Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Moira. Moira Wonders, “Who was John Dillinger?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Moira!

What have you learned about Jesse James? How about Billy the Kid? You may know they were outlaws who led crime sprees in the 1800s. Today’s Wonder of the Day is about a criminal who lived decades after these two outlaws. That’s right, we’re talking about the dangerous John Dillinger!

John Dillinger was born June 22, 1903, in Indianapolis, Indiana. His mother passed away when he was three. Dillinger became an unruly child, often fighting with his father and stepmother. The family moved from Indianapolis to rural Mooresville, but Dillinger’s troublemaking continued.

Dillinger married Beryl Hovius and moved back to Indianapolis in 1924. There, he teamed up with a criminal named Ed Singleton. The pair tried to rob a Mooresville grocery store but failed. Still, Dillinger was sentenced to 10-20 years in prison for the crime.

In prison, Dillinger met many people who had robbed banks. He built friendships with these inmates and learned from them. His wife divorced him, and upon his release in 1933, Dillinger returned to crime. During his first four months of freedom, he robbed five banks. 

Still, Dillinger had bigger plans. He plotted to help several friends escape from prison to join him. Dillinger was arrested before he could set the plan into action, but others carried it out. The freed inmates stormed the jail that housed Dillinger. They helped him escape, killing the sheriff in the process. 

Together, the band of outlaws set out on their crime spree. They robbed banks in Indiana and Wisconsin before moving on to the southern and western United States. The gang outsmarted or outran police and the FBI at every turn. 

How did the group keep getting away? In many cases, they had faster cars and more weapons than the authorities. But they also had much of the public on their side. Angry at banks for failing during the Great Depression, many people saw the robberies as payback. They hid the fugitives and helped them flee from law enforcement.

When Dillinger or one of his cronies was captured by police, they often escaped. In one case, Dillinger made a toy gun out of a block of wood while imprisoned. He then used shoe polish to paint it black. Wielding the fake gun, the criminal intimidated guards and made his getaway.

Of course, John Dillinger’s crime spree didn’t last forever. The FBI caught up with the bank robber on July 22, 1934. Agents ambushed Dillinger and his girlfriend outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago, Illinois. Dillinger ran, but FBI agents shot him. He died in an alley near the theater.

Or did he? In the following years, rumors spread. Claimed sightings of Dillinger piled up, and people questioned the FBI’s story. Many said agents had killed a Dillinger look-alike. They said his eye color, ear shape, fingerprints, and teeth were different from the criminal’s. Complicating things, Dillinger reportedly had plastic surgery just before his death. This change in his appearance made even more people suspicious.

In 2019, Dillinger’s surviving family members sought answers. His niece and nephew asked to compare their DNA to Dillinger’s remains. However, the cemetery refused to disturb the grave. The family then filed a lawsuit, but lost. 

Was John Dillinger killed by the FBI in 1934? Or did he go on to live a long life? To many, the idea that Dillinger escaped sounds like a conspiracy theory. Others see it as a WONDERful mystery. What do you think? We’d love to hear your ideas!

Standards: C3.D2.His.2, CCRA.L.1, CCRA.L.2, CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.R.4, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.SL.1, CCRA.SL.2, CCRA.W.2, CCRA.W.9,

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