Good Guys Are the Heroes at New Dillinger Museum

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), January 2, 2000 | Go to article overview

Good Guys Are the Heroes at New Dillinger Museum


Until Michael Jordan came along to reign as the best-known symbol of Chicago across the globe, that distinction fell dubiously upon one Alphonse Capone.

Chicagoans traveling abroad and announcing their hometown were, more often than not, greeted with the pretend rat-a-tat-tat of a Tommy gun. This was a matter of constant consternation to city fathers and promoters of Chicago tourism.

People seem to have a morbid fascination with gangsters. Big Al, Bonnie and Clyde, Machine Gun Kelly, John Dillinger and the like never fail to conjure interest.

John Dillinger takes center stage in the newest tourist attraction in Lake County, Ind., Chicago's next-door neighbor. The John Dillinger Museum occupies part of a glittering new Visitor Center that opened last fall in Hammond, Ind., at I-80/94 and Kennedy Avenue. The estimated $8.5 million project was financed by casino and hotel taxes.

Open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., the center also includes a 110-seat theater, currently screening videos about local tourism, Indiana Dunes National Lake Shore and a documentary about steel production.

A 6,500-square-foot exhibition hall will feature new exhibits every other month. In February and March it will be devoted to the Millennium Series of posters commissioned by local businesses and organizations. Created in the Art Deco style of 1920s South Shore railway posters, the 30 posters on display will include a handsome one about vintage baseball as played at Lake County's Deep River Park and another depicting downtown Whiting. The posters sell for $20 each, along with souvenirs and books, in the Visitor Center gift shop.

The Dillinger Museum stirred controversy from people who think it glorifies criminals. The Lake County Convention and Visitors Bureau says that, conversely, the museum promotes the theme "crime doesn't pay." The museum contains a tribute to East Chicago policeman Patrick O'Malley, whom Dillinger killed following a bank robbery, and a wall commemorating Lake County police officers who gave their lives in the line of duty.

Along with chronicling the rise and fall of John Dillinger - the FBI Public Enemy No. 1 shot down by federal agents outside Chicago's Biograph Theatre - the museum focuses on criminal investigation techniques, with many interactive displays in each of its 12 galleries.

Visitors can try on a bulletproof vest to get an idea of its weight and bulk, identify "terror gang" members from descriptions and photos, witness a bank robbery and answer questions about what they observed, and step into a circa 1920s jail cell and experience the dark, cramped quarters of a state penitentiary prisoner. They'll examine evidence and respond as jurors and learn about gangsta rap. In a 1930s FBI lab they can match suspect fingerprints with samples and put together a Bertillion description card using component tiles. In a modern crime lab they can match fingerprints and DNA cards with a suspect's given samples and examine and compare samples of hair, soil, blood and thread.

John Dillinger's association with Lake County stems from his incarceration in the county jail at Crown Point, Ind., from which he made his celebrated escape brandishing a fake gun. Some stories say he carved it from a piece of wood and blackened it with shoe polish. Others maintain the faux weapon was made of soap.

The museum purchased a collection of artifacts relating to the bank robber and his crime sprees, including the Dillinger death mask. Exhibits depict life in the Depression years of the 1930s as they also chronicle the short, violent life of Dillinger. Interspersed throughout are clips of newsreel footage from the era. …

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