Flashback Friday: John Dillinger shot his way out of St. Paul apartment complex 85 years ago

March 29, 2019 09:39 AM

It's no exaggeration to say that in March 1934, John Dillinger was among the most famous people in America.

At the time, he was living in a St. Paul apartment complex under an assumed name.


"He was right up there with every celebrity of the time," said author Dary Matera, who wrote the 2004 book "John Dillinger: The Life and Death of America's First Celebrity Criminal."

"People really did live vicariously through the newspapers and the radio in those days," Matera said. "And they hyped up guys like Dillinger because it sold copies and got people listening. It was the Depression and people craved entertainment. They didn't have TV. There were no movies about Bonnie and Clyde. You just had the real Bonnie and Clyde."

And the real Dillinger, whose string of bank robberies and escapes from jails had drawn not only the attention of the media, but of the authorities as well. That included the federal Bureau of Investigation (BOI), which labeled him Public Enemy No. 1, and whose director - J. Edgar Hoover - used the exploits of Dillinger and other gangsters to expand and evolve the bureau into the modern FBI.

Dillinger's time in the Twin Cities - though brief - played a key role in that process. Notably, the infamous shootout and escape that occurred 85 years ago this week - on March 31, 1934 - at the Lincoln Court Apartments, which still stands on the corner of Lexington Parkway and Lincoln Avenue.

"J. Edgar Hoover used that shootout to lobby Congress, not only to give him a lot more money, but also to expand the powers of the FBI," notes local author Paul Maccabee, who wrote the 1995 book "John Dillinger Slept Here: A Crook's Tour of Crime and Corruption in St. Paul, 1920-1936."

"The impact of the Lincoln Court Apartments, and the escape of John Dillinger, was considerable. It was an enormous black eye for J. Edgar Hoover. There were even calls for his removal. Dillinger had just grown so infamous."

Dillinger had escaped from a county jail in Crown Point, Indiana on March 3, 1934 - breaking out of a facility authorities had termed "escape proof."

In so doing, he'd stolen a sheriff's car and driven across state lines - a federal offense that brought J. Edgar Hoover and his men actively into the hunt.

Dillinger, meanwhile, headed for the Twin Cities with girlfriend Evelyn 'Billie' Frechette alongside him. He went first to Minneapolis before moving to St. Paul where criminals of his ilk were generally able to operate in relative peace as a result of the longstanding layover agreement that had been put in place in the city by former police chief John O'Connor in 1900.

According to an online article from the Minnesota Historical Society, the agreement allowed criminals to stay in the city provided they checked in upon their arrival, agreed to pay bribes and committed no major crimes in St. Paul itself (the surrounding communities, sadly, remained fair game).

"St. Paul was known as a safe city," Maccabee said. "If you were a kidnapper or hitman anywhere in America being hunted by the local police or what became the FBI, you would go to places like Hot Springs, Arkansas, Cicero, Illinois - where Al Capone reigned - or St. Paul.

"Dillinger was able to take his girl (Frechette) and go openly - in no disguise - to a movie theater two blocks away from his apartment on Grand Avenue. And nobody bothered him."

But the couple's habits - including keeping the shades drawn in apartment 303 and using the back entrance to the building - did draw attention.

Soon, federal agents - accompanied by St. Paul police detective Henry Cummings - arrived to pay a call on Mr. and Mrs. Carl Hellman - the aliases Dillinger and Frechette were using.

What followed was a massive shootout - also involving Dillinger gang member Homer Van Meter - in which Dillinger was shot in the leg after he opened the apartment door wide enough to fire his Thompson submachine gun into the hallway outside.

"It was one of the biggest cops and robbers shootouts you could imagine," Matera said. "You had guys (Van Meter) escaping in a garbage truck. Guns firing everywhere. It was the stuff of Hollywood dreams. It would have made an incredible crime drama. But it was real."

Dillinger escaped to Minneapolis where a doctor known for treating patients off the grid tended to his wounds. He reportedly spent several more days in the Twin Cities before fleeing back to his home state of Indiana - leaving turmoil and rumors in his wake.

"There were Dillinger sightings all over Minnesota after that," Maccabee said. "I talked to people who said their dads ran gas stations in Litchfield or Hibbing, and they remembered six guys in a black car stopping to fill up. There was an amazing story of a woman who ran a gas station up north who said a black car filled with dangerous characters pulled up.

"She went out to fill up the tank, and one of the men asked her why she wasn't afraid. She said the only thing that scared her was the Dillinger Gang. And the car erupted in laughter.

"It was like Elvis sightings after he passed," Maccabee continued. "Mind you, I doubt they were all true. But people just wanted to say they'd seen him. While at the same time, there was considerable concern an innocent person would be shot because everyone was so on edge at the time."

The manhunt continued into that summer before Dillinger was eventually gunned down by federal agents after he and two women emerged from seeing a movie at the Biograph Theater in Chicago.

One of the women - Anna Sage - was the landlord of Dillinger's newest girlfriend Polly Hamilton. It was she who tipped authorities off, becoming known as the 'Lady in Red,' though by most accounts she was actually wearing an orange skirt.

Meanwhile, Maccabee said the Lincoln Court shootout - and the kidnapping of two prominent St. Paul residents around the same time period - spurred calls for change that led to the end of St. Paul's time as a haven for notorious criminals.

"There's no question that the Dillinger shootout was a huge embarrassment for St. Paul," he said. "It got a ton of national attention. And it was patently clear to everybody in America what was happening there.

"After that, and with the kidnapping of William Hamm and Ed Bremer by the Barker-Karpis Gang, calls for reform got a lot louder."

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Frank Rajkowski

Copyright 2019 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company


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