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Is It True What They Said About John Dillinger?

Elliott J. Gorn is author of Dillinger’s Wild Ride: The Year that Made America’s Public Enemy Number One, is Professor of History and American Studies at Brown University.  John Dillinger, celebrity outlaw extraordinaire died 75 years ago today.  In the wake of his death a photo leaked to the press which showed Dillinger to be much larger than legend.  In the original post below Gorn explores the myth of Dillinger’s member in honor of the anniversary of his death.

I’m reasonably sure that most American boys who reached adolescence in the 1960s knew about Dillinger’s dick. It was enormous, preserved in formaldehyde at the Smithsonian Institution. Friends of mine who grew up on the east coast told me years later that on high school trips to Washington, the boys would spread out and look for it. Some even claimed that they saw it. A less well-known version of the story insisted that no, it wasn’t in the Smithsonian, but at FBI headquarters, that for years it rested in a jar on J. Edgar Hoover’s desk. Others said it actually was nearby at the Army Medical Museum. Anyway, boys identified with the dead gunman and his parts—everyone knew what you meant when you referred to “my Dillinger.”

As it turns out, the Smithsonian keeps a file of letters from citizens enquiring about the legendary dingus. People write in trying to resolve arguments or settle bets or finish term papers on human anatomy. The Smithsonian has a form letter they send out routinely, denying any knowledge of Dillinger’s missing member.

Even before the Smithsonian legend, Dillinger’s manhood was part of oral tradition. Back in Indiana, the outlaw’s home state, some said that he was so large that he was not a great lover; he’d lose consciousness when aroused because so much blood drained toward his groin. Others claimed that the Woman in Red betrayed him that July night in Chicago in 1934 when the feds gunned him down because Dillinger was her lover, and she just couldn’t take it anymore.

The story of Dillinger’s legendary proportions originated with a morgue photo that circulated just after he died. There he is on a gurney, officials from the Cook County Coroner’s office gathered around, and the sheet covering him rising in a conspicuous tent at least a foot above his body, roughly around his loins, though truth be told, it looks more like where his naval should be. Probably his arm, rigid in rigor mortis, was under the sheet. No matter. It looked like he died with an enormous hard-on. Newspaper editors quickly realized how readers interpreted the photo, withdrew it, retouched it, then reprinted it in later wire-service editions, with the sheet nice and flat against the dead man’s body.

But the damage was done. Soon, Dillinger’s likeness appeared in crude pornography. Mostly, however, rumors of his enormous manhood persisted in oral tradition until roughly thirty years after his death, when it congealed into the urban belief tale centered on the Smithsonian.

In a literal sense, the story is almost certainly not true. Dillinger’s autopsy reported nothing unusual about the man. Government workers just look perplexed when asked about the legendary object. No one has ever produced substantial proof that the famed member exists.

So what does the story mean? It is a trope, a metaphor, a symbol of the whole Dillinger saga. He must have had a big one. In the midst of the Great Depression, with hunger and hopelessness everywhere, Dillinger went out and took what he wanted. He robbed from banks, which many Americans assumed had robbed them. Guns blazing, he escaped the feds time after time, and humiliated local authorities. He broke out of prisons, once famously with a wooden gun.

On the side, he had multiple liaisons with good-looking women, and they aided him in his exploits. Even as he walked out of Chicago’s Biograph Theater to his death, newspapers reported, he had a woman on each arm. The Dillinger story was one of America’s great noir moments of sex and violence, freedom and betrayal.

Americans are fascinated with rebels and renegades. We love stories about escape from the hum-drum of daily life. In fantasy, anyway, we admire those who walk away from crushing boredom and killing routine. We make heroes of anyone bold enough to live on the open road. We love our outlaws, men who oppose the over-civilized life with virile action, and who dispense rough justice.

But we also take care not to get too close, and certainly not to emulate them. Even as it makes Dillinger larger than life, the Smithsonian story is also a cautionary tale. It warns that the price of living so free and defiant is death, and in the legend, castration.

Metaphorically, it certainly was true what they said about John Dillinger. True because he lived his wild year hard and died young. True because he did it with style, coolness, and élan. And true because, in reality and in legend, he paid for it.

Recent Comments

  1. Captain Jack Sparrow

    I heard that his member was actually the second gunman on the grassy knoll. And now it’s living with Elvis down in Brazil.

  2. Twitted by meganbe

    [...] This post was Twitted by meganbe [...]

  3. [...] “Is It True What They Said About John Dillinger?” (Oxford University Press, thanks Megan Branch!)Wild Ride: The Year That Made America’s Public Enemy Number One by Elliott J. Gorn (Amazon) Previously: Ann Magnuson and John Dillinger's Johnson – Boing Boing [...]

  4. Grant Barrett

    There’s a small typo: “naval” should be “navel.”

  5. Mike T

    So you didn’t answer the question. Thanks for nothing.

  6. [...] Is It True What They Said About John Dillinger? (Oxford University Press Blog, 22.07.2009) [...]

  7. T.Fox

    I saw John Dillinger penis floating in a large jar of formaldehydein in 1967 at age 14 at the old Army Medical museum. The old Medical museum was torn down in 1969 and was located where the Hirshhorn art museum now stands on the national mall in Washington,D.C. I was born and rised in DC and lived on Capital Hill and went to all the Smithsonian museums many times and the old Medical museum many times. It was hard to beleive even at the time that such a thing was on display. The Smithsonian is now in denial.

  8. D.S.

    John Dillinger’s penis was displayed at the Army
    Navy Medical Museum located at Independence Avenue and 7th Street, SW Washington, DC.

    I personally saw this exhibit numerous times in
    the 1960s and early 1970s,
    and it was displayed until the the museum was
    closed and moved to the
    grounds of Walter Reed Hospital, also in DC.
    This exhibit was in a large glass vial and
    clearly marked as having
    belonged to John Dillinger.

    The Army Navy medical museum had nothing to
    do with the Smithsonian. Not every museum in
    downtown DC is part of their vast holdings. So
    the Smithsonian is correct in denying that this
    penis was ever part of their collection. But it
    was at the old army navy medical museum and I saw
    it many many times.

  9. Ray

    T. Fox, I lived in the D.C. area then too. You did not see Dillinger’s penis in a jar of formaldehyde. I went to Army Medical Museum and looked there too. Just an urban legend.

  10. Fred

    Ray – I also lived outside of DC and went on numerous field trips (Before the budget destruction of Ronnie Rayguns) from elementary school through high schoool. You, sir, are completely full of crap. The underlying main goal of each field trip was to find the penis. It was on display and many of us saw it – and giggled. And I find it funny how you can speak for the entire world.

  11. Irene

    So much for deciding the factor. Captain Jack is Elvis really living in Brazil?

  12. Craig Pittman

    Your line about how the enormous lump in the sheet “looks more like where his naval should be” suggests to me that either you’ve misspelled the word for bellybutton or Mr. Dillinger’s torso contained more wonders than just whatever dangled from his nether region. Perhaps instead of either the Smithsonian or Walter Reed, someone should search for the missing piece in the hospital at Bethesda.

  13. Bob Wells

    I was 13 or 14 years old and my older sister along with a neighbor friend used to take me on the bus into DC to see James Bond movies at the RKO Keith I believe. As I recall we visited The Walter Reed Army Navy Medical Museum (I think that is what it was called) in either 67 or 68. There was a warning outside the front entrance that warned visitors about possible nausea caused by the displays inside. Following are some of the exhibits I remember seeing. An abdominal horizontal slice of a human body. The leg of a woman that had elephantitus in a floor-standing vertical clear display. The leg was about fifteen inches in diameter at the top. Unborn Siamese twins in a horizontal wall mounted clear display near the top of an exterior wall. Gross … almost made sick to my stomach. A square, free-standing vertical display that contained a penis. From what I can remember it was about 14 or 15 inches long. I can not remember what it was hanging from. It had no scrotum attached and had a one-quarter inch hole about two inches from the base. I can not remember if it was circumsized. There was a antique brass plaque that stated it belonged to John Dillinger. I could not believe it. My sister walked over as I was looking at it and I was about as embarrassed as could possibly be. She has recently confirmed our trip there and the fact that John Dillinger’s penis was indeed on display. No doubt someone in charge finally decided the display was in poor taste and it was removed. So for all the articles I see online stating that it is merely a rumour, baloney.

  14. Ashlee Jenness

    One of my all time special quotes appears really fitting here “Success is nothing more than a few simple disciplines, practiced every day; while failure is simply a few errors in judgment, repeated every day. It is the accumulative weight of our disciplines and our judgments that leads us to either fortune or failure.”–Jim Rohn

  15. Nancy Parssinen

    His penis was on display in the Army Medical Museum which was in a tempory building on the commom near the Smithsoniam Museum. I saw it there about 1945. It WAS large and my young siblings and cousins and I got into fits of giggles looking at it. We loved the museum as we were of the age when all things gross were fascinating. When the building was removed I asked about the museum. I have forgotten the exact answer but I remember it was moved to a permanent Army facility near Washington and apparently was not readily availabe to the public as we did not go there again.

  16. C.S.

    My 89 yr. old father-in-law tells a story of his aunt who was a nurse in the facility where Dillinger’s body was taken after he was killed. This nurse went along with many of her co-workers to see the body because it was such a cool thing to have the notorious criminal in their workplace! The nurses did see the huge penis still attached and I’m sure gossipy rumors spread. My father-in-law would have been a teenager then and certainly remembered this unique story his aunt, the nurse, told to all the family!

  17. Rebecca

    Look, I am one year younger than T. Fox. My Baltimore County school trip was exactly as he truthfully accounts. The smell of formaldehyde was overwhelming. A giant jar had an Elephantitis leg in it. Two headed pig fetuses were in a jar. Very dusty place. A jar labeled as Dillinger’s Penis was indeed there, unbelievably long and thin. I am a museum director and so was the daughter of Chief Justic Brennan, Nancy. Her DC girls school saw it, too. We used to joke it was a factor in our becoming museum professionals. I had no brothers. It made a big impression. I was more scared of the giant leg as I wondered if something went wrong did they lop it off and put it in a museum!

  18. David Gamblin

    It is located in a display on the 4th or 5th floor @ the Old FBI headquarters. I have seen it. My father was an F.B.I. Agent for 27 years. Was 14 years old when I saw it. I asked Dad what was that black stick doing in the display. He told me…

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