The Dillinger Thompson Submachine Gun

By Frank Iannamico

In the 1930s, the infamous John Herbert Dillinger was one of America’s most wanted outlaws. Dillinger, a career criminal, was wanted for numerous bank robberies and murder. John Dillinger seemed to have a penchant for the Thompson Submachine Gun. There have been approximately eleven different Thompson Submachine Guns associated with Dillinger and his gang during their brief, and often violent, crime spree. Most of the Thompsons used by the gang were stolen.

On January 15, 1934, John Dillinger allegedly robbed The First National Bank of East Chicago, Indiana. Dillinger was being sought for not only for the bank robbery, but also for the shooting death of Officer William Patrick O’Malley that occurred during the hold-up. Dillinger was captured shortly after the robbery in Tucson, Arizona on January 25, 1934 and extradited back to Indiana. Dillinger was imprisoned at the Lake County jail at Crown Point, Indiana to stand trial for murder. The trial would never take place.

Incarcerating a dangerous suspect such as John Dillinger required extra precautions as well as additional man and firepower. Dillinger’s gang had previously broken him out of the Allan County jail in Ohio, resulting in the shooting death of the local sheriff. As a precautionary measure, neighboring Porter county Sheriff Neil Fry drove up to Lake County and offered to loan his department’s 1921AC Thompson Submachine Gun, serial number 7387, to the Lake County Sheriff’s Department to supplement their own 1921A Colt Thompson serial number 6444.

While in custody at the Crown Point Jail, Dillinger posed for the newspaper photographers with Lake County Sheriff Lillian Holley and the county’s Prosecutor Robert Estill. The photo of a smiling Dillinger with the sheriff and county prosecutor, coupled with his subsequent escape, would adversely affect both their careers. There were approximately fifty guards including National Guard troops on hand to guard Dillinger. On March 3, 1934 using a fake wooden gun that was smuggled to him, Dillinger and Herbert Youngblood escaped from the jail taking both department’s Thompsons with them. Dillinger further embarrassed Sheriff Holley by making his get-away in her new 1934 Ford.

Porter County’s 1921AC Thompson was used by John Dillinger just three days after his escape from Crown Point to rob The Securities National Bank and Trust Company in Sioux Falls South Dakota on March 6, 1934. Eddie Green participated in the robbery carrying Lake County’s 1921A Thompson also stolen from the Crown Point Jail.

On March 13, 1934, Dillinger carrying Thompson 7387, and his gang robbed The First National Bank of Mason City, Iowa. Dillinger was wounded in the shoulder.

April 3, 1934, Federal Agents mortally wounded Eddie Green in St. Paul Minnesota, he died eight days later. Lake County’s 1921A Thompson serial number 6444, an L drum magazine and several other items were recovered from Green’s apartment by agents. The agents seized the Thompson and drum as evidence.

April 22 1934, FBI agents were closing in on John Dillinger in Mercer, Wisconsin, at the Little Bohemia Lodge. Dillinger and his gang had spent the weekend there and were getting ready to leave. The agents were discovered as they were moving into place and a firefight ensued. Dillinger escaped taking Thompson 7387 with him.

July 20th 1934, John Dillinger was gunned down by FBI agents at the Biograph Theater in Chicago. On July 24th Thompson 7387, a loaded L drum, several magazines, a Colt pistol and a bullet proof vest were recovered from Lake Michigan. FBI agents suspected that Anna Sage (the famous Lady in Red who tipped off the FBI) had her son remove the items from Dillinger’s room sometime after his death and threw them into the lake. The infamous Colt Thompson was seized by FBI agents and retained as evidence. Ballistics tests would prove that Porter County’s Colt 1921AC Thompson serial number 7387 was briefly used as Dillinger’s personal weapon. The Colt Thompson serial number 7387 would remain in the possession of the FBI’s Firearms Reference Laboratory in Washington, DC forgotten and unfired for the next 67 years.

My first contact with Thompson researcher Gordon Herigstad occurred while I was conducting research for my Thompson book American Thunder. SAR archivist Don G. Thomas loaned me Gordon’s huge and well-researched book on Thompson serial number aptly titled Colt Thompson Serial Numbers. Gordon had a reference in his book, of a list of serial numbers of military Thompsons that had been destroyed at the Crane Naval facility. I contacted Gordon and he graciously provided me with the complete 45-page list from Crane.

A few months later I received a telephone call from Thompson collector Mike Free that Gordon was passing through my area of the country on his way to the National Archives. We made arrangements to meet for dinner that evening. Needless to mention that the Thompson Submachine Gun was the main topic of discussion. With us both having a lot of interest in research, Gordon and I quickly become friends. I invited him to my house the next day to let him look through my research materials that I had compiled for my book. Gordon told me that he had taken off of work for three months and was going to spend the time at the National Archives to research for the serial numbers of Colt Thompsons that had been used by the Navy.

On a previous trip to Washington in 1996, Gordon had spent two weeks going through the John Dillinger files in the FBI reading room. After reading through the entire 25,000 pages of documents on Dillinger, Gordon found all the serial numbers of the guns associated with Dillinger, including Thompson 7387. On the return trip home Gordon stopped in Valparaiso, Indiana and spoke with an official in the Sheriff’s Department and told him of locating documents regarding the Porter County Thompson, the officer was interested, as was the Sheriff’s museum next door. Gordon provided each party with copies of the Dillinger documents. The Sheriff however was not very interested in the gun or the documents. Gordon continued with follow-up phone calls to the department only to hear, “we are still working on it”.

In 2000, Gordon returned to the FBI reading room to continue his research of the Colt Thompson serial numbers. On this trip he made arrangements to have a private tour of the FBI’s Firearms Lab. While in the lab, Gordon made a remarkable discovery. There resting ambiguously on a shelf was Colt Thompson 7387. Gordon, being the expert with Colt Thompson serial numbers immediately knew of the gun’s significance. Gordon felt that indescribable rush every researcher has when a significant discovery is made. It was a Thompson that noted criminal John Dillinger had briefly possessed during his criminal career over 60 years earlier. Gordon felt a tingle as he picked the Thompson up and handled it. On the shelf just below it was another Colt Thompson serial number 13239, which FBI Special Agent Samuel Cowley was carrying when Baby Face Nelson gunned him down. The technicians in the lab were all ears when Gordon explained to them the historical significance of the two old Thompsons. Gordon immediately called the Porter County Sheriff’s Department to tell them he had found their gun.

Gordon had asked to speak with the officer that he had contact with in 1996. Gordon was told that he had retired. He then asked for the Sheriff, Chief Deputy David Lain picked up the phone. Gordon explained to the Deputy that he had located his department’s Thompson. Deputy Lain had no idea what Gordon was talking about. Apparently no one had passed on any of the information Gordon had provided four years earlier. Gordon explained the story again and offered to send out the documents. Chief Deputy Lain was definitely interested. He assured Gordon that he would follow up with the FBI to see if they could get their Thompson returned. By mid January of 2001 it was confirmed that the FBI would return the gun. A ceremony was planned for March 29, 2001. Gordon was invited, but he had no idea of the interest that had been generated in the coming event.

The ceremony of 7387’s historic return to its owning agency was held in the Memorial Opera House in Valparaiso, Indiana in close proximity to the Porter County Jail. Approximately 250 people attended the event, including many law enforcement people as well as local TV and newspaper reporters. It was very clearly stated several times that the ceremony was not in any way intended to honor or glorify John Dillinger, but to show the cooperation between two law enforcement agencies.

At the end of ceremony FBI Special Agent Robert Reilley returned the Thompson to the current Lake County Sheriff who in turn handed back it to Porter County Sheriff Dave Reynolds after its 67-year hiatus. Deputy David Lain then produced a (bogus) rental contract between former Porter County Sheriff Neil Fry and Lake County Sheriff Lillian Holley dated February 1934. The $1.00 a day rental fee amounted to $77,335.00 dollars for 67 years of rental fees and interest. This produced quite a roar of laughter from the crowd.

After the ceremony concluded Gordon then carried the old Thompson from the Opera House back through the alley into the side door of the jail to an indoor shooting range located in the basement. Gordon then explained to those attending, the technical details and firing techniques of the Thompson Submachine Gun. The highlight of the event was when Gordon placed a fully loaded 50-round drum in Thompson number 7387 and emptied it in a single fifty-round burst from the shoulder, he then fired another 50 rounds full-auto from the hip, for the benefit of the many reporters attending the event. The next evening a smiling Gordon Herigstad was on all of the local news programs with footage of him firing the historic gun. A few of the dignitaries attending the event were also afforded the opportunity to fire the gun. According to officials, the event marked the last time the weapon will ever be fired.

Gordon also appeared with Chief Deputy Lain on a local law enforcement TV program entitled “Behind the Star.” On the program Gordon and the Deputy discussed the history and events of the famous Thompson.

In May of 2001, the Lake County Sheriff’s Department also submitted a request to the FBI to have their Thompson returned. Lake County’s 1921A Colt Thompson serial number 6444, was being used as part of a display in the FBI’s Gangster Tour in Washington, DC. After reviewing the request, then FBI Director Louis Freeh ordered Thompson 6444 to be removed from the display and returned to the Lake County Sheriff’s Department. In July of 2001 Gordon returned to Crown Point to perform some restoration work on the gun. After the work was completed Gordon test fired the old historic Thompson. The gun worked perfectly.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V6N10 (July 2003)
and was posted online on November 1, 2013


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