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U.S. Census Bureau History: "Public Enemy Number One" John Dillinger and America's First Responders

John Dilliner Most Wanted Poster

Amidst the hardships of the Great Depression, Americans eagerly followed the
violent and daring exploits of bank robber John H. Dillinger in newspapers,
radio broadcasts, "dime store novels," comic books, and even trading cards.

FBI agents killed an armed and fleeing Dillinger, named the nation's "Public
Enemy Number One, in Chicago, IL, on July 22, 1934.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

On July 22, 1934, FBI agents tracked down notorious gang leader John Dillinger at a movie theater in Chicago, IL. Dillinger's months-long crime spree came to an end in a hail of bullets as he attempted to elude capture. The demise of Dillinger and other Great Depression-era gangsters captivated Americans who followed their exploits in newspapers, crime novels, radio broadcasts, and even trading cards. The capture of Dillinger and other violent criminals is a tribute to the thousands of dedicated first responders who risk their lives every day to serve and protect the American people.

John H. Dillinger was born in Indianapolis, IN, in 1903. A troubled teen, he dropped out of school and began stealing cars. In 1923, Dillinger enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was assigned to the battleship USS Utah as a machinery repairman. Five months later, he deserted the ship. In 1924, he was convicted and sentenced to 10 to 20 years at the Indiana State Reformatory for the assault and robbery of a Mooresville, IN, grocer. Paroled on May 10, 1933, he quickly returned to a life of crime. On June 21, 1933, his first bank robbery in New Carlisle, IN, netted $10,000. He stole $2,100 during a second bank robbery in Bluffton, OH, on August 14. Police tracked Dillinger to Dayton, OH and arrested him in September 1933. But Dillinger escaped from the county jail in Lima, OH, where he was being held awaiting trial, assisted by four friends impersonating Indiana State police officers. Over the next several weeks, Dillinger and his gang robbed several banks and broke into and stole weapons from police armories. On January 25, 1934, police arrested Dillinger and several accomplices after firefighters recognized the gang leader when a fire broke out at the hotel where the men were hiding out. Extradited back to Indiana, Dillinger used a whittled wooden gun to trick guards into releasing him from the "escape-proof" Lake County jail in Crown Point, IN, on March 3, 1934.

Upon exiting the Lake County jail, Dillinger stole a nearby sheriff's car and crossed the Indiana–Illinois state line. In doing so, he violated the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act which formally brought the FBI into the hunt for Dillinger alongside state and local law enforcement officers. In late March 1934, FBI agents tracked down Dillinger and began surveilling an apartment in St. Paul, MN. When agents knocked on the door on March 31, Dillinger's girlfriend Mary Evelyn Frechette opened and quickly slammed the door shut signaling that the "most wanted" criminal in the United States was probably inside. Moments later, amidst a hail of gun fire, Dillinger and his girlfriend escaped. The duo retreated to Dillinger's father's home in Mooresville. On April 9, 1934, FBI agents arrested Frechette while she was visiting a friend in Chicago. Dillinger remained on the run, though, and brazenly robbed a Warsaw, IN, police station of guns and bulletproof vests on April 12.

On April 20, 1934, FBI agents received a tip that the Dillinger and several gang members were staying at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, WI. As agents attempted to surround the lodge on April 22, they were met with heavy gunfire. Dillinger and gang members again escaped after killing an FBI agent, wounding another agent and local constable, and injuring several lodge patrons. Incensed that Dillinger continued to evade arrest, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover listed John Dillinger as the agency's "Public Enemy Number One"—the nation's most dangerous and threatening criminal. He assigned agents to establish an office in Chicago to work with East Chicago police officers to investigate every tip they received about the Dillinger Gang.

Investigating every tip about Dillinger was an exhaustive effort, but it paid off the following month when a Dillinger acquaintance named Anna Sage contacted the FBI and agreed to accompany the gangster to the movies on July 22. Implicated in the murders of several law enforcement officers, there was a large reward offered for Dillinger's capture. In exchange for reward money and favorable handling of a deportation case against her, Sage told agents she would accompany Dillinger and his girlfriend Polly Hamilton to the movies the next day. As promised, FBI agents observed Dillinger enter the Biograph Theater in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood with Sage and Hamilton on the evening of July 22. As Dillinger watched the movie Manhattan Melodrama starring Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, and William Powell, law enforcement officers surrounded the theater. When Dillinger and his companions left the theater, he sensed trouble. Agent Melvin Purvis signaled nearby agents to move in. Dillinger instinctively reached for his gun as he ran towards a nearby alley. Agents Clarence Hurt, Charles Winstead, and Herman Hollis fired at Dillinger, hitting him three times. He died 20 minutes later. Thanks to the tireless efforts and bravery of hundreds of federal, state, and local law enforcement officers, Dillinger's violent crime spree was over.

You can learn more about John Dillinger and our nation's law enforcement officers and first responders using Census Bureau data and records. For example:

  • John Dillinger was convicted of assault and battery with intent to rob and conspiracy to commit a felony in 1924 and incarcerated from 1924 to 1933. He served time at the Indiana Reformatory in Fall Creek Township, IN, and later moved to Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, IN. According to Dillinger's 1930 Census record, he worked as a machine operator in the prison's shirt shop. In 2020, Indiana's group quarters population in correctional facilities for adults—including the Indiana Reformatory (now Pendleton Correctional Facility) and the Indiana State Prison where Dillinger served time—was 41,962. Nationwide, the group quarters population in correctional facilities was 1,967,297 in 2020.
  • John Dillinger's year-long bank robbing spree began at the First National Bank in New Carlisle, OH, on June 10, 1933. In 1930, New Carlisle's population was 1,089. It grew to 1,237 in 1940. The 2020 Census found that the city was home to 5,559 people. Dillinger's last bank robbery took place on June 20, 1934 at the Merchants National Bank in South Bend, IN. Between 1930 and 1940, South Bend's population fell from 104,193 to 101,268. In 2020, its population was 103,453.
  • Shortly before John Dillinger began his 1933–1934 crime spree, the 1930 Census revealed that 130,687 people identified themselves as police officers and 41,823 reported they were "marshals, sheriffs, detectives, etc." According to data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, 761,830 people worked as police officers in the United States in 2018. Of this number, 656,240 were police officers were male and 105,590 were female. An estimated 67.6 percent of the nation's police officers identified as White alone; 12.6 percent as Black alone; 2.1 percent as Asian alone; 0.7 percent as American Indian and Alaska Native alone; and 0.2 percent as Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander alone. Approximately 14.8 percent of these police officers also reported being of Hispanic or Latino origin.
  • In 2018, there were 324,225 firefighting and prevention workers in the United States, including 307,860 males and 16,365 females. An estimated 73.8 percent of the nation's firefighting and prevention workers were White alone; followed by 7.3 percent Black; 1 percent American Indian and Alaska Native; 1 percent Asian; and .2 percent Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander. Approximately 10.6 percent of firefighters and prevention workers reported being of Hispanic or Latino origin.
  • By Spring 1934, most Americans easily recognized John Dillinger from newspaper and magazine photos and the sensational newsreels shown at movie theater. His January 1934 arrest in Tucson, AZ, was the result of firefighters recognizing the gangster from recent media coverage. Having escaped from jail for a second time, Dillinger underwent several plastic surgery procedures in May 1934. He hoped to change his appearance and avoid being recognized. He even attempted to have his fingerprints surgically removed! Today, data for plastic and cosmetic surgeons are collected as part of the "Offices of Physicians (Except Mental Health Specialists)" sector (NAICS 621111). The sector included 196,996 establishments with 2,544,650 employees during the pay period that included March 12, 2021.
  • Following Dillinger's outside the Chicago movie theater, an ambulance rushed the mortally wounded gangster to a nearby hospital. In 2018, nearly one-third (32.7 percent) of emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics in the United States were female. The Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates a growing demand for EMTs and paramedics who earned a median annual salary of $44,780 in 2023.
  • The 1930s were a "golden age" for crime dramas as Americans of all ages eagerly read about the exploits of gangsters and outlaws in newspapers, comic books, and novels. This literature made John Dillinger household name along with other infamous outlaws like bank robbing duo Bonnie Thornton and Clyde Barrow; 19th century outlaw gang leader Jesse James; and Prohibition-era gangsters like Al Capone and Charley "Pretty Boy" Floyd. Equally popular among readers were the stories of the nation's law enforcement officers, including 1881 O.K. Corral gunfighter and Deputy U.S. marshal Wyatt Earp and Prohibition agent Eliot Ness. "True Crime" novels remain a popular genre today, with many popular new titles added to bookstores and libraries from some of the 2,386 Book Publishers (NAICS 511130) identified by the Census Bureau's County Business Patterns series in 2021. During the pay period that included March 12, 2021, these publishers employed 63,254 people.
  • John Dillinger's crime spree and evasion of law enforcement came to an end on July 22, 1934, when he was shot and killed outside Chicago's Biograph Theater by FBI agents Clarence Hurt, Charles Winstead, and Herman Hollis. Hollis died later that year in a shootout with Chicago bank robber Lester Gillis aka "Baby Face Nelson." At the time, Chicago was the nation's second-largest city with a population of 3,376,438 in 1930 and 3,396,808 in 1940. With a population of 2,746,388 in 2020, Chicago was the third most populous city in the United States, behind only New York City, NY (8,804,190), and Los Angeles, CA (3,898,747).
  • Thousands of first responders have lost their lives while serving their communities and are remembered for their sacrifice at national and state memorials. Among them:
    • The National Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Emmitsburg, MD, honors fallen firefighters from every state, territory, and Washington, DC. States that have erected monuments to honor their fallen firefighters, include the Iowa Firefighters Memorial in Coralville, IA; the New York State Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Albany, NY; and the California Firefighters Memorial in Sacramento, CA.
    • The National Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington, DC, honors the more than 23,000 officers who died in the line of duty throughout the United States as far back as 1786. Included among those remembered at the memorial are U.S. Marshals Robert Forsyth and C.R.V. Schefsky. Forsyth was the U.S. marshal responsible for enumerating Georgia during the 1790 Census. He was the first federal law enforcement officer killed in the line of duty when serving a summons on January 11, 1794. During the 1870 Census, Schefsky was killed by assailants who may have believed he was collecting tax money, not census data.
    • On November 3, 2018, President Donald Trump signed PL 115-275 authorizing the National Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Memorial Foundation to build a permanent memorial in Washington, DC, to honor the nation's EMS providers killed or injured in the line of duty.
    • Many local and state highway department and public works employees are classified as first responders because they are often on the "front lines" assisting police, firefighters, EMS workers, and their communities when natural disasters and accidents occur. States that have erected memorials honoring public workers who lost their lives in the line of duty include the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Memorial in Harrisburg, PA, and the Public Works Employee Memorial in Concord, NH.
  • Data about companies that manufacture protective equipment used by our nation's law enforcement officers—including bulletproof vests—are collected as part of the Surgical Appliance and Supplies Manufacturing sector (NAICS 339113). The same sector also accounts for many other vital supplies used by first responders, including bandages and dressings, firefighting suits and accessories, medical stretchers, and wheelchairs. According to the Census Bureau's County Business Patterns series, there were 1,842 establishments in the Surgical Appliance and Supplies Manufacturing sector in 2021. During the pay period that included March 12, 2021, these establishments employed 100,340 people. The Annual Survey of Manufactures found that the sector had sales, value of shipments, or revenue of nearly $38.6 billion in 2021.

Painting of an 1850 Census Taker and Family by Frances Edmonds, Metropolitan Museum of Art

From 1790 through the 1870 Census, U.S. marshals and their assistants visited every home to collect census data. Frances William Edmonds 1854 painting "Taking the Census"
depicts a marshal and his young assistant collecting data for the 1850 Census. It was the first census in which marshals recorded the name of the head of each family as well
as the name of every person living within the household.

Beginning in 1880, specially hired and trained enumerators conducted the censuses, allowing thousands of U.S. marshals to focus on law enforcement duties.

Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A Gift of Diane, Daniel, and Mathew Wolf, in honor of John K. Howat and Lewis I. Sharp, 2006.

Citing Our Internet Information

Individual census records from 1790 to 1950 are maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration, not the U.S. Census Bureau.

Publications related to the census data collected from 1790 to 2020 are available at https://www.census.gov/library.html.

Visit the National Archives Web site to access 1940 and 1950 Census records.

Decennial census records are confidential for 72 years to protect respondents' privacy.

Records from the 1950 to 2010 censuses can only be obtained by the person named in the record or their heir after submitting form BC-600 or BC-600sp (Spanish).

Online subscription services are available to access the 1790–1950 census records. Many public libraries provide access to these services free of charge to their patrons.

Contact your local library to inquire if it has subscribed to one of these services.

Did you know?

1980 Census Enumerator

The U.S. Census Bureau takes the confidentiality of census and survey data very seriously!

When the FBI began investigating a 1980 Census enumerator for allegedly falsifying questionnaires in Colorado Springs, CO, a federal judge issued a warrant permitting agents to seize census questionnaires containing confidential respondent data. Local census office employees protested, but FBI agents used a chainsaw to enter a secure room and removed sealed boxes of 1980 Census questionnaires.

Upon learning of the incident, Census Bureau director Vincent Barabba found FBI director William Webster at a Washington, DC, restaurant. During the impromptu meeting, Barabba struck a deal with the FBI that returned the seized questionnaires to the Census Bureau and allowed the FBI investigation to continue.

In the weeks that followed, Census Bureau officials recanvassed the area in Colorado Springs where the alleged misconduct took place. They compared the two sets of data in a secure room while FBI agents ensured that only approved Census Bureau employees entered.

Thanks to the Census Bureau's quick response, confidential data were never revealed to law enforcement officials.

After a lengthy investigation, the Assistant U.S. Attorney chose not to prosecute the case.

This Month in Census History

Following passage of a March 6, 1902 act, a permanent Census Bureau within the U.S. Department of the Interior opened its doors on July 1, 1902.

The Census Bureau moved to the newly created Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903 and remained a part of the Department of Commerce following its separate creation in 1913.

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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Census History Staff | Last Revised: July 03, 2024