Friday, July 16, 2010

Dillinger's death: is my favorite marketing story a fake?

Get yer bloody papers here!

Is my favorite marketing story about John Dillinger's death too bloody good to be true?

On the recent CreComm trip to Chicago, we went on the Untouchables Gangster Tour - a fun bus ride through the mean streets of the city, which not only included such scary locations as Oprah's studio and the Blues Brothers' orphanage, but also the Biograph Theatre where Dillinger was shot to death in 1934.

And the guy on the street who shoots the bus with the water gun - not because he has to, but because he wants to - is worth the price of admission alone.

Marketing Dillinger's death

On the tour, our guides - one of whom was a dead ringer for David Morse - repeated my favorite marketing story, which I've repeated myself many times since the tour.

The story goes like this:
A newspaper boy was selling papers near the theatre on the night that Dillinger was shot. The boy was so marketing-savvy, he was mindful enough to rip his newspapers into shreds, dip them in Dillinger's blood, and sell them for a hefty mark-up.
I love that story! It encompasses all of the key rules of marketing, including utility, supply and demand as it relates to price, and the importance of striking while the iron is hot.

But it occurred to me recently that maybe the story had the ring of something "too good to be true" - the very thing they warn students about in journalism school, so that when they get jobs as journalists, they'll feel guilty when most of the stories they write fall into this category.

So, I've done a little research into this topic, and I haven't been able to find a single, reliable reference to this actually happening:
  • Wikipedia quotes the Chicago Sun-Times:
"There were also reports of people dipping their handkerchiefs and skirts into the pools of blood that had formed as Dillinger lay in the alley in order to secure keepsakes of the entire affair."
But nothing about the newspaper boy. And the original article to which it links back? "Could not be found."
  • In her book, A Chicago Firehouse, Karen Kruse describes the scene like this:
"Dillinger was so well liked by the public, that when news of his death spread, women rushed to the scene, tearing off pieces of their undershirts or offering handkerchiefs, asking neighborhood kids to soak up some of the blood for their macabre souvenir."
  • Quazen tells the story with a more individualized approach:
"One woman soaked up a newspaper with it. She shouted, “I bet I’m the only one from Kansas City with some of Dillinger’s blood!”
  • Finally, in the Chicago Sun-Times Metro Chicago Almanac, we get this:
"Women dipped their skirts in his blood, and children sold bloodstained scraps of newspaper for a dime."
So, what gives? Is this a story that's "too good to be true," or "close to the truth, so we give it a pass," or both?

I was going to end this post by watching and writing about Public Enemies, the recent Johnny Depp movie about Dillinger, but then I remembered: that would mean that I have to watch Public Enemies, the recent Johnny Depp movie about Dillinger.

This is a call

So, instead I'll put it out there:
  • Does anyone have any information about this story actually being true?
  • Have you read something - anything - that recounts the story?
  • Were you at the Biograph Theatre on the day Dillinger was shot? Apart from that, how did you enjoy the film?
  • Have you seen Public Enemies? How do they handle this scene in the film?
The biggest heartbreak of all: eBay has not one bloody newspaper scrap with Dillinger's blood on it for sale.

These guys in period costumes seemed so believable at the time.


  1. You weren't a fan of Public Enemies? I found it rather disappointing, myself.

    I hadn't heard the story until I went on the tour. I hope it's true, because that kid sure knew how to take advantage of a situation.

  2. I never saw it because I heard it was bad.

    I once soaked up my own blood with a newspaper, but couldn't find any buyers.

  3. I don't have any insights into the bloody-newspaper legend, but I did recently read an interesting article about Dillinger's famed letter to Henry Ford thanking him for the fine construction of his getaway cars. The story is real, but the long-heralded letter is fake; the actual, original letter contained different text entirely and was quietly hidden away for seventy-five years.

    So don't feel too discouraged if nobody has any insights on the newspaper angle; it seems that Dillinger is just, appropriately enough, a hard guy to nail down the details on. Quite the marketing savvy on Ford's part, though, ain't it?

  4. I was very disappointed to hear that public enemies was bad. Dillinger was my hero when I was a kid and the other movie made about him in the fifties was garbage. His is a story that is very much deserving of a good movie. Johnny Depp is too much of a pretty boy for the role, and from what I heard, there was little action in the film.

  5. We actually watched Public Enemies over the weekend; Dave might put it down to Depp's "prettiness," but I don't think the roughest-looking of actors could have saved the awful writing.

    The movie didn't show anyone dipping anything in Dillinger's blood - or leave any doubt as to whether the body was actually Dillinger's, as our tour guide also did.

  6. Melanie:

    I also heard the writing was terrible. Very much a shame, Dillinger was a compelling story.


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