Public Enemies: The True Story of America's Greatest Crime Wave

Author: Bryan Burrough



Extract from Public Enemies

East Chicago, Indiana                                                pp. 186 - 89

Monday, January 15, 1934


After three weeks in the Florida sun, Dillinger headed back to the Midwest with John Hamilton. The others planned to extend their vacation by driving cross-country to Tucson, Arizona. Dillinger said he wanted to pick up Billie Frechette; he promised to meet the others in Tucson. While in Chicago, he would try to cash bonds the gang had been unable to pass. Hamilton hoped to unite with Pat Cherrington.

According to Cherrington, who later told her story to the FBI, Dillinger and Hamilton left Florida on Sunday, January 14. Hamilton sent her a telegram that afternoon from Savannah, asking her to meet him in a Chicago hotel.[1] Driving through the night, Dillinger reached Chicago the nest morning. That same day, probably low on cash and unable to move the stolen bonds, he decided to rob a bank. It was an impetuous decision. Some would credit it to Dillinger's growing belief in his own vulnerability, others to restlessness, a yearning to return to the limelight; he hadn't robbed a bank in two months.

Whatever the case, that day Dillinger performed like a hungry actor on a brightly lit stage. The bank he selected was in East Chicago, the corrupt mill town where he had spent time the previous summer. There is evidence Dillinger knew certain members of the East Chicago police department, and some have suggested his decision to hit the First National Bank that day was a prearranged affair. If so, somebody forgot to tell the rest of the East Chicago police.

At 2.45 Dillinger and Hamilton stepped out of a car double-parked outside the bank. They left a driver in the car; his identity has never been established. Inside the marble lobby, Dillinger pulled a submachine gun out of what several eyewitnesses thought was a trombone case. 'This is a stickup!' he shouted, startling the dozen or so customers in the bank. 'Put up your hands everybody!'

A bank vice president named Walter Spencer pressed a silent-alarm button beneath his desk; a block away, it rang at police headquarters. As the customers raised their hands and lined up against a wall, one forgot his cash on a counter. 'You go ahead and take your money,' Dillinger said. 'We don't want your money. Just the bank's.'[2]

Hamilton stood by, apparently unsure what to do.

'Come on,' Dillinger told him. 'Get the dough.'[3]

Hamilton hustled behind the teller cages and began clearing stacks of cash off the counters into a leather satchel. Just then a police officer named Hobart Wilgus appeared at the front door, apparently unaware of the robbery in progress.

Dillinger saw him. 'Cop outside,' he said to Hamilton, who hesitated. 'Take your time,' Dillinger admonished. 'We're in no hurry.' When Wilgus entered, Dillinger stepped forward and disarmed him. He emptied the cartridges from the officer's gun and tossed it back to him. He noticed Wilgus eyeing his submachine gun. 'Oh, don't be afraid of this,' Dillinger said. 'I'm not even sure it'll shoot.'

As Hamilton worked the cages, Dillinger saw men in suits hurry toward the bank: plainclothes detectives, answering the alarm. Hamilton saw them, too. Dillinger, playing to his audience, seemed eager to display his insouciance. 'Don't let those coppers worry you,' he told Hamilton. 'Take your time and be sure you get all the dough. We'll take care of them birds on the outside when we get there.'

A few moments later Hamilton was finished. Dillinger waved his submachine gun at Walter Spencer, the vice president. 'Come on out here with me, Mr. President,' he said. Spencer asked if he could grab his coat. Dillinger shook his head. 'You're not going very far,' he said. He then grabbed Officer Wilgus by the arm. 'You go first,' Dillinger said. 'They might as well shoot you as me. We love you guys anyway.'[4

As he had at Racine two months before, Dillinger shoved the hostages ahead of him as a human shield. This time, however, he wasn't facing a curious crowd. Arrayed outside, behind parked cars and in storefronts on both sides of the front door, were seven East Chicago policemen. As he edged onto the sidewalk, Dillinger hunched behind Officer Wilgus; Hamilton kept an arm around Walter Spencer.

For a long moment, as the four-man scrum scuttled across the sidewalk toward the waiting getaway car, no one spoke. Dillinger locked eyes with at least one of the officers, several of whom stood no more than twenty feet away. They were just steps away from the car, and for a fleeting second it appeared Dillinger could brazen out. Then one of the officers, a forty-three-year-old detective named Patrick O'Malley, shouted, 'Wilgus!' Officer Wilgus turned, giving O'Malley a clear shot at Dillinger. O'Malley fired his pistol four times, at least one of the bullets striking Dillinger's bulletproof vest.

Dillinger appeared stunned. For the first time in his career, he appeared to lose his temper. 'Get over!' he snapped to Wilgus, shoving him aside. 'I'll get that son of a bitch.'[5] He raised his submachine gun and fired a burst directly into Detective O'Malley. The policeman, a father of three little girls, fell dead on the sidewalk, eight bullet holes across his chest.

As O'Malley crumpled, the six remaining officers opened fire. The sidewalk erupted in gunshots. Dillinger and Hamilton dashed for the getaway car, jumping between a line of parked cars. Hamilton didn't make it. He was struck by several bullets, one passing through his bulletproof vest, and fell to the ground. Dillinger stopped and helped him into the car, grabbing the money satchel as well. Miraculously the two managed to dive into the car's open door without further injury. As the bullets pounded the getaway car the driver careened off down Chicago Avenue, eluding police pursuit. In minutes they were gone.

Eyewitnesses made the identification, and the evening newspapers made it official: John Dillinger, the man who many in Indiana cheered for fighting greedy bankers, was now a murderer. For the rest of his life the killing clearly weighed on Dillinger's mind. He would repeatedly deny shooting Detective O'Malley, to lawyers, lawmen, and friends. More than once, he volunteered this to complete strangers. His denials probably had less to do with the prospect of a murder conviction than with his own sense of self and his public image. At the heart of his appeal, Dillinger knew, was his joshing Robin Hood spirit, the sense people had that he was a regular guy making the best of hard times. Dillinger didn't want to be the bad guy. He wanted to be someone people like his sister Audrey and her family could cheer.

After murdering Detective O'Malley, Dillinger drove the badly wounded Hamilton to the hotel where Pat Cherrington was staying. Together they spent most of the evening locating a doctor to treat Hamilton's wounds. One bullet had hit him in the stomach, at least one more in the left shoulder. For the next few weeks Hamilton remained in a Chicago apartment with Cherrington nursing him back to health.

Dillinger, meanwhile, after splitting the $20,000 in proceeds with Hamilton, picked up Billie, They stayed in Chicago just long enough to visit a divorce attorney; as soon as Billie could end her marriage, she and Dillinger planned to wed. Afterward they drove south to St. Louis, where Dillinger wanted to visit a large auto show. There they bought a new V-8 Ford, checked into a downtown hotel, and spent an evening dancing in its roof garden. Then they struck out west on Route66, looking forward to a vacation in the Arizona sunshine.


[1] Cherrington statement, Jodil #2617

[2] John Toland, Dillinger Days. New York: Random House, 1963, p.175

[3] Gary Post-Tribune, January 16, 1934

[4] The Times, Hammond, Indiana, July 22, 1984. (Interview with Hobart Wilgus's widow.)

[5] Gary Post-Tribune, January 16, 1934

Format:Paperback, 624 pages
Price:AUD $26.95
Publisher:Penguin UK


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20 May 2016
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We are delighted to announce that the following Penguin Random House authors have been shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards:

Suri’s Wall by Lucy Estela and Matt Ottley
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