The John Dillinger Museum has a rocky history; very nearly as rocky as its namesake himself. Created by Joe Pinkston of Nashville, Indiana, in partnership with former FBI agent Barton Hahn, the original museum included Dillinger’s tombstone, jailhouse letters, a replica (or possibly the real one) of the wooden gun he had hand-carved and then used in his breakout from Crown Point jail, the famous “Trousers of Death,” and life-like wax figures – including one of Dillinger on the morgue table, stained with blood rivulets running from the multiple gunshot wounds.
Joe himself was considered a leading Dillinger expert. Born in Indiana, he grew up in Martinsville – where Dillinger was first sentenced. Joe’s uncle Robert Humphrys had known Dillinger, shooting pool with him at the local tavern. Said Pinkston years later, “Dillinger captured the imagination. I guess I wanted to be like him when I was a kid.”
By age 40, Joe had spent over half his life researching America’s first “Public Enemy #1;” speaking to fellow Pinkerton detectives who had worked the Dillinger case, writing to and interviewing darned near everyone connected to Dillinger’s story, collecting memorabilia, co-authoring “Dillinger: A Short and Violent Life,” and developing an 1800-page manuscript that wouldn’t be published until after his death (“Dillinger: The Last Great American Anti-Hero“). In 1974, Pinkston was asked to display some of his collection at the Morgan County Fall Festival in Martinsville. This display was so popular that city officials asked him to make it a permanent one. That request gave rise to the idea of “The John Dillinger Historical Wax Museum” in Nashville, Indiana.
The museum was open for over twenty years, with thousands of visitors annually. But even though Joe Pinkston claimed he “offers the museum without social or moral comment,” it’s fairly clear he was a Dillinger sympathizer. According to “Great Little Museums of the Midwest,” Joe would talk to visitors for hours about how Dillinger was a government pawn, a “good guy” who was paid by the Depression-era banks to rob them. Then the financial institutions could default on their obligations and claim insurance money in a time when funds were scarce. For that, he was targeted for death by the federal government.
After Joe’s death in 1996, the museum closed. His son sold his Dillinger collection to the Lake County Convention and Visitors Bureau in 1998, which then opened the Crime and Punishment tourist attraction in 1999 at the Indiana Welcome Center in Hammond. More interactive, visitors could sit in a real jail cell, view the Dillinger morgue display, even choose to “throw the switch” on Bruno Hauptmann, the convicted Lindbergh baby-killer.
Unfortunately, trouble was on the horizon again. In 2001, outraged by the public perception that Dillinger killed people, Dillinger’s great-nephew Jeffery Scalf filed a lawsuit against the museum under Indiana’s Right to Personality Law. (Basically, in Indiana, relatives have the right to control a personality’s name and image for 100 years after their death.) The museum was forced to close in 2006, but kept the exhibits under lock and key. A settlement was finally reached in March of 2008, and the Welcome Center reopened “Crime Doesn’t Pay.”
The museum closed again in July 2014. It’s being moved to a new home: The old Lake County Courts building in Crown Point, Indiana – the city of Dillinger’s “Great Escape” – and scheduled to open in March 2015. The law caught up with Dillinger, but you can’t keep a good exhibit down.