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Stacy Conradt

Grave Sightings: John Dillinger

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Stacy Conradt

For years, every time we so much as touch a toe out of state, I’ve put cemeteries on our travel itinerary. From garden-like cemeteries to boot hills, whether they’re the final resting places of the well-known but not that important or the important but not that well-known, I love them all. After realizing that there are a lot of taphophiles (cemetery and/or tombstone enthusiasts) out there, I’m finally putting my photo library of interesting tombstones to good use.

Eighty years ago next week, one of the world’s most infamous gangsters met his match. John Dillinger was not killed in the middle of a shootout, or even mid-heist. He was simply walking out of a movie theater in Chicago. 

In 1924, at the young age of 21, Dillinger and a pal unsuccessfully attempted to rob a local grocery store in Mooresville, Indiana. He received an unduly harsh sentence and ended up serving nearly nine years in prison. While he was there, his stepmother died —his real mother had died when he was just three—and his wife left him. “I will be the meanest bastard you ever saw when I get out of here,” he said while incarcerated, and it seems he followed through on that threat.

Having nothing to go home to, Dillinger used his time behind bars to network with other gangsters and robbers, gathering tips and tricks for how to best swindle banks out of their cash stores. When he was finally paroled on May 10, 1933, he put his plans into action almost immediately.

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The crime spree that ensued was intense, but actually rather short-lived. His first post-prison robbery was on June 21, when he relieved the New Carlisle National Bank in New Carlisle, Ohio, of $10,000. He robbed at least four more banks that summer before his shenanigans caught up with him and he was jailed—but not for long. Some of his buddies from the Indiana State Prison had recently escaped, thanks in part to guns smuggled to them by Dillinger. They returned the favor and helped him bust out of jail, killing the sheriff in the process.

The Jackrabbit robbed at least three more banks in the fall and winter of 1933-34, including a massive $74,802 heist at a bank in Greencastle, Indiana, in October. He and his gang also brazenly busted into the state police arsenals to steal machine guns, rifles, ammo, and bulletproof vests. In January, he and three of his gang members were captured in Tucson. Dillinger was extradited to the jail in Crown Point, Indiana, a building that had been dubbed “inescapable.” Despite this, and despite the fact that the jail posted extra guards, Dillinger escaped yet again. Though it has famously been claimed that he used a razor to carve a gun out of wood or soap, PBS reports that it was actually just a clear cut case of bribery.

From March to July, Dillinger robbed four more banks and got himself a little plastic surgery. He was involved in a couple of shootouts, including one that killed a few of his cohorts. His girlfriend got arrested. But he also had some fun—Dillinger enjoyed a super secret picnic with his family back in Indiana, and even made it to a few Cubs games. J. Edgar Hoover was infuriated that Public Enemy #1 was just gallivanting around the midwest as he pleased, and formed a special task force meant to take Dillinger down. It was this task force that received a call from a woman who said she could help them get their man if they would prevent her from being deported. The agents agreed, and Anna Sage said that she and her friend Polly, Dillinger's new girl, would be accompanying the gangster to the movies on the afternoon or night of July 22, 1934. 

Agents were waiting to ambush the group as they walked out of the Biograph Theater in Chicago around 10:30 that night. When the three of them exited the theater, agent Melvin Purvis lit a cigar to signal to the other agents that the target was in sight. Dillinger realized what was happening and may or may not have pulled a gun as he ran into the nearby alley (reports vary). The agents opened fire, with three of their five bullets finding their mark. He died shortly thereafter and was buried in the family plot at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis, where people sympathetic to the gangster still leave pennies to this day. The current tombstone is at least the fourth version—the others became too damaged by souvenir hunters.

Stacy Conradt

See all entries in our Grave Sightings series here.

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Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Paw Enforcement: A History of McGruff the Crime Dog
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Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Jack Keil, executive creative director of the Dancer Fitzgerald Sample ad agency, was stuck in a Kansas City airport at three in the morning when he started thinking about Smokey Bear. Smokey was the furred face of forest fire prevention, an amiable creature who cautioned against the hazards of unattended campfires or errant cigarette butts. Everyone, it seemed, knew Smokey and heeded his words.

In 1979, Keil’s agency had been tasked with coming up with a campaign for the recently-instituted National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC), a nonprofit organization looking to educate the public about crime prevention. If Keil could create a Smokey for their mission, he figured he would have a hit. He considered an elephant who could stamp out crime, or a rabbit who was hopping mad about illegal activity.

A dog seemed to fit. Dogs bit things, and the NCPC was looking to take a bite out of crime. Keil sketched a dog reminiscent of Snoopy with a Keystone Cop-style hat.

Back at the agency, people loved the idea but hated the dog. In a week’s time, the cartoon animal would morph into McGruff, the world-weary detective who has raised awareness about everything from kidnapping to drug abuse. While he no longer looked like Snoopy, he was about to become just as famous.

In 1979, the public service advertising nonprofit the Ad Council held a meeting to discuss American paranoia. Crime was a hot button issue, with sensational reports about drugs, home invasions, and murders taking up the covers of major media outlets like Newsweek and TIME. Surveys reported that citizens were concerned about crime rates and neighborhood safety. Respondents felt helpless to do anything, since more law enforcement meant increased taxes.

To combat public perception, the Ad Council wanted to commit to an advertising campaign that would act as a preventive measure. Crime could not be stopped, but the feeling was that it could be dented with more informed communities. Maybe a clean park would be less inviting to criminals; people might need to be reminded to lock their doors.

What people did not need was a lecture. So the council enlisted Dancer Fitzgerald Sample to organize a campaign that promoted awareness in the most gentle way possible. Keil's colleagues weighed in on his dog idea; someone suggested that the canine be modeled after J. Edgar Hoover, another saw a Superman-esque dog that would fly in to interrupt crime. Sherry Nemmers and Ray Krivascy offered an alternative take: a dog wearing a trench coat and smoking a cigar, modeled in part after Peter Falk’s performance as the rumpled TV detective Columbo.

Keil had designs on getting Falk to voice the animated character, but the actor’s methodical delivery wasn’t suited to 30-second commercials, so Keil did it himself. His scratchy voice lent an authoritarian tone, but wasn't over-the-top.

The agency ran a contest on the back of cereal boxes to name the dog. “Sherlock Bones” was the most common submission, but "McGruff"—which was suggested by a New Orleans police officer—won out.

Armed with a look, a voice, and a name, Nemmers arranged for a series of ads to run in the fall of 1980. In the spots, McGruff was superimposed over scenes of a burglary and children wary of being kidnapped by men in weather-beaten cars. He advised people to call the police if they spotted something suspicious—like strangers taking off with the neighbor’s television or sofa—and to keep their doors locked. He sat at a piano and sang “users are losers” in reference to drug-abusing adolescents. (The cigar had been scrapped.)

Most importantly, the NCPC—which had taken over responsibility for McGruff's message—wanted the ads to have what the industry dubbed “fulfillment.” At the end, McGruff would advise viewers to write to a post office box for a booklet on how to prevent crime in their neck of the woods.

A lot of people did just that. More than 30,000 booklets went out during the first few months the ads aired. McGruff’s laconic presence was beginning to take off.

By 1988, an estimated 99 percent of children ages six to 12 recognized McGruff, putting him in Ronald McDonald territory. He appeared on the ABC series Webster, in parades, and in thousands of personal appearances around the country, typically with a local police officer under the suit. (The appearances were not without danger: Some dogs apparently didn't like McGruff and could get aggressive at the sight of him.)

As McGruff aged into the 1990s, his appearances grew more sporadic. The NCPC began targeting guns and drugs and wasn’t sure the cartoon dog was a good fit, so his appearances were limited to the end of some ad spots. By the 2000s, law enforcement cutbacks meant fewer cops in costume, and a reduced awareness of the crime-fighting canine. When Keil retired, an Iowa cop named Steve Parker took over McGruff's voice duties.

McGruff is still in action today, aiding in the NCPC’s efforts to raise awareness of elder abuse, internet crimes, and identity theft. The organization estimates that more than 4000 McGruffs are in circulation, though at least one of them failed to live up to the mantle. In 2014, a McGruff performer named John Morales pled guilty to possession of more than 1000 marijuana plants and a grenade launcher. He’s serving 16 years in prison.

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Watch a Panda Caretaker Cuddle With Baby Pandas While Dressed Up Like a Panda
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Some people wear suits to work—but at one Chinese nature reserve, a handful of lucky employees get to wear panda suits.

As Travel + Leisure reports, the People's Daily released a video in July of animal caretakers cuddling with baby pandas at the Wolong National Nature Reserve in China's Sichuan Province. The keepers dress in fuzzy black-and-white costumes—a sartorial choice that's equal parts adorable and imperative to the pandas' future success in the wild.

Researchers raise the pandas in captivity with the goal of eventually releasing them into their natural habitat. But according to The Atlantic, human attachment can hamper the pandas' survival chances, plus it can be stressful for the bears to interact with people. To keep the animals calm while acclimating them to forest life, the caretakers disguise their humanness with costumes, and even mask their smell by smearing the suits with panda urine and feces. Meanwhile, other keepers sometimes conceal themselves by dressing up as trees.

Below, you can watch the camouflaged panda caretakers as they cuddle baby pandas:

[h/t Travel + Leisure]


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