70th Anniversary of the Death
of Dillinger at the Biograph
The weather was hot on the night of July 22, 1934. Public Enemy #1, John Dillinger was killed upon leaving the Biograph Theater, after watching Manhattan Melodrama, a movie starring Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, and William Powell, with a cameo performance by young Mickey Rooney.
The story of Dillinger's death is a favorite one with the American people. It was a heat-drenched night and the city. July, 1934, in the dead pulse of the Depression. John Dillinger, who was the most wanted man in the nation, had lost his hideout. Dropped by organized crime, he needed a place to stay. Dillinger had paid to the rackets for protection, ammunition, cars and housing. When Dillinger became the most wanted man in the land, the underworld blacklisted him, refusing to help.
Dillinger's underworld attorney, Louis Piquett, then arranged a hideout in the Chicago house of ex-prizefighter James Probasco.
The protection was off by May, 1934. Dillinger had undergone plastic surgery in the Chicago house of Jimmy Probasco, Piquett's old associate. Probasco turned Dillinger out in June, 1934. Piquett, a mob-connected barrister, was given the N. Halsted Street address of two prostitutes. Polly Hamilton, the friend of Anna Sage since they had worked in the Gary vice rackets, assumed the role of Dillinger's girlfriend.
His true love, Evelyn "Billie" Frechette, shown in far right, was serving her two year sentence in a Federal Prison at Milan, Michigan. Dillinger still mourned the loss of his true love, the beautiful Native American Evelyn Frechette. Yet Polly Hamilton, shown below, insisted that Dillinger was in love with her. Newspaper men called her the "girl in the watch." She called herself "Dillinger’s Countess."
Edythe "Polly" Hamilton will sit forever on the throne of history as the other woman. She was not the “woman in red,” nor was she Dillinger’s special love interest.
Polly, 25 years old in 1934, bore a vague resemblance to Evelyn “Billie” Frechette. Historians believe that Frechette, with her native-American, haunting beauty, had more womanly charms in her little finger than Polly Hamilton ever packed in her suitcase. But Billie Frechette was in jail, serving a Federal Prison sentence for harboring Dillinger.
His attorney, Louis Piquett, brought him to the apartment of veteran madam Anna Sage. Piquett knew all the principal figures in the East Chicago, Indiana, Police department. Sage was long-term companion to Martin Zarkovich, Sergeant of the East Chicago P.D. Madam Anna Sage lived in an apartment on Chicago’s North Halsted Street. She was willing to hide Dillinger. Living with her was long-term partner in her Gary, Indiana, brothels, Polly Hamilton.
It is not clear what Polly’s role was in 1920s Gary, Indiana. She was married to a policeman named Roy Keele, who divorced her, charging her with neglect. She had no children from her marriage to Roy.
She may have worked in Anna’s houses as a maid, as a partner, or perhaps, as a prostitute. FBI documents don’t clearly outline Polly’s role in the years she remained in the company of Anna Sage. Only one thing is clear. During Dillinger’s last month in Chicago, Polly acted as his escort.
Dillinger was desperate for an anchor in the last weeks of his life. The “heat” generated by the desperadoes like himself, Baby Face Nelson and Homer Van Meter, had angered the mob in Chicago. They refused to provide him with a hideout. By June, 1934, he was kicked out of the house owned by Jimmy Probasco. His money problems had escalated with the disappointing take from the South Bend, Indiana robbery.
While living in Chicago prior to meeting Dillinger, Polly worked in a diner on Wilson Avenue in Chicago. After Dillinger was shot down in the alley outside the Biograph, Polly fled in terror. She boarded the train at the Fullerton Avenue stop, and rode to Wilson Avenue. There, she got off and told her co-workers of the death of John Dillinger. That incident is the proof that Polly knew of Dillinger’s identity, although Sage always denied knowing he was Dillinger.
Polly managed to hide from the press for a few days after Dillinger’s death. While Sage was making waves as the "girl in red," her original tag, Polly refused to come out.
Captain Stege, Chicago’s city police chief, was unhappy after being kept out of the Biograph ambush by East Chicago, Indiana police and the FBI. He located Polly, and brought her into the Chicago police station.
There, he handed her over to the custody of the FBI’s Sam Cowley, who arranged the two women go on-the-lam to Detroit. They weren’t happy in that situation, and both returned to Chicago shortly after Dillinger’s death.
Both Chicago Captain Stege, and Indiana State Police Captain Matt Leach, felt they should have been included in the taking of John Dillinger.
The role of the Woman in Red was leaked to the Chicago Tribune, immediately after Dillinger's death by Matt Leach, Captain of the Indiana State Police. Leach was an honest cop who had chased Dillinger through the Midwest in 1933 and early 1934. Angered at being left out of the grand finale, he leaked inside information to the press. The story fizzled like a lead balloon, and Leach was left holding an empty bag of wind. Public apathy, combined with public belief in the G-Man mystique, would bury the truth.
On July 29, 1934, the Tribune revealed the story of madam Anna Sage, and Polly Hamilton, Indiana reputed prostitute, operating a disorderly house under the protection of Police Sergeant Martin Zarkovich. It was an explosive story of the Insolence of Office, in the payoffs to police by vice rackets. But the Tribune's investigation was immediately ignored, then forgotten, to the great distress of Matt Leach. Soon the popular version of Dillinger and the Woman in Red, became entrenched in American lore with the staying power of Superman and Lois Lane. Illustrated in movies like "The FBI Story," starring James Stewart, it was repeated in the book of the same name by Don Whitehead. The new, cleaned-up version was a tale of a Romanian woman, facing deportation, desperate to stay in America. After her deal with the G-Men, she lost her unearned slice of the American Pie. The Woman in Red got her just desserts and was deported.
True Crime history has a way of rising to the surface. A expanded re-release of the classic, "Dillinger: The Untold Story" is available now through Indiana University Press. This edition has a fine Foreword written by Rick Mattix, a respected researcher in the field of the 1930s Midwest Crime Wave.
Dillinger's betrayal was recorded in 1934 by a reporter who had inside information through his conversations with Art O'Leary, the paralegal side-kick of Dillinger's underworld attorney, Piquett.