John Dillinger’s Wooden Gun, Letters & Personal Effects in Heritage Auction Sale
Probably the single most iconic item associated with John Dillinger is the legendary "wooden gun" he carved and used to escape from the Crown Point, Ind. Jail on March 3, 1934.
DALLAS – What is, without doubt, the greatest collection of John Dillinger artifacts ever to be assembled and offered for public auction will take place Dec. 12, at Heritage Auctions’ December Signature Arms, Militaria and Civil War Auction at the company’s Uptown Dallas gallery. The grouping comes to Heritage straight from Dillinger’s half-sister, Frances Helen Dillinger, who was 12 years old when Dillinger was killed on July 22, 1934.
John Dillinger autograph letter signed "Johnnie" to his father from prison in Lima, Ohio.
To generations of Americans, Dillinger is the most famous bank robber to ever have captured the public imagination; to Frances Helen Dillinger, however, he is remembered simply and fondly as her big brother. The legendary criminal—half Robin Hood and half Public Enemy #1—actually named her for his two favorite girlfriends.
There are three particular things that stand out in this tremendous archive, according to Dennis Lowe, director of Militaria and Civil War Auctions at Heritage, chief among those is the most important and truly remarkable Dillinger letter in existence, written to his father on Sept. 27, 1933, from the Lima, Ohio jail. Dillinger had been arrested about five days earlier in Dayton for bank robbery. On Oct. 12 his “gang” would break him out of the Lima jail killing the sheriff in the process. In the letter, written in Dillinger’s measured script, he admits to his father that he knows a life of crime has led his life astray, but he also implores his father to not believe the what is being written about him in the press and the he has “never hurt anyone.”
As for the wooden gun he used to escape from the Crown Point, Ind. jail? It’s known that Dillinger brought the gun home and gave it to his father at the April 8, 1933 family reunion. This is the one, to the best of the family’s knowledge, was passed down from Dillinger’s father to his older sister, from there to his younger brother Hubert, then to his widow, who then gave it to Francis Helen.
No mention of the archive is complete without highlighting the Hamilton pocket watch that Dillinger was carrying when he was killed, with detailed provenance from Frances Helen—all items are, as a bare minimum, accompanied by sworn affidavits from her. In fact, her husband used and carried this watch for more than 35 years.
“It’s almost unreal to be in the presence of all these amazing things at once,” said Lowe. “This remarkable offering provides a unique insight into the first, and only, man ever to be declared by the FBI as “Public Enemy No. 1.”
Further highlights of this surreal trove include:
"This is the watch John H. Dillinger had on him when he was killed in Chicago on July 22, 1934" is the beginning of the ink script note written by Frances Helen Dillinger that accompanies this size 12, grade 912, 17 jewel Hamilton pocket watch with gold filled case.
• A lengthy letter written to his father, undated but doubtless March 1933, from the Michigan City, Ind. prison, providing instructions on who to ask to speak on his behalf to the parole board, instructions on how to assemble a petition to ask for his release. As a direct result of Dillinger’s careful land clever instructions to his father, contained in this letter, hat he was finally released from prison in May of 1933, after serving 8-1/2 years of a 10-12 year sentence.
• The wool hunting suit, jacket and breeches that Dillinger bought in Chicago prior to going to Little Bohemia, Wis., then wore at Little Bohemia, which was returned by the FBI to his family after the infamous Little Bohemia shoot out.
• The suitcase, with FBI labels, in which Dillinger’s personal items from Little Bohemia were returned to the family, including a monogrammed handkerchief of Dillinger’s.
• A gold plated pocket watch owned and carried by Dillinger.
• The envelope in which the FBI returned the $7.81 that was in Dillinger’s pocket when he was killed. The envelope still contains a dollar bill stained with Dillinger’s blood. Frances Helen wrote, in her letter that accompanies the “death” pocket watch, that her father received a number of letters from people who were present at his death, stating that he was carrying wads of money that were simply pocketed by the FBI/police on the scene.
• An insurance policy taken out by John Dillinger Sr. on Jr. in 1921 for $1,000. He obviously felt there would probably be a need for it.
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