A day in Crown Point, Indiana? It doesn’t exactly whet your appetite. But what if I told you it was the location of a legendary jailbreak by one of the most notorious gangsters in American history?
On March 3, 1934, John Dillinger escaped from the Lake County Jail in Crown Point using a wooden gun he had carved with a razor in his cell. Dillinger was being held at the jail for the murder of a police officer during a bank robbery on January 15, 1934, in East Chicago, Indiana.
Dillinger had been transported to Indiana from Tucson, Arizona, to stand trial for the crimes. After landing in Chicago, he was escorted by 36 Chicago police officers and 36 Indiana police officers in a 13 car convoy to the “escape-proof” Lake County Jail, which had prepared for his arrival on January 30 by posting extra guards. The smooth-talking gangster charmed the press, deputies, and the prosecutor, posed for photo ops, and put Crown Point in the national spotlight.
On the day of his escape, Dillinger was alone in the exercise room. He used a hand-carved wooden gun painted with black shoe polish to force a trustee, deputy sheriff, and several guards into a cell. Another prisoner, Herbert Youngblood, used a plunger handle to aid Dillinger. In all, about 25 guards were rounded up by the pair. They then swiped real guns from the armory, took the warden hostage, and walked across the street to the city garage. Dillinger asked the mechanic to give him the fastest car, which just happened to be the sheriff’s brand new Ford V8!
John Dillinger Museum
Thankfully, the city of Crown Point is the home of the John Dillinger Museum. There, you can learn the story about the gangster’s life from birth to death and all about the infamous jailbreak that angered FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and led to a nationwide manhunt. The museum, located on the bottom floor of the old Lake County Courthouse on the town square, charges admission of US$4 and it’s closed on Mondays. I visited with two of my cousins who live in Crown Point.
The first part of the museum details the life of Dillinger, delving into events that may have shaped his psychological state. His love for baseball is well-documented and his childhood pair of cleats are on display. It then covers his entry into a life of crime and rise to Public Enemy No. 1 as a bank robber.
Next, the daring escape from the Lake County Jail is explained in detail. The wooden gun he used during the event is behind a glass case. Several photos leading up to the escape are on the walls.
After covering Dillinger’s life on the run, the museum has displays on his death in Chicago after watching a film at the Biograph Theater. A street scene and morgue scene using wax figures are used to detail the events surrounding his death.
On the walls are Dillinger’s death mask, the pants and money found in his pocket at the time of his death, the basket that carried his body to Indiana for his funeral, and his original tombstone from the Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.
The museum does a fantastic job telling a story that transcends the imagination. It took us about 45 minutes to go through it and we didn’t read every panel.
Lake County Courthouse
The old Lake County Courthouse itself is a beautiful red and white building that stands proudly in Crown Point Courthouse Square. It was built in 1878 and was known as the “Grand Old Lady”. Along with the John Dillinger Museum, the courthouse has some shops and the Lake County Historical Museum, which is open Thursday to Saturday.
Crown Point isn’t only famous for John Dillinger. It was also the location of some interesting historic events and a few celebrity weddings. The city had no waiting period for marriage licenses so it became known as the “Marriage Mill”. Stars such as boxer Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), silent film actor Rudolph Valentino, Jackson family patriarch Joseph Jackson, and early western film actor Tom Mix were all married at the courthouse.
The 1909 Cobe Trophy Race, a precursor to the Indianapolis 500, took place at the courthouse and was won by Louis Chevrolet, a co-founder of the Chevrolet Motor Car Company. Populist William Jennings Bryan addressed a crowd from the steps of the courthouse in 1896 as he was campaigning for president.
Around the square are several historic buildings, many that have been restored. They host many very good restaurants, cafés, and shops. One of the more noticeable buildings is the Crown Theatre.
Several lifelike statues were around the square when I visited. In the center around the courthouse were statues depicting people on benches, a woman walking a dog, Marilyn Monroe, and a hot dog vendor, among others.
Some of the statues placed in front of the businesses lining the square were of police officers, a mariachi band, and American Gothic. It’s a nice area to begin with but the statues definitely livened it up a bit more.
Lake County Criminal Court
Just a block south of the square is the criminal court where John Dillinger appeared in front of a judge. Next door is the sheriff’s house and old jail from where he escaped. It was built in 1882 and used as a jail until 1974. Public Enemies, a movie starring Johnny Depp as Dillinger, filmed scenes at the jail. It was released in 2009. (Side note: Depp visited my dad’s restaurant twice for dinner during his time in Crown Point!)
Across the street is a Carnegie Library built in 1908. It ceased being a library in 1974. 2,509 Carnegie Libraries were built around the world by philanthropist and industrialist Andrew Carnegie. The state of Indiana received the most Carnegie library grants.
Chemshaw 13 DonutZ & Comics
If you have a sweet tooth and love comic books, a great place to visit on the southeast corner of the square is Chemshaw 13 DonutZ & Comics. As the name suggests, it’s a combination donut shop and comic book store. The donuts are out of this world.