John Dillinger is a name familiar to everybody. Leader of the ‘Terror Gang,’ bank robber, escape artist, thief, killer, media darling and criminal icon. The very name represents lawlessness, violence, thievery and celebrity.
Except that he wasn’t quite the criminal colossus that many seem to think he was. Even the 1973 movie ‘Dillinger’ and the more recent ‘Public Enemies’ take liberties with the facts in favour of telling an entertaining story.
Dillinger’s fame was spectacular, but he wasn’t really the leader of the his first gang, known as the ‘Terror Gang.’ That dubious distinction goes to one of its members, the more-experienced and less celebrity-minded Harry Pierpont. Known as ‘Handsome Harry’ or simply ‘Pete,’ Pierpont was born in Muncie, Indiana on October 13, 1902.
Initially there was nothing marking him out as a potential thief and killer. He was noted as a natural leader, softly-spoken but with a keen mind and a fierce loyalty to his friends. During his criminal career he was smart enough to realise that publicity meant increased police attention and, in his line of work, a shortened life expectancy.
It was in 1921 that Pierpont suffered a serious head injury in an accident. For the remainder of his life he would complain of dizzy spells, insomnia, eye problems and headaches. His personality also changed. He became moody and unpredictable, developing an obsession with guns and a nasty temper that could easily be roused, especially when he was unwell.
It was also in 1921 that he began breaking the law on a regular basis. He took his first arrest that year for carrying a concealed gun. Held for ten days on the charge he was then committed to the Central Indiana Hospital, suspected of being criminally insane. He was later diagnosed as suffering from hebephrenic dementia praecox, a severe disorder in which a person’s mind and personality progressively disintegrate.
Released, Pierpont demonstrated his passion for guns by robbing the Cook’s Hardware Store in Greencastle, Indiana of nine pistols. He was then arrested in Indianapolis for attempted car theft and, when surprised by the car’s owner, battery with intent to kill. Held in jail at Terre Haute, he was involved in a failed escape attempt.
He drew 2-14 years for the Indianapolis fracas, to be served at the notoriously tough Indiana State Reformatory at Pendleton. Constantly in trouble there for violence, disobedience and numerous escape attempts, he was described the Reformatory’s Superintendent as being as:
“Wild as a March hare.”
Pierpont was paroled on March 3, 1924 and headed straight back into crime. Hooking up with a group of crooks around Kokomo, Indiana, he spent the rest of 1924 into early 1925 on a string of bank robberies. Indiana’s banks were hit in Marion, Noblesville, Lebanon, Upland, New Harmony, Kokomo and Laketon before the gang were rounded up. Most of them were picked up in Indiana while Pierpont was caught in Detroit on April 2, 1925.
On May 6 he began a 10-21 year stretch back at Pendleton, again causing endless trouble. This time his misconduct saw him shipped to the Indiana State Penitentiary at Michigan City, but not before getting acquainted with a young first-offender by the name of John Dillinger and Dillinger’s friend Homer van Meter. Pierpont and van Meter weren’t too fond of each other, but Pierpont had to accept them as a package.
Harry Pierpont had a plan…
First, he encouraged both men to gain transfers to Michigan City. Then he encouraged Dillinger to start behaving well enough to earn a parole. Once paroled, Dillinger would rob a string of targets from a list provided by Pierpont and experienced bank bandit Charles Makley. The money raised would fund a mass escape by Pierpont and nine other inmates. In turn, several of these veteran crooks would teach Dillinger the methods of the astounding bank robber Herman ‘Baron’ Lamm, one of the most successful armed robbers of his era and join what would become the ‘Terror Gang.’
Simple. And very, very crooked.
The gang’s first attempt on December 29, 1930, failed miserably. Dillinger ensured that their second on September 26, 1933 wasn’t only successful. It was a big enough embarrassment to Indiana authorities that the press took more interest in the break-out than in the arrest of gangster and kidnapper George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly in Memphis the same day. The entire line-up of the ‘Terror Gang’ were among the ten hard-timers who broke out.
Unfortunately for Dillinger, he wasn’t there to greet them…
While committing the string of robberies to fund the escape Dillinger had been recognised and arrested in Dayton, Ohio several days before the escape. Pierpont being loyal to his friends, there was only one thing on his mind. He had to head for the Allen County Jail in Lima, Ohio and free Dillinger.
By any means necessary.
With Charles Makley and Russell ‘Boobie’ Clark, Pierpont hit Lima on the night of October 10, 1933. The trio left shortly afterward with Dillinger in tow and Sheriff Jess Sarber lying on the jail floor, mortally injured. Pierpont had shot him and then, with Makley, severely beaten the dying man. If any of them were caught, including Dillinger, they now faced a seat on Ohio’s electric chair.
Pierpont’s dislike of publicity helped build the Dillinger legend. It also defeated a crafty attempt by law enforcement to destroy the gang from within. Indiana police officer Matt Leach thought, given Pierpont’s quick temper, that trumpeting Dillinger’s leadership while making Pierpont look like a hired hand might sow dissension within the gang, hopefully causing them to feud or go their separate ways. It failed dismally. Pierpont was too smart not to see the ploy for what it was and he was perfectly happy for Dillinger to be the latest poster boy for Depression-era crime. It meant the police and FBI focused more on Dillinger than on him.
From October, 1933 until January, 1944 the ‘Terror Gang’ lived up to their name. A string of police stations were robbed of weapons, ammunition and bulletproof vests. A string of banks were held up across Indiana, Wisconsin and Illinois. It was in Illinois, while robbing the First National Bank in East Chicago on January 15, 1934, that Dillinger committed his first murder, that of police officer William O’Malley. With things far too hot to remain in the Mid-West the ‘Terror Gang’ headed for Tucson, Arizona to hide out and get some sun.
That wasn’t quite how things turned out.
Before long the gang had attracted first the attention and then the suspicions of the Tucson police. A strange group of flashy molls accompanied by sharply-dressed men, driving flashy cars and throwing a lot of money around tended to attract attention in Depression-hit Arizona. A fire at their hotel saw them pay far too much for firefighters to recover the group’s suspiciously heavy luggage, causing the firefighters to call on the local police chief and ask him to check these strangers out.
A simple check soon revealed that the owners of those bags were far heavier than their contents. On January 25 the Tucson police made their move. With the hotel unusable, the gang had rented local apartments and were picked up one-by-one as they went about their business. Within a couple of hours the Tucson cops had done what the police of seven States and the FBI hadn’t been able too. The entire ‘Terror Gang’ were safely under lock and key.
Dillinger was extradited to Indiana over the murder of William O’Malley while Pierpont, Makley and Clark were sent back to Ohio over Sheriff Sarber’s murder. Geography didn’t make any difference to them. Whether in Ohio or Indiana, a seat in the electric chair was a seat in the electric chair. Whether they fried in Indiana or Ohio, they’d be just as dead.
Dillinger didn’t like the idea of being done to a crisp. Reaching out to old acquaintances for help, he promptly escaped from the jail at Crown Point, Indiana, further adding to his media profile and creating huge embarrassment for the forces of law and order. His escape, partly accomplished using a fake pistol whittled from a piece of wood and covered in black boot polish, was a media sensation. Pierpont and Makley would attempt something similar, that desperate move being their only chance to remain alive.
Pierpont, Makley and Clark were convicted of murdering Sheriff Sarber, Clark received a recommendation for mercy from the jury, that probably saved his life. Charlie Makley and Harry Pierpont, however, weren’t as lucky. They were both condemned to die. With Dillinger’s death outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater on the night of July 22, both knew that there could be no outside help if they wanted to escape Ohio State Penitentiary’s death house. Using fake guns made out of soap, boot polish and tinfoil, on the night of September 22, 1934 they tried to do at Columbus what Dillinger had done at Crown Point.
Overpowering a death house guard and getting to the door wasn’t a problem. Somebody setting off the alarm and their being caught trying to smash that door open certainly was. Especially when those doing the catching let fly with a barrage of live rounds. Makley was immediately killed and Pierpont took a volley of rounds including shots to his head and spine. Prompt emergency treatment kept him alive, but he would never walk again.
He didn’t have long in which to learn, either. Crippled by gunshot wounds on September 22, on the night of October 17 he was carried from his cell to a small building in the South-East corner of the Penitentiary’s yard. There he was placed in the electric chair and strapped in. He would have noticed the large collection of mugshots adorning the walls, images of long-dead predecessors on this his final journey. Asked if he had anything to say, he said nothing.
Minutes later, Harry Pierpont, the real founder and leader of the ‘Terror Gang,’ was dead. He was later interred at Holy Cross Cemetery in Indianapolis.