John Dillinger Museum (In Transition)
This field report was originally written when the Dillinger Museum was in Hammond. The museum will reopen in nearby Crown Point in 2015, with essentially the same exhibits.
Welcome to Indiana! The John Dillinger Museum, just east of the Illinois state line on Interstate 80, is the bloodiest attraction we've ever encountered in a state welcome center.
The gory parts are the legacy of the late Joe Pinkston, an Indiana maverick who collected more relics related to the notorious gangster than anyone. In the 1970s he opened the Dillinger Museum in his hometown (Nashville, Indiana), and suggested that John Dillinger was actually a good guy, paid to "rob" banks by Depression-era bankers who didn't have the money to cover their accounts!
Joe died under strange circumstances in the late 1990s. Indiana bought his museum and moved it into its welcome center, muting Joe's conspiracy theories and supplementing his gore with interactive exhibits. Today the Dillinger Museum walks a thin line, careful not to glorify lawbreakers, but also careful to paint Dillinger as a kind of tommy-gun-toting victim, maybe.
It opens promisingly, with a hooded mannequin strapped into an electric chair -- not John Dillinger, who never made it that far, but Bruno Hauptmann, the convicted Lindbergh baby-killer! A big push button next to the chair has a sign that asks, "Could you 'pull the switch'?" Unless you have an enormous amount of self-discipline you already know what the answer will be.....
After the execution comes a chronological walk through the short life of Dillinger (1903-1934). Displays include his Indiana boyhood reading material (pulp novels glamorizing Jesse James) and his baseball shoes, but soon enough you're sitting in a real jail cell "similar to the one Dillinger lived in for nine years," and pondering exhibits such as the lucky rabbit's foot that he gave away six months before his death, and "an exact replica" of the crude wooden gun he used to bluff his way out of the Crown Point jail, just down the road.
Creepy wax dummies from Joe Pinkston's old museum are scattered throughout: Dillinger characters such as Billie Frechette, J. Edgar Hoover, Melvin Purvis, and "Loyal Mary" Kinder.
The museum ends, as it began, with its best material. Dillinger's death mask is displayed, along with his original tombstone from Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis, removed from his grave after too many people chipped pieces off of it for souvenirs. One of Joe's most prized exhibits, Dillinger's pants of death, have their own showcase in the new museum, although their blood stains seem to have faded over the years.
Finally, another interactive exhibit awaits with another warning that what you're about to see may shock you. Lights illuminate a little room, revealing Dillinger's wax corpse on a slab, blood running everywhere! It's an accurate reproduction of a photograph taken in a Chicago morgue, where Dillinger's body was exhibited to the public after he was gunned down by the FBI. We know that because copies of the photo are available in the gift shop, along with key chains with little wooden gun charms.
Obsessive personal collections like Joe Pinkston's are usually sold piecemeal or thrown away when their owners die. Joe would probably be pleased that his Dillinger Museum, although slightly tempered, is enjoying a happy afterlife.