Seventy-five years ago today, the notorious American outlaw John Dillinger was shot to death by FBI agents as he was leaving the Biograph Theatre in Chicago, Illinois. The film Dillinger was watching was called Manhattan Melodrama, which went on to win Academy Awards for Best Screenplay, Best Original Story and Best Tasteless Marketing Campaign (1935). Nobody knows whether Dillinger liked the film, but this was probably due to the fact that FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover had ordered his G-Men to adopt a strict policy of “Shoot first, ask critical opinions later”.
Tonight, a silent vigil will take place outside the Biograph Theatre, Dillinger’s final croaking spot. If that sounds like too much trouble, you can always wait until next week and go see Public Enemies, Michael Mann’s gangster epic that stars Johnny Depp as Dillinger. With any luck you won’t be shot as you leave the cinema.
Upon reflection, I suppose this renewed interest in Dillinger is quite timely. Dillinger, after all, came to prominence during a period of tremendous economic hardship. Financial institutions were going to the wall and bankers and politicians were as popular as turd souffle. In this climate, someone like Dillinger could be regarded as something of an urban hero. Instead of letting a collapsing economy get to him, he took matters into his own hands. Sure, he stole money, but at least he did it with a certain style and charisma and was always above board when it came to matters of disclosure. He never lied about where the money came from.
Last night’s vigil was organised by the John Dillinger Died For You Society, one of those 60s counterculture mischief-making enterprises like Discordianism and the Church of the Sub-Genius that I’ve always been rather fond of. According to Robert Anton Wilson:
The John Dillinger Died For You Society, run by a pseudonymous “Dr. Horace Naismith” (allegedly a Playboy editor by day and a maniac only by night), accepts as its savior John Dillinger, the gunman who robbed 23 banks and three police stations before he was shot dead by FBI agents in 1934. JDDFYS members place memorial wreaths and floral bouquets at the Biograph Theater, where Dillinger was gunned down, every year on the anniversary of his death, June 22. Their major spiritual teaching comes from Mr. Dillinger, whom they call St. John the Martyr, and consists of the words, “Lie down on the floor and keep calm,” (St. John said this often to nervous and agitated bank officials before looting their tills). Every member ordained by Dr. Naismith gets a membership card making him or her an Assistant Treasurer, entitled to collect tithes from any new disciple naive enough to remain a disciple and not become an Assistant Treasurer, too, by writing to Dr. Naismith for a card.
Dillinger certainly had a way with words. When it comes to quotes and aphorisms, he was something of a cross between Oscar Wilde and Raymond Chandler. My favourite Dillingerism has always been:
“You get more with a simple prayer and Thompson sub-machine gun than you get from a simple prayer alone.”
As other people smarter than me have noted, this seems to sum up the foreign policy of most countries.