William Helmer Q&A #13

Co-author of DILLINGER: THE UNTOLD STORY

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DeppInTheHeartOfTexas
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William Helmer Q&A #13

Unread postby DeppInTheHeartOfTexas » Sat Aug 15, 2009 10:23 am

ONBC: Mr. Girardin opens his book with a question -

“Who was John Dillinger? Was he a bold and benevolent Robin Hood, or a mad and ruthless killer? Or an ordinary human being whose life was molded by luck and circumstance into a career so strange that even before his death legend and fable had begun to weave about him?”

How would you answer this question?


WH: It’s hard to answer a question based on questions, but I’d tend to agree with the implications in the last question. I think the Dillinger described by Girardin tells it like it was—or honestly tries to--because on his closeness with Piquett, O’Leary and some of the Dillinger family (although he’s kind to Dillinger’s father). None come out clean, but Dillinger displayed remarkable loyalty to his associates, was always the diplomat in gang disputes, showed no sadistic tendencies, avoided gratuitous killing, and was playful when circumstances permitted. He even had policemen take his (and Mary Kinder’s) picture at the Chicago World’s Fair and elsewhere had a cop help him catch a runaway puppy.
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Re: William Helmer Q&A #13

Unread postby gemini » Sat Aug 15, 2009 5:13 pm

I concur and have gained the same impression of him from my reading. The cop taking his photo and I just recently read the lost puppy story where he asks a cop to help find the pup. I think you meant Mary Longnaker in the World Fair photo. Mary Kinder was Pierponts girlfriend. Easy mistake, I find myself saying the wrong names after reading so many different accounts of Dillinger and his friends.
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Re: William Helmer Q&A #13

Unread postby ladylinn » Sat Aug 15, 2009 5:17 pm

With Girardin's manuscript in hand and WH's extensive research John Dillinger's life leaves alot of questions. I guess that is good because it leaves room for everyone to draw their own conclusions and answers. Dillinger displayed loyality, compassion, humor, bravery, and determination in his chosen profession. Maybe he was a Robin Hood in a time when the people needed one. Or perhaps I am looking through "rose colored glasses". :hypnotic:

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Re: William Helmer Q&A #13

Unread postby nebraska » Sat Aug 15, 2009 10:02 pm

Most of us are mutli-faceted, aren't we. We are a combination of many "selves" -- people are complicated, that is what makes us interesting.

PE the movie disturbed me because I felt it made Dillinger too one-dimensional. The scene where he breaks down after Billie is captured was beautifully played, but it seemed totally out of character because Dillinger in the movie was not the kind of man who had that deppth of emotion. Greed, yes, Lust, yes. Power hungry, yes. Loyalty to his companions in crime, yes. Vulnerability...no way!

On the other hand, the books I read didn't prepare me for a criminal who could shoot and push people around and get ugly. Dillinger did a lot of hard time and he was a bank robber and an escapee. As DITHOT has point out numerous times, that was also a dimension of the man. He was not an aw-shucks farm boy any more.

I think I vote for the "ordinary human being whose life was molded by luck and circumstance" -- but we can never REALLY know because he is gone and it is too late now.

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Re: William Helmer Q&A #13

Unread postby deppaura » Sun Aug 16, 2009 1:01 am

I think blaming Dillinger's early experiences, i.e., unfair jail sentence for his eventual career of "crime" is a bit naive. I think his personality revealed rebelliousness early on. Perhaps the incarceration intensified or cemented his character but I think there was evidence of that possibility early on. While I find him an interesting study, in particular because of all the Public Enemies hoopla, I find glorifying him or indulging his person a bit much. Maybe it's the need to explain and understand ALL as part of the human condition? Maybe I am just simplistic and think some things in this life just "are". As Nebraska said, most of us, if not all, are full of complexities. Again, we just "are". Funny how we all grab a different angle of this Dillinger story. For me, throughout the reading, I kept being aware of the love and support for him from his family, especially his father. A lot of deserving folks don't even get that attention. And, he got it even in the face of some very unattractive behavior. So, I guess overall I lost patience with this spoiled charismatic individual. Who used "gifts" in a detrimental way. Sorry, Johnnie.

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Re: William Helmer Q&A #13

Unread postby nebraska » Sun Aug 16, 2009 11:24 am

deppaura wrote:I think blaming Dillinger's early experiences, i.e., unfair jail sentence for his eventual career of "crime" is a bit naive. I think his personality revealed rebelliousness early on. Perhaps the incarceration intensified or cemented his character but I think there was evidence of that possibility early on. While I find him an interesting study, in particular because of all the Public Enemies hoopla, I find glorifying him or indulging his person a bit much. Maybe it's the need to explain and understand ALL as part of the human condition? Maybe I am just simplistic and think some things in this life just "are". As Nebraska said, most of us, if not all, are full of complexities. Again, we just "are". Funny how we all grab a different angle of this Dillinger story. For me, throughout the reading, I kept being aware of the love and support for him from his family, especially his father. A lot of deserving folks don't even get that attention. And, he got it even in the face of some very unattractive behavior. So, I guess overall I lost patience with this spoiled charismatic individual. Who used "gifts" in a detrimental way. Sorry, Johnnie.


You make some very valid points! At some time in our lives we all have to take control and take responsibility for who we are and what we do no matter what is in our childhood/past. Thanks for sharing!

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Re: William Helmer Q&A #13

Unread postby Liz » Sun Aug 16, 2009 12:40 pm

I agree with that, deppaura, when I think logically about it. But I guess I fell for the Robin Hood persona and gave the guy the benefit of the doubt, based on the accounts I have read. I know he wasn’t an angel; but I do think that he was multifaceted and believe that there was some good in the man (as explained by Helmer and others here).

Gemini, you’re right. It was Mary Longnacre. I wondered about that when I saw his answer (but my memory was that it was either Polly Hamilton or Billie Freshette—so I was totally off). I wish I had gone back to my books to check it out (sorry, Bill); but I have this tendency to think I'm the one who is mistaken rather than question someone who is an authority on a subject (And it’s gotten me into trouble, too). So speaking of the experts, Burrough spelled her name “Longnaker” but Helmer, “Longnacre”. And I’ve seen it spelled both ways by various “experts” on the subject. But as you see, I have chosen Helmer’s spelling. And that is based on the fact that I had found some misspelled places in Public Enemies (if you’ll remember that when I was doing tidbits). None of us are perfect, I guess.
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Re: William Helmer Q&A #13

Unread postby shadowydog » Sun Aug 16, 2009 12:58 pm

Interesting reading the different takes on this question. It is true he was rebellous; but it is also true he was sent to do "hard time" at a vulnerable time in his young life. He, like many sent to prison even today, go into prison young and naive and come out hardened criminals. I blame this on our "puritan" streak that puts punishment above rehabilitation and retraining. Too many think education and training for those in prison is a waste of money and they should not have an easy time. But when they come out, the only thing they have learned is how to commit crimes and no skills to help them earn any other kind of living. So they become hardened criminals. I think this is the pattern Dillinger fell into. Sure he could have gone a different direction.....or could he have? In the middle of the depression; a felon; no education or training????
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Re: William Helmer Q&A #13

Unread postby Liz » Sun Aug 16, 2009 1:01 pm

shadowydog wrote:Interesting reading the different takes on this question. It is true he was rebellous; but it is also true he was sent to do "hard time" at a vulnerable time in his young life. He, like many sent to prison even today, go into prison young and naive and come out hardened criminals. I blame this on our "puritan" streak that puts punishment above rehabilitation and retraining. Too many think education and training for those in prison is a waste of money and they should not have an easy time. But when they come out, the only thing they have learned is how to commit crimes and no skills to help them earn any other kind of living. So they become hardened criminals. I think this is the pattern Dillinger fell into. Sure he could have gone a different direction.....or could he have? In the middle of the depression; a felon; no education or training????

Also good points, Shadowydog! He had a lot going against him.
You can't judge a book by its cover.

The only thing that matters is the ending. It's the most important part of the story.

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Re: William Helmer Q&A #13

Unread postby gemini » Sun Aug 16, 2009 3:12 pm

shadowydog wrote:Interesting reading the different takes on this question. It is true he was rebellous; but it is also true he was sent to do "hard time" at a vulnerable time in his young life. He, like many sent to prison even today, go into prison young and naive and come out hardened criminals. I blame this on our "puritan" streak that puts punishment above rehabilitation and retraining. Too many think education and training for those in prison is a waste of money and they should not have an easy time. But when they come out, the only thing they have learned is how to commit crimes and no skills to help them earn any other kind of living. So they become hardened criminals. I think this is the pattern Dillinger fell into. Sure he could have gone a different direction.....or could he have? In the middle of the depression; a felon; no education or training????

I'm with you on this one shadowydog. From reading about Handsome Harry, he described Dillinger as an innocent farm boy when he entered Pendelton reformatory who became a hardened criminal by the time he left Michigan City.

My own personal opinion on the real turning point was when his wife divorced him. It was immediately after that when he decided to ask for a transfer to Michigan City and follow his friends to the prison where they kept the hardened felons.

He was in the reformatory for the first 4 years (1924-1929) for battery and assault, as he never stole the money from the grocer. He panicked and ran and was arrested the same day. It was the 5 years from 1929 to 1933 spent in Michigan City that changed him and he got access to a harder kind of criminal. Armed with the prison "on the job training" and the zero chance of finding a job in the depression, I doubt he even considered going straight.
Yes those of you say he made a choice are correct, he did, but he had some hard feeling s from past treatment and strong influence from his new hard core friends.
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Re: William Helmer Q&A #13

Unread postby deppaura » Sun Aug 16, 2009 10:46 pm

And, what is Character?? I think he also dismissed the quality of his roots. And, why? No use to argue this one. It is all a personal take I am sure. I am glad this one is about done.

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Re: William Helmer Q&A #13

Unread postby gemini » Sun Aug 16, 2009 11:14 pm

deppaura wrote:And, what is Character?? I think he also dismissed the quality of his roots. And, why? No use to argue this one. It is all a personal take I am sure. I am glad this one is about done.


Yes, he may have forgotten his roots, who knows. His family did stick by him though. I'm not glad this one is done, it was one of my favorites and I am going to miss it.
"If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went." Will Rogers



Growing old is mandatory, growing up is optional.


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