John Herbert Dillinger was born on 22 June 1903, in Indianapolis. His parents John and Mollie, ran a small grocery store. Mollie died when the infant John was just three and older sister Audrey, who was fourteen years John’s senior, took care of him. John’s father remarried six years later when the boy was nine years old.
Dillinger’s father appeared to oscillate between being a caring father and one who regularly handed out corporal punishment. One moment he was disciplining his son with a barrel stave and the next spoiling him by buying him sweets.
Despite Dillinger Jnr appearing to be a law-abiding and pleasant youngster, he had a darker side to him that revealed itself in his desire to roam around at night and get in with the wrong crowd. The young Dillinger was never too far from trouble and even led a neighbourhood gang called ‘The Dirty Dozen’. The gang’s main criminal preoccupation was pilfering coal from railroad freight cars.
By the time he was 16, Dillinger dropped out of school and began working at a machine shop. He appeared to be a hard worker by day, but played the dispossessed James Dean role to a father he seemed to despise. Returning home late, there would usually be scenes between him and his exasperated father.
When Dillinger Snr sold his Indianapolis property in 1920 to retire to a farm in Mooresville, Indiana, he was most likely hoping that life in the country would tame his wild boy. Instead Dillinger kept his job in Indianapolis, commuting nearly twenty miles on his motorcycle. He also kept quiet about his night-time activities, which, apart from drinking and fighting, also included frequent visits to prostitutes.
In 1923 Dillinger enlisted in the Navy, but, reacting badly to authority, he soon went AWOL. He was later dishonourably discharged.
At 20 years of age he met and married a local girl, sixteen-year-old Beryl Hovious, with the intention of settling down. But the pressures of trying to hold down a job and keep a young marriage together led to volatile arguments and the union eventually disintegrated.