they had a son that would eventually write his own book about the hopes and dreams of Jimmy Lawrence AKA John Herbert Dillinger.
The key to tea leaves, in any life associated with gangs, is to throw your would be assailant off his game and off the path while you walk away slowly like a cow might move across a pasture – eating a little grass as she goes.
But yes, we will explore the mind of Al Capone, and how his much more experienced and developed Crowd Behind the Crowd tried to overtake mine with kindness, then violence and finally rage.
I used slow moving farm boy logic to put Capone back in his chair and he decided I really would kill him quick if he continued to try and stop my bank robbery spree – or to cut himself in.
Dillinger Days: Chapter 12, My History with Al Capone and Murder…
By JOHN NELSON
Tailgate News Editor
Dillinger here. Hope you are having a good day. I plan to tell you about what happened with the Crowd Behind the Crowd was threatened by the true organized crime of my day.
We never really counted on Al Capone and his desire to cut into our money. Experience does count. Once I was threatened, I took a couple of weeks off of bank robbery to contact and interview Mr. Capone. When I found out he was ready to take on Machine Gun Kelley, my first reaction was to shoot the old guy myself. But I gave it more time and came up with a better plan. After all, he was in organized crime for the duration. Me, I wanted to get in and out of the life, planning a peaceful life of farming with John W. as my little boy by my side and Marvel as my wife in a small town called Hagerstown, Indiana.
Capone first approached me in April of 1934. I was on the lamb alone in Hot Springs, Arkansas, gambling and having a good time while my mind was on planning our next heist. I also had my mind on Birdie and the club up in Chicago, as I wanted to finish the planning and go home. Capone presented a side step to my plans. He was smart, rich and very well covered by his own Crowd Behind the Crowd.
I went to his room, by invitation, taking a Tommy Gun and three other gang members from the Dillinger gang heavily armed. Capone tried to disarm us at the door. We killed three of his guys and went in to have a conversation I will never forget. He laughed at our murders and told us we had the guts it took to be in his gang.
And he said we would be in his gang if we wanted to live. Pretty quick, three more of his top guns were in the room with my loyal gooneys. I asked him what the hell was his problem? I repeated my plan, which he knew well, to return to farming and leave him alone.
He kept saying we had to pay the toll. Finally, I got mad and raised my Tommy gun to his head. My three guys also raised their weapons as did his three. He pulled a knife and put it at my throat. That is when I made my historical statement, “Only you, Al Capone, would bring a knife to a gun fight.”
Capone smiled and looked around the room. Then he spoke. “Look Nelson, or Dillinger, or whatever the hell you want to call yourself. You can rob as many banks as you want. I will leave you alone if I can have the take from just three bank robberies.”
I told him of my plans with John Herbert Dillinger and then I pulled off the safety on my gun. I damned near pulled the trigger, but decided to let my cooler self prevail – at least momentarily.
I responded promptly to his proposition. “Look you ugly son of a bitch. I aint gonna share no money with you. And if you don’t promise me here and now you and your men will leave me and my Crowd Behind the Crowd alone, I will kill you and then go out for a bite to eat.”
I parted from Capone with a hand shake. After looking in my ocean blue eyes, he realized I had the courage to shoot him right there if he got in the way of the Dillinger gang and my plans. Capone said he would leave me alone, but promised that when my robberies were over he would find someone to replace me and continue the robberies. I told him I did not give a damn about that. He laughed and handed me a whiskey bottle. I put my gun back on safety and relied on my friends to protect me. I drank a shot of Old Charter with him. Capone was a devil. He had no integrity and anyone who says he did never met the bastard.
Capone left the room, after the hand shake. I gave my men the eye and we let him go. All four of us figured we would have to kill him later. But he left us alone and never offered to bother the Dillinger gang again – at least not on a personal basis.
That night, I called a bunch of fellows who agreed to tail Capone. We figured a double cross was coming and we planned to kill that evil man before he got us. But Capone had bigger fish to fry. He was building a tunnel out of the ice lands of Minnesota to Canada and he had plenty of money without bothering us. Besides, he figured out real quick that my response to a threat was death, and quick death at that. I reckon he was scared of my crazy self. I am so glad he was. His Crowd Behind the Crowd made mine look like a bunch of Boy Scouts.
After I left Capone, I nervously planned a bank robbery on the Chicago south side. It was a Merchants I think. And that robbery went off smooth as a whistle. I guess Al Capone really had figured he could copy cat me when I left the life and make a lot more loot than he could ripping me off of the takes of three heists. But as far as I know, he never did so. I suppose he got side tracked in his other rackets, which I hear had high profits.
History records that Capone was put in jail for tax evasion. The feds never could pin murder, extortion, destruction of property, prostitution, drug sales etc. on him. Al Capone was smart, but not smart enough. I hear he died in prison of the clap. And some say he was born with it and never even bred a woman. Shame I guess. Still, none of my affair.
When I left Capone the night we tied up, I took a long drive in my roadster. I went outside of Hot Springs to a little burg called Bismarck, found a place to pull over and changed clothes back into my farmer’s attire.
Then I headed for Chicago. I had my plan in my head to rob that Merchant’s on the South Side of Chicago. And I wanted nothing more than to go home to Birdie and the dance hall. I personally had shot three of Capone’s men in the head before my back-ups could even raise their Tommy Guns. I saw no point in wasting time, as I knew I must confront Capone then or never.
As I said before, the gangster never made a peep my way from then on. I guess he decided I was not easy money, but rather an easy ticket to a graveyard. Machine Gun Kelley was boiling mad that I did not allow him to shoot Capone that night.
But sometimes you have to do what your heart tells you when you are living the life. Mine told me to leave the smiling villain alone and let the law handle things.
I would tell my grandson, your author, years later, if you follow your heart you will rarely be sorry. I also told him that it was always best to let the law handle things if they wanted the same end that you did. I took my own advice that night and drove to see my Birdie. She was dancing when I entered the place and as usual she left the stage and jumped into my arms.
There were a lot of fires set by someone apparently very angry that night in Chicago, but our fortress was never disturbed. Maltese cocktails were popular in my day. They were easy to make. You just take an old rag, soak it with gasoline, stick it in a whiskey bottle and then pour about an inch more of the gasoline into the bottle itself. When you are ready to torch a place, simply light the rag and get rid of your home made bomb as quickly as you can.
Machine Gun Kelley said his security team saw a lot of coppers drive by our place that night. Capone may not have ever attempted to harm us, but he was trying to send me a message that he would be watching my every move.
I knew this. I had been in the life long enough to know how a gangster’s mind works. Besides, I was a gangster for all practical purposes.
Machine Gun told me about 2 a.m., after Birdie and I had hit the hay, someone threw a damn Maltese cocktail at the main entrance of our dance hall. My boys put it out right away. They had no way of knowing it, but the Dillinger Gang fortress had solid steal doors, fire resistant you know. At my request, Machine Gun put the word out and we found out the perpetrator was one of Capone’s Crowd Behind the Crowd. I gave the order and the gentleman ended up floating in a river with a bullet hole in his head before daylight peaked over the Chicago skies.
I got up early and poured myself a glass of orange juice. Birdie fixed me my eggs, oatmeal and toast to go with it. I ate and told her I needed to go for a walk, after our second cup of coffee. That one Woolard eyebrow went up, but she did not say a word in objection.
I left the dance hall and got in my car. I checked out the places that had burned the night before, even gave a few $20 bills away to the business owners. Each man or woman had the same story. They had refused to pay Capone’s extortion fee for staying in business the week before. The man was consistent, if nothing else, consistently ruthless.
I bought a Chicago Tribune and sat on the side of the road reading my paper. I wanted to see what the reporters were saying about the hard night before. Some say it was the night Chicago died… Every story mentioned a businessman with a huge cigar hanging out of his mouth, who wore a white hat and appeared before them in a business suit. Capone was one cold cat. I seriously think he may have even pissed ice water. Still, he kept his promise and left me to my rat killing.
FBI Agent Melvin Pervus showed up and pulled his car over to talk with me. “Hey Johnny, where is the next heist going to be?” he asked. He had no warrant so I just smiled at the man. J. Edgar Hoover may not have ever known how grateful I was to have the law pull up that morning. I was expecting to see several Capone gooneys with eyes only for me. I asked several members of my own Crowd Behind the Crowd where Capone was holed up. They found out for me, but I decided not to pay him a visit.
My take was $35,000 from that South Side of Chicago bank. We divided our usual takes for the heist, with me getting $10,000 off the top as a finder’s fee and then taking an even split with the rest of the men on the remaining money. The Crowd Behind the Crowd took me to Indianapolis to spend the night at my doctor’s house.
Old John was a very loyal friend and I did not feel I had to be injured to pay him a call. I made my plans to rob a bank in Indianapolis for the next month. Then I gave the doctor another $200 in cash for putting me up for the night.
But in all seriousness, I was getting very tired of this routine and had a gut feeling I should cash in my chips before I got hurt.
In the next chapter, I will be telling you about what happened in our very last bank robbery. It was June of 1934 and 98 degrees outside during the day. Not exactly bank robbery weather if you ask me. I showed up in my blue short sleeve shirt, losing my usual overcoat to the trunk of my get away car. I wore a bullet proof vest I had taken off of a corpse after I met with Capone in Hot Springs, Arkansas. I greeted the bank attendants in a very different way at that last First National Bank heist. I knew my gig was about to become a thing of the past. I also knew John Herbert and the Lady in Red would be going the Biograph theater in a few weeks.
I wanted out and I was feeling very generous. We robbed that bank in Indy and I had my driver take a detour. I was supposed to go to Hagerstown to meet John, Birdie and Marvel at our farm in a week, but went to the area early. Nobody really knew I was home except a few shop keepers in New Castle, Indiana – say 12 miles from my farm.
Machine Gun Kelley met me in New Castle with five of the boys. I gave them each $1,000 in $20 bills for coming to meet me. I figured Capone would have me followed. He did. His boys attacked us while we were shopping at the Dollar Store. It was a nickel and dime place where my wife had worked when we first got married. You see, Marvel and I were together 10 years before John W. came along.
Machine Gun Kelley and his boys were watching the door while I gave the store keeper enough money to pay his rent the next month, free grates. Tommy Guns went to blazing and the man’s store was rivited. He did not seem to mind, just gave me a salute. I went to my car and got him a free bottle of whiskey. Then I gave him $2,000 to help pay for his damages.
We killed 10 people in that shoot out. None of us even got hit. I have always said it pays to be ready for anything.
I took out four, Machine Gun Kelley took out four and his men got the rest. Murder was becoming too frequent to suit me. I longed to plow a field of corn…
I began to feel farming down deep in my soul and a desire to be away from the bank robbery stress of planning, plotting, executing the heist and storing the money. It was never about the money for me. I just wanted to be free to farm and be left alone to be in harmony with nature; a desire to recapture my youth I suppose…
Dillinger Days: Chapter 13 – The Last Bank Robbery and my return to Farming…
By JOHN NELSON
Tailgate News Editor
Dillinger here. My grandson wanted this book to be 20 chapters, but there really may not be that much more to tell. We will take it a chapter at a time and see where we go.
In my last chapter, I told you I would go over the details of my very last bank robbery. It occurred at 2 p.m. on a Friday in June of 1934. It all worked out, but it was more like a celebration. As I may have said before, it was a First National Bank in Indianapolis, Indiana and the weather was in the upper 90s on that dog day of summer back then.
We played it wild that day. I just had the one car and three guys with me. I was the driver and the announcer for the production as usual. Machine Gun Kelley himself was riding shot gun. Bugsy Malone was in the back seat with one of his favorite gooneys in the Dillinger Gang. But Pretty Boy likes to remain anonymous.
I found out which bank my friend George Swegman was supposed to be branch managing that day, as I did not want any trouble. The Crowd Behind the Crowd knew this was going to be my last poker hand and then I was going back to the farm. It had been a very long 18 months. As I said in the last chapter, I was worried about Al Capone running interference and already planning an ambush for him and his gooneys in New Castle, Indiana. He never showed, but his 10, soon to be dead, friends did show up.
But we have gone over that. As for the last bank robbery, it was a rock star party for Johnny “Jack Rabbit” Dillinger AKA Public Enemy Number One.
As loosely as it was planned, it is a wonder Purvis did not show up. I have a feeling he knew about it but J. Edgar Hoover had told him to be patient and he could kill me in Chicago. At any rate, my old adversary was absent that day.
I walked into the bank with my three guns backing me up, after a slow entrance as usual. It was 2 p.m. on the dot. I was ready to tell them I was John Dillinger and I was here to rob their god damn bank, but the terror storm was unnecessary. I told them that and George came out of his presidential office. He smiled at me and started putting sacks of money on the counter.
They had made me a going away cake. It said, “Good luck John Hans back on the farm.” Now that was a little too bold and sort of had the potential to blow my cover, but it was all OK. They insisted I take the money and the cake with me. As we were loading the money in our trunk, the bank employees got up and gave us a standing ovation.
George told me the amount was exactly $100,000 in $20 bills and then he took out another sack with $10,000 more in it. He said I had to take the cake, as it might be incriminating for him and his people if the coppers found it. I put my Tommy Gun on the counter, making sure my boys were covering me, and ate a piece of cake. Then I told Bugsy to put it in the trunk with the loot.
Mr. Swegman shook my hand and wished me good luck. The bank employees returned to work, being sure no telephone calls were made while I was around. Swegman told me I had an open account with First National for withdrawal under the name of John Hans Nelson and that if I ever needed any money to just ask them at a drive-up window. I smiled. I took $5,000 out of their bank in 1988 to give to my grandson for a business deal. I understand that account had $20,000 in cash in it with an unlimited credit card attached.
Little Johnny probably suspected it was a bank donation to his cause. But if he did, Johnny never said a word. So there we were, after 18 months, in June of 1934. The Crowd Behind the Crowd made sure there was a lot of heat around that bank that day. They did not want to see me get killed when I was about to cross under the wire.
I saluted the bank employees and left. They saluted back and said in unison, “God bless you Mr. Dillinger.” It touched my heart. I shot up the back wall of their bank with Tommy Gun blasts and they hit the deck in unison. I said, “This is my last heist folks. I love you all, but I gotta go home now.”
We got in the car and left very slowly as usual. I glanced out of the corner of my eye as George Swegman pulled a telephone line out of a wall and gave a girl hell who apparently thought about calling the coppers. I took a ragged breath and headed out of town. Indianapolis was bustling that day and my men were in a good mood. We took a short tour of Michigan Avenue and I showed them were John Herbert’s sister lived. Then we headed for our country road and a barn to divide the loot.
My grandson never seemed to be ashamed at my start in life. My son, on the other hand, has been in denial about his roots for years. John W. is a member of a government medical witness team and a Korean War medical veteran.
He had a lot to lose if too much press got out that he was the son of a famous bank robber from the 1930s, not just the son of a farmer in Hagerstown, Indiana.
John Hancock Nelson, my grandson, had nothing to lose. He said he would be proud to write my book one day and it always made me so happy that sometimes the apple does not fall far from the tree.
I drove on to the barn, took my $10,000 sack out and placed it in the pick-up truck tool box that the Crowd behind the Crowd had waiting on me. We divided the other $100 grand four ways and I hugged my boys.
They told me they would always be there if I ever needed anything and that all I had to do was say the word. I asked the host farmer and his wife to leave the barn for a few minutes and told these three fellows about my meeting with Al Capone and my plan to draw fire from the ruthless bastard in New Castle the next morning. Machine Gun Kelley grinned. The other two did as well. They made a few phone calls and the plan was set.
As we said in the last chapter, the Dillinger Gang killed 10 Al Capone boys the next morning at a Dollar Store in New Castle, Indiana. What I did not say was that we sent all 10 bodies back to where Capone was holed up in Chicago and dropped them on his door step with a note from me. I told him I was done with my bank robbery gig and so now was the time for him to contradict my plan with J. Edgar Hoover, get a new body double for John Dillinger and make some bucks.
I also told him if he did this, Machine Gun Kelley, Johnny “Jack Rabbit” Dillinger, Bugsy Malone and Pretty Boy Floyd would come see him in the middle of the night after the first robbery and load his old body full of Tommy Gun shells. Then we would throw four Maltese cocktails on his body and burn him and his establishment to the ground just to show our gratitude for his spoiling our exit plan…
I never heard from Capone or his boys again during the subsequent damn near 60 years of life on earth that God All Mighty granted me before escorting me to West Heaven. I guess Mr. Capone understood that I was not playing and that my planning skills just might beat his. At any rate, he folded and so did I. There was no sense in bothering him as long as he left me alone.
I heard Purvis had something to do with Capone going to prison. I hope so. Old Melvin needed some success. I have never told anyone this, but I did cry a few tears for agent Melvin Purvis when I heard he blew his own head off. Purvis would have never gone for the real plan of my exit. He wanted me bad and when he found out he had shot John Herbert Dillinger, definitely not the bank robber, it was just too much for him to take. Old blue eyes was loose and Purvis knew it.
After the New Castle caper, I went home. I waited around for a few days with John Herbert and Birdie, chopping logs and just getting my breath. It was the middle of summer and the gardens needed watering bad. John Herbert worked the fields. Birdie did the woman’s work inside and me, I just waited for my flapper to come home.
Pretty soon, I heard the sound of roadsters coming up Highway 38. Marvel was in the front seat with Machine Gun Kelley driving. I am not sure what my neighboring farm friends thought, but I always had a feeling they knew more of this story than they let on. I hugged Marvel and cried crocodile tears.
She did the same. John Herbert and Birdie mingled with the gang members and had their small talk. Me and Marvel simply went into the kitchen. She put on some coffee, after putting one of her old aprons over her flapper outfit. She lit a Chesterfield and we sat and drank a few cups.
Then we went upstairs for awhile, with the gang still in the yard. I was still anticipating an Al Capone retaliation at that point and the boys knew the drill if they showed up. Thankfully, that scene never came to pass.
The girls switched wardrobes back and John Herbert put on a business suit. They were headed to Chicago for his nose job and this time it was us waving goodbye to the biological Dillinger and his sweetheart. My “farm hands” said their goodbyes and escorted the couple to a Chicago hospital for John Herbert’s plastic surgery.
Finally, it was just me and Marvel. Then Clint and Mary showed up with our boy, John W. It was June 20, 1934. John Herbert would be killed in mid-July. It was the last time I would see him alive. I had already schooled him on the real deal to expect at the Biograph theater and when J. Edgar Hoover and I planned for his exit from crime.
I never expected to see John Herbert Dillinger alive again, but I sure hoped I was wrong. In the next chapter, I will discuss life with Birdie and Marvel on the farm while she was still in a family way with Jimmy Lawrence Jr. And I will tell you about what I went through in regard to deprogramming myself from the outlaw life.
I guess I never really got over the jitters about crowds after that. I suppose that is why I farmed and fished alone for so many years. I would see the faces again and again of the people I had killed, robbed or given stolen money to.
But I had my $250,000 in unmarked $20 bills, I had my farms paid for and I had my life and my wife back by my side. And I had John W., who met a lot more to me than he has ever realized.
I also had a lot of friends I would have never known otherwise. Johnny never knew it, but Machine Gun Kelley and Bugsy Malone made several September visits to my farm, placing old shot up roadsters on the back 40 and wishing me happy birthday year after year on Sept. 6. That all happened with John W. was still in school.
The cars and such were never discussed in our home until John Hancock Nelson, my grandson, started asking questions and put two and two together. There is a price for everything we do in life. And indeed, all of our secrets will be shouted from the roof top – unless they are kept strictly between you and Jehovah God. Once another human knows the deal, the cat is out of the bag. I taught my grandson this truth and he lives by it to this day. In his life, it is now September of 2015.
Be sure and read Chapter 14 and I will tell you about living with ghosts and waking up in cold sweats. For you see, I am a farmer, not a bank robber. And I have done my best to convince myself I never was a bank robber – that is until now.
Dillinger Days: Chapter 14 – Living on a farm with two women…
By JOHN NELSON
Tailgate News Editor
It was middle summer in 1934 and my bank robbery days were over – or so I thought at the time. Actually, they were really over, but I had my doubts back then.
In reality, the Johnny “Jack Rabbit” Dillinger AKA Public Enemy Number One that I had created was retired and just did not know it yet. John Hans Nelson had taken over his body and tried to forget his mind…
We got the word one July morning about the shooting at the Biograph Theater in Chicago. Marvel and I cried for John Herbert for about an hour. Then we went back to our generally assigned farming duties and waited. We were waiting for calls from J. Edgar Hoover and Birdie Lawrence. Shortly, those calls would come in – as well as calls from John Herbert’s sister, Audrey Hancock, and several other members of the Crowd Behind the Crowd.
The FBI head honcho called first. Hoover was frantic. He needed our deal bad. So did I and I was just bluffing when I offered to rob a bank that August. Hell, that was the last thing I wanted to do. But here are a few more details of that call than I have offered in previous chapters.
First thing, he asked if this was Mr. Nelson? I said yes and we started our talk. Marvel was sitting right there in the living room beside me. We always kept our one phone on the farm in the living room. Thankfully, Marvel was never real big on changing up furniture. She just kept getting new stuff from time to time.
OK, I said. So you killed my partner. I really do not appreciate that J. Edgar. He apologized at least 10 times during the conversation but noted that now the public believed the bank robber to be dead and there was plenty of evidence that John Herbert Dillinger had drawn his last breath.
Then he told me it really was his intention to cage Dillinger, quietly let him go for lack of evidence that he was the bank robber and for all of us to live happily ever after. However, when John Herbert ran from the coppers, Purvis, who believed he finally had his chance, opened fire. It was his job, after all, so Hoover continued.
I then agreed with him that at this point the public probably believed that John “Jack Rabbit” Dillinger was no more. Then I told him I would get the gang back together and prove them wrong in August if I did not get everything I wanted. That is when he called me the son of a dog and informed me nobody had the power to black mail Uncle Sam!
I told him I had to go, as I had to go into hiding again and be sure to get myself ready for August. He was silent after that for a moment. Then he asked me, “OK Mr. Nelson, what do you want to stay right where you are?”
Amnesty, I said. I want my $250,000 to never be traced and I want Birdie’s $150,000 to also be untraceable. Then I told him I wanted him to leave me and my family alone for the rest of time. And if the government ever tried to arrest any of us for more than a few days I would make sure the arresting officer was iced.
He agreed quickly and I have not heard from the old buzzard since – at least he has never called me again. And I must say, to my knowledge, both of us kept that bargain. Now it was the widow’s time to call. She mostly talked with Marvel. I was the one sitting on the couch listening to Marvel’s side of that conversation as she sat in our rocking chair and used the phone.
Birdie was hysterical. John Herbert had been the love of her life and now he was not even going to witness the birth of their child… Marvel told her to come and get her money and take it from there.
As I said in a previous chapter, she came and lived with us until after Jimmy Lawrence Jr. was born. I gave her a hug when she showed up after the funeral and let Marvel take it from there. I can tell you that I am not a fundamentalist Mormon, but I do have a bit of experience with listening to the honey-do lists of two broads instead of one. One wife is plenty for me, thank you very much.
We helped Birdie all we could. She fed the chickens for therapy and followed me around the barn some while I milked cows. She said she had gotten used to farm life in those 18 months here with John Herbert and indeed she had. For a gal in a family way, Birdie was really quite a bit of help. As the days went by, she cried less and smiled more.
But after the birth of Jimmy, Birdie started thinking about Chicago. She wanted to take her money and go open a dress shop, as she liked to sew. She figured that would make a living for her and the boy. She was right. They did just fine.
When she pulled out of the driveway, Marvel and I waved goodbye, arm in arm, just as she and John Herbert had done for us when we started this whole mess. It was over, I thought. And in many ways it was. But not before my best friend in the Crowd Behind the Crowd was gunned down by Melvin Purvis. I still miss old Machine Gun Kelley and it has been many decades since his final demise.
In the next, and final chapter, I will tell you what happened with Machine Gun and some other subsequent attacks on the Crowd Behind the Crowd that prompted me to call old J. Edgar back just one more time and include the rest of the gang and their families on my list of demands. He was not overjoyed to hear my voice.
But for now, it is supper time here in West Heaven. Read on and find out what my final black mail demands were on the United States government, represented at the time by Mr. Hoover. And find out what action I took when I not only lost Machine Gun Kelley, but Bugsy Malone was nearly shot to death as well.
It could be the hit I put out on one of Melvin Purvis’s family members, his wife Sarah, might have prompted his suicide. Frankly, at the time, I was a great subscriber to the theory an eye for an eye. Still, I would have felt better about it if Melvin had showed up at the barn so we could have a man to man gun fight.
My family never knew it, but I packed a 38 in my overalls for the rest of my life…
I see I have a little room here to tell you a bit more about the hit on Sarah Purvis.
Bugsy Malone spent six weeks on a bed at Uncle John’s place in Indianapolis before his Tommy Gun wounds healed and he gave me a call.
He wanted to retaliate against the coppers and said he had a plan to do so. I listened to the man and he told of Sarah Purvis and her habit of watering her flowers every night to keep them alive as long as possible in the September cool down weather up in Chicago.
He said Melvin and Sarah had a couple of school age kids, but Melvin had a brother, Fred Purvis, who has a wife and a nice place for them to grow up.
I kept listening to my friend until he called my name. “Jack Rabbit, are you listening. This is bull shit. I was nearly killed.”
I told him the smartest thing was to call J. Edgar and increase the black mail to include all of the Crowd Behind the Crowd so nobody else had to get hurt. He told me that would be a nice gesture on my part, but he was in the mood to give the coppers something to think about first. I agreed to the hit on Mrs. Purvis and Bugsy said, “Thanks boss.”
He hung up the phone and the word reached us that Sarah was killed in her back yard the next evening about 6 p.m. by an unknown assailant in a suit who riddled her body with Tommy Gun fire to the point where they had a closed casket ceremony for the woman…
I called Hoover just after the hit and said, “Had enough yet?”
There was silence on the end of the telephone. Finally, he said, “I promise none of your crowd will ever be attacked again if you promise to call your dogs off of my people.”
I let him stew a minute and then agreed. Those were hard times and we did what we felt we had to do…
Chapter 15: Aftermath of a bank robber…, final chapter
By JOHN NELSON
Tailgate News Editor
Dillinger here. Finishing a tale like this is not an easy thing for an old story teller like me. I promised a wrap up of how it felt to rob banks in the United States Midwest “successfully” for 18 months in 1933 and 1934.
Whatever I told you I would reveal in the last chapter may or may not be found here. I decided it best to put down the script and simply talk to you from my heart. I am a poor farm kid who knew hard work, good food and what it meant to be in love with the girl who said “I will” to a marriage proposal.
I lived happily for 96 years on your planet earth. I farmed, I had fun at cards and pool, I had fist fights, I married the love of my life and I knew how to laugh, hoop and holler. God was good to me, even before I accepted His son, Jesus Christ. I have no idea why He was so good to me, but boy was He ever my champion when I sure did not deserve the favor.
I had a great son, some say John W. is a genius and he most certainly does have a great record as a top neurologist in the United States. Perhaps his career, and the fact he has saved the lives of many, in some small way partially makes up for the coppers and others who I blew away in the 1930s. I make no excuse for my deadly and immoral behavior. I knew then, and I know now, that robbing banks and killing folks who got in my way was very wrong. Indeed, it was the behavior of a mobster.
And again, indeed, I was a mobster and stayed one my entire life. But I gave up the mobster business on an active basis in July of 1934. Well, actually in August, after I okayed the hit on Sarah Purvis concluded my demonic behavior. That was my final act as a killer.
In my humble opinion, the spirit of Johnny “Jack Rabbit” Dillinger, public enemy number one, was the spirit of the devil and his fallen angels answering the bequest of a man who desperately wanted to remain a farmer instead of being forced into some other occupation. And they did what they said they would do in their guidance and direction. In fact, the specific demon known as Johnny Jack Rabbit nearly consumed my life.
You can take all of that talk with any grain of salt that suits you. But it is the truth. I cried many a time, usually while fishing alone, especially for my decision to ice poor Melvin’s wife at the bequest of my friend Bugsy Malone. That was so wrong and then my poor “friend” Melvin killed himself. If he could not take the fact that he killed the wrong gangster when he killed John Herbert, it was for sure he could not take the fact that his zeal for his job, which led him to kill my best friend Machine Gun “Molly” Kelley, led to the death of his bride.
We had Molly’s body planted at my family “Brick” Cemetery in Hagerstown, Indiana. When my grandson was growing up, I visited his grave on more than one occasion, but when Little Johnny asked about Molly I always told him Molly drove Caterpillar tractors with me and then helped me clear snow with late night plow driving there in Wayne County, Indiana. He eventually figured out the truth. I dropped plenty of hints.
And I also “learned him” that secrets are no longer secrets when they are ever mentioned to other people. A real secret is the one you take to your grave and only discuss with Jehovah God. “That is my story and I am sticking to it,” as my grandson likes to quote. There was some sort of country song written with that line in his generation. It fits well here.
I robbed those banks for many reasons. At the time, I thought they were good reasons. I still do. Sometimes in life, we have to play the hand we have. I was a smart planner, but lacked the formal education to cure hogs of the cholera. That lack of book smarts is what led to me feeling I had to get my farming money back – not by borrowing from Marvel’s people – but by my own skills…
When John Herbert Dillinger first proposed we switch identifications, and told me how the Dillinger name had been ruined because of an attempted robbery for which he did eight years in jail, I felt sorry for the ex-baseball player. Yes, Dillinger had played ball and he was good. If not for the faulty grocery store heist, John Herbert might have been another Babe Ruth. Some will say that was an exaggeration. Those folks never saw John Herbert pitch, catch and bat. He was really talented.
I was, and always will be, just a farmer. I had no outstanding skills with baseball, or any other sport. But I did have admiration for those who did. I take that back. My son John Woolard Nelson taught me to play golf and I reckon I was not too bad. They say I figured out how to shoot the ball perfectly straight…
Other than that, I was no athlete. I was a fellow who plowed from dawn till dusk and milked cows, slopped hogs and fed the chickens. I enjoyed all of farming. In fact, I was obsessed with that enjoyment and bound and determined to stay in it – regardless of the political ploy known as “the Great Depression.”
So I assumed Johnny Dillinger’s identification and entered the mobster world. It was somewhere in the early months of 1933 when this happened. And it was really in a Chicago bar. John Herbert had just fallen in love with Birdie Lawrence and created his own made up name, Jimmy Lawrence. The couple had plans to marry and start over. John Herbert was a good mechanic, something we shared in common. But he had no money and was drinking away his last few dollars when we met.
I played pool, with my usual one glass of whiskey, and I had won $300 that night from a bunch of angry pool players. I played poker too, winning another $200 there. I was really pretty well determined to call it good after that and head home to Marvel to struggle through things. My bar room antics had earned me $5,000 in cash. That would be enough to not lose the farm and to buy a few hogs to start over. I had learned, by then, how to vaccinate for cholera so the disaster did not happen again.
But I kept watching this guy, dressed in a coat and tie that the prison had given him upon release, drinking himself to death before my eyes. He would drink awhile, then sob awhile. My old Swedish heart broke for him. I liked John Herbert Dillinger, even before we had ever spoken a word to each other.
I bought him a drink. He loved that. I broke my own rules and bought myself two shots of whiskey at one time. We swallowed the liquor and began to tell each other our life stories. I have pretty much already told you what happened after that. So do I regret gaining $250,000 in unmarked bills to have a stake that would secure the rest of my life as a farmer? Hell no. I would do it again in a heart beat.
I am a farmer and always will be. I do regret that John Herbert Dillinger, AKA Jimmy Lawrence, never got to start that mechanic shop and gas station business in Chicago. I wanted him to have his dream too… And his $150,000 in unmarked bills could have given him that dream. Shoot, no more than they checked identifications back in the 1930’s, and with my mafia connections, we could have gotten him a Social Security card in the name of Jimmy Lawrence and even given him a false, but provable, clean past… No such luck.
The bastards killed John Herbert, a man really guilty of not much more than an attempted grocery store robbery who had the misfortune to run into me – a man who would stop at nothing to get what he wanted.
I passed that determination on to my son and grandson, the best I could. But I also warned both of them to understand the high price success in any endeavor usually carries. In my case, two funerals come to mind – John Herbert Dillinger and Machine Gun “Molly” Kelley. Both men loved me. And I loved them. The body of John Herbert Dillinger, to the best of my knowledge, was buried in Moorsville, Indiana, at a family cemetery where his dear father rests. I tried to visit that grave but once. Never found it. It was 3 a.m. I was alone. It was 1945 and I was drinking whiskey…
It is probably just as well that I never found it. What is done is done. So are you the type that would do anything, and I do mean anything, to make your dreams come true? Do you have an IQ above 170 like I did? Then you probably can figure out how to hack into bank computers and get free money to drop out of those fancy ATM machines. But you might get caught and spend years in jail. Then again, you might make your own soap gun out of your own widdling skills and fool the coppers.
I never mentioned that I sucked as a chess player. My grandson always beat me, as I really did not like the game. But I can not remember a time when anyone beat me in checkers. That was my era. That was one of my games. Do you have the skill, the want to and the courage to make your dreams come true at any cost?
Pardon me. I am getting tired. Marvel is waiting on me here in West Heaven to turn in for the evening. We have a dance tomorrow and I want to be ready to take her a few steps around some nearby clouds. My life on earth is over. The fact that you are reading this means your life is still in progress. My advice to you is this, if you choose to dance with the devil like I did, try not to kill any innocent people. Vengeance is something Jehovah God claims as His. Let the All Mighty handle the business of revenge. There are plenty of other things you can occupy your time with. I just yawned.
For those of you who are thinking of following in my footsteps, one more word of warning. When you are a jet, you are a jet all the way, from your first cigarette until your last dying day. Yes, that is another line from a song. I like music. But it is true. Always, before you act, straight or mobster, consider what your actions and manipulations will do to others. And accept Jesus as your personal Savior. Get your name on that role up yonder. Then, once you make it here, I will tell you the rest of my story.