July 22, 1934 | Dillinger is Killed

 Photo Credit: Biograph Theater after the John Dillinger Shooting, Courtesy of the FBI
 

“I was standing in the entrance of the Goetz Country Club, a tavern just south of the theater when he walked by. He gave me a piercing look. Just after he went by and was midway of the next building, a National Tea Company store, I raised my hand and gave the prearranged signal.”

—Agent Melvin Purvis as quoted in The New York Times, July 22, 1934

It was a sweltering summer night in Chicago. Eager to escape the heat, people flocked to movie theaters advertising “Iced Fresh Air,” a luxury in 1934. On Lincoln Avenue, the Biograph Movie Theater had just finished screening “Manhattan Melodrama,” a film starring Clark Gable as a gangster whose life of gambling and violence leads to a death sentence.

In many ways, the plot paralleled the life of one of its viewers that night. John Dillinger had dominated newspaper headlines for months. His daring heists and jail breaks captured the imaginations of many Americans. To some, Dillinger was a hero for stealing from banks that had foreclosed on thousands of homes and livelihoods during the Great Depression. To others, especially law enforcement, Dillinger was Public Enemy Number 1. His gang had spent the last year living brazenly outside the law, killing or injuring over a dozen people.

The Chicago Field Office of the Bureau of Investigation, (renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation the following year), learned from a confidant of Dillinger’s that he would be at the Biograph theater that night. Agents blended into the crowd and watched as the outlaw entered the theater. They waited for two hours until Dillinger finally exited around 10:40pm. Melvin Purvis, Special Agent in Charge, lit a cigar, a cue for his agents to make the arrest. If the outlaw resisted, the agents were ordered to “take no chances.”

Outside the theater Dillinger quickly grew suspicious, wheeled around, and darted for a nearby alley. Three agents opened fire. Moments later, Public Enemy Number 1 was dead.

John Dillinger’s death made front page news around the globe and propelled Special Agent Melvin Purvis into the national spotlight. The shooting outside the Biograph Theater acquainted many Americans for the first time with the FBI’s new crime fighting and forensic investigation capabilities. The agency soon became a household name and continued to grow in notability in the years to come.