What I Knew About John Dillinger Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

John Dillinger was the most notorious outlaw of the Great Depression. Declared “Public Enemy No. 1” by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, Dillinger became a media sensation during the 1930s, as he and his gang robbed dozens of banks throughout the Midwest, repeatedly evading capture. Following a second highly publicized prison escape, the hunt for Dillinger became one of the most exhaustive in United States history, culminating in his death at the hands of federal agents outside a movie theater in Chicago. After the shooting public fascination with Dillinger only intensified, with much of the attention focused on his former girlfriend, Evelyn “Billie” Frechette, who at the time was serving a sentence on a federal work farm for having harbored and abetted a wanted fugitive. Hounded by offers of money for her story, Frechette put her memories to paper in a multi-part article for the Chicago Herald and Examiner in August 1934. In it, she recounts her time with Dillinger, painting a picture of a good man gone wrong, and the lonely girl who fell in love with him.

Summary Overview

John Dillinger was the most notorious outlaw of the Great Depression. Declared “Public Enemy No. 1” by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, Dillinger became a media sensation during the 1930s, as he and his gang robbed dozens of banks throughout the Midwest, repeatedly evading capture. Following a second highly publicized prison escape, the hunt for Dillinger became one of the most exhaustive in United States history, culminating in his death at the hands of federal agents outside a movie theater in Chicago. After the shooting public fascination with Dillinger only intensified, with much of the attention focused on his former girlfriend, Evelyn “Billie” Frechette, who at the time was serving a sentence on a federal work farm for having harbored and abetted a wanted fugitive. Hounded by offers of money for her story, Frechette put her memories to paper in a multi-part article for the Chicago Herald and Examiner in August 1934. In it, she recounts her time with Dillinger, painting a picture of a good man gone wrong, and the lonely girl who fell in love with him.

Defining Moment

In many ways John Dillinger was the perfect manifestation of his age. Following the booming, albeit fiscally lopsided, 1920s, the United States sank into economic turmoil after the stock market crash of 1929. Banks and factories closed, retirement and savings accounts were wiped out, and an increasing share of Americans found it ever harder to make ends meet. As the Great Depression intensified and popular resentment grew, several high-profile criminals gained wide attention in the nation's media. Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Bonnie and Clyde became household names, functioning as both distraction and release for an American public frustrated by the failure of private and public institutions to offer any relief from economic hardship.

Among the celebrity outlaws of the 1930s, John Dillinger emerged as the most famous. Born in Indianapolis, Indiana at the turn of the century, Dillinger found himself in frequent trouble with the law. After a failed stint in the Navy, a failed marriage, and a string of short-term jobs, he and an accomplice robbed a grocery store of $50. Despite confessing to the crime and asking for leniency, Dillinger was sentenced to ten to twenty years in the Indiana state penitentiary system, where he quickly befriended other criminals who taught him how to become a successful bank robber.

Dillinger was paroled in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression. Resentful of society and unable to find work, he began robbing banks. Over the next several months, Dillinger and his gang stole tens of thousands of dollars. Newspapers covered the gang's escapades often exaggerating and inflating events to boost readership. It is even possible that some robberies were falsely attributed to Dillinger altogether. Partly due to the attention, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover declared Dillinger Public Enemy No. 1 in America's first-ever “war on crime.” When, in early 1934, Dillinger was first captured and then escaped from what Indiana authorities had called an escape-proof jail, media coverage of the handsome and charming gangster only intensified.

Following the arrest of his girlfriend, Evelyn “Billie” Frechette, and a shootout with federal authorities at a lodge in Wisconsin, Dillinger went into hiding in Chicago. On July 22, tipped off by Anna Sage, a prostitute and Dillinger associate, that the bank robber would be attending a movie, federal agents were dispatched to the Biograph Theater. That evening, after the movie let out, Dillinger, accompanied by Anna Sage, dressed in an orange dress (though appearing red by the light of the street lamps), was shot dead by waiting agents. The fact that the last movie Dillinger saw was the Clark Gable gangster film Manhattan Melodrama, along with the story of the “woman in red,” all served to help expand John Dillinger's legend. Over 15,000 people went to see Dillinger's body at the Cook County morgue, and the outlaw became the subject of numerous books and articles. It was amid this frenzied atmosphere that “Billie” Frechette sold her stories of Dillinger, just a month after his death, to the Chicago Herald and Examiner and the magazines True Confessions and True Romance.

Author Biography

Evelyn “Billie” Frechette was born on the Menominee Indian Reservation in Neopit, Wisonsin in 1907. Part Native American and part French Canadian, Frechette grew up on reservations, and by all indications, she had a difficult childhood, living for a time in Milwaukee and eventually moving to Chicago. In 1932, she was married to Welton Walter Spark, a criminal who was sentenced to a fifteen-year federal prison term shortly before their marriage. Frechette became romantically involved with John Dillinger in October 1933. Over the course of their seven-month relationship, she accompanied him as he evaded local and federal authorities, though no evidence exists that she ever took part in any of his criminal activities, only once driving a getaway car after he had been shot. In April 1934, she was arrested by federal agents while Dillinger waited for her in a car several yards away. Frechette served two years on a federal work farm and, upon release, toured the United States with members of the Dillinger family in a show called Crime Didn't Pay! She eventually returned to Wisconsin and the reservation, where she died in 1969. Throughout her many years, her short relationship with John Dillinger defined her life.

Document Analysis

Partly a narrative of her time with John Dillinger and partly a defense of her life choices, Billie Frechette presents herself here as a good woman from difficult circumstances, who fell in love with a good man come from equally difficult circumstances. Dillinger, according to Frechette, although known to the American people as ‘Public Enemy No. 1,’ was someone else entirely. He was a victim of fate–a kind, loving, exciting man, whom she loved and who loved her in return. Her one and only regret is what happened to her because of him.

Frechette recounts her time growing up in the reservation system. She spends time telling about her childhood in Wisconsin and school in South Dakota. Her tribe was the Menominee, traditionally wild-rice eaters, who used to roam across Wisconsin and Michigan “before the white man came and pushed them around.” Maybe if Indians still roamed the hills, she laments, Dillinger would still be dead, but she would be free.

Frechette tries to play on the reader's sympathies. She was a girl enchanted by the city, longing to break free from her poverty. Married to a criminal and struggling to make ends meet, she moved first to Milwaukee and then to Chicago. And it was there, in a cabaret, that she met Dillinger, although she did not know that he was John Dillinger. He stared at her, looking all the way through her, and in that moment she was entranced, love-struck. Perhaps this was a way out of what she thought was a life headed nowhere. Maybe, as she tries to impart again and again, she was just a silly girl who fell in love.

The couple's time together was brief. They were on the run, evading capture. Dillinger was wounded, but they found a doctor to fix him. A friend of theirs, Eddie Green, was killed by the police. The noose was tightening. Police and federal agents were everywhere. But through it all, Dillinger remained calm. They stayed with his father for a time and, from there, went back to Chicago. There is a palpable sadness in Frechette's story. The end fast approaching, the lovers doomed. When recounting Dillinger's family: “I guess the only reason they didn't turn him in was they were afraid.” When recalling their plan to get married: “it sounds a little silly now.” The end came with her capture, soon to be followed by his death.

Essential Themes

Billie Frechette, a poor girl from a Native American reservation in Wisconsin, knew John Dillinger for seven months. During those months they were lovers on the run, the most wanted outlaw in the United States and his willing accomplice. Although Frechette never fired a gun or robbed a bank, her mere association with Dillinger landed her in a federal penitentiary for two years. Just a month after his death at the hands of authorities, she sold her story to newspapers and magazines in the hopes of capitalizing on their relationship and rehabilitating her image. Despite never denying her love for Dillinger throughout her narrative, she clearly wants the audience to sympathize with her as a victim. She was hypnotized, in over her head, the product of a chain of events that stretched all the way back to the destruction of her people. It is telling that throughout the Chicago Herald and Examiner article, she never mourns Dillinger's death, but only her own circumstances. After her release, Frechette toured the country in a show called Crime Didn't Pay!, in which she retold her tale of victimhood and answered audience questions about Dillinger. In the end, Frechette was right, not much of note happened to her before she met Dillinger, and not much else would happen after. She became a footnote in his biography: whether victim, opportunist, or just a woman trying to survive, her life would forever be defined by ‘Public Enemy No. 1.’

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Burrough, Bryan. Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933–34. New York: Penguin, 2004. Print.
  • Matera, Dary. John Dillinger: The Life and Death of America's First Celebrity Criminal. New York: Carroll & Graff, 2004. Print.
  • Purvis, Alston. The Vendetta: Special Agent Melvin Purvis, John Dillinger, and Hoover's FBI in the Age of Gangsters. PublicAffairs, 2005. Print.
  • Toland, John. The Dillinger Days. Boston: Da Capo, 1995. Print.
Categories: History Content