2 Dillinger relatives doubt body in grave is the gangster

FILE - This file photo shows Indiana Reformatory booking shots of John Dillinger, stored in the state archives, and shows the notorious gangster as a 21-year-old. Records show that Dillinger was admitted into the reformatory on Sept. 16, 1924.

His visits here were brief, and his relationships a bit undefined, but bank robber and legendary gangster John Dillinger has long captured imaginations in Howard and Miami counties.

Dillinger, who was shot and killed by FBI agents in July 1934 outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago, has once again taken center stage as conspiracies abound about his death – was it really him? – and his life, which in Kokomo included a prominent local madam and in Peru a bold police station robbery.

News broke last week that two relatives of Dillinger plan to have his remains exhumed as part of a television documentary for The History Channel. The relatives say they have "evidence" the body buried in an Indianapolis cemetery may not be him and that FBI agents possibly killed someone else in 1934.

The FBI immediately disputed that idea, calling it a "myth" that its agents didn't fatally shoot Dillinger outside a Chicago theater more than 85 years ago. The agency said in a statement that "a wealth of information supports Dillinger's demise" including fingerprint matches.

But the two relatives want the body exhumed and subjected to a forensic analysis and possibly DNA testing "in order to make a positive identification."

Whatever the result, shocking or otherwise, Dillinger’s relationship to north-central Indiana will remain intact. 

The gangster, according to historical accounts, visited Kokomo on multiple occasions.

His reason?

In part, to visit a local madam: Pearl Elliott, who would create an unbreakable connection between Dillinger and the city.

But not for the reasons you may think.

“Dillinger apparently was in and out of Kokomo several times, but I don’t have any documentation. The shady lady, [Elliott], was the connection,” said Howard County Historical Society Executive Director Dave Broman in an email.

Broman, however, said Elliott was more than just a brothel owner and Dillinger’s friend. She was also his treasurer –“whatever that means.”

“Probably not one of his molls, but there was a strong relationship,” he remarked.

A website dedicated to the book “Don’t Call Us Molls: Women of the John Dillinger Gang,” by historian Ellen Poulsen, notes that Elliott was different from other women associated with Dillinger’s group.

“Most women connected to Dillinger acted as wives and girlfriends of his gang members. Pearl differed in that she operated as an independent woman in her activities with Dillinger,” it reads.

Instead, Elliott operated a prostitution house in Kokomo – the website describes early 20th century madams as “fiercely independent women” who nonetheless required various forms of protection – and later came under the watchful eye of the FBI because of her relationship with Dillinger and his cohorts.

The 21-room bordello was in operation for around a decade, beginning in the 1920s, and is believes to have been in the 700 block of North Washington Street, the 600 block of East Vaile Avenue or the 600 block of North Market Street, according to previous Tribune accounts.

“Don’t Call Us Molls” says Elliott was in some capacity involved in the robbery of Kokomo's South Side Bank in 1925, a caper led by Harry “Pete” Pierpont, described as one of Dillinger’s closest friends after the two met in a Pendleton prison following the Kokomo bank robbery.

The bank was located at what is now 101 E. Markland Ave. near Main Street, where Pierpont’s gang took off with nearly $5,000 in cash, $4,300 in Liberty bonds and $2,000 in securities. Pierpont would later be arrested in Detroit and brought back to Kokomo for trial (at one point he was caught plotting an escape from the Howard County Jail by sawing through cell bars).

“When arrested for complicity in the bank robbery, [Pierpont] failed to give information that would have incriminated [Elliott, then known as Pearl Mullendore]. He went to prison and she remained indebted to him,” notes the “Molls” website

By 1933, after Dillinger was paroled in May, Elliott reportedly began to help him by holding receipts of bank robberies he committed during the summer and fall months.

Reports say Dillinger would separately send money to Elliott – possibly to impress his friend Pierpont. The two gangsters, with Elliott's help, would play leading roles in "The Terror Gang."

Her marriage at the time was to Dewey Elliott, who himself would help Pierpont get guns and ammunition for Dillinger’s gang, in large part through Chicago gangster connections.

Dillinger, with his connections to the couple, on multiple occasions visited Elliott’s house, although the two were never intimate, according to Poulsen. Reports say Dillinger hid out with Elliott and at other spots across Kokomo.

A reporter at the time described Elliott as a woman who “long as been sought as the advance fixer and brains as well as the treasurer of the Dillinger gang.” She allegedly handled clothing purchases, arranged hideouts and herself harbored Dillinger’s gang.

Elliott herself fell under the FBI’s investigation after Pierpont helped Dillinger flee a Lima, Ohio, jail and killed a sheriff in the process.

One book, “Syndicate Women: Gender and Networks in Chicago Organized Crime,” claims Elliott helped Dillinger with a separate getaway during a police trap laid by Chicago detectives and Indiana State Police in late 1933, firing a pistol at police and helping halt their pursuit of the crew’s armored car.

Another book, "Chasing Dillinger," says Elliott: steered Dillinger toward legal counsel, laundered money, held onto the gangster's weapons and at one point was entrusted with nearly $25,000 delivered to her by Dillinger.

Elliot's picture was distributed across the nation on wanted flyers distributed by the Department of Justice, describing her connection to Dillinger and his gang, according to press accounts. She would at one point end up on the infamous public enemies list, which allowed officers to shoot to kill.

She and her husband, Dewey, would eventually put another woman in charge of the bordello and flee Kokomo.  

Press accounts note that following his death Elliott and other women connected to Dillinger traveled in a maroon-colored coupe – “within hand-shaking distance of state troopers and detectives” – and joined other mourners and curiosity-seekers in a Mooresville funeral home where the gangster’s body was publicly displayed.

Elliott would eventually return to Kokomo, only to find her prostitution house abandoned; she would later open a new bordello in Windfall in the mid-1930s before dying of cancer in 1935, according to Poulsen.

Dillinger is also rumored to have stayed at other homes around town, offering money to residents at a time when many families struggled to make ends meet, further establishing his Robin Hood reputation.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

George Myers can be reached at 765-454-8585, by email at george.myers@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @gmyerskt.

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George Myers covers city and county government. He joined the Kokomo Tribune on November 18, 2014.