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Why John Dillinger’s Relatives Want to Exhume His Body

They suspect that the man killed by federal agents in 1934 was not, in fact, the outlaw, but a Dillinger expert dismisses the theory as ‘total nonsense’

John Dillinger's mugshot. (FBI)
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After the notorious bank robber John Dillinger was shot to death by federal agents in 1934, thousands of spectators converged at his funeral, some of them swiping flowers and dirt from the grave as souvenirs. Worried that the situation might escalate to grave robbing, Dillinger’s family went to great lengths to ensure that his body remained firmly in the ground, encasing his remains under layers of concrete and iron.

So it came as a surprise when reports surfaced earlier this week that the Indiana State Department of Health had issued a permit to Dillinger’s living relatives, allowing them to exhume the criminal’s body. Though the reasons for the planned exhumation were not immediately clear, Vanessa Romo of NPR now reports that Dillinger’s niece and nephew have indicated that they suspect the body interred under Dillinger’s headstone may not belong to their outlaw uncle.

Separate affidavits signed by Mike Thompson and his sister, Carol Thompson, cite multiple pieces of “evidence” fueling their suspicions that it was not Dillinger who was gunned down outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater on July 22, 1934. The eye color, ear shape and fingerprints of the man who was killed that day do not match Dillinger’s, according to the documents. The affidavits also claim that the deceased had a heart condition—though the siblings do not “elaborate on why the heart condition supports their theory that the man wasn't Dillinger,” the Associated Press notes.

The newly issued permit allows the body to be disinterred from Indiana’s Crown Hill Cemetery and restored to its grave by September 16. The affidavits stipulate that Dillinger's relatives are seeking to have the remains re-examined with forensic analysis and, possibly, DNA testing, according to the AP, which also reports that the exhumation will be chronicled for an upcoming History Channel Documentary.

Dillinger and his gang of criminals shocked and dazzled the nation with their bold heists and dramatic prison escapes. They robbed multiple banks across the Midwest, raided police arsenals and killed 10 men. But during the fallow years of the Great Depression, when Americans were feeling vanquished by widespread poverty, Dillinger was seen as something of a rebel hero who took what he wanted from the banks.

This is hardly the first time that questions have been raised about his fate.

The outlaw was killed after seeing the Clark Gable film Manhattan Melodrama with several companions—one of whom, a brothel madam who went by the name Anna Sage, was colluding with the FBI. When Dillinger realized that the authorities were closing in on him, he grabbed a pistol from his trouser pocket and ran toward an alley. As he tried to escape, he was shot three times and killed.

A common theory posits that federal agents accidentally shot a Dillinger look-a-like named Jimmy Lawrence, whose name Dillinger had in fact been using as he gallivanted around Chicago. In their affidavits, Mike Thompson and Carol Thompson say it is “critical” to find out if Dillinger did in fact live beyond the date of his reported death—and, if the rumors should prove true, to find out “where he lived, whether he had children, and whether any such children or grandchildren are living today.”

But the FBI dismisses this idea as a “conspiracy theory” based purely on “circumstantial evidence,” noting that the dead man’s fingerprints were taken immediately after the shooting and during an autopsy—and were a positive match for Dillinger’s both times. Bill Helmer, co-author of Dillinger: The Untold Story, tells Dawn Mitchell and Holly V. Hays of the Indianapolis Star that he, too, believes the look-a-like theory is “total nonsense.” Not all of Dillinger’s surviving relatives support the move to exhume his body, either.

"I don't believe in desecrating the dead,” Jeff Scalf, Dillinger’s great nephew, says in an interview with Alyssa Raymond of NBC affiliate WTHR. “I think it's been 85 years. It doesn't matter."

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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