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Who is this bad boy and how did he put Tucson on the map?

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  • 4 min to read

Bank-robbing celebrity gangster John Dillinger's only tie to Tucson is the fact that he got caught here. That's it. But that was enough to put Tucson on the map — and now Dillinger Days is basically a Tucson holiday.

You can blame that on the Hotel Congress. The hotel's history is entwined with Dillinger's; and in an attempt to keep the historic venue in downtown Tucson busy during the slow month of January — between New Year's and the gem show — about 20 years ago the owners decided to bring back Tucson's favorite bad guy.

This sign hangs boldly outside of Cartel on Broadway Boulevard.

Here's how the story goes:

Rewind to 1934

John Dillinger, otherwise known as Public Enemy No. 1, was an outlaw from the midwest, best known for robbing banks and successfully escaping jail three times. They say jail changes a person and that's what it did to Dillinger. 

In jail, he met people who would later become part of his gang. And after his first escape, he become one of the most infamous robbers in the country with dead bodies and broken laws following he and his gang wherever they went. 

While the gang was ahead, they thought they'd stay low in Tucson where nothing could possibly go wrong.

Originally, Dillinger and his gang were supposed to stay in a house on First Street and Second Avenue at 927 N. 2nd Ave., but apparently the floors had just been waxed or polished (or whatever), so they couldn't stay there that night. 

Instead, the gang stayed in a room on the third floor at Hotel Congress for the night. Unfortunately for Hotel Congress, a fire broke out in the basement, which traveled to, and burned down, the third floor. This flushed out the gang, leaving their bags of cash and guns in the rooms. 

They were screwed. I mean these guys were wanted by the FBI, their faces were on the front page of newspapers and magazines, so someone was going to notice. They were noticed. 

Tucson police and firefighters accidentally did what the FBI couldn't. They arrested the gang but not John Dillinger, who apparently had slipped out during the commotion and run off to the house on Second Avenue. He was caught there hours later. 

It was the talk of the town. Tucson! The Dillinger gang was caught in Tucson (!) of all places. The arrest made headlines. We're really proud of that front page, it's hanging in a hallway at the Arizona Daily Star. "Dillinger Gang captured here" it screamed in bold font across the top. 

Arizona Daily Star front page on events surrounding the capture of John Dillinger and his gang in January, 1934. The men pictured, Harry Pierpont, Charles Makley and Russell Clark, were members of the Dillinger Gang.

Dillinger and his gang were arrested and then later arraigned in the Pima County Courthouse before being extradited to other cities in the midwest for an actual trial. Dillinger went to Indiana and the rest to Ohio. 

The gang members, Harry Pierpont, Charles Makley and Russell Clark, were found guilty of murder. Clark served life in prison, while Makley and Pierpont were to face the death sentence. Makley died before getting to the electric chair while he and Pierpont attempted another jail escape. Pierpont died later on the electric chair. 

Dillinger, however, successfully escaped the "inescapable" Indiana prison he landed in using only a wooden gun, got a new gang together and went back to robbing banks. He did that for a little while until he was caught and killed by FBI agents outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago later that year.

Fast forward to 2017

Hotel Congress now stands with only two floors. Another man with a mustache lives in the Dillinger House — he was watching Harry Potter when we visited — and gives tours of his porch to people crazy about John Dillinger. And there is a Dillinger exhibit under construction in the Arizona Historical Society's Downtown History Museum

Not many people can say they live in the Dillinger House but people that actually live here can. I hope they have lots of house parties and tell all their friends the story of John Dillinger's capture.

Around this time every year, Hotel Congress transforms into a 1930s time capsule filled with vintage cars, costumes, and Dillinger Gang capture reenactments. This year, there are activities and crafts for children, two lectures, live entertainment, walking tours, and — most importantly — three reenactments. 

It's a giant spectacle.

Dillinger Days

It keeps getting more elaborate every year.

David Slutes, the entertainment director for Hotel Congress, 311 E. Congress St., called the first few Dillinger Days "quaint" because the reenactments were performed in the small lobby of the hotel fitting only a few people at a time.

Since then, reenactments have changed to become more historically accurate (at some point there were aliens involved), the number of people in attendance has grown and Dillinger Days is now a two-day event. 

Jonathan Mincks as John Dillinger takes Mari Shryock hostage as troupe runs through a reenactment of a bank robbery for Dillinger Days at the Hotel Congress. It was the 81st anniversary of Dillinger's arrest in Tucson in 1934 and the 21st year Hotshot has been the main attraction for Dillinger Days.

Four years ago, Dillinger Days added a speakeasy night for the adults. This event supports the Greater Tucson Fire Foundation.

Here's the Dillinger Speakeasy breakdown:

• Friday, Jan. 20, 2017 from 7-10 p.m.

• Enjoy the launch of Del Bac 1919 to honor the opening of Hotel Congress in 1919

• Dance to the live music

• Eat food

• Smoke cigars because what else makes you feel like you live in the 1930s?

• Watch a gun show

This event is for the over-21s and tickets ($30) are available online

Here's the Dillinger Days breakdown:

• Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

• Arts and crafts and carnival games are open for children and families at 9 a.m.

• Listen to two lectures at 10 a.m. and 4:15 p.m.

• There will be live music and entertainment all day

• Watch the Dillinger reenactment three times, once at 11 a.m., 1:15 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.

• Go on a Dillinger Historic walking tour

• Watch Johnny Depp play John Dillinger in "Public Enemies" for 25 cents at The Screening Room all day.

You can buy a $30 front-row seat package if 25 cents sounds too cheap. The package includes a front-row seat, a brunch entrée, non-alcoholic beverage and a 2017 Dillinger Days commemorative gift. If you can't make it to either of those times, you're in luck because Hotel Congress is live streaming the reenactments on their website.

Geek out on John Dillinger

I don't approve of robbery or murder but I have shamelessly become a John Dillinger fan while writing this story because I've learned more about our city. While researching this project, I finally noticed a sign on Broadway Boulevard with Dillinger's face on it; browsed through a history museum I never knew existed; and knocked on someone's door to talk about their Dillinger house. I geeked out when I saw his bullet-proof vest on display and now I own a $1 button with his face on it. 

If you're eager to learn more about John Dillinger, you can visit the Arizona Historical Society Downtown Museum, ask to see the second floor of Hotel Congress and attend Dillinger Days on Saturday, Jan. 21. 

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