The Death and Surprising Return of John Dillinger

The woman in red, Ana Sage, was actually wearing orange that night. The lights of the Biograph Theater on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago tinted her dress crimson, a vivid color suitable for gangland folklore.

Her real name was Ana Cumpanas and on July 22, 1934, she was on a blood mission designed to net a $10,000 reward and freedom from pending deportation issues. Her job: identify the loathsome psychopathic killer and bank robber, John Dillinger. The gaudy outfit she wore was a prop devised to make her easily recognizable to law enforcement officers who were waiting to apprehend the criminal.

Sage, a brothel operator, Dillinger, and his girlfriend, Polly Hamilton, entered the Biograph at 8:30 pm to view Manhattan Melodrama, a Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy vehicle which, ironically, featured the Sing Sing execution of Gable at the conclusion of the film.

By the time the movie ended, just after 10:30 pm, the federal take down operation had already been plagued by several mishaps worthy of a Mack Sennett farce.

In an earlier rushed phone call, Sage did not make it clear to agent Melvin Purvis where Dillinger was — either the Biograph or the Marbro Theater, the latter some distance away. So two teams were dispatched, and it wasn’t until Purvis actually saw Sage on Lincoln Avenue that the Marbro group was summoned to beat a speedy path to the Biograph.

Then there was the matter of the Chicago police. FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover did not trust them to be part of the sting: there was too much of a chance of corruption. So Hoover used his own people, led by Sam Cowley and Purvis, with supplemental force from police departments outside of the area.

Problems developed, however, just moments before Melodrama was due to finish, when two Chicago detectives arrived on the scene with guns drawn — they were responding to an alarm call from the Biograph manager who noticed all the “muscle” assembling around the theater. The two detectives were finally convinced that a federal sting was in a progress and departed just in the nick of time.

With agents finally in place, Dillinger emerged from the theater, flanked by his two female companions. Purvis immediately recognized him — what happened next has been recounted in conflicting versions, but here’s what Purvis told newspapers at the time: “When Dillinger left the show, he started south…(he) passed my car without noticing me. As soon as he got by my car, I thrust my right arm out and dropped my right hand and closed it, the prearranged signal for closing in. Instantly, my men appeared from all sides. Dillinger had a hunted look about him and attempted to run up an alley, where several men were waiting.”

Six shots were fired by three lawmen — none of shots came from Purvis or Cowley — four hit the target, one was fatal.
As Dillinger was removed to the Cook County Morgue, it was reported that bystanders dipped their handkerchiefs into pools of his blood. Later, his body was put on public view for a day and a half at the morgue. Some 15,000 turned out to pay their respects.

Ultimately, Dillinger was interred in the historic Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis, Indiana. Notable figures buried there include President Benjamin Harrison, three Vice Presidents, at least one poet (James Whitcomb Riley), ten governors, numerous Senators, and four Indianapolis 500 race car drivers.

Dillinger’s grave has been replaced at least four times, as souvenir hunters have chipped large portions of the marker away.

When asked at the end of his career about his “greatest thrill” as head of the FBI, Hoover, without pausing, said, “the night we got John Dillinger.”

Eighty-five years have passed, and the public interest in the gangster lingers. He’s been the subject of numerous movies, including the 2009 portrayal by Johnny Depp in Public Enemies.

And now he’s front page news again, as the Indiana State Department of Health has approved a request by Dillinger’s nephew and niece to exhume his corpse on September 16. The family members are concerned about who is actually in the grave; they have evidence which suggests someone else may be buried there, a claim some have questioned.

The History Channel, which is working with the family on the exhumation process, is planning to do a documentary on Dillinger.

Susan Sutton, a prominent historian in Indiana, points that Dillinger is buried under a protective cap of concrete, scrap iron and four layers of reinforced slabs. “I think they are going to have a hard time getting through that,” she says.

Dillinger appears likely to join a list of famous exhumations: Abraham Lincoln, Jesse James, Lee Harvey Oswald and Daniel Boone, among others. If it turns out that Dillinger isn’t actually in Crown Hill, it will be the most confounding exhumation in history.

While the final chapter on John Dillinger is yet to be written, the destiny of the woman in red, who set these events into motion, has long been determined. Anna Sage’s fate was not a happy one. She only received half of the promised reward and she was eventually deported. Her lone moment of fame was an epitaph, written in chalk near the Biograph Theater: “Stranger, stop and wish me well, just a prayer for my soul in hell. I was a good fellow most people said, betrayed by a woman all dressed in red.”


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