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March 9, 2024

In March 1934, Infamous Gangster John Dillinger Used a Fake Pistol to Escape From the Lake County Jail

John Dillinger was captured in January of 1934 in Tucson, Arizona, and escorted back to Indiana to stand trial for the murder of East Chicago Patrolman Patrick O’Malley. Dillinger was incarcerated in the Crown Point Jail, a facility the local cops described as escape-proof. On March 3, 1934, John Dillinger disproved the claim definitively.

There have been several conflicting allegations regarding the gun in question. However, the most commonly accepted theory is Dillinger took a piece of wooden washboard, carved it into a rough gun shape using a pair of razor blades and blacked the resulting facsimile with shoe polish. Using this crude fake pistol Dillinger locked 23 jailers and trusties in jail cells, stole a pair of Thompsons from the warden’s office, walked out of the jail with no one being the wiser and then drove away in the Sheriff’s car. To add insult to injury, the jailers had to be freed with cutting torches as Dillinger absconded with the jail’s only set of keys.

John Dillinger had taught the So-called escape proof Crown Point a valuable lesson because they underestimating the brilliance of his criminal mind. After planning the escape carefully, he took his time and waited for the right moment. When he was ready, Dillinger remained calm, he made the escape look like child’s play. Dillinger used psychology to bluff the guards; he put the image of a real gun into their minds and let them know he meant business. Anyone of these guards could have stopped Dillinger at anytime during the break, but he kept his cool and let them know he was escaping at all costs. Armed with only a piece of wood, and his wits, he fooled the guards. This escape would blast Dillinger to stardom, a super criminal of the times.

It began when Dillinger and fourteen other prisoners were placed in the exercise bullpen. Sam Cahoon broke Crown Point rules by entering the exercise area when prisoners were present. He was bringing in soap and other supplies for Saturday night baths. At 9:15 a.m., Dillinger struck what appeared to be an automatic pistol in Cahoon’s side and ordered him into the cell, stating, “Get in quick or I’ll kill you.” Then he captured and forced two jail porters into the cell. Dillinger looked down the corridor and saw Ernest Blunk, the fingerprint expert. He commanded Cahoon to call Blunk from the foot of the stairs. Blunk responded, and was easily captured. Cahoon was then locked in the cell with his fellow companions, and Blunk because the bait to lure in other guards. One by one Crown Point officials were bluffed into captivity, driven by fear of being shot or perhaps killed.

Crown Point, Ind. – A northwest Indiana museum is showing off a wooden gun that belonged to John Dillinger.

Dillinger’s plan worked like a charm. He had successfully immobilized the entire security of Crown Point armed with a piece of wood and his wits. Dillinger had succeeded in locking up ten guards and a few trustees and took the only master set of keys to the jail with him. To add to Sheriff Holley’s embarrassment, Dillinger stole her own personal police car for his escape.

John Dillinger, prisoner Herbert Youngblood, and Earnest Blunk headed for the Main Street Garage. The trio walked behind the Criminal Courthouse building and into the garage. Edwin Saager, a mechanic was busy working on a car when Dillinger came in, and didn’t even notice his presence. Leaning on the car talking to Saager was Robert Volk. He didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary either. Dillinger walked up with a machine gun in his hands and asked Saager, “Which is the fastest car?” Saager thought Dillinger was a deputy, so he pointed to Sheriff Holley’s black V-8. Dillinger then requested that Saager join the party, but he declined because he was to busy. Dillinger pointed his machine gun and forced Saager into the back seat with Youngblood. Dillinger and Blunk climbed into the front. Blunk was ordered to drive. As the car pulled out of the garage onto Main Street, Blunk claimed he tried to sideswipe another car to attract attention, and then he ran a red signal light. Dillinger warned Blunk that if he tried this again he’d be shot. He advised Blunk to drive the speed limit. He said; “Thirty miles an hour is enough, there’s no hurry!” As they passed by the First national and commercial bank, Dillinger made a remark that he was tempted to rob the bank, but he’d better wait. Blunk noticed how cool and calm Dillinger remained during the entire trip. He told Blunk he wished he could have said goodbye to Sheriff Lillian Holley before he left. Dillinger had Blunk turn at every corner and stick to gravel roads. Blunk remembered that they only passed through one town during the drive, and that was the town of St. John, which was on route 41. As they approached the town, Dillinger told Blunk to stop the car; he jumped out and broke the police spotlight off the side of the vehicle, because every cop in the country would be looking for the car.

Dillinger released Saager and Blunk in a remote area without telephones. He gave them four dollars for carfare, and apologized that he couldn’t give them more, but it was all he could spare. He told them that he would send them something at Christmas. Saager and Blunk later picked up by some farmers passing by. The farmers followed the tire chain tracks for a while until the chain markings disappeared. When the two returned to Crown Point, reporters quickly surrounded them for a story. Both Blunk and Saager stated as Dillinger dashed for freedom, he was singing, “Get along little dogie” and “The last roundup.” In a interview with reporters Ed Saager was asked, “Did you see the toy gun at all in the car?” Saager replied, “I just got a glimpse of it yes.” Reporter, “Can you give me a description of it? Was it made out of wood or what?”  Saager replied, “Well, it looked rather much like it, Yes.” So we do have an actual witness stating he did see what appeared to be wooden gun.

Crown Point officials were busy trying to clean up the mess that Dillinger left behind. Everyone at Crown Point was blaming each other for the break. Dillinger had locked up the whole jailhouse before he departed, taking the master set of keys with him. The keys turned out to be the only master set to the jail. Officials had to break their own men out of the jail with wielding torches. Sheriff Lillian Holley was sitting on the steps crying, and nobody was guarding prisoners. The press took a picture of Holley on the stairs and printed the photograph with headlines, which stated, “Sheriff Lillian Holley, the woman he left behind.” Holley was so mad that she publicly stated if she could see Dillinger; she’d kill him herself.

Corsicana Semi-Weekly Light, Texas, Fri, Mar 9, 1934

After Dillinger’s famous escape, officials had found an old washboard under the bed of his cell. This was a prop left to stage a scene, and to convince officials that he whittled the wooden gun from the missing top brace of the washboard. This event was staged by Dillinger to protect those who aided his escape and false rumors began that he carved the gun out of wood.

Crown Point made another grave mistake by broadcasting the incorrect license plate number of Sheriff Lillian Holley’s car that Dillinger stole with orders, to Shoot to kill. The failure to produce the correct license number was an important factor in Dillinger's escape. This license number belonged to A.C. Mayes of Crown Point. This was a serious error of judgment; Crown Point had placed A.C. Mayes, and any passengers who might be riding in his car in grave danger. News also came out that Sam Cahoon, the turnkey who let Dillinger out, had served two sentences in Crown Point for intoxication, and wasn't even a guard. Governor Paul V. McNutt was hot under the collar when he called the break inexcusable, and ordering a full-scale state investigation. Prosecutor Robert Estill began a full investigation, the results of the inquiry were turned over to the Grand Jury.

Taunton Daily Gazette, Mass., March 3, 1934

Fingerprint Expert Ernest Blunk was placed on suspension and charged with a felony for aiding Dillinger in his escape. Blunk was later exonerated due to lack of evidence. A couple of weeks after Dillinger bluffed his way out of the escape proof jail; Earnest Blunk took a mysterious trip. Upon his return, he told reporters that he went to Indianapolis where he was questioned by Deputy Attorney General Edward Barce, and three State investigators, but State, County and City officials insisted they were unaware of his presence in the State Capital. Many sources believe Blunk met with a Dillinger associate and made arrangements to collect money as a payoff for his part in the escape. I personally spoke to a relative of Ernest Blunk, who agreed that he was probably paid off my Dillinger for his part in the escape.

(via The Johnnie Dillinger Website by Tony Stewart)


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