Chesterton Tribune

Stolen Thompson submachine gun returned to county after 67 years

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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 wooden gun.

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.”