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North Texas and John Dillinger

by Jerome Weeks 2 Jul 2009 9:51 AM

You wouldn’t know it from motion pictures like ‘Public Enemies,’ but North Texas was neck-deep in the Great Age of Bankrobbers – on both sides of the law.


Separated at Birth?

The Morning News ran a story today about how the Hotel Congress in Tucson has for years held a ’30s-styled event called Dillinger Days — a way of commemorating the arrest there of gangster John Dillinger and several cohorts in 1934. It happens to be a prominent scene in director Michael Mann’s new film, Public Enemies.

The News might have added this is in sharp contrast to North Texas which is pretty much silent on our area’s extensive involvement with the Great Age of Bankrobbers. You often hear Dallasites remark about how their city has no history. What that actually means is that Dallas has very little history the city wants to acknowledge. It wants something to extol, to sell, to bask in. Recall the long battle to get even a tragedy as  epochal as the JFK assassination suitably treated by the Sixth Floor Museum. It’s little wonder that one could live here for years, drive through every neighborhood and learn extremely little about the region’s criminal past (from Sam Bass and Belle Starr forward), let alone its history of racial bombings or its role in blues and jazz and rock ‘n’ roll.

But truth is,  in the ’30s, North Texas was neckdeep in the bloodshed on both sides of the law — from the fact that Machine Gun Kelly (Fort Worth), Pretty Boy Floyd (Oklahoma) and Bonnie and Clyde (Dallas) carried out a lot of their crimes in the area when they weren’t actually from here to the fact that many of the officers who hunted down and shot these killers were Texans. These include Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, highway patrolman Manny Gault, Dallas deputies Bob Alcorn and Ted Hinton (involved in the Bonnie and Clyde ambush), plus Dallas special agent Charles Winstead, who helped track Machine Gun Kelly and actually shot John Dillinger. (The News‘ Kent Biffle wrote a 2005 column on the man who eventually became security chief at Los Alamos.)

As the new Johnny Depp movie and Bryan Burroughs’ book (Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34) make clear —

— the early and incompetent FBI was seriously outmatched by the rapid rise of these mobile and heavily armed robbers. So J. Edgar Hoover turned to a handful of  seasoned Texas “Cowboys” to bring them down — and save his agency and his fledgling bureaucratic career.

But the film won’t change the general invisibility of North Texas’ involvement in these matters. The bankrobbing crime spree was almost entirely a Midwest event from the upper Midwest (Wisconsin to Chicago) to the lower Midwest (Kansas City to Texas). In the film, Texas and the southern half of the spree do not loom large, understandably so because Mann made the decision to concentrate on Dillinger, the most appealing of the bunch, cutting away Kelly and the (already, unjustly romanticized) Barrows. Texas is almost entirely confined to the presence of Winstead, played by Stephen Lang.

There is a slender Dallas connection among the performers. In a choice courtroom scene, veteran character actor Peter Gerety plays Dillinger’s hired mouthpiece, Louis Piquett. Gerety was a member of artistic director Adrian Hall’s Trinity Rep company in Rhode Island and appeared at the Dallas Theater Center. His older sister, Anne Gerety, was a member of the DTC’s acting company in the ’80s.

  • Gini Mascorro.

    Not to brag here or anything, but my grandmother Minnie was a drinking buddy of Machine Gun Kelly’s wife, Kathryn, when they were all living south of downtown Fort Worth. Good times, I’m sure!

    • “…What that actually means is that it has very little history that the city wants to acknowledge because it wants something to extol, to sell.”

      Yeah. What’s that about.