Thursday, April 23, 2015


4/23/1934 - Having used up their luck the night before escaping from Federal agents at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Mantowish Waters, Wisconsin, outlaws John Dillinger, Homer Van Meter, and John "Three Finger Jack" Hamilton (so named for missing the index and middle finger of his right hand due to a childhood sledding accident in which he came too close to a passing train ... he is also known as "Red") encounter fatal trouble trying to make it back to the relative safety of St. Paul, Minnesota (where numerous members of the police force are on the take and ignore various public enemies in their midst).
John Dillinger mug shot.jpg Homer Van Meter.jpg
Dillinger & Van Meter
John Hamilton.jpg

Leaving the region in stolen transportation, a 1930 Model-A V4 Ford coupe with limited seating (the car has a cramped front seat only 39 inches in length occupied by a driving Van Meter, Dillinger in the center, and Hamilton at the passenger door, with an empty outside rumble seat), the outlaws use stealth instead of speed to get back to St. Paul, never traveling above 45 mph and approaching the city from the south, a roundabout route, instead of from the north where numerous Federal, State, and City officers lay in wait.  It is a plan made for success ... if not for Dakota County Sheriff J.J. Dunn.
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The Hastings Spiral Bridge - Hastings, Minnesota

Advised that Dillinger and his companions are in the region, thinking the outlaws might head from St. Paul to Chicago, the lawman sets up a roadblock near the Hastings Spiral Bridge (with him are Deputy Sheriff Joe Heinen, Deputy Sheriff Norman Dieters, Deputy Sheriff Larry Dunn, and Hastings police officer Fred McArdle) over the Mississippi River, checking green cars headed south for Wisconsin license plates, looking for plate #B92652.  And then at about 10:30 in the morning the car being sought is there ... but headed north into the city, not out of it. Hustling, the posse jumps into Heinen's Buick sedan and pursues the stolen vehicle (the car is not equipped with radio communication gear so no word of the identification can be given to other law enforcement agencies), but pulling on to the road over the bridge, they find themselves blocked by a large, slow moving cattle truck.  When they finally are able to get past the inconvenience, the green Ford is nowhere to be seen.
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Next Day's Paper ... Fred McArdle at Center

Hoping they might come upon the outlaws by continuing towards St. Paul, the officers do indeed catch up with the Ford ... and McArdle and Dieters fire warning shots with their rifles near the car to get the men inside to pull over.  The admirable gesture instead results in Dillinger breaking out the rear window of the vehicle and firing his .45 automatic at the cops ... repeatedly.

Seemingly straight out of a Hollywood gangster movie, over a curvy public roadway, for the next 20 miles the two cars engage in a high speed chase through the hilly country that sees the two groups exchange over 50 shots at each other.  Dillinger holes the police car numerous times, blowing out the front window of the sedan and almost taking off Heinen's head, while Officer McArdle is luckier with his firing ... trying to disable the outlaw's Ford, the rifleman fires at the fleeing vehicle's right tire, and misses, but the bullet ricochets off the rear vendor and spare tire, punches through the seat cushion the men are on and a piece that breaks off the round drills a hole the size of a silver dollar in Hamilton's lower back.  Use to the kind of driving he is now engaged in, pedal to the floor, soon after, Van Meter finally gets enough of a lead on the police officers that he is able to veer off the main road and hide as the pursuing cops drive past.  

That problem solved for the moment, the men decide that their new best course of action is to get away from St. Paul and find treatment for Hamilton in Chicago, but to do that, they will need a car that goes much faster, is larger, and is not being sought by the authorities ... a vehicle just like the 1934 Ford V8 Deluxe being driven by Roy Francis, a district manager of the Northern States Power company taking his infant son Robert out for a drive with his wife Sybil during his lunch hour in an attempt to get the baby to settle down and sleep. Stopping for a man holding a pistol (Homer Van Meter) standing in the middle of the gravel road the family is grabbed three miles south of South St. Paul, Roy, Sybil, and Robert briefly become traveling companions of the Dillinger Gang.  "Don't worry lady, we like kids," Dillinger tells Sybil Francis when she gets in the car ... and indeed, other than heisting the car, the outlaws treat the family well during their time together, even treating the family to soda pop when a stop is made to fill up the Ford.  Near the town of Mendota the family is released and once more Dillinger vanishes from public view.

Wanted Everywhere!

Some members of the Chicago underworld however do know the whereabouts of Dillinger.  Reaching Chicago without any further encounters with the law, the men immediately seek out the shady medical services of Joseph P. Moran (his medical license is seized for performing one too many abortions) ... the sawbones of choice for both the Dillinger Gang and the Barker-Karpis Gang.  This time though the former doctor wants no part of being around the outlaws and refuses to treat Hamilton, noting the wound is now fatal having gone gangrenous on the drive to the Windy City (before the year is out he will be murdered by Freddy Barker and Alvin Karpis for not only butchering the plastic surgery he performed on the two men, but also for talking about the procedures in public after too many shots of tongue wagging whiskey).  After a short stop at a gangster tavern in Bensenville owned by Elmer Farmer, desperate for some kind of shelter, the trio are finally taken in by Volney Davis, a member of the Karpis-Barker Gang, at a hideout in Aurora, Illinois.
Volney Davis.jpg
Volney Davis

Machine guns at the ready should their hiding place be discovered, Dillinger, Van Meter, Davis, Dock Barker, and Harry Campbell stand watch as Hamilton spends three days dying in excruciating pain. Friend gone, in the dead of night on 4/27, the men take the body to a gravel pit in Oswego, Illinois, for disposal.  Laid in a shallow grave, to prevent identification by the authorities, Hamilton's right hand is cut off (and discarded elsewhere) and several cans of lye are poured over his face and body by Dillinger ("Red, old pal, I hate to do this, but I know you'd do the same for me," his pal is quoting as saying). Grave filled in, a roll of rusted barb wire is then placed over the site as marker and John Hamilton is no more.

Or not!   

When the body is discovered in 1935, it is basically gone and the only thing available for identification are a couple of molars, which unsurprisingly, the FBI says are a match for Hamilton's based on dental records that show the outlaw had fillings in the same spot as the corpse's recovered teeth.  But rumors persist in the underworld that Hamilton has escaped again (and reports continue to come into the FBI that he is still alive, all of which Hoover marks as CASE CLOSED!) ... recovering from his wound and retiring from the life of robbery that in the months ahead will see Tommy Carroll, Dillinger, Homer Van Meter, and Baby Face Nelson all killed in shootouts with the law, he moves back to the country of his origin, Canada, and lives out his life working there as an electrician and handy man. Evidence? Beyond the poor Hamilton Family suddenly coming into thousands of dollars in cash after John's supposed death more than once (from buried loot Hamilton digs up and gives to the family?), Hamilton's nephew Bruce, an aunt, and a Hamilton grand daughter all swear that the outlaw didn't perish and survived into the 1970s, vacationing numerous times with members of his family over the years.
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And maybe he did ... one thing that is known for sure about Hamilton's end is that it didn't come at the Little Bohemia Lodge as bogusly portrayed in the movie Public Enemies!

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