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Public Enemies: History vs. Hollywood

Starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Stephen Dorff | based on the book "Public Enemies" by Bryan Burrough

Johnny Depp
Born: June 9, 1963
Owensboro, Kentucky, USA
John Dillinger
Born: June 22, 1903
Birthplace: Indianapolis, Indiana, USA
Death: July 22, 1934, Chicago (shot by FBI)
Christian Bale
Born: January 30, 1974
Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, Wales, UK
Melvin Purvis
Born: October 24, 1903
Birthplace: Timmonsville, South Carolina, USA
Death: February 29, 1960, Florence, South Carolina (self-inflicted gunshot)
Marion Cotillard
Born: September 30, 1975
Paris, France
Evelyn 'Billie' Frechette
Born: September 15, 1907
Birthplace: Neopit, Wisconsin, USA
Death: January 13, 1969, Shawano, Wisconsin (cancer)
Stephen Graham
Born: August 3, 1973
Liverpool, Merseyside, England, UK
Lester 'Baby Face Nelson' Gillis
Born: December 6, 1908
Birthplace: Chicago, Illinois, USA
Death: November 27, 1934, Barrington, Illinois (shot by FBI)
Channing Tatum
Born: April 26, 1980
Cullman, Alabama, USA
Charles 'Pretty Boy' Floyd
Born: January 3, 1904
Birthplace: Adairsville, Georgia, USA
Death: October 22, 1934, East Liverpool, Ohio (shot by FBI)
Billy Crudup
Born: July 8, 1968
Manhasset, New York, USA
J. Edgar Hoover
Born: January 1, 1895
Birthplace: Washington, D.C., USA
Death: May 2, 1972, East Washington, D.C. (heart failure while asleep)
Branka Katic
Born: January 20, 1970
Belgrade, Serbia, Yugoslavia
Anna Sage (Ana Cumpanas)
Born: 1889
Birthplace: Romania
Death: April 25, 1947, Romania (liver failure)
Stephen Dorff
Born: July 29, 1973
Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Homer Van Meter
Born: December 3, 1906
Birthplace: Fort Wayne, Indiana, USA
Death: August 23, 1934, St. Paul, Minnesota (shot by police)
Hello Old Pal: - Arrived here at 10 AM today. Would like to drop in and see you. You have a wonderful car. Been driving it for three weeks. It's a treat to drive one. Your slogan should be, Drive a Ford and watch the other cars fall behind you. I can make any other car take a Ford's dust. Bye-Bye. John Dillinger -Letter from John Dillinger to Henry Ford, May 16, 1934

Questioning the Story:

Did Dillinger break his friends out of jail after he was paroled like Johnny Depp does in the first scene of the movie Public Enemies?

Not exactly. The real John Dillinger did smuggle guns to the inmates but was not present during the escape. Dillinger had an agreement with fellow inmate Harry 'Pete' Pierpont to help prisoners escape after he was paroled in exchange for being in Pierpont's gang once they were out. On May 22, 1933, Dillinger was paroled from Indiana State Prison in Michigan City. He began a series of quick bank robberies throughout small towns in Ohio and Indiana to fund the escape.

In September 1933, Dillinger was able to have guns smuggled into a thread shipment to the shirt factory where the prisoners were working. The prisoners successfully escaped that day while Dillinger was sitting in a Lima, Ohio jail after being arrested while visiting his girlfriend. On October 12, 1933, former inmates Harry 'Pete' Pierpont, Russell Clark and Charles Makley posed as police officers and walked into the Ohio jail. After being asked for identification, Sheriff Jess Sarber was shot and beaten. Dillinger was freed and the sheriff's wife Lucy and Deputy Sharp were locked up. Sheriff Sarber died later that evening from his injuries. -Boston Herald

Bryan Burrough's book provided the basis for the Michael Mann movie.

Did the death of Charles 'Pretty Boy' Floyd help Melvin Purvis land the Dillinger case as Christian Bale does in the movie?

No. Charles 'Pretty Boy' Floyd (Channing Tatum) was killed on October 22, 1934 in East Liverpool, Ohio, four months after Dillinger's death outside the Biograph Theatre. There are a wide variety of stories about what happened that day, one of which includes the local police chasing Floyd through the forest before shooting him. Another scenario involves the FBI spotting a suspicious car behind a corn crib prior to a shooting match between the FBI, Pretty Boy and a local man, who managed to disable Pretty Boy Floyd before the FBI killed him at point blank range. While we can't be sure what exactly happened that day, none of the stories credit Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) as the shooter.

Did Billie Frechette and Dillinger really meet at a club?

Yes. In researching how accurate is Public Enemies, we learned that Evelyn 'Billie' Frechette (portrayed by Marion Cotillard in the movie) met John Dillinger in a Chicago dance hall in November of 1933. The photo below displays an image of the real Billie Frechette and actress Marion Cotillard. -PBS

The real Billie Frechette (left) and actress Marion Cotillard (right) in the movie. Photo: William J. Helmer

Did Dillinger's dad really beat him when he was a child?

Yes. The Public Enemies true story reveals that Dillinger's father did beat him with a barrel stave as a child and often tried to offset the beatings by spoiling him with presents. -PBS

Was there really a shootout at an apartment where Lester Gillis, a.k.a. Baby Face Nelson, was hiding?

No. The shootout actually occurred at the Lincoln Court Apartments in St. Paul, Minnesota where John Dillinger and Billie Frechette were living as Mr. and Mrs. Carl Hellman. According to the book John Dillinger Slept Here by Paul Maccabee, the manager reported the couple as being suspicious after they insisted on using the rear entrance and stayed in most of the time. On the night of March 30, 1934, the FBI set up surveillance on the apartment and the next morning they knocked on the door. Billie Frechette greeted them, saying her name was Mrs. Hellman and that she needed to get changed before they entered the apartment. Soon after closing the door on the agents, Homer Van Meter came up the stairway and started shooting at the men. Dillinger followed by shooting through the apartment door and then into the hallway, before escaping with Billie down a back stairwell and fleeing in a getaway car.

Was Dillinger really flown to Indiana like in the movie Public Enemies?

Yes. After Dillinger was caught in Tucson, Arizona, it was decided that he would be extradited to Indiana to stand trial for the murder of Officer William Patrick O'Malley, who was killed during the First National Bank robbery in East Chicago, Indiana. He was greeted by throngs of fans and photographers at the Chicago Municipal Airport when he landed.

Gangster John Dillinger (left) and his onscreen counterpart Johnny Depp (right).

Did Dillinger escape from jail with a fake gun like Johnny Depp in the movie?

Yes. According to the book John Dillinger by Dary Matera, Dillinger said he whittled the toy gun out of the top rail of a washboard with a razor blade and painted it black with shoe polish. He used the razor's handle for the barrel. Astonishingly, Dillinger, who was accompanied by fellow inmate Herbert Youngblood, fooled numerous guards and jail employees with the fake gun. These duped individuals included handyman Sam Cahoon, fingerprint technician Ernest Blunk, volunteer guard Matt Brown, Deputy Kenneth 'Butch' Houch, Guard Marshall Keithley, Gatekeeper John Kowaliszyn and Warden Lou Baker, who Dillinger locked up in a cell with some of the others.

This is believed to be John Dillinger's fake wooden gun that he used during his escape.

While locking up Marshall Keithley, Dillinger questioned the warden as to where the machine guns and car keys were kept. After retrieving the machine guns from the office, he asked Warden Baker where the garage was since he had found no keys. John Dillinger then asked other inmates if anyone else would like to go with him. Fred Beaver, Leslie Carron and James Posey requested to come. After locking up some of the kitchen staff and enduring timely delays in the garage trying to find a car with keys, these men decided to abort the escape and return to jail. Eventually, fingerprint technician Ernest Blunk drove John Dillinger, Herbert Youngblood and mechanic Edwin Saager out in the sheriff's car. The John Dillinger photo above shows the toy gun that aided Dillinger's escape.

Did John Dillinger really drive out of jail in the sheriff's car?

Yes. On March 3, 1934, Dillinger escaped from Indiana's Crown Point Jail with a fake gun and had his hostage drive him away in Lake County Sheriff Lillian Holley's new Ford V-8. By driving the sheriff's car from Indiana to Illinois, he broke the newly created National Motor Vehicle Theft Act. When the car was found in Chicago, Dillinger was indicted for the Federal offense and the FBI began its manhunt, which ultimately led to Dillinger's death. Appearing too friendly with Dillinger in photos and video footage, later cost Sheriff Lillian Holley and Prosecutor Robert Estill their jobs. -Chicago Tribune

John Dillinger and Sheriff Lillian Holley in front of the media after Dillinger arrives at the Crown Point Jail. Holley and Prosecutor Robert Estill lost their jobs for being too chummy with the gangster.

Were public announcements about Dillinger really shown in movie theaters?

Yes. In answering the question, "How accurate is the Public Enemies movie?" we learned that in April of 1934, Warner Brothers began showing a newsreel about Dillinger's criminal life and the ongoing hunt for him in hopes of sparking some tips. Audiences often cheered for Dillinger and showed disdain for the special agents. -PBS

Did Dillinger ever see the public service announcement about himself when he was at the movies like Johnny Depp does?

Despite this being a memorable scene in the John Dillinger movie Public Enemies, the true story reveals that there is no proof as to whether he actually saw the announcement about himself or not.

Actor Johnny Depp in front of a John Dillinger wanted poster.

Was there really a shootout at a forest lodge?

Yes. The shootout took place at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin on the night of April 22, 1934. As the FBI agents were closing in on the Little Bohemia Lodge, the owner's dogs began to bark but Dillinger's gang thought nothing of it. Three civilian men who had just finished dinner stepped outside with rifles in their hands and got into their car. Since the FBI believed the barking had sparked the gang to leave, they assumed these men were their suspects and began firing after the car failed to stop when asked. (It was later determined that the men did not hear the FBI due to the car radio.) One of the civilians in the car was killed. The gunfire prompted Dillinger's gang to start shooting from a second-floor window. The three innocent men in the car were most likely hunters, which would explain their rifles.

The Little Bohemia Lodge as it appeared in 1934, the year of the shootout. Photo: FBI

Did Dillinger's gang escape from the Little Bohemia Lodge shooting?

Yes. Pat Reilly and Pat Cherrington saw the shooting start when returning from St. Paul and reversed their car back to the main road to escape. John 'Red' Hamilton, John Dillinger and Homer Van Meter escaped out a back door and headed north along the lake to Route 51 where they held up a local man and had him drive them away. Tommy Carroll also escaped the lodge and went north along the lake a few miles further where he hot-wired a car and escaped. 'Baby Face' Nelson fought with the agents for a while before fleeing into the woods. Overall, one civilian was killed by the FBI, FBI Agent Carter Baum was killed by Baby Face Nelson, and two others were injured by Nelson (an FBI agent and a police officer). The gang's three women, Helen Gillis (Baby Face's wife), Jean Delaney (Tommy Carroll's wife) and Marie Comforti (Homer Van Meter's girlfriend), were taken into custody without additional incident.

Did Dillinger's crimes really spark new laws to be created?

Yes. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a number of laws that Congress passed during Dillinger's crime spree. On May 18, 1934, laws were created with regard to the killing of federal officers, crossing state lines to avoid prosecution, prison employees assisting prisoner escapes, and the death penalty for bank robbers. On June 6, 1934, they added the ability to offer reward money for capturing criminals. Additionally, federal agents were given the right to carry weapons and make arrests. -PBS

Was Billie Frechette really slapped during her interrogation like Marion Cotillard is in the Public Enemies movie?

During her trial, the real Billie Frechette testified that she was slapped and deprived of food and water for two days during her interrogation (PBS). The FBI vehemently denies this and claims that while she was interrogated for two days straight, she was never struck. The FBI believes that Ms. Frechette said this to get sympathy during her trial.

Did the FBI really use a madam to set up John Dillinger?

Yes. Ana Cumpanas, who used the alias Anna Sage, came forward after meeting Dillinger through her friend Polly Hamilton. On July 21, 1934, Anna contacted the FBI looking to receive a cash reward and protection from deportation by aiding in his capture. She informed the FBI that they would be attending a movie at the Biograph or Marbro theatre on Sunday night and she would wear a white blouse and orange skirt so they could be recognized. Since she was still unaware of which theatre, FBI agents were posted at both theatres while the rest of the agents remained at headquarters. When FBI Agent Melvin Purvis spotted them arriving at the Biograph Theatre, the rest of the FBI and police were called to the location.

Did Anna Sage receive the cash reward for aiding in John Dillinger's capture?

Yes. On October 11, 1934, Anna Sage, whose real name is Ana Cumpanas, received a $5,000 cash reward for her help in locating Public Enemy Number One.

Was Anna Sage deported?

Yes. Although Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) tried to keep Anna Sage from being deported, it was out of his jurisdiction and the Immigration and Naturalization Service continued with the deportation proceedings. On April 15, 1936, Anna was deported back to Romania for being considered an "alien of low moral character". -PBS

Did John Dillinger really walk into the Chicago police department without being recognized?

Yes. It has been reported that John Dillinger accompanied Polly Hamilton to the police station four times for her health examinations without being noticed ( In an interview with Melbourne's The Age newspaper, Public Enemies movie actor Johnny Depp confirmed that Dillinger did see photos of himself on the police station wall. Furthermore, Depp also corroborated that Dillinger asked an officer the score of the baseball game on the radio. Depp did not name the source behind these details.

Various photos of John Dillinger. Photo: FBI

Did the FBI really catch John Dillinger after a showing of the gangster movie Manhattan Melodrama?

Yes. Anna Sage tipped off FBI Agent Melvin Purvis that Dillinger planned to go see a movie at the Biograph or Marbro Theatre on Sunday night. After having agents posted at both locations, Dillinger was seen entering the Biograph Theatre on Lincoln Avenue where Manhattan Melodrama starring Clark Gable was playing. The rest of the agents were then called to the location. After trying to escape while reaching for his gun, Dillinger was shot on the street outside the theater by FBI agents.

A crowd gathers outside the Biograph Theatre in Chicago shortly after Dillinger was shot there by the FBI on the evening of July 22, 1934. Photo: FBI

Did FBI Agent Charles Winstead shoot Dillinger?

At the end of the John Dillinger movie Public Enemies, Charles Winstead visits Billie Frechette in jail and confirms that he is one of the agents who shot Dillinger. In real life, Winstead was one of three FBI agents who shot at Dillinger that night. Charles Winstead, Clarence Hurt and Herman Hollis were all recognized by J. Edgar Hoover for their actions but none were credited with his death.

Did John Dillinger have a gun on him when he died?

Yes. The Public Enemies true story confirms that when Dillinger became aware of the situation, he went for the Colt .380 in his pants pocket and started running toward a nearby alley.

Were Dillinger's last words really "bye bye blackbird"?

No. According to FBI reports, Dillinger had no last words. However, this remains highly disputed. It is rumored that he said, "You got me," after he was shot. Either way, Johnny Depp's last words of "bye bye blackbird" were added by director Michael Mann for dramatic effect to tie Dillinger's death to his first meeting with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard).

John Dillinger in the morgue and Johnny Depp in the movie.

Was anyone else injured during the shooting outside the Biograph Theatre?

Yes. According to FBI reports, two women in the crowd were also injured during the Biograph Theatre shooting. Ms. Theresa Paulus received a slight flesh wound to the hip and was taken to Grant Hospital, while Mrs. Eta Natalsky received a bullet wound between the knee and thigh and was taken to Columbus Hospital. Both women were treated and released without permanent damage.

Did Melvin Purvis really commit suicide?

According to Melvin Purvis's obituaries, he shot himself through the jaw with a .45 caliber automatic pistol in the upstairs hallway of his Florence, South Carolina home on February 29, 1960. Although his doctor claims he was depressed prior to his death, there is speculation that Purvis accidentally shot himself while trying to dislodge a tracer bullet stuck in the pistol. Suicide tends to be the more popular theory since his former FBI boss, J. Edgar Hoover, had ostracized Purvis within the agency due to his jealousy. -PBS

The real Melvin Purvis (left) and actor Christian Bale (right) in the movie.

John Dillinger Videos and News Reels

Watch video featuring footage of the real John Dillinger, Sheriff Lillian Holley and an eyewitness to John Dillinger's death. Watch all three parts of a Dillinger documentary that explores the gangster's rise to and tragic fall from his status as Public Enemy Number One. Finally, watch a 1945 John Dillinger movie that offers a different perspective than the 2009 Johnny Depp Public Enemies movie.

 John Dillinger Death News Reel

This vintage news reel recounts the criminal life and death of John Dillinger, from his numerous escapes to crossing the Indiana state line, which put the FBI on his tail. We learn that the notorious bank robber, who became Public Enemy #1 in the early 1930s, tried to alter his fingerprints with acid. A John Dillinger morgue photo is shown towards the end of the video.

 Footage of John Dillinger and Sheriff Lillian Holley

Video of the real John Dillinger and Sheriff Lillian Holley being overly cordial to one another is shown. It is followed by an interview with an eyewitness, who saw John Dillinger's death and tried to help him.

 Eyewitness Describes Dillinger's Death

A man who had been working the night shift at a garage across the street from the theater describes seeing Dillinger lying bleeding and dead. The man in the interview had stepped outside for some fresh air during a food break when he witnessed the shooting. He holds nothing back in describing the graphic scene.

 Manhattan Melodrama Trailer

Watch the Manhattan Melodrama movie trailer for the 1934 film starring actors William Powell, Clark Gable and Myrna Loy. Gable and Powell portray two brothers who grow up on opposite sides of the law. There differences collide when they both fall in love with the same woman. The movie is best known for being the film that bank robber John Dillinger watched before being shot dead outside of the theater by the FBI.

 John Dillinger Shot Dead by Federal Agents - News Reel

In the wake of John Dillinger's death, this celebratory news reel describes how Dillinger tried to disguise himself on the night of his demise, but couldn't outsmart the G-Men. His gun, hat, glasses and fake moustache are shown. At the beginning of the video, we observe him lying in the morgue deceased.

 John Dillinger Documentary - Part 1 of 3

Part 1 of 3, this documentary includes some great footage as it explores the life and criminal ways of America's original "Public Enemy #1". Part 1 of the documentary chronicles Dillinger's childhood and his evolution into a life of crime.

 John Dillinger Documentary - Part 2 of 3

Part 2 of 3 parts, this segment of the John Dillinger documentary focuses in part on the controversy that arose when the county prosecutor and Sheriff Lillian Holley posed for photos with Dillinger, in which the prosecutor's arm can be seen resting affectionately on Dillinger's shoulder.

 John Dillinger Documentary - Part 3 of 3

Part 3 of 3, this installment of the documentary chronicles the shootout at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin. After the shootout, Dillinger undergoes plastic surgery to disguise his appearance before committing his final bank robbery. Chief of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover then puts a price of $10,000 on Dillinger's head.

 Dillinger Trailer (1945)

Watch this trailer for the 1945 movie about the 1930s gangster who robbed banks and took the lives of the G-Men sent to stop him. This John Dillinger movie stars Lawrence Tierney as Public Enemy #1.

 Public Enemies Movie Trailer

In the 1930s, a legendary bank robber eluded the FBI and became a national celebrity. That man is John Dillinger. Here, Johnny Depp portrays the infamous criminal whose law breaking ways eventually caught up with him. Also starring Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Giovanni Ribisi, and Billy Crudup. Public Enemies movie trailer for the Michael Mann film.

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