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Monday, June 24

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The headline on MSN promised to reveal America's top ten haunted places, with bonus lists for individual cities across the country. Great. I knew what would be on the Chicago list before I even read it, but I clicked through anyway, just in case. Unfortunately, I was not disappointed.

Topping the list, not only for Chicago, but also for the whole country, was the Biograph Theater. "Urban folklore says that John Dillinger's ghost still runs through the theater's back alleys where FBI agents finally caught and killed the notorious bank robber," the site says.

Right. If the Biograph is haunted, I thought, it is not haunted by the kind of ghosts people mean when they talk about cold spots or apparitions. The theater is simply haunted by its own past, by the unwitting role it played in the death of one of the country's most famous criminals.

The Biograph Theater

A gangster's life

John Herbert Dillinger was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on June 22, 1903, the son of John Wilson Dillinger, a grocer. His mother died when he was 3 years old, so he was raised by his older sister until his father remarried several years later.

By most accounts, the young Dillinger had a fairly unremarkable childhood. The family moved to Mooresville, Indiana in 1920, and Dillinger dropped out of school at 16 to work. He joined the Navy in 1923, but historians suspect he only enlisted to escape being arrested on charges of car theft. Whatever his motives, Dillinger went AWOL from the Navy after just five months, and he was eventually dishonorably discharged.

Back in Mooresville, Dillinger's life took a turn for the worse when he and a friend tried to rob a 65-year-old grocer named Frank Morgan on September 6, 1924. He and his accomplice were both arrested and charged. Dillinger was counseled to plead guilty, in the belief he would receive only a light sentence. Instead, the judge sentenced Dillinger to 10-20 years in prison.

Historians and contemporary accounts often point to Dillinger's harsh prison sentence as the factor leading to his later criminal acts. A story in the Chicago Daily Tribune described the "farmer boy" brooding in his cell, "embittered at this trick of justice," and dreaming of his revenge. But this seems like a desperate attempt to rationalize or try to understand the astonishing and horrific crime spree Dillinger went on, starting just days after his release from prison on May 22, 1933.

On June 10, 1933, Dillinger robbed the National Bank in New Carlisle, Ohio, and it was all downhill from there. The PBS website includes a timeline of the crimes committed by Dillinger and his gang between 1933 and 1934, and its concise detail somehow makes the lengthy list of offenses even more shocking.

But on July 22, 1934, Dillinger's life of crime was put to a quick and sudden halt. That hot July night, John Dillinger went to the Biograph Theater with two women, Polly Hamilton and Anna Sage, the so-called "Lady in Red." Sage had already tipped off authorities that they would be attending the theater. They watched Manhattan Melodrama, starring Clark Gable and William Powell, while FBI agents positioned themselves around the building.

Dillinger and his companions left the theater around 10:30pm and started walking south on Lincoln Avenue. By some accounts the two women dropped behind Dillinger as the agents spotted them and closed in. The FBI reports that Dillinger became suspicious and went for a concealed gun. To see exactly "how death was dealt to deathdealing John Dillinger," check out this diagram. He was shot three times, once in the head and twice in the chest and was dead within minutes. He was 31 years old.

Dillinger's Alley now

Decades after Dillinger's death, some people reported sighting an apparition in the alley near where the bank robber was killed. The ghostly figure allegedly was sighted running up the alley and then falling and disappearing. People also began complaining of cold spots and feelings of unease inside the Biograph Theater.

An historic theater

Until it closed in 2004, the Biograph Theater was one of Chicago's oldest movie theaters. The building, located at 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., was designed in 1914 by architect Samuel N. Crowen. In recent years, the theater changed owners several times, without success, despite its historical connections and despite being designated a Chicago landmark in 2001.

Today the theater is owned by the Victory Gardens Theater, which is planning to transform the old movie house into a state-of-the-art mainstage theater. The renovated Biograph is currently scheduled for completion in late 2006.

When I visited the theater on a recent rainy afternoon, I expected to see some visible signs of refurbishment—or at least some scaffolding. But the boarded up theater looked abandoned, and the graffiti decorated plywood covering the entrances seemed to mock the shiny bronze plaque on the building's fašade that marks the theater's place on the National Register of Historic Places.

Seeing it in its current forlorn condition, I began to believe this could be a haunted theater. I pulled my camera out of my bag to take a couple of pictures of the building and the alleyway where Dillinger was gunned down by the authorities. I walked a little further south on Lincoln Avenue to try to get a photo with both the theater and the alley in the same shot. But suddenly my normally docile camera began acting up. Several times I tried and failed to take the photo. My camera simply refused to cooperate, and the increasing rain finally forced me to give up trying. Ghostly influence, or just dead batteries?

Happy Halloween.

Additional Resources

Public Enemy #1
This is the official site for the PBS documentary chronicling the life and times of John Dillinger. Read a transcript of the film, check out the photo gallery and watch clips of archival newsreel footage from Dillinger's era.

John Dillinger FBI File
Download more than 150 pages from Dillinger's FBI file. These are scans of the original documents, available in three separate .pdfs, and detailing the events that led to Dillinger's death in 1934. The information is available thanks to the Freedom of Information Act. God bless America.

FBI Famous Cases: John Dillinger
This is a good, overall background on Dillinger from the Federal Bureau of Investigation's famous cases library.

Dillinger: The Untold Story by G. Russell Girardin (Indiana University Press, 2005) is considered the definitive biography of the crook. Originally published in 1994, it is now available in a new, expanded edition.

Dillinger Died for You Society
This group of dedicated Dillinger fans meets every year on the anniversary of his death, tongues firmly in cheek. Bookmark the site to watch for next year's event.

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About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is a Chicago librarian. She welcomes questions and topic suggestions for her column at . Due to the volume of email received, she may not reply to every query, but you may be contacted if your question is selected for the column.

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