John Dillinger's Reign of terror

A True Crime Historian Serial

From the time he was paroled from the Michigan City prison in May, 1933, until he was gunned down
by the FBI on a Chicago sidewalk in front of the Biograph Theater fourteen months later,
John Herbert Dillinger was one of America's most notorious scoundrels.

October 1933 The truth about
Dillinger in Hamilton

One of the most persistent Hamilton urban legends regards the infamous bank robber John Dillinger.

While it is true that he spent some time in Hamilton on October 12, 1933, it was really for only a few hours on the day that Harry Pierpont, Harry Copeland, and the rest of the gang liberated Dillinger from the Lima jail and brought him back to a house on South 2nd Street where some friends of Copeland lived, a former bootlegger Leroy Hooten and his wife Naomi. Somewhere along the way, apparently, Hooten and Copeland had spent prison time together.

The heat was on because they killed the Sheriff in Lima, so they didn't stay long. They quickly left the Hooten home and spent the night in a fishing cabin along the Great Miami River near Venice. They left the area the next day, and as far as is known, never returned to Hamilton or Butler County.

Four days later, over 100 state and federal officials swept through Hamilton looking for the desperadoes. You can hear about that sweep as the last act in Chapter One: Dillinger's Bloody Escape.

The Hootens remained under FBI surveillance after that, and intercepted letters to them and information provided by an informant in Hamilton may have helped track the gang to Tucson, Arizona, where they were arrested.

Dillinger spent most of Prohibition in jail, starting in 1924. He was paroled in May 1933, arrested in Dayton in September. It’s possible he may have been in Hamilton sometime between May and September. He did rob a bank in New Carlisle, Ohio and other small towns nearbym but there is no mention in any books or research done on his whereabouts in that time that he was in Hamilton. He also wasn't yet famous, so his picture had not yet graced front pages across the country.

After Copeland, et al, brought Dillinger to Hamilton in October after the jailbreak, they decided it was too hot in Hamilton and they went to Venice (Ross) where they spent the night in a fishing shack with some women. Two days later they were in Peru, Indiana robbing a police armory.

Dillinger was killed in Chicago in July 1934. So his entire “reign of terror” lasted a total of 15 months. There are many books and websites that detail Dillinger’s movements and activities. I have yet to find one that mentions Hamilton again except for the surveillance on the house on South 2nd Street.

Yet people will still today insist that their grandpa/uncle/barber brought Dillinger lunch/sold him a car/was Dillinger’s bootlegger. None of that can possibly be true.

This is not to say that there weren’t gangsters in Hamilton. There was plenty of bootlegging, moonshining, gambling, prostitution, gun running, safe blowing, safe cracking, armed robbery, counterfeiting, etc. etc. in Hamilton all through Prohibition and even the decade after. I've written a couple of hundred thousand words about it.

It just wasn’t John Herbert Dillinger.

If you want to email me the story you’ve heard and know to be absolute fact, I’d love to hear it. But please include

1) How your grandpa/uncle/barber knew that he was interacting with Dillinger. Did he introduce himself as Dillinger? Did someone else tell him it was Dillinger? Did he recognize him from the newspaper pictures?

2) What possible date could that interaction have taken place? Compare that to one of the many books written about Dillinger. Fit that date into this timeline:
American Experience Official Dillinger Timeline.

I'm not saying your grandpa lied to you. Maybe he did. Or maybe he was misinformed.


Dillinger's earliest known robberies and his murderous escape from the Lima jail.


Law enforcement officials and fellow bandits alike lose their lives in the hunt for the desperate criminals as they continue their spree of mayhem across the Midwest.


The wanted desperados have made their way to Tuscon, Arizona, to escape the heat of Chicago, but a hotel fire spells the beginning of the end for most of the outlaw gang.


With Dillinger again in the wind, state and now federal police launch a desperate manhunt while the gangster continues his trail of terror.


One more narrow escape from the clutches of the law and one final bank robbery...


The narration for this episode was recorded on the main stage of the Biograph Theatre in Chicago, where Dillinger saw his last film just minutes before meeting his fate on the sidewalks of the Windy City. It was a movie theater then, and Dillinger, his hair dyed black, came here with two women to see Clark Gable in “Manhattan Melodrama,” and on the way out…