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Book Review: John Dillinger – The Life and Death of America’s First Celebrity Criminal by Dara Matera

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A little while ago, I saw a TV show on the History Channel about the era of John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde and J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. It was really intriguing, and I was especially interested in Dillinger. So I went out and got John Dillinger: The Life and Death of America's First Celebrity Criminal by Dary Matera. Weighing in at 371 pages, it is pretty hefty… but it read like a novel.

John Dillinger (1903-1934) is probably America's most famous bank robber. He terrorized the Midwest's banks and police forces for 18 months before he was assassinated on the streets of Chicago. Dillinger's crime wave was incredibly prolific as they knocked over bank after bank. As the group of criminals grew bolder, they also robbed police stations to get their guns and armor. Which is kind of funny that that could even happen. But as I read in this book… things were much different back then.

Dillinger is famous for many things, but one of the most famous criminal actions was his escape from a prison using a wood "gun" he carved. He held up his captors and walked away scot free! For some reason, people loved John Dillinger. People saw him as a "Robin Hood" type who stole from the crooked banks. (Apparently a lot of the banks were crooked and set up robberies with Dillinger in order to launder money and get insurance payouts.) Dillinger is also partly responsible for the FBI (then called DI) having the power they have. It wasn't until after Dillinger went on his rampage that the DI was allowed to carry guns. Due to Dillinger, robbing a federally insured bank and driving across state lines became federal offenses. Dillinger (and his cohorts) is the reason J. Edgar Hoover was able to have an iron grip on federal law enforcement – to many people's dismay!

I was amazed to read quotes — public quotes — from police talking about how they wanted Dillinger dead and would kill him once they finally caught up with him. Can you imagine what would happen today if a Chicago policeman told CNN he was looking forward to killing a criminal? It was also apparently normal for the media to take photos of Dillinger after he was killed. In addition, tens of thousands of people walked by his corpse and bought souvenir toe tags.

Dillinger was a mastermind criminal who, for those 18 months, lived his life like an action movie. Robbing banks, shooting guns, escaping from prison, shooting more guns and robbing more banks. Some pretty wild stuff went on during his reign, which is why he really became the first celebrity criminal.

The book is extremely well researched and very well written. Matera consolidated the research of a couple of different people and put it into this very easy to read format. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in true crime or history. You will learn a lot!

Rating: 5 out of 5

Title: John Dillinger: The Life and Death of America's First Celebrity Criminal
Author: Dary Matera
Publisher: Carroll & Graf (2004)

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