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Posted by on Oct 15, 2012 in Blog, Travel | 3 comments

Stealing John Dillinger’s Pants


Northwest Indiana is famous for some things.  Well, on second thought, it’s not really famous for anything.

The mishmash of small working-class suburbs encrusted by lead smelters, railroad tracks, and oil refineries — mostly filled with people with unpronouncable last names that don’t contain a single vowel — is utterly indescript.  Gary and Hammond and East Chicago and Highland and Hessville and Munster and Calumet City and all these places in between are to greater Chicagoland what North Jersey is to New York City — little more than a warehouse and freightyard to a far more vibrant place.  It’s bascially like a giant Self Storage unit the size of a county, with plumbing pipes and electrical wires running along every roadway, railroad track, and field.  That’s the picture I see when now think of Northwest Indiana.

Indeed, Gary and Hammond — where I’m staying and working over the next few weeks — are nestled right across the Illinois-Indiana state line.  These are old industrial cities that pretty much look unchanged since the post-WW2 boom.  Red brick buidings.  Cracked sidewalks.  Old storefronts littered with faded out “For Lease” signs that more symbolize a loss of hope rather than any possible prospects of gaining a tenant.  As the great writer-biographer Robert Caro would more eloquently write of another time and place, this is where “windows, glassless except for the jagged edges around their frames, stared out on the street like sightless eyes.” (Footnote 1)

This was America during it’s mightiest age, which was the 1950s.  Now in 2012, it’s a shell of its former self.  It’s a city of sightless eyes.

Of course, the Horseshoe Casino (also called “Horseshoe Hammond”) is an exception to these relatively bleak surroundings.  Rising out of the grey darkness with golden lights and prospects for riches inside, the casino is located on the shores of Lake Michigan.  Off in the distance, in clear view, are the beckening tall towers of Downtown Chicago.

But truth be told, Gary-Hammond are known for more than heavy industry or its casino.  For one, it’s the birthplace of late pop music icon Michael Jackson. It’s also the old stomping grounds of none other than John Dillinger, the legendary gangster and bank robber of the 1930s.

Northwest Indiana was Dillinger’s personal playground during the early years of the Great Depression.  He became a folk hero to millions of Americans, playing a sort of Robin Hood role with his adversaries — the caniving banks which were seizing homes and farmland away from working people.  Dillinger and his violent gang of outlaws knocked off many banks in this area, becoming a sympathetic figure to those in despair.

Dillinger’s most famous escapade of many was managing to escape from the old Michigan City Jail, which is just a short drive from Gary-Hammond.  He fooled a jail guard holding a polished bar of soap into thinking he actually had a pistol and fled captivity.  Dillinger would go on to rob many more banks, until he was finally gunned down in a back alley at Chicago’s Biograph theatre after seeing a movie, by FBI-man Melvin Purvis.

A few miles from here is a visitor’s center with a museum dedicated to John Dillinger.  The admission fee is $4, or $3 if you are a senior citizen.  Today, the teller asked me if I was a senior, and I answered in the affirmative to save a buck.  Imagine that — lying in order to desperately save a dollar in admission into a museum dedicated to a murderer and bank robber.  There’s a delicious irony here somewhere.

Here are some photos taken from the John Dillinger Museum, located in Hammond.


This photo shows Dillinger’s get-away car at the museum.  It’s an old Ford.  I was struck by how cold and uncomfortable it must have been to drive in that car during Chicago’s brutally cold winters.  Imagine the wind roaring through the cabin and no heat.  Must have been a tough life, even for a criminal.


G-men (which stood for “Government Men”) Melvin Purvis and J. Edgar Hoover (not the real Purvis and Hoover, they’re dead).  Actually these are life size mannequins) of the FBI men who were responsible for putting Dillinger’s crime spree (and life) to a bloody end.


These are the pants Dillinger was wearing when he was shot.  He also had $5 and some loose change in his pocket.  Those pants are pretty nice.  100 percent wool.  A nice plaid pattern.  Cuffed.  Pleatted.  The man had style.

I’d like to take whose pants, but no way would by 38-inch stomach fit into that 30-inch waist.

Then again, if I keep getting served these lousy meals — maybe I can eventually fit into Dillinger’s pants.  I aleady ripped the museum off for a dollar.  Anyone think I can slip under the clear plastic cover and switch out a pair of old wool pants for these beauties?


Footnote 1:  Quote from Robert Caro’s masterful work, The Power Broker (Chapter — “One Mile”) 



  1. You could try the “Purple Steer” at the intersection of Indianapolis Blvd and Calument Ave. My great-uncle and the other old men used to go there every day. Honestly, I’m pretty sure a visit there would inspire another culinary rant. I think there’s still a Dunkin Donuts in the area, or you can build a time machine and set it for 1953 (probably the heyday of that area) and go to Vogel’s or Phil Smidt’s.

    There’s supposedly a brewpub in downtown Whiting now. That seems wrong on many levels. You probably just need to find a good hole-in-the-wall Mexican place or a 90 year old Polish woman who can still make perogie and nut rolls and “rushkie” (the latter are incredible flaky cookies made with large amounts of BUTTER filled with apricot, apple or plum butter). If you find the rushkies, you won’t have to worry about the possibility of fitting into Dillinger’s pants.

    • Oh, and you are in “Da Region” now. “Da Region” means that you are in extreme northwest Indiana where the locals all consider themselves Chicagoans and despise the rest of the state of Indiana (defined as some point in southern Lake County) as “hicks” and “yokels”. People who are actually from Chicago think of “Da Region” in probably the same way New Yorkers think of the obnoxious people from New Jersey.

      When I moved to Wyoming from “Da Region” as a small child, one of the first things that happened to me were trips to the school district’s speech pathologist. Apparently my cute little kid “da Bears” accent was considered a mild speech impediment and I was thus spared sounding like a SNL skit for the rest of my life.

  2. John Dillinger was known for using numerous 1933 Essex-Terraplane 8 cylinder cars. The car in the museum is not some old Ford and is in fact a E-T 8 cyl sedan. This particular car was not owned by Dillinger (he stole all but one he used), however it does accurately represent those cars which were the fastest accelerating cars in the world at the time.

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