At 12:09 a.m. this date in 1934, Harry Pierpont — a partner of notorious gangster John Dillinger — was electrocuted at the Columbus, Ohio penitentiary.
This Indiana-born criminal helped Dillinger transition from local malcontent to FBI’s Most Wanted* in prison in Michigan City, Indiana. Pierpont was a professional armed robber and the leader of a gang that knocked over several Indiana banks in the mid-1920s before his capture.
That was right about the time that fellow Hoosier Dillinger was catching an absurdly harsh 10-to-20-year sentence for robbing a local grocer in Mooresville — a sentence Dillinger helped bring on himself when he took his father’s advice to plead guilty and take responsibility and blah blah blah.
The court threw the book at him.
“I will be the meanest bastard you ever saw when I get out of here,” 21-year-old Dillinger is supposed to have said. He’d prove infamously true to his word … with the help of Harry Pierpont.
The two crossed paths in the penitentiary system in 1925. Pierpont was only eight months older, but was a much more seasoned criminal and mentored the young Dillinger in the arts of bank robbery. Both also cribbed from two former associates of the German robber Hermann Lamm, who broke new ground in the larceny game with his disciplined, systematic approach to the job: casing the bank, organizing the crime, plotting and practicing the getaway route.
Dillinger finally made parole after nine long years in the stir on May 22, 1933. The years-long show of rehabilitation that won him his liberty immediately proved to have been a facade: in a pre-arranged plan, Dillinger committed several bank robberies that summer to raise funds to orchestrate a prison break for Pierpont et al.
Pierpont and seven others, who would form the first Dillinger gang (Pierpont reportedly encouraged the branding fronting his charismatic former apprentice), and their escape conveniently occurred just after Dillinger himself had been arrested. His once-and-future associates returned the favor by liberating Dillinger from the Lima, Ohio jail — gunning down Sheriff Jess Sarber in the process.
That was Oct. 12, 1933. (Here’s a Dillinger gang timeline.)
Dillinger would be dead within the year and Pierpont not much outlive him. But in those months pillaging banks (wildly unpopular at this moment, the very pits of the Great Depression) from the open-road freedom of zooming Terraplanes that could outrace police cars, wielding spectacular Tommy guns that could outgun police, the Dillinger gang staked its social bandit bona fides.**
They robbed several more banks with the discipline and precision that would make them famous; notably, Dillinger and company rarely drank and never when planning heists, evaluating targets with all the businesslike sobriety of corporate raiders.
They weren’t caught in the act, but while trying to lay low in Arizona.
Dillinger and had one more escape in his bag, and that a spectacular one: brandishing a fake wooden “gun”,† Dillinger busted out of the allegedly “escape-proof” Lake County Jail in Crown Point, Ind. and joined up with another gangster.
Dillinger had four months and change yet to go, a cavalcade of Midwestern robberies, an alleged appearance-altering plastic surgery, and a running battle with the young
HerbertJ. Edgar Hoover and his star agent Melvin Purvis. Dillinger was finally shot dead in Chicago that summer of 1934. His robbery spree had lasted only 15 months, but it made him a worldwide celebrity.
Three others arrested with Dillinger in Arizona, however, were not with Dillinger when he escaped Crown Point.
Instead, they were destined for Ohio to answer for that sheriff they’d murdered freeing Dillinger the year before. Harry Pierpont and a fellow gang member, Charles Makley, caught capital sentences.
It’s more than likely that they were anticipating another rescue from their famous confederate, but Dillinger’s end in Chicago sealed Pierpont’s and Makley’s fate, too.
On September 22, with death dates looming, those two attempted to replicate Dillinger’s “fake gun” escape gambit with bars of soap carved like pistols and painted with bootblack. (Woody Allen paid it homage.) It was a desperate try, and it ended in a fusillade from an un-bluffed squad of prison guards as Pierpont and Makley tried to spring the gate to their prison block.
Makley, perhaps the luckier of the two, died of his injuries. The hobbled Pierpont lived long enough to make it to the electric chair.
A few books about John Dillinger
* Dillinger was the first person designated as the fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Most Wanted.
† Or maybe a real gun subsequently replaced with a fake gun, maybe with the connivance of bribed guards or the like … there’s a good deal of unresolved speculation about this escape.