In death, Dillinger a big draw
When notorious outlaw John Dillinger was gunned down on Lincoln Avenue on a steamy July night in 1934, his death ended a months-long manhunt that captivated the press and the public.

Then his body went on a public tour.

Just as the Libyan people lined up Friday to see the body of longtime despot Moammar Gadhafi, Americans thronged to the morgue to see Public Enemy No. 1.

A July 23 story about the public reaction at the morgue opened: "'There he is!' These words were whispered in awed tones early this morning by a young woman, not more than 19 years of age, as she, with a dozen other persons, pressed her face against a ground level meshed window of the county morgue."

Under the July 24 headline, "Throngs fight for glimpse of dead Dillinger," the Tribune reported on the macabre, carnival atmosphere: "The Cook County morgue at Polk and Wood streets was a lively spot yesterday and last evening as crowds of spectators jammed in to get a view of the body of John Dillinger. For several hours they swarmed, pushing and shoving, down the steps leading from the first floor to the basement, where the body lay. Policemen shouted and members of the public shouted jovially back as they descended."

The officials were in no hurry to close down this circus. When the undertaker hired by Dillinger's family arrived to take the body, the coroner told him to come back the next day. "You can't get near it now — too many curiosity seekers around," he said.

The Tribune reported that people went through the line more than once, including one woman who said, "I'm disappointed. Looks just like any other dead man. But I guess I'll go through once more."

His body was left on display for another half day before "six husky men picked" it up, and "forming a flying wedge, they pushed spectators aside and fought their way to the hearse."

Dillinger's body was driven to the bank robber's small hometown near Indianapolis by his father and half brother and the undertaker. Once there, it was again put on display. The Tribune reported that "virtually the entire population of Mooresville, which totals 2,300" viewed the body.

The burial ceremony at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis was intended to be private but was marred by thousands of curiosity seekers and the roar of airplanes hired by newspaper photographers.

Even in his final resting place, Dillinger had company. Cemetery officials posted a round-the-clock guard to deter grave robbers and morbid souvenir hunters.

sbenzkofer@tribune.com