John Dillinger Museum
Crown Point, Indiana
In America, Bonnie and Clyde are the alpha dogs of the pop celebrity crime pack. But nipping at their heels is John Dillinger, and in Indiana he will always be Public Enemy No. 1, a home-state boy gone bad.
The John Dillinger Museum is the legacy of the late Joe Pinkston, a maverick who collected more Dillinger relics than anyone. In the 1970s he opened the museum in his Indiana hometown, and spent the rest of his life defending it against those who failed to appreciate his vision.
Times sure have changed. The museum is now officially sanctioned and promoted by Indiana's tourism trendsetters. In 2015 it re-opened in an atmospheric new setting in the basement of Lake County's old courthouse, only a block from the "escape-proof" jail that Dillinger escaped from on March 3, 1934 -- much to Indiana's embarrassment at the time.
"It took me 21 years to get it here," said a proud Speros Batistatos, president of the South Shore CVA. "This is where the museum belongs, and always has belonged. It's home."
The brick-vaulted basement of the museum is an appropriately dungeon-like setting, complete with barred windows (It was originally the city morgue). It opens with a condemned man strapped into an electric chair -- not John Dillinger, who never made it that far, but Bruno Hauptmann, the convicted Lindbergh baby-killer!
Next, it's a chronological walk along "the twisted road that led to Dillinger's death," according to an introductory sign. Displays include his young-man's Indiana baseball shoes, but turn a corner and you're standing face-to-face with wax dummies of the Dillinger gang robbing an Indianapolis bank. Then you're invited to sit in a jail cell just like the one where Dillinger spent nine years of his short life. "The bucket was his bathroom," reads one sign (There's a bucket on the floor as a visual aid). "Can you imagine living like this that long?"
Joe Pinkston believed that Dillinger was in cahoots with banks he robbed, and was sacrificed after they had collected their insurance money. The new museum concedes in its signage that Dillinger was "generally courteous" and "had no trouble attracting girlfriends," but has replaced Joe's conspiracy theories with exhibits that juxtapose Good (law enforcement) vs. Evil (lawbreakers). Along the way you can ponder artifacts such as the lucky rabbit's foot that Dillinger gave away six months before he was killed, and a replica of the crude wooden gun that he used to bluff his way out of the Crown Point jail down the street.
The museum ends with its best material. The Death Alley display reveals a face-down wax dummy Dillinger corpse at the touch of a button -- which, or course, you push after being warned that what you're about to see may shock you. Similarly, a twist of the "City Morgue" door handle illuminates the outlaw's bloody body on its examination slab.
Dillinger's death mask is displayed (a sign notes that so many death masks were made that Dillinger's dead face was damaged) along with his wicker corpse basket and his original tombstone, removed from his grave after too many people had chipped off pieces for souvenirs.
One of Joe Pinkston's most prized exhibits, Dillinger's death pants, have their own showcase in the museum, although their visible blood stains have faded over the years.
The final display in the museum is a big blow-up of J. Edgar Hoover's face and this message: "Having now seen the twisted tale of John Dillinger's life, would you agree that crime doesn't pay?"
Obsessive personal collections such as Joe Pinkston's are usually sold piecemeal or thrown away after their owners die. Fortunately, his Dillinger Museum, although tempered in approach, has remained essentially intact. It enlightens new generations of True Crime fans in its now-respectable afterlife.