Around twenty years ago two tough little old ladies were having dinner and drinks in Crown Point, Indiana, talking about the good old days and the bad old days. "Think how much fun it would be," said one to the other. "You'd get your own director's chair, you'd have dinner every night with movie stars. Just tell 'em your story next time somebody knocks on your door." Former Lake County Sheriff Lillian Holley had been slamming her door on inquisitive faces for 50 years. "Come on, Lillian," said the first lady, "What's up with the Dillinger thing?"
Lillian Holley was 42 years old and sheriff when Public Enemy Number One, John Dillinger, escaped from the "escape proof" jail in Crown Point in 1934. Holley was serving out her husband Roy's second term as sheriff, after he was killed in the line of duty. Five years ago they had moved from Hammond to the sheriff's house, attached to the jail, where more than 100 prisoners could be held. (For 76 years, until 1958, county sheriffs were required by law to live next to the jail.)
It was not a great time for women to be in law enforcement. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover claimed that women were not suitable to work as special agents due to their unpredictable nature. He said that even though women "probably could learn to fire a gun," he could not imagine them "shooting it out with gangsters."
After Dillinger's escape, Chicago Crime Commissioner Frank J. Loesch said, "That's what might be expected of having a woman for sheriff."
After the escape, one headline screamed: "SLIM WOMAN, MOTHER OF TWINS, CONTROLLED DILLINGER AS SHERIFF."
Sheriff Holley is reported to have said, "I'm not a sissy. I can take it on the chin. But I feel that I am getting the blame for this just because I am a woman."
No wonder she decided not to talk about it.
But the story spread that John Dillinger used a fake gun, carved out of wood or soap, in order to escape. (Three different versions of this pretend pistol have been reported or sold by three different people). And since 1934, the people in Crown Point, Indiana, have been split down the middle on the burning question of "the gun." Some believed rumors. Others kept their lips zipped along with the former sheriff, who refused to talk to about it for years. Sheriff Holley died in 1994, when she was 102.
Did John Dillinger use a phony gun to break out of jail? Was a real gun smuggled into him? If so, who smuggled it? Were various law enforcement officials paid off?
The swashbuckling Dillinger became famous during a unique time in our history. In the 1930s, after more than one-third of the nation's banks failed, bank robbers were gaining more than a little popular sympathy. According to PBS's “American Experience,” "outlaws were successfully robbing banks throughout the Midwest. Besides the automobile, they were assisted by new hard-surfaced highways, and the Rand-McNally Road Atlas, which first came out in 1924."
Imagine all the get-away cars that didn't get away because they had no idea where they were going.
"Robberies were easier in the Midwest than other parts of the country because small Midwestern towns usually lacked adequate police forces. The long distances between towns also made getaways feasible".
"Due to the expansion of newspaper wire services and the radio, bank robberies could become national news instantaneously. Criminals became national celebrities who symbolized the public's lack of faith in society's crumbling institutions."
Gangsters were front page news in every little town they robbed, and front page in all the biggest papers in the country. "While the public found their notoriety exciting, the government did not," according to PBS. "FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover targeted them for pursuit." He was sick of them getting all the press—he wanted his G-Men winning on the front pages. And by 1935, all the famous outlaws had been killed or captured by FBI special agents.
But we're talking 1934 here, when the very manner and means of John Dillinger's notorious escape from the Crown Point jail are subject to adamant debate.
Here's a new RRI (Really Radical Idea): design a divertissement that addresses the controversy, doesn't take sides, illuminates different interpretations, and puts it all in a historical context. Oh, yeah, and make it fun. It's kind of like the play, "Tony and Tina's Wedding."
Every Saturday night, a fabulous caterer would set up dinner in the beautifully restored front and lower rooms of the Old Sheriff's House and Jail in Crown Point, Indiana.
Guests are encouraged to dress as if it was the 1930s. They can drive their old cars there, too. When you walk into the red-brick architecturally significant building, the first thing you see are the words "1934" inscribed on a large painting by artist Pete Hurley (he's really good at capturing moods of certain times and places). Waiters, bartenders, chefs, and various guests are all dressed as if they were really living in 1934.
Drinks are served at the desk in the rear where miscreants and poor devils simply accused of wrongdoing, were booked. Enlarged old booking cards showing crimes they are accused of cover the walls. Bartenders push drinks popular in the era: Sidecars, Gin Fizz, Pink Ladys, Sazeracs.
Dinner guests wander down the long eerie hallway to the old jail, where they are surprised to see human beings locked up in several of the cells. A 1934 policeman patrols the hallway. Robert G. Estill, the prosecuting attorney, talks about the state-of-the-art construction and how it is virtually impossible to escape this jail. He describes bringing Dillinger back from Arizona where he was captured.
Sheriff Holley describes how her husband, a Democrat, was asked to run in a Republican district, and he won. She doesn't like living in the sheriff's house with her twin daughters very much at all—with up to 100 prisoners in the back. And now with John Dillinger there, the place is crawling with all kinds of law enforcement. Not fun.
As they linger with wine and cocktails, guests overhear "The Professor" describe to his cellmate, a Woman of Dubious Virtue, a bit of the history of the jail. (It was built in 1898 and additions were completed six years ago, in 1928, so it can now house nearly 100 souls.) He talks about the Second Empire design, the elegant French-inspired Mansard roofs.
The policeman stops to whisper to a couple of cellies at the end of the row. One of them is a fairly good-looking, middle-aged, gangster-type with a small moustache. He brags about the various banks he's robbed including New Castle, Daleville, Bluffton, Montpelier—and how he already broke out of a couple of other jails. "A jail's like a worm in a nut," he says, "The worm can always get out."
"I know he's a bad baby and a jailbreaker but I can handle him," says Sheriff Holley. Meanwhile Dillinger maintains that he has never killed anybody, that it's Hoover who is making such a big deal about him. He says he's just a small-town baseball-playing kid from the corn fields.
The bell is rung for dinner, and when guests return to the dining area, they take their seats with 1930s folk, including good-looking ladies who say they are visiting the incarcerated. They are all proud that Crown Point has retrieved the FBI's Public Enemy Number One. They talk about his history of banditry, his gangs. They talk about FDR, the Great Depression, the failure of so many banks and the Dionne Quintuplets.
Just as dinner plates are being cleared away, a hubbub breaks out in the hallway behind them. The Gangster, wielding what looks like a gun, yells at everybody and forces policemen to shove them into the kitchen area. The FBI's Public Enemy Number One is breaking out of jail! With a malevolent laugh, he slams the door on the guests and rushes away. A policeman runs to the door. "He's taking the sheriff's car!" he hollers.
Dessert is served as another policeman releases the folks that Dillinger has locked up. They all agree it was an "inside job." But they blame each other for helping the gangster escape. Some say the gun was real; others that it was made out of soap or wood. Sheriff Lillian points to the photo the prosecuting attorney posing with Dillinger. She swears it was a real gun that somebody smuggled in. Others maintain Dillinger conned the policemen into thinking it was real. The Prosecuting Attorney accuses Sheriff Lillian of being sweet on him. She says she'd like to shoot him herself.
As waiters circulate with coffee, the actor playing The Judge asks guests how they think Dillinger was able to escape. After dinner drinks, including rare and lovely 1930s port and other spirits, are sold for a price.
The thing is, every night Dillinger will escape at a different time. You'll never know when it's gonna happen. A bang-up good time is promised to all. Proceeds would go to pay the good actors (and the bad ones) and to further restoration of the building.
Oh, yeah, back to the little old ladies: "Well," Former Lake County Sheriff Lillian Holley finally told her pal, "it was a real gun."