He vould have an enormous schwanzstucker…
– Young Frankenstein
I finally went see Public Enemies last week, Michael (“L.A. Takedown“) Mann’s new film about Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger which stars Johnny (“Nightmare on Elm Street“) Depp and Christian (“You and me – we’re done professionally“) Bale. It’s a smart, sophisticated and visually stunning slice of grown-up entertainment and one of the few things on at the multiplexes right now that doesn’t assume you’ve got the attention span of a coke-fiend and the emotional range of a used paper cup. It’s currently showing at a cinema near you (see local press for details), but it probably won’t be for much longer. You really should try to catch it on a big screen – and preferably one with digital projection – while you’ve still got the chance. Unless, that is, you happen to have the attention span of a coke-fiend and the emotional range of a used paper cup.
Public Enemies isn’t the first film to deal with the colourful life of John H. Dillinger, and it probably won’t be the last, either. One of the many things that makes it stand out from previous attempts is the way in which it tries to strip away the accumulated layers of unsubstantiated myth and Goddamn bullshit that an urban folklore A-Lister like Dillinger invariably attracts. Of course, that’s the sort of thing that Michael Mann likes to do. This is a serious filmmaker who makes serious films about serious men with serious problems: he’s not the sort of cheap hack or charlatan who’d fob his audience off with a lewd, bizarre and highly unreliable yarn about Dillinger just because he thought it was funny.
Which, of course, is just what I intend to do.
Like some kind of phallic space rocket, the legend of John Dillinger’s Pickled Penis consists of three distinct yet interrelated modules:
- Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger had an unfeasibly large shlong.
- Following Dillinger’s death, FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover arranged to have it surgically removed.
- This ithyphallic monstrosity was subsequently put on display at the Smithsonian Museum.
Like most urban myths, there’s little in the way of hard evidence (ahem) to support any of this. To tackle (if you will) the first part of the legend – upon which, its fair to say, the rest of it hangs (so to speak) – there’s not so much as a post-coital testimonial from a grateful gangster moll to support the theory that John Dillinger was equipped with a monstrous junior partner. The closest we get to ‘proof’ is a grainy black and white photograph of Dillinger’s recently-expired corpse that was taken in Cook County Morgue in 1934. For some strange reason it was only after the photo was published in newspapers that the rumour began to spread.
This is the photo:
As Rolf Harris might say: “Can you tell what it is, yet?”
Of course, even if this photo was the catalyst for over half-a-century’s worth of pecker-speculation – which, it must be said, seems fairly unlikely – it’s hard to imagine how it subsequently gave rise (groan) to the rest of the legend. How do you get from ‘America’s Public Enemy Number One might have been the proud owner of a colossal ding-dong’ to ‘It was surreptitiously lobbed-off by the alledgedly cross-dressing head of the FBI’? And how did it get from there to the Smithsonian Museum?
In a jar filled with formaldehyde, I suppose.
It could have something to do with Jungian archetypes, I suppose. Dillinger was, after all, often portrayed as a 20th Century Robin Hood; maybe this lurid myth is just a modern variation Robin Hood’s final blind arrow shot? Then again, it’s not what you might call a like-for-like comparison: sightlessly shooting an arrow to determine the your burial site isn’t quite the same as already being dead and having your prized possession chopped off by the Feds and put on display. Maybe I should leave the Jungian archetypes to the Jungian archetypists.
At least the excellent myth-busting website snopes.com offers a more robust psychological take on the bizarre affair:
Although the FBI finally caught up with and killed the infamous gangster in Chicago[…] he had given Hoover and the FBI a black eye, leading them on an extended merry chase across the Midwest and humiliating them by escaping yet again when they had him cornered. What better revenge for Hoover than a symbolic emasculation, especially considering that it was a woman whom the FBI finally used to lure Dillinger to his death? Spread the word that Public Enemy Number One had been interred sans penis, and that his manhood had been put on display for all to see right across town from FBI Headquarters in Washington, DC.
If you ask me, that’s a pretty good explanation for something that probably isn’t true.