Today in History: Notorious Bank Robber Captured After Making His Escape With a 'Potato' Gun

Today in History: Notorious Bank Robber Captured After Making His Escape With a 'Potato' Gun

M.C. Millman

John Herbert Dillinger, the first criminal in history to be named "Public Enemy Number One" on the FBI's most wanted list, was captured for the second time on January 25, 1934. 

According to FBI files, Dillinger married in 1924 and moved to Indianapolis but had yet to find a job. He teamed up with Ed Singleton to find "easy money." Together, the pair attempted to rob a grocer but were apprehended. 

Singleton pleaded not guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison. Following his father's advice, Dillinger confessed and received joint sentences of 2 to 14 years and 10 to 20 years in Indiana State Prison. This harsh sentence turned Dillinger into a tortured, bitter man in prison. 

Dillinger befriended other criminals in prison, such as seasoned bank robbers like Harry "Pete" Pierpont, Charles Makley, Russell Clark, and Homer Van Meter. He learned the bank robbery craft from his new pals. 

After serving almost nine years of his sentence, Dillinger was paroled from prison on May 10, 1933. According to Britannica, Dillinger achieved infamy by robbing five Indiana and Ohio banks in four months and gaining fame as a daring, sharply dressed gunman. This robbing spree ended a few months later when Dillinger was arrested on September 22 and jailed in Lima, Ohio, where he awaited trial. 

Lima police found a document that appeared to be a prison break plan while frisking Dillinger. The crook denied any knowledge of the plan, yet his buddies in Indiana State Prison used those plans four days later to break out of the jail. Three of Dillinger's friends arrived in Lima dressed as police officers and told the sheriff that they had come to return Dillinger to the Indiana State Prison for violation of his parole.

Dillinger escaped with his friends, robbing more banks and stealing weapons from police arsenals. The notorious villain was arrested for the third time on January 25, 1934, and was held at Indiana Crown Point Maximum Security Prison, which officials boasted was "escape proof."

Dillinger executed his most famous breakout from the maximum security prison on March 3, 1934. According to FBI files, Dillinger carved a fake pistol from a potato and used it to force his way past the guards. Other reports say it was a gun carved from wood, while there are reports it was an actual gun. According to, it is possible that Dillinger bribed his captors and used the wooden gun to cover his methods. 

Dillinger stole the sheriff's car and drove across the Indiana-Illinois line to aid his escape. In doing so, he committed a federal offense. The FBI became actively involved in the nationwide search for he escaped criminal.

A woman who knew Dillinger sold him out to the FBI to save herself from being deported. On July 22, the police and federal agents ambushed Dillinger, who was known to be armed and dangerous, as he left the Biograph Theatre in Chicago. The FBI fired shots,  killing the most celebrated gangster of the 1930s.

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