By KEVIN NEVERS
It took 67 years, but the Colt Thompson M1921 submachine gun--#7387—which
Porter County Sheriff Neil Fry loaned to Lake County Sheriff Lillian
Holley is now back in the hands of its rightful owner.
At a ceremony Thursday in the Memorial Opera House in Valparaiso, Sheriff
Dave Reynolds took possession of the Thompson, which bank robber John
Dillinger stole in his escape from the Lake County Jail in Crown Point
March 3, 1934.
Fry loaned it to Holley for her protection after rumors began to surface
of a planned escape attempt. They had reason to worry. Less than a year
earlier, an FBI and three police officers were gunned down in the infamous
Kansas City Massacre by “Pretty Boy Floyd” and two accomplices trying
to spring a friend in the officers’ custody.
But Dillinger used brains not brawn to make his break, threatening the
turnkeys with a wooden pistol whittled from a washboard and covered in
boot black, and took #7387 and one other Thompson as he strode out of the
jail in the company of a jail mate, Herbert Youngblood.
Dillinger had only five months to live—he would be shot down in front of
the Biograph Theater in Chicago by officers from the CPD led by FBI Agent
Melvin Purvis—but Fry’s Thompson played a prominent role in Dillinger’s
last days of freedom. Although #7387 never took a life, it was used in
three bank robberies and two shootouts, the most famous of which occurred
at the Little Bohemia Lodge near Rheinlander, Wis. April 22. It is also
the Thompson which Dillinger is holding in the photograph taken at his
father’s farm in Mooresville, Ind., in which he cheerfully displays the
For all practical purposes #7387 then vanished from history.
Until a dogged firearms historian by the name of Gordon Herigstad traced
it to the archives of the FBI itself.
As Porter County Deputy Chief David Lain made clear Thursday, Herigstad
was “the man of the hour.”
Herigstad himself appeared uncomfortable in the limelight, and chose
instead to salute FBI Director Louis Freeh and the agents of the Bureau
for returning the #7387 to the Sheriff’s Police. “The FBI, I feel, are
the true American heroes.”
As Herigstad explained, #7387 washed up on the shores of Lake Michigan
only days after Dillinger was killed in Chicago, July 22, 1934, after the
son of the Lady in Red, Anna Sage, dumped it and other of the gangster’s
belongings into the lake. The FBI then took possession of it, and in a
letter from Purvis to J. Edgar Hoover himself the ownership of the
Thompson was established. But it was then transferred to FBI headquarters,
where it has remained ever since. Indeed, it was stored right next to the
Thompson used by Agent Sam Cowley in the shootout with Lester “Baby Face
Nelson” Gillis Nov. 27, 1934, in which Cowley and Agent Herman Hollis
were both killed and Gillis mortally wounded.
Herigstad followed the paper trail and last year was happy to inform
Reynolds that he had unearthed the long-lost Thompson.
“Valparaiso, Porter County, and Lake County live with the history of
John Dillinger,” Herigstad said. “And you’re stuck with it.”
Reynolds concurred with Herigstad. And while acknowledging the
significance of the Thompson as an artifact of history, he made it clear
that it is nothing more than an artifact. “It’s not meant to offend
anyone. . . . We’re not attempting to glorify a gangster. . . . We’re
here to recognize a piece of history.”
For Lain #7387 is also a token of the “brotherhood” among law
enforcement officers, since Fry offered it to Holley “because he thought
she needed it more than he did.”