The Great Depression

John Dillinger Comes to Town

John Dillinger wanted poster

April 12, 1934. Lake City Bank’s executive vice president, Elmer Funk, jolted awake. Was that the telephone? He really wasn’t sure. His wife, Mae, had recently replaced their old candlestick model with a newer version that had a full handset, but he hadn’t heard it ring yet.

He jumped out of bed and grabbed his robe as quickly as he could before sprinting into the hallway. It was still dark outside and he hadn’t heard the milkman yet, so it must be quite early. Who could be calling at this hour? Elmer reached the phone just as it stopped ringing. Then someone started pounding on the front door. What the devil was going on?

By the time Elmer reached the door, Mae was at his side. He threw it open to find a young member of the Kosciusko County Vigilantes, flushed and out of breath.

“Come quick to the station – Dillinger’s in town!” rasped the young man. “Officer Pittenger sent me to round up the vigilantes!”

John Dillinger headshotPittenger had been on patrol when John Dillinger and his partner, Homer Van Meter, took him by surprise. They forced him at gunpoint to take them to the police station, where they made off with two pistols and three bulletproof vests. As the outlaws sped away in a blue sedan, Pittenger sounded the alarm that brought in the vigilantes.

Fifty members of Elmer’s vigilante group showed up in automobiles, brandishing shotguns. As they took off in pursuit of Dillinger and Van Meter, many were still getting dressed. Though they ultimately didn’t catch the outlaws, their mission was successful–the bank remained untouched.

As Elmer drove home to dress for work, he thought of a night six months earlier when his posse had mobilized in preparation for Dillinger. Dillinger and his gang had robbed the Auburn police station late at night on October 14, 1933. Elmer had the vigilantes ready and in position in case they showed up in Warsaw, but they never did. Elmer was glad none of his men had gotten in harm’s way, but he thought to himself, Dadgummit, I wish we had caught him. Then maybe I could get a good night’s sleep.

Elmer Funk’s vigilantes were credited with keeping the county safe. A news item from 1939 reads, in part: “When an emergency arises, you may depend on it that there will be a vigilante on every corner. Wide reputation of this well organized group has no doubt done more to keep bank bandits, thugs and yeggmen away from this county than any other single factor.”

Wondering what a yeggman is? It’s a safecracker!

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