The Art Deco Hamilton watch carried by John Dillinger when he was gunned down by the FBI outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago.
Dillinger carried a quality watch! The opening bid for this iconic watch was a paltry $41,825.
John Dillinger’s mug shots. On Dec. 12, 2009, Heritage Auctions held a sale of several items Dillinger had on his person when he was shot and killed by FBI agents outside of the Biograph Theater in Chicago on July 22, 1934.
It’s not often that the belongings of someone as infamous as John Dillinger come up for sale. This month Heritage Auctions listed 11 items attributed to Dillinger, including two pocket watches and a wristwatch—one a gift from his father, the other an Art Deco Hamilton actually carried by Dillinger when he was gunned down by the FBI outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago.
Six of the 11 pieces sold during the Dec. 12, 2009 December Signature Arms & Militaria Including Civil War Auction, and Heritage has pushed back the closing gavel on the remaining five, including Dillinger’s Hamilton, to Dec. 28, 2009. Now, these items have fixed prices.
I have to give Mr. Dillinger credit; he carried a quality watch! It’s a shame, though, that it’s originality was altered by a well meaning but misguided watchmaker. I guess blood has a very destructive corrosive effect on the delicate mechanisms of a watch! Heritage Auction’s price for this iconic watch is now a paltry $41,825. Without the provenance, the actual value of this fairly common watch is approximately $150. The Waltham watch that his father gave him has an approximate value of $200. It sold for $4,481. A bargain!
Dillinger’s Hamilton is a 12 size Gentleman’s dress watch with a good quality 17 jewel movement housed in a quality goldfilled hinge back open-face case made by the Keystone Watch Case Co. also located in Lancaster, Pa. While not a watch capable of rail road timekeeping, the watch was in keeping with Hamilton’s standing as a watch company that produced quality at a standard above the rest. Hamilton was very successful at mass producing these “Banker’s Watches” in dozens of different styles, shapes and various case metals, white and yellow gold, platinum, and goldfilled. The “bottom end” was 17 jewels while the top end was 23 jewels and five adjustments. Hamilton’s “bottom end” watches were comparable to other watch companies medium and high end watches.
John Dillinger's nickel-plated Colt Pre-Woodsman .22 caliber automatic pistol, #5436, manufactured 1917, and a wristwatch. Items associated with John Dillinger that Heritage Auction put up for sale on Dec. 12, 2009: 1. Dollar Bill – $14,340 (sold) 2. Wood Gun – $19,120 (sold) 3. Waltham Watch – $4,481 (sold) 4. Hamilton Watch – $41,825 (available unsold) 5. Letter – $41,825 (available unsold) 6. Monogrammed handkerchief – $5,377 (available unsold) 7. Colt pistol and wrist watch – $41,825 (available unsold) 8. Suitcase – $3,585 (sold) 9. Sporting guns – $8,962 (sold) 10. Hunting suit – $29,875 (available unsold) 11. Family documents – $3,346 (sold)
Dillinger’s Waltham is an 18 size goldfilled open-face model ’83. This is a totally different type of watch, much bigger, heavier and older in style compared to the new, modern, slim gentleman’s Hamilton watch. The Waltham was his father’s era type of watch, and gifted by the elder Dillinger, so I’m sure he used it, until he discovered the new more technologically superior Hamilton. Like his guns, Dillinger appreciated the newer technology and embraced it.
Dillinger’s brother’s watch is a Swiss made Waltham wristwatch ca.1967. This watch was a Waltham in name only. Waltham went out of business in 1957. The Waltham name was purchased by a Swiss conglomerate that sold watches under the Waltham name right into the 1970s. I would value this watch in the $75-$150 range and only of mild interest to collectors.
Apparently Dillinger’s embrace of the new technologies of the time did not include a wristwatch; a much more convenient, and equally precision timekeeper as the pocket watch.
For those of a younger age who don’t know the story, FBI agents ambushed John Dillinger outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago, killing him. Dillinger was was betrayed by the “lady in red,” who had told the FBI where they could find Dillinger. The movie playing at the Biograph that night was “Manhattan Melodrama,” starring Myrna Loy, William Powell, and Clark Gable.
Near the end of the film, there is a dramatic scene where Clark Gable’s criminal character, “Blackie,” is being led to the electric chair. He gives advice to another prisoner on the way, “Die the way you lived, all of a sudden,” Blackie said. “Don’t drag it out. Living like that doesn’t mean a thing.” Those were some of the last words Dillinger heard before his death. It seems likely that he himself might well have subscribed to a similar attitude.
All of the items in the auction came from Frances Helen Dillinger, John Dillinger’s half-sister. She says this about some of the items auctioned:
“This is the watch that John H. Dillinger had on him when he was killed in Chicago on July 22, 1934. Along with the watch, the federal men gave my dad an envelope with $7.81, stating that was all the money he had on him. My father received many letters from people that were at the scene of the killing, and stated there was a large amount of money taken off the remains by the FBI. The FBI also gave my father a bullet covered (almost completely red with dried blood, and with many bullet holes) white shirt, gray slacks, shoes, etc., that he had on when killed. The watch box I placed this in, was a Hamilton watch I gave my husband many years ago. I put John’s watch in this box to protect it.”
— Frances H. Dillinger Thompson (Johns’ half-sister) Aug, 24, 1997
Dillinger's Waltham is an 18 size goldfilled open-face model '83
This is a totally different type of watch, much bigger, heavier and older in style compared to the new, modern, slim gentleman's Hamilton watch.
Dennis Lowe, director Arms & Militaria for Heritage Auctions, recounts his visit to Frances Helen Dillinger Thomas:
“My visit to the Dillinger family in Mooresville, Ind. was a genuinely moving experience, most notably sitting across the kitchen table from his now 87-year-old kid sister Frances Helen Dillinger Thompson, and listening to her recount her memories of her older brother. John had in fact named her, Frances and Helen being the names of his two favorite girlfriends and, although he only spent limited time around the family hearth between her birth in 1922 and his death in 1934, John was, according to Frances, “a typical big brother . . . very protective and kind.” That characterization pervades Frances’ descriptions of her brother, still affectionately referred to by the family as “Johnnie.”
The decision to auction these items, which have been in the family’s care for the last 75 years, was clearly a difficult and emotional one. The items were rarely shown to outsiders and the burden of caring for them was an emotional roller coaster for Frances. In a burst of emotion during the 1960s, Frances took the bullet-riddled, blood-soaked shirt John was wearing when he was gunned down to the backyard burn barrel and unceremoniously destroyed it, unable to bear the horror it represented to her any longer. More than one prying reporter or researcher was denied access to the family over the years for committing the faux pas of referring to John as a “killer.” Dillinger was, in fact, never personally charged with the crime of murder, while the family has steadfastly stood their ground in Mooresville, with Frances’ residence just three doors from the original family farm.
These items represent the most tangible touchstones to the life and death of what is probably America’s best known “criminal,” whose legend remains surrounded by an aura of both danger and benevolence.
My thanks and credits to Dennis Lowe and Heritage Auctions for text and pictures.
David Mycko is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in antique and vintage watches.
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