Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Life and Death of America's First Celebrity Criminal


Just finished reading John Dillinger: The Life and Death of America's First Celebrity Criminal by Dary Matera.  It was a pretty good read, and I was eager to see how much material mentioned my newly-found relative, "Handsome" Harry PIERPONT.

Growing up in Indiana, the Dillinger legend was always present, but I was captivated reading about robberies near to where I grew up, such as Daleville, as well as places I've visited such as Greencastle and South Bend.  The book flows well and gives a much better accounting of the activities of Dillinger and his various gangs than the movie Public Enemies.

However, the book was sorely in need of better editing.  I can understand a typographical error or two, but it was jarring to see cities such as Kokomo or Greencastle referred to as being in Illinois, rather than Indiana. Also, the author's style was a bit off-putting, using metaphors that were anachronistic in order to get his point across.  At times, it read more like a pulp fiction novel from the 1950s.

The main thesis of his work was that there has never been a criminal who had so much influence and celebrity as John Dillinger.  To support this, the author cites the numerous changes made to how banks operate, changes in federal law, how police operate, the formation of the FBI, etc. that can be directly tied to the Dillinger era.  Throw in the public's mistrust of the banks due to the Depression and Dillinger's antics in making the Feds and police look like fools and you have a perfect storm of celebrity.

On a genealogical note, there were plenty of clues for me to begin researching more about Harry PIERPONT and his involvement with Dillinger.  The stories of how Harry's mother, Lena, and brother, Fred, were arrested several times as well makes me want to know how much they were involved or at least turned a blind eye to his crimes.  In the book, Lena is referred to as "Leaping Lena", but it was never explained how she came about that nickname.
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