Is John Dillinger in his grave? Exhumation expected to answer that question

Rumors have lingered for more than 85 years over the true fate of 1930s gangster John Dillinger.

Now, an exhumation scheduled for September is expected to answer once and for all whether it was really Dillinger, a bank robber and Great Depression-era folk hero, who was gunned down by FBI agents outside a Chicago theater in 1934.

The Indiana State Department of Health earlier this month granted Dillinger's nephew, Michael C. Thompson, a permit for the exhumation in connection with a History Channel documentary that is in the works. A tentative exhumation date and time of 10 a.m. on Sept. 16 have been set at Crown Hill Cemetery, where Dillinger, an Indianapolis native, was buried following his death.

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The Washington Post reported that, although a History Channel spokesman declined to detail the upcoming project on Dillinger, a source close to the project told the newspaper the outlaw's body is being dug up so DNA can be extracted to confirm his identity.

Dillinger biographer Bill Helmer told The Indianapolis Star that theories that the burial plot in Crown Hill Cemetery contains the body of the criminal's double are "total nonsense." Helmer, who penned "Dillinger: The Untold Story," told the newspaper Dillinger's body was "perfectly well-documented" following his death.

Dillinger's sister identified her brother's remains, the Post reported. Dillinger's father, worried that his son's corpse would be a target for vandals, ordered the casket to be buried under a concrete and scrap iron cap, followed by four slabs of reinforced concrete.

Susan Sutton, a historian with the Indiana Historical Society, told The Associated Press she anticipates the exhumation will be a tough one.

"I think they're going to have a hard time getting through that," Sutton told the AP.

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Dillinger, who was born in Indianapolis in 1903, joined the U.S. Navy at the age of 20, but deserted after a short time, according to the Crime Museum. The following year, he joined a friend and former convict on a botched grocery store robbery that landed Dillinger in the Indiana Reformatory for nine years.

"While in jail, Dillinger learned from seasoned bank robbers, preparing for a future in crime," the museum's webpage on Dillinger reads. "Within a week of leaving prison, he assembled a gang and began executing plans to send arms to his friends at Indiana State Prison for escape."

Police, acting on a tip, arrested Dillinger and his gang before the prison break could take place, but his friends on the outside returned his loyalty by dressing as policemen and busting the outlaw out of jail.

Dillinger began robbing banks in the summer of 1933, and over the next year stole more than $300,000 from banks in Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, South Dakota and Illinois. His string of crimes soon included the murder of a police officer, who was gunned down in January 1934 in Chicago.

Dillinger was arrested in Arizona later that month after a fire broke out in the hotel where he and his gang were staying, according to the Crime Museum. He was flown back to Indiana to be tried for murder.

He again escaped jail by carving a fake gun out of a piece of washboard and using it to force a hostage to lead him outside, where he carjacked a driver in an alley.

Dillinger brought on the attention of the FBI when he crossed state lines in the stolen car, the museum page states.

Following a close call in which he was almost captured by FBI agents near Mercer, Wisconsin, Dillinger reportedly underwent plastic surgery to alter his appearance. He also used acid on his fingertips in an effort to erase his fingerprints.

After Dillinger and his crew killed another policeman, this time in the June 30, 1934, robbery of Merchants National Bank in South Bend, Indiana, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover established a $10,000 reward for the outlaw’s capture.

That would be Dillinger’s final robbery. The following month, Ana Sage, an immigrant working as a madam in a brothel, called the FBI. Hoping the agency would prevent her deportation in exchange for her help, she told agents Dillinger planned to see a movie at the Biograph Theater in Chicago.

"Armed agents waited outside of the theater waiting for Ana's signal, a red dress," the Crime Museum says. "Upon exiting the theater, Dillinger sensed the set-up and sprinted into an alley, where he was fatally shot."

Dillinger was killed a month after his 31st birthday.

A variety of theories revolving around Dillinger’s shooting have kept his name in the public eye over the decades.

Multiple witnesses claimed the man killed outside the theater that day had brown eyes, not Dillinger's characteristic gray eyes, the museum's webpage says. The body also showed signs of diseases that were not in Dillinger's known medical history.

The Star received a letter in 1963, nearly 30 years after Dillinger’s supposed death, from a man claiming to be Dillinger, and the gun the FBI put on public display for years as the weapon the outlaw carried when he was killed was proven to have only been manufactured years after his 1934 death.

Dillinger also was linked to a small-time crook, Jimmy Lawrence, who was said to be a "look-alike" of the more famous criminal, the Post reported.

When asked about the theories, Helmer told the Star that the only good thing about them is that they "keep Dillinger's name in the news." He described Dillinger not as a blood-thirsty killer, but as a playful man who spoke with love about his father and was kind to his hostages.

"(He should be remembered) as a bank robber who was crooked, but not twisted," Helmer told the newspaper. "He didn't have any remarkably obscene or difficult or ingenuous or bloodthirsty traits about him. He was very much a professional."

Sutton said that Dillinger’s decision to target banks, a source of woe for many people who lost homes and farms during the Depression, made it easy for him to become a hero in many minds.

"Somebody who had, as maybe people would say now, 'stuck it to the banker,' would easily become a folk hero," she told the AP. "He was also known by some people to be very polite, even while he was stealing. It's an odd combination."

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