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a literary look at beineke's hoosier public enemy
Story by Mike Overall; photography by Shaila Creekmore

Dr. John Beineke’s Hoosier Public Enemy: A Life of John Dillinger is a literary testament to the history professor’s ability to write an engaging and captivating history of one of the most infamous criminals in American history.

When Beineke began writing his narrative history of Public Enemy Number One, which Dillinger was dubbed by the FBI at the apex of his notoriety, he decided to target the young adult market. Beineke, a distinguished professor of educational
leadership and curriculum at Arkansas State University, succeeded admirably. The Dillinger book has been hailed by reviewers as a notable work of creative nonfiction and has been selected to represent Indiana at the prestigious National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., later this month.

“I aimed for the young adult audience because I think we need a better balance between fiction and nonfiction,” said Beineke, who, like Dillinger, is an Indiana native. “If you look at the young adult shelves in libraries and some bookstores, you see an endless array of books about witches, vampires, zombies and young
romance. Try to find history and biography and you’ll end up in the children’s section.”

As an author, Beineke says he did not dumb down his book for his target readership.

“I sought to write a crossover book that would be interesting to adults, as well,” he said. “Most people, regardless of age, are interested in crime and criminals, but unlike some works, mine does not focus on the sensational or the lurid. It’s a work of history which I hope tells a fascinating story about a man whose life on the wild side of the law remains shrouded in myth.”

“Everyone I met seemed to have a story about Dillinger,” said Beineke about Dillinger still fascinating people of all ages. “He was a celebrity during a period in our history when movies, radio and newspapers contributed to his fame and legend. In fact, there are many books about Dillinger, and there have been four movies about him, the latest (“Public Enemies” in 2009) starring Johnny Depp.”
Beineke said his interest in Dillinger began as a child.

“My dad was an Indianapolis News paperboy during the ‘30s and told stories of how John Dillinger would slip in and out of Indianapolis and Mooresville to visit family; I never forgot that,” said Beineke. “I also wanted there to be a book on Dillinger for young adults and to place him in historical context—the Great
Depression, the rise of the New Deal and the FBI and the role technology played, from high-powered cars and weapons to the scientific methods used to rob banks.”

The author says that if readers surf the Internet for John Dillinger, he’s all over the place.

“He’s still a subject of fascination, although his criminal exploits occurred in the last century,” he said. The cult of celebrity is a sign of these image-ridden times, but not a phenomenon exclusive to this century. When the nation was battered by the worst economic depression in its history, many could escape the depressing realities of daily living via the radio, movies and newspapers at a time when New York City alone had more than a dozen dailies.

Dillinger, Beineke said, was tailor-made for 1933 and 1934, when he was front-page news day after day. He was known as the gentleman bandit and even as a Robin Hood-type figure who once let a poor farmer keep the few dollars on the counter of the bank he was robbing.

Although some regarded Dillinger as the proverbial underdog, Beineke said that most citizens wanted him brought to justice. Dillinger’s escapes from custody were legendary, including when he broke out of jail brandishing a gun that was nothing more than a homemade stage prop.

“Some say it was real, others say it was carved from soap, but most think it was carved from wood and blackened with shoe polish,” said Beineke. “Who knows? I just put the different theories out there and will let the reader decide.

“Here’s a guy who only went through the eighth grade but was calculating, very street-smart and planned his heists with great care. Also, he never shot anybody who didn’t shoot at him first. I would say he was a high-functioning sociopath, but not a psychopathic killer.”

Dillinger attempted to alter his appearance through plastic surgery, albeit with little success. But, as Beineke noted, the gangster was a ruggedly handsome man who bore a resemblance to movie idol Humphrey Bogart.

The gangster matched wits for a time with what became J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI before eventually meeting his ignominious end in a hail of bullets fired by agents at Chicago’s Biograph Theater. The author says that Dillinger’s end came as the result of a setup where the “Lady in Red,” Windy City brothel madam Anna
Sage, betrayed Dillinger.

It’s no legend that Dillinger was shot in the back. He was buried in a large Indianapolis cemetery, which is also the final resting place of one president and several vice presidents. Today, Dillinger’s gravesite remains the most visited one in the cemetery.

Hoosier Public Enemy: A Life of John Dillinger, published by
the Indiana Historical Society Press, is available in bookstores, at Amazon.com and at indianahistory.org. JonesOccAugust2014_01-80.indd 22 7