Friday, October 9, 2009

My brush, up close and personal, with Public Enemy #1, John Dillinger

Oct. 9, 2009
Posted by Noah

There are few figures in American lore more mythic than John Dillinger. He is equally vilified as a thug and a punk and sanctified as a Depression-era Robin Hood righting the wrongs of the disenfranchised. I have no opinion either way, really. Like so many Americans, I just find the guy enigmatic and fascinating.

About a month or so ago, Heritage Auction's Director of Civil War and Militaria, Dennis Lowe, called me at about 7 a.m. as I sat bleary eyed at my desk getting ready for the day and gratefully sipping a cup of strong coffee.

"Noah," he said, "you have to get down here right now."

I assented, cursed under my breath because I was going to poignantly miss my coffee, and made my way down the secret tunnel (called and elevator here in Texas) to Dennis's office. He's an energetic man, but seemed even more so than usual despite the early hour.

"Hold out your hand," he said.

Hesitating - I am the youngest of three boys, so I learned early to never do something, especially like holding out my hand, just because someone says so - I did.
He pulled out a wrinkled envelope with a monetary figure on it, held it over my open palm and shook it. Out slid what appeared to be a folded dollar bill. Currency is a big department at Heritage, and I've seen some good bills in better shape, thus I was unimpressed. Dennis pointed to a few crimson stains on the front of the bill. I was a little more intrigued, but not more than I thought the situation called for.

"That," Dennis said, pointing to the stains, "is John Dillinger's blood. That dollar bill was in his pocket when he was shot."

Now I did pause. I took a deep breath. I put the bill down.

It turns out this spectacular and rare dollar bill is just one of a dozen lots coming up in our December Arms & Militaria Auction all relating to Dillinger. In fact, they don't just relate to Dillinger, the come directly from the legendary bank robber via his baby half-sister, Frances Helen Thomas (nee' Dillinger) who was 12 years old when Big Brother Johnny was shot.

Now, it's way too early for me to be able to link to the catalog and the lots, because the auction is in December and the description process is ongoing - and must not be disturbed! That, however, has not stopped me from going down to see the Dillinger trove - guns, letter, clothing and more - several times. And just this week The Associated Press ran a superb story on the trove, and the family, which has piqued quite a bit of interest in the stuff.

Most interesting of all, perhaps, is a letter that Dillinger wrote to his father from jail in Lima, OH, just before he broke out. In it, Dillinger tells his father to not believe anything that's been said about his and that he "never hurt anybody."

Dennis, a man with more than 30 years in the business, said it's one of, if not the greatest piece of its kind he's ever seen. I agree and all I can tell you is that it is every bit as spectacular as you might imagine. As a matter of fact, I think I'll make up an excuse to go downstairs right now and make sure all the Dillinger stuff is safe... I just wanna make sure...

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-Noah Fleisher

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