Crime doesn’t pay. That’s the underlying message of the newly reopened John Dillilnger Museum in Crown Point, Indiana. The museum had been located in the Indiana Welcome Center in Indiana since 1999. The move to the Old Lake County Courthouse brings you that much closer to the Dillinger story, since the notorious gangster escaped from the county jail a short block away from the courthouse in 1934.
The locally made red brick and wrought iron in the lower level of the courthouse, where the museum is housed, has an old jail-like feel to it. The barred jail cell door that serves as the entrance to the museum stays locked until you’re buzzed in and closes again behind you, adding to the mood.
The story, set in a timeline on a maze of walls, is told from the crime side as well as the law side, good versus evil. The crime story is on red boards; the law story is on blue boards. It begins with Dillinger’s birth in Indianapolis and takes you through his life of crime to his bloody death.
Following a spree of bank robberies throughout the Midwest, including one in which a police officer was murdered, and police station robberies that netted the gang an arsenal of firearms, Dillinger and his gang were captured in Tucson, Arizona. Dillinger was extradited to Lake County, Indiana, and placed in an “escape proof” jail. As you make your way through the museum, you’ll walk through a cell much like the one Dillinger was locked up in.
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After slipping through the FBI’s fingers several times, Dillinger met his demise. A madam, Anna Sage, had been threatened with deportation. Dillinger had been spending time with Sage, who in hopes of not being deported, tipped off the FBI that she’d be going to a movie theater with Dillinger. As they left the Biograph Theater after the movie, a gunfight ensued, and Dillinger was fatally shot.
There are other interactive exhibits throughout the museum as well, like one in which you turn a dial to learn gangster vocabulary and one that lets you choose how you would have judged Dillinger for his first crime, an attempted robbery at the age of 21, for which he received a sentence of ten years in prison.
Artifacts include Dillinger’s original tombstone. It had to be replaced after people chipped away pieces of it as souvenirs. The pants that he wore when he was killed are on display as well, with the amount of money that was found in his pocket.
Some local folks at first weren’t happy when they found out the John Dillinger Museum was opening, as they thought it was glamorizing the gangster’s life of crime. However, just the opposite is true. The story really does point out that crime doesn’t pay.
A memorial wall was constructed at the end of the museum that honors all of the Lake County, Indiana, law enforcements officers—men, women and canine—who have been killed in the line of duty since the 1910s.
If you visit the John Dillinger Museum
The John Dillinger Museum, located in the Old Lake County Courthouse at 1 Courthouse Square in Crown Point, Indiana, is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is handicapped accessible. The last admission is 4 p.m. Check the web site for admission and other details.
Disclosure: Our visit to the John Dillinger Museum was hosted by the South Shore Convention & Visitors Authority, and our admission was complimentary. However, all opinions in this article are my own. Photos by Skip Reed.
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