To someone like John Dillinger, Tucson was just the place to lie low after a yearlong crime spree that left three policemen dead and banks in Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania more than $200,000 light.
But after a few dumb mistakes on the part of Dillinger’s friends, and more than a couple of fortuitous breaks on the part of the Tucson Police Department, the 31-year-old Indiana farm-boyturned-robber found himself in an Arizona hoosegow. The “hick cops,” as one of Dillinger’s gangster friends called them, had captured public enemy No. 1 without firing a shot.
Events during Saturday’s Dillinger Days in Tucson — reenactments, walking tours, book signing, gangster films, craft market — commemorate the arrest.
In addition, the Arizona Historical Museum Downtown, 140 N. Stone Ave., will exhibit photos of Dillinger and his gang, their confiscated guns, furniture from the house they rented and even a Dillinger death mask. A BIG FISH
“The Dillinger arrest was probably the biggest (arrest) the Tucson Police Department ever made,” says Stan Benjamin of Tucson, who interviewed the arresting officers 35 years ago as the department’s official historian.
Dillinger, the biggest name in bank robbery in the early 1930s, was captured Jan. 25, 1934. By today’s standards his crimes seem relatively minor, but at the time he was the most notorious criminal in the United States.
“People are interested in the Dillinger history,” says Dave Faust, curator of the Tucson museum. For one, it has all the components of a good yarn — banks, machine guns, fancy cars and fast women. But it’s also good law enforcement history, Faust says. The Tucson Police Department was able to capture America’s most wanted based only on sneaking suspicions.
The events started, Benjamin says, with the arrival of Dillinger’s friends Charles Makley, Russell Clark and the latter’s girlfriend, Opal Long. Waiting for a house rental to become available, the three took a room at the Hotel Congress.
That evening, Makley and Clark became acquainted with two salesmen at a nightclub and invited them to the hotel to show them their arsenal. This would be the first mistake made by Dillinger’s friends: The salesmen would inform police of what they’d seen.
But not before a fire broke out at the Hotel Congress, forcing Makley, Clark, Long and a local girl to be rescued by ladder. The firemen who retrieved the group’s luggage received a then-exorbitant $12 tip — a second red flag. The house to which the luggage was transferred was put under 24-hour surveillance. The firemen later identified Makley and Clark through mug shots, and the two were arrested. The third member of Dillinger’s gang, Harry Pierpont, was arrested at the police station when he went for a concealed gun.
Surveillance of the house continued, and Dillinger showed up at 5:30 p.m. that day and was apprehended by police.
After arraignment in county court, the four men left town — Makley, Clark and Pierpont to Ohio, Dillinger to a jail in Crown Point, Ind. Six months later, on July 22, Dillinger would die in a shootout after a jail escape.
And the rest of Dillinger’s “gang”? Makley was gunned down Sept. 22, 1934, during a prison escape. Pierpont, also a participant of that jail break, was recaptured and died in the electric chair Oct. 17, 1934. Clark, sentenced to life in prison, remained behind bars until August 1968, when he was released under a medical parole. He died in Detroit on Dec. 24, 1968.
Dillinger Days events
9 a.m. Saturday: Antique market and Saguaro Artisans craft fair, Historic Depot, 414 N. Toole Ave.; vintage auto show, Southern Arizona Transportation Museum, Historic Depot.
10 a.m.: Dillinger exhibit including arsenal from the Tucson Police Department, 140 N. Stone Ave.; book signing, Katherine Morrissey, author of “Picturing Arizona — The Photographic Record of the 1930s,” and Stan Benjamin, author of “Without a Shot Fired: The 1934 Capture of the Dillinger Gang in Tucson,” Hotel Congress, 311 E. Congress St.
11 a.m.: Tom Stefanski lecture: “The Myth & Merchandising of John Dillinger,” Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St. Onstage performances and food vendors.
1 p.m.: Dillinger re-enactment, part 1, Hotel Congress, 311 E. Congress St.; Andy Dowdle lecture: “A Nine-Ring Legal Circus — 10 Eventful Days in Tucson’s History,” Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St.
2 p.m.: Dillinger historic downtown walking and courthouse tour. Meet in lobby of Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St.
2:15 p.m.: Gangster films, Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St.
2:30 p.m.: Dillinger re-enactment, part 2, Hotel Congress, 311 E. Congress St.
4 p.m.: Dillinger re-enactment, parts 1 and 2, Hotel Congress, 311 E. Congress St.
5 p.m.: Kings of Pleasure musical performance, Hotel Congress, 311 E. Congress St.