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Dillinger relatives have fond memories of ‘Public enemy No. 1’

July 20, 2010|By BOBBIE CURD | bcurd@amnews.com
  • From left, Megan and Travis Thompson, Mike Thompson and fiancé Patty Kale attended the Saturday production of “The Dillinger Dilemma” at Pioneer Playhouse. Mike Thompson, who is John Dillinger’s nephew, said the family thoroughly enjoyed the play. (Bobbie Curd Photo)
From left, Megan and Travis Thompson, Mike Thompson and fiancé Patty Kale attended the Saturday production of “The Dillinger Dilemma” at Pioneer Playhouse. Mike Thompson, who is John Dillinger’s nephew, said the family thoroughly enjoyed the play. (Bobbie Curd Photo)

Mike Thompson and his family don’t draw attention to themselves because of their famous relative, but they are not ashamed, either. “To my mom, he wasn’t ‘public enemy No. 1,’” Thompson said.

His mother, Frances Thompson, 88, is the youngest sister to John Dillinger, the legendary bank robber still profiled in books and movies more than 80 years after his death.

Thompson and his fiancé, Patty Kale, came to Danville on Saturday with his son, Travis, and his wife Megan, to see the Pioneer Playhouse production of “The Dillinger Dilemma,” written by local playwright and Danville native Elizabeth Orndorff. Thompson’s mom, Dillinger’s only living sibling, could not make the event. The play is a fictional account of a man who poses to be Dillinger, and Thompson was thrilled with the production.

“It was great, and I really wish Mom could have seen it. She would have thoroughly enjoyed it. I made sure (Pioneer Playhouse staff) knew that,” Thompson said.

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Taking a ribbing

Earlier in the day, standing outside the playhouse, Travis Thompson — now a federal police officer — made light of the background search the FBI conducted when he was being checked out for his job.

“It was the first day in class, and they show a big picture of Herbert Hoover, then John Dillinger with the ‘public enemy’ headline,” Travis Thompson said. “Then the instructor said, ‘And we have his great-nephew in class, stand up Travis.’ And that’s how my training began.”

Travis Thompson has a great sense of humor about their relative, just as his father seems to, and said other agents prod him after the occurrence of bank robberies, teasingly asking about his whereabouts when the crimes occurred.

“John’s brother actually went on to retire from the Indiana State Police,” Mike Thompson said.

Thompson sports a T-shirt his fiancé made that has an original photo of Dillinger in the middle, and Mike and Travis Thompson dressed similarly with automatic guns on each side.

The two signed the shirts for several audience members Saturday night who purchased them for $10.

However, Thompson said his mother is not as open about sharing the events of her life when her brother was alive. She often gets upset when she watches movies portraying Dillinger’s life that she considers over-sensationalized or non-factual. Thompson said she walked out of one movie, in 1973 starring Warren Oates, which was particularly upsetting to her because of the way her brother was depicted.

“After John was killed, she traveled the country with her father, who was a deacon, doing talks at schools about how crime doesn’t pay,” Thompson said. “But she never really talks about it, unless I bring it up.”

However, he did grow up hearing many stories, he said.

“There was a big age difference between them. He was 19 years older. To Mom, John was just her big brother. He took her to movies, always made her laugh. He had a great sense of humor. He was 31 when he was killed, and she was 12.

“My grandfather was a deacon in his church, and everyone in town liked him. When John first got into trouble, almost all of the people in (Mooresville, Ind.) signed a petition to get him out of jail. Everyone knew he got a raw deal.

“He was 20 years old, hanging out with some guy 11 years older than him. And this guy had a record. They attempted a robbery. A grocer was walking home with his proceeds, and they tried to take it from him, but he fought them. They didn’t even get any money. Then John gave himself away. He was afraid they hurt the guy and went to the pool hall and asked if anyone had heard how he — the grocer’s name was Frank Morgan, he owned Westside Grocery — how Frank Morgan was doing. So he gave himself away.”

Thompson said the older man who had a prior record was caught as well, got an attorney and received two years. The Dillinger family could not afford an attorney, he said, but John’s father talked to the judge.

“The judge told him not to worry about it, that because John had never been in trouble before, if he pleaded guilty he’d go easy on him. Then he gave him 10-21 years,” Thompson said.

Mother's memories

Thompson’s mother still lives in the same house, back in Mooresville.

“I did hear stories when Mom was in the mood to talk about it. The police used to follow her to school and back, afraid that someone would kidnap her. She always talks about how the police would come through their house at all hours of the night to find John.”

His mother not only has traveled the country, but she also met the mothers of the infamous crime couple Bonnie (Parker) and Clyde (Barrow).

“She really got to know them. Bonnie’s mother gave her a watch chain that was on her daughter when she was killed,” Thompson said.

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