Humans are the strangest creatures. We often worship the inane to evil. Lucky us. Newhall doesn’t an Adolph Hitler January White Sale. Canyon Country doesn’t host Charles Manson Dollar Daze nor does the Northeast Greater Valencia Chamber of Commerce tout the Hillside Strangler Bargain Fest weekend.
Yet, there are places that do worship scoundrels. Currently, some of the hottest-selling merchandise on the planet is in Afghanistan, Pakistan and many Muslim nations where everything from keychains to T-shirts bearing the Osama bin Laden logo still sell like pita. Che Guevara? The mass murderer psychopath? College kids think that with his scowl and beanie, he’s just hip cat daddy and all dreamy. His merchandise sells in the millions.
I remember another odd attempt at villain worship. A while back, a thousand plus miles away from Santa Clarita, the small suburban community of Mooresville tried to stave off the ghost of a distant gangster.
Mooresville was founded by North Carolina Quaker, Sam Moore, in 1824. Mr. Moore chose to settle the area because of its fertile farm land around White Lick Creek, which sounds suspiciously like Black Sabbath’s fourth album.
Besides being the birthplace of Paul Hadley, who designed the Indiana state flag, there isn’t much notoriety to this town of 5,500 souls.
Except that John Dillinger used to live there. Dillinger’s great grand-nephew, Jeff Scalf, tried to persuade the town council to promote a pro-business festival called, “Dillinger Days.”
The Mooresville City Council, small pun intended, shot the idea down.
“All criminals are bums in my opinion,” said city Councilman Toby Dolen. “We don’t want to glorify a criminal.”
Which is somewhat rare.
John Dillinger was actually born in neighboring Indianapolis on June 22, 1903. As a teen, he moved to Mooresville and began a life of crime that would make him one of the most infamous characters in American history.
How one could manage to start a youth street gang in a farming community of around 500 souls is a tribute to Johnny’s bad character. He founded a group of toughs called “The Dirty Dozen,” which stole coal from Pennsylvania Railroad cars passing through. When he was caught for that crime, Dillinger stood in front of the judge with his arms folded, hat cocked over one eye, chewed gum and gave the judge the evil eye.
Some see Dillinger as a Robin Hood. But most who carry a romantic notion about the fellow don’t know that as a young man, he tied one of his best friends to a log in a lumber mill and proceeded to cut the log in half. When the blade was inches from his screaming chum, only then did Dillinger turn off the massive saw. (An interesting life’s theme — another close friend of Dillinger’s would die after getting drunk, using some railroad tracks for a pillow. He got decapitated.) You also don’t read in the romantic accounts of Dillinger how he and his youth group gang-raped a young girl.
During the Dust Bowl Era of the 1930s, Dillinger captivated a depressed America with his daring daytime bank heists. He had panache. Dillinger had a pattern of destroying farm and home mortgages while he was robbing banks. He was the television set of his day, relieving a dull and tired American public with his exploits. He even passed as a hero when word got out that he had played semi-pro baseball.
Remember, much of the middle and lower class distrusted American institutions and blamed the leadership and moneyed class for the Wall Street crash and epic foreclosures on homes and farms. Dillinger was movie star handsome. He was theatrical during his heists, doing acrobatic stunts and waving. Once, while gathering armfuls of cash, he noticed a bone-tired farmer staring at the money on the counter.
“Is that your money or the bank’s?” asked Dillinger.
“Mine,” said the farmer.
“Keep it!” said Dillinger. “We only want the bank’s.”
His troupe of hard men gave themselves a corny handle. They called themselves, “The Terror Gang.” Dillinger masterminded the largest prison break in Indiana history. He robbed a police armory so his “Terror Gang” of Baby-Face Nelson and other toughs could have better weapons. While the most-wanted man in America, he attended Chicago Cubs games. He captured the imagination of the country when he escaped from a legendary “escape-proof” prison in Crown Point, Ind. Adding to the security, the fortress was being patrolled by the National Guard. Some storytellers spin that Dillinger forged a gun out of a bar of soap and applied shoe polish to it. Scholars say the gun was made either out of wood or it was real and someone smuggled it to him. Either way, Dillinger made perhaps the most exciting prison break in American history, overpowering dozens of guards, stealing the sheriff’s car, using the warden’s mother-in-law as a hostage and walking out of the prison the warden had described as one “…even Houdini himself couldn’t escape.”
For years, the prison was the source of ridicule. Letters were sent to the warden, addressed to Wooden Gun, Ind., and Clown Point.
Of course, Dillinger’s gangs were also something to be laughed at. During one heist, one of JD’s henchmen left $200,000 in cash in a teller’s cage, choosing, instead, to liberate a large, heavy sack of pennies.
When Dillinger made his famous, guns-a-blazing escape from a Wisconsin resort in the woods called Little Bohemia, many cheered. That FBI agents got wrapped up in a barbed wire fence trying to sneak up on Dillinger, then wounded two innocent bystanders and killed another with their careless gunplay, didn’t endear them to the American people.
There are still those who hold it wasn’t Dillinger shot in that alley next to the Biograph Theatre after the infamous prostitute, Anna Sage, The Woman in Red, betrayed him. Melvin Pervis, the FBI man who tracked him, recalled tearing off every button of his jacket while drawing his gun. Dillinger went down in a hail of bullets and afterward, a mob of the morbidly curious gathered. Many took out handkerchiefs and dipped them into Dillinger’s wounds — for souvenirs. Pervis was even offered $50 for his blood-splattered trousers.
On one hand, one can envision some cornball Midwest business expo called Dillinger Days. It would give people a chance to dress up like molls and gangsters, run around with fake Tommy guns and do really bad James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson imitations.
On the other hand, just by calling your special sales event, “Dillinger Days,” aren’t you encouraging people, in the spirit of John Dillinger, not to exactly buy your merchandise, but, in fact, to take whatever they like?
It’s odd how the passing of time has this curative ability to turn heinous acts and people into lovable Disney characters.
Here, on the outskirts of Santa Clarita, we named a county park after a famed 19th century road agent who was hanged for murder — Tiburcio Vasquez.
I wonder if a hundred years from now, some local amusement park will have a theme ride featuring the O.J. Simpson Anti Gravity Bronco or the ISIS Roller Coaster through a plastic exploding mountain with a series of caves. The front car, of course, would have a sinister countenance of a terrorist in Bedouin headgear and a long, mouse-eaten beard.
Ten years, 20, 50 — how long does it take to turn the demon into an amusement park icon?
(SCV author John Boston also writes The Time Ranger & SCV History for your SCV Beacon. He’s has earned more than 100 major awards for writing, including being named, several times, America’s best humor, and, best serious columnist. Don’t forget to check out his national humor, entertainment & swashbuckling commentary website, America’s Humorist — http://www.johnbostonchronicles.com/) — © 2017 by John Boston. All rights reserved.
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