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Body of 1930s Hoodlum John Dillinger to be Exhumed and DNA Tested

Ian Harvey
John Dillinger
John Dillinger

John Dillinger is back in the news under extraordinary circumstances. His family wants to exhume his body, which they have doubts is actually of their relative, and use DNA testing to prove that is indeed him. And perhaps even more extraordinary, the authorities are allowing this to take place.

It’s easy to forget that DNA testing hasn’t been actually been around very long; in fact, it’s only in the last three decades that it has been used in almost every crime scene. And while DNA testing has proven remarkably reliable in solving crimes and getting convictions, it has also exposed a tremendous gap in past police procedures, when it wasn’t as available. Many men went to prison for crimes they did not commit, because circumstances and unreliable eye witness testimony put them in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Another problem extant in cases before DNA was commonplace is the question of identifying victims. John Dillinger, one of America’s most famous outlaws of the early 1930s, is a perfect example of this oversight. He was born in Indiana in 1903, and slightly more than three decades later, left this mortal coil in a hail of bullets on a busy, downtown Chicago street. Though now doubt has been thrown on this assertion by members of his family, who want to know once and for all what really happened to Dillinger.

John Dillinger

John Dillinger. Getty Images

The story goes that Dillinger was finally “sold out” by his girlfriend, who broke down and told Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents where he would be on a certain hot July night. The FBI, tired of Dillinger’s bad habit of busting out of jail and robbing banks, decided to finally get rid of him rather than take him into custody, although official reports claim he pulled a gun on agents first. Whichever story is true, therein lies the problem, a problem that has persisted in the almost-nine decades since.

John Dillinger poster

John Dillinger’s ‘Wanted’ poster

The Biograph Theater was crowded. Folks poured out of the air conditioned cinema, to which they had escaped to get relief from the hot Chicago summer heat.  Dillinger was one of them. And while officials insist that fingerprints taken from the body matched those of Dillinger’s on file, his relatives now are not so sure.

His niece and nephew have just petitioned for – and won – the right to have his body exhumed and tested for DNA evidence, so they can discover, with absolute certainty, whether their uncle was indeed the one who went down that night. Of course there is no possibility Dillinger is alive, as the event in question took place July 22, 1934 when he was 31, but his family wants to know whether he escaped and went on to live, under an alias no doubt, in hiding.

John Dillinger

The many faces of John Dillinger

The exhumation happens next month, September 16th, in Indiana. No exhumation of a body is easy, but Dillinger’s will be particularly challenging, as he was buried under three feet of cement and shards of scrap metal. This was done, explained Susan Sutton of the Indiana Historical Society to CBS News, because “the main fear was that someone would come in and dig up the grave and either desecrate the body, or steal it. The Dillingers had actually been offered money to ‘lend out’ his body for exhibits, so they were concerned.”

John Dillinger death mask

John Dillinger’s death mask and eyebrow hair displayed at the National Museum of Crime & Punishment, Washington, D.C.

The FBI has expressed no doubt that its agents got the right man.  “A wealth of information supports Dillinger’s demise,” one of its websites about the case insists. It also states that the two agents on the scene got two sets of fingerprints, one at the movie theater and a second that was taken during Dillinger’s autopsy.

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He may have been “Public Enemy Number One” during his heyday, but Dillinger captured the imagination of all America, and many people viewed him as a hero, of sorts, not a “bad guy.” There was something about him that appealed to the public, a kind of romantic Robin Hood figure who stole from the rich but not the poor, and was generous with friends and family. The justice system, however, saw him as just another hoodlum, and was anxious to get him out of the picture.

Related Article: The Notorious John Dillinger Used a Wooden Gun to Bluff his Way Out of Prison

If the exhumation proves it is not Dillinger’s body lying in a cement-encased grave, a new myth will spring up around him: Where did he go? How long did he live? Did anyone shelter him, and how did he survive? All tantalizing questions, and none will be answered on that coming autumn day if the family’s hopes and suspicions turn out to be correct.