Original publish date: May 16, 2019
The Dillinger Gang: Baby Face Nelson, Handsome Harry Pierpont, Red Hamilton and of course, public enemy number one, John Dillinger himself. All wickedly infamous names from the annals of crime. But, only one of them was memorialized by the master of American horror Stephen King. That distinction goes to John “Red” Hamilton, the gang member more remembered for the way he died than the way he lived. And of course, he has Indiana ties that stretch all the way to Irvington.
Like most gangsters, little is known about the early life of Red Hamilton. He was born on January 27, 1899 to an Irish-Canadian father from Ontario and a German-American mother from New York. He earned the nickname “Three-Finger Jack” after the loss of two fingers on his right hand in a sledding accident after the budding outlaw came too close to a passing train as a youngster. He really doesn’t appear on the radar screen until, at the age of 28, he lucked into meeting John Dillinger while serving time at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City. On March 16, 1927, he had been convicted of robbing a gas station in St. Joseph, Indiana, and sentenced to 25 years. While incarcerated, Hamilton became friends with a bevy of bank robbers, including John Dillinger, Russell Clark, Charles Makley, Harry Pierpont, and Homer Van Meter – the men who would go on to comprise the original Dillinger gang.
Michigan City might as well have been called “Bank Robber’s University” as these young outlaws studied at the feet of fellow inmates like Herman “Baron” Lamm, the bank robber who came up with the idea of meticulously casing a bank before robbing it. a method that became known as the “Lamm Technique” and inspiration for the term “on the Lamm.” Dillinger was paroled in May 1933 and, using a list that had been compiled by Hamilton and Pierpont, he began robbing banks to finance the escape. In September of that same year, fulfilling a promise to his “cellies”, he managed to get a barrel filled with guns smuggled into the penitentiary and a total of 10 armed men, including Hamilton, escaped out the main gate of Indiana State Prison.
Soon afterwards, Dillinger was arrested for bank robbery and was being held at the Allen County jail in Lima, Ohio. Determined to free Dillinger, on October 3, 1933, the gang robbed the First National Bank of St. Mary’s, Ohio, escaping with $14,000 to fund the escape. Nine days later, Hamilton, Makley, Pierpont, Clark, and Ed Shouse walked into the Lima jail to “spring” their pal John Dillinger. Red Hamilton remained outside as lookout and did not enter the building and did not participate in Makley and Pierpont’s murder of Sheriff Jess Sarber.
On December 13, 1933, the Dillinger gang robbed a Chicago bank, netting a reported $50,000. Afterwards, the gang went down to Daytona Beach, Florida for a time and then went west to Tucson. Hamilton, however, decided to go to Chicago instead, where, on December 13, 1933, he took part in the robbery of a local bank. The next day, Hamilton left his car at a Chicago garage for some body work, the garage’s mechanic called police reporting it as a “gangster car”. Hamilton returned to pick up the car and found police detective, William Shanley and two other officers waiting for him. He opened fire, killing Shanley, and escaped from the other two officers. Red’s incident led to the Chicago Police Department forming a special forty man “Dillinger Squad”. A month later, on January 15, 1934, Hamilton and Dillinger robbed the First National Bank in East Chicago, Indiana, for $20,376. During the heist, police officer William O’Malley was shot dead. Dillinger was officially charged with the murder, but several witnesses ID’d Hamilton as the shooter. By the end of the year, Hamilton found himself ranked third on Indiana’s list of “public enemies”, behind circle-city natives Dillinger and Pierpont.
During the robbery, Hamilton was shot twice and left in the care of his girlfriend Pat Cherrington and underworld physician Joseph Moran, while Dillinger and the others headed to Tucson where they were apprehended by the authorities. Afterwards, for a short time, the fugitive Hamilton shot to the top of the public enemies list. There he remained until Dillinger, using a wooden gun, escaped from the Crown Point jail. Afterwards, Dillinger formed a new gang consisting of Hamilton, Homer Van Meter, Tommy Carroll, Eddie Green, and Baby Face Nelson.
On March 6, three days after Dillinger’s Crown Point escape, the gang robbed the Security National Bank & Trust Company in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. In the chaotic robbery, motorcycle cop Hale Keith was severely wounded after Nelson maniacally shot him down through a plate glass window.
A week later, on March 13, 1934. the gang robbed the First National Bank in Mason City, Iowa, which allegedly had over $240,000 in its vault. During the robbery, Baby Face Nelson stayed with the getaway car while the rest of the gang ran into one problem after another inside the bank. When the bank president saw Van Meter walk in carrying a machine gun, he thought that a “crazy man was on the loose.” He ran into his office and bolted the door. Van Meter fired a number of shots through the door to no avail. He soon turned his attention to helping his cohorts clean out the teller drawers.
A guard in a special steel cage above the lobby fired a tear gas shell at the bandits which was answered by a machine gun blast of several bullets, a few of which clipped the retreating guard. Meantime, a female customer ran out of the bank and down the alley outside, where she ran directly into lookout Baby Face Nelson, who promptly sent her back into the bank. Red Hamilton was dealing with problems of his own. The bank’s cashier had locked himself in the vault. Hamilton ordered the cashier to start passing money through a slot in the door and the cashier began passing out stacks of one-dollar bills.
An elderly judge spotted the bandits on the street below from his third-floor office and took a shot at John Dillinger, winging him on the arm, Dillinger whirled around and fired a burst from his Tommy gun. The bullets bounced off the front of the building and the old judge ducked away unhurt. Dillinger decided it was time to skedaddle and he sent Van Meter inside to get the others. Hamilton was still dealing with the cashier. Red could see the stacks of larger bills on the shelves inside the vault but the cashier continued to load stacks of one-dollar bills into the bandit’s bag. When Van Meter told him to scram, the enraged Hamilton complained that the take was only about $20,000 and that there was over $200,000 still sitting on the shelves! Later, Hamilton said he should have shot the man just for spite.
As Hamilton ran out of the bank, the officer in the gun cage started shooting again, wounding Hamilton in the shoulder. The gang forced 20 hostages to stand on the running boards, fenders and hood of the getaway car, serving as human shields and drove slowly away. The police were unable to shoot, so they followed at a distance. Once out of town, Baby Face Nelson jumped out of the car and fired his Tommy gun towards the cop car, finally forcing them to turn back. Eventually, Dillinger dropped off the hostages unharmed. What should have been a prosperous raid had netted the outlaws a disappointing $52,000.
After first stopping in St. Paul, Minnesota, the Dillinger gang fled to the Little Bohemia resort near Rhinelander, Wisconsin to nurse their wounds and lay low. It was a remote fishing camp that was not due to open until May and would make the perfect place to hide out for a time. On April 22, Melvin Purvis’ FBI, tipped off by a friend of Little Bohemia’s owner, raided the place. Purvis moved dozens of agents from Chicago and St. Paul to the forests of Wisconsin. Unfortunately, all did not go as planned: the agents mistakenly opened fire on a car containing three innocent CCC workers, thinking they were outlaws. The gang escaped by jumping from a second floor window in the back of the lodge onto a mound of frozen snow, before Dillinger, Hamilton and Van Meter eventually stole a car and drove away.
Van Meter was driving, Dillinger in the center and Red Hamilton in the passenger seat. The rumble seat was empty and, using a crafty outlaw tactic, the gang left the seat back open to block the aim of any pursuing lawmen. The car raced down Wisconsin Route 46, across the Mississippi River, and into Minnesota back towards St. Paul. Minnesota law enforcement spotted their Wisconsin license plates on a bridge at Hastings, 15 miles out of St. Paul. One of the deputies leaned out the window with a .30-30 rifle and fired at one of the car’s rear tires. The slug tore through the rear seat, narrowly missed Dillinger, and plowed into Hamilton’s back. Red screamed in agony and slammed against the car’s dashboard.
Dillinger smashed out the window and returned fire with his .45, shattering the windshield of the police car and nearly killing the pursuing officer. A running gun battle ensued as the two cars traded 40 or 50 rounds for the next 50 miles or so, before the outlaws finally losing the pursuing patrolmen. With Hamilton losing blood from the massive hole in his back, Dillinger told Van Meter to head to Chicago and find a doctor for his friend. But first, they needed a faster, less bullet-riddled car. Van Meter cut off a 1934 Ford V8 Deluxe containing power company manager Roy Francis, his wife, Sybil, and their 19-month-old son, Robert.
The family was ordered out of the car to watch as the bandits tossed their arsenal into the Francis family vehicle. While the bloodied Hamilton limped painfully inside, Dillinger ordered the Francis family to pile in as well. Sybil Francis recognized Public Enemy Number One right away, but Dillinger flashed that famous smile and said, “Don’t worry about the kid. We like kids.” The outlaws even treat the couple to a soda pop when a stop is made to fill up the Ford. The family was dropped off safely a few miles outside of Mendota, Minnesota with one whale of a story to tell. The outlaws continued on toward Chicago in search of a “friendly” doctor to fix Red Hamilton. And here is where the story gets interesting.