John Dillinger, bank robber, is a hero of whittling. Having previously busted out of jail with smuggled rifles and the accomplices who would eventually form his first high profile bank robbing gang, JD -- finding himself incarcerated once again -- whittled a gun from a wooden washboard, coloured it black with shoe polish, and escaped once more using the facsimile firearm.
Here the story is somewhat obscured by myth, contradiction, and Wiki-facts. It is speculated that the gun was in fact fabricated by police to cover up the embarrassing fact that Dillinger had successfully received smuggled firearms in prison, again, or to distract from a different truth, that he simply bribed his way out.
But the whittled gun story holds water. In a post-breakout photograph, Dillinger is pictured holding a Tommy gun and a small rudimentary looking gun, which could well be wooden. The John Dillinger Museum of Hammond, IN, has shown a gun claiming to be the one in the picture; it has a rounded barrel and, for want of enough wood, only a partial handle. In use, the missing handle area would be covered by the hand, rendering it convincing. Ineffectually gouged into the side is the legend “COLT 38”, an example of JD’s sarcastic sense of humour, maybe. This gun, however, is manifestly not the item sold on historical auction site Heritage Auction Galleries for $19,120 in December 2009. That gun has a rather square barrel, and several other differing features. According to that website, there are three guns with credible claims to being the one used by JD. This one came down through the Dillinger family; think of that what you will.
John Dillinger display at BTWC show with a copy of the copy of a Colt 38
There are several notable points of craft on the gun. The replica of the facsimile which was produced by Bleeding Thumb member Jana is fairly uncomfortable to hold. In the photo with JD, the same awkward grip that I was forced to use can also be seen. Several intriguing details are listed on the Heritage Auctions description: that the barrel was lined with a little copper pipe – to reflect light with the characteristic metallic glint that anyone familiar with guns would expect and recognise? That small nails were used to create the illusion of sights on the weapon – the tiny details of silhouette that an artist or expert knows will complete an illusion. On creation, the black shoe polish coating the gun would have had the deep gleam of burnished steel. Seeing it wielded with confidence by the swaggering Dillinger, it is easy to imagine being convinced. Internet forums debate how JD could have gotten the knife to whittle the board, but the construction could certainly have been carried out with an old style flat razor-blade.
Dillinger is sometimes looked upon as a Depression-era Robin Hood figure, but from my readings, his redistribution of wealth was not significant. More endearing is the sense of audacity he embodies, like Bonnie and Clyde, in moving in an arena of bluster and romanticised anti-morality which cannot be explored today. Robbing banks with a big mouth and sticking it to J Edgar Hoover personally, and good for him too! John Dillinger was eventually killed by the feds in an ambush outside a movie theatre. The fatal wound entered the back of his neck. He was running towards an alleyway and had not yet drawn a gun.
The cinema in Chicago where Dillinger died