Grim plastic surgery plot Public Enemy No1 John Dillinger used to evade FBI

Depression-era gangster John Dillinger became a revered 'Robin Hood' figure to the American public during his 10-year crime spree.

The handsome, personable bank robber who became known as "Gentleman Johnny” for his habit of flirting with female bank customers during his crimes, was a nationally-known figure. His picture could be seen in every newspaper and newsreel.

But that became a problem for Dillinger, who was shot and killed on this day in 1934 (July 22), as J Edgar Hoover mobilised his newly-formed FBI to track him down.

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Dillinger was fatalistic. "I'm travelling a one-way road," he told a friend, "and I'm not fooling myself as to what the end will be. If I surrender, I know it means the electric chair. If I go on, it's just a question of how much time I have left."

But in a bid to put off his appointment with death, Dillinger paid $5,000 in April 1934, (almost £100,000 in today’s money) for plastic surgery to alter his well-known features and keep him one step ahead of the authorities.

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Wilhelm Loeser, a former doctor who had been jailed on drugs charges, later told prosecutors about the operation: “I asked him what work he wanted done,” he said.

He wanted two moles removed on the right lower forehead between the eyes and one at the left angle, outer angle of the left eye; a depression of the nose filled in; a scar; a large one to the left of the median line of the upper lip excised, wanted his dimples removed and wanted the angle of the mouth drawn up.

Referring to an operation he had performed on himself to burn off his own fingerprints, Loeser added: “He didn't say anything about the fingers that day to me."

The operation didn’t go well. Dr. Harold Cassidy, who had been paid $600 (£500) to administer a general anaesthetic, used too much ether and the gangster began to turn blue and stopped breathing.

Loeser pulled Dillinger's tongue out of his mouth with a pair of forceps, and at the same time forcing both elbows into his ribs. Dillinger gasped and resumed breathing.

The gruelling operation continued with only a local anaesthetic. Loeser removed several moles on Dillinger's forehead, sliced into his nose and chin and tied back both cheeks.

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A few days later Loeser performed further surgery in Dillinger, who brought along Homer Van Meter, another member of his gang.

He used a powerful mixture of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid to burn off the pair’s fingerprints, cutting away the underlying skin with a scalpel.

Dillinger was reportedly very unhappy with Loeser’s work, but within a fortnight of the operations the doctor was arrested by police who had got wind of the illegal surgery.

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But two days before Loeser’s arrest, on July 22, 1934 America’s “Robin Hood” was shot dead by FBI agents outside Chicago’s Biograph Theatre where he had been watching a gangster movie.

Dillinger was such a popular figure by the time he was killed, that people crowded round to dip their handkerchiefs and skirts in his blood. Two days later, 5,000 people attended his funeral.

Even after his death, Dillinger’s surgery ordeals weren’t over. A photograph of Dillinger’s corpse on a morgue slab reportedly showed that the gangster had a truly enormous penis.

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Even though Dillinger’s lower body was covered with a sheet many newspapers felt obliged to black it out when they reprinted the photograph.

While the remarkable photo was later said to just show the gangster’s arm sticking up under the sheet, it gave rise to an enduring legend that Dillinger’s penis was cut off and pickled in a jar.

While it was reportedly stored at Washington’s Smithsonian museum, a representative insisted to the New York Times "We have no penises”. Walter Reed vete­rans' hospital is on the record as saying: "We are not the home of the Dillinger penis."

While the legendary member never came to light many believe that it was kept as a trophy in the office of the FBI director J Edgar Hoover.


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