A replica of John Dillinger on the his death bed is part of the Old Jail Museum’s Dillinger exhibit on display Wednesday through the end of the year. Dillinger’s face is a replica of his original death mask. Photo by Amanda Bridgman, Times-Union.
A replica of John Dillinger on the his death bed is part of the Old Jail Museum’s Dillinger exhibit on display Wednesday through the end of the year. Dillinger’s face is a replica of his original death mask. Photo by Amanda Bridgman, Times-Union.
The Old Jail Museum in Warsaw is reopening Wednesday after being shut down due to COVID-19.

Not only did the shut down hurt the museum financially, but it also stopped the third annual John Dillinger two-day event planned in April. The two-day event was supposed to include a detailed exhibit, a car show featuring cars from the Dillinger 1930s era, along with weapons from that time and a potential visit from one of Dillinger’s family members. Museum co-director Gerry Steffe said plans to reschedule that are tentatively set for September.

So, until then, museum patrons can stop in the museum from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Friday or 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, beginning Wednesday, to see the Dillinger exhibit inside. The museum is at the corner of Indiana and Main streets, Warsaw.

Part of the exhibit includes a life-like body of Dillinger on a morgue table with Dillinger’s face being a copy of his death mask.

Dillinger was an American gangster active during the Great Depression and was accused of robbing 24 banks and four police stations with his gang, among other crimes.

He was born in 1903 in Indianapolis, and his family later relocated to Mooresville, Ind., in 1921. On April 12, 1934, Dillinger and Homer VanMeter raided the Warsaw Police station and stole guns and three bulletproof vests.

The museum has been retracing the steps of Dillinger from that night the past two years with tours that “retell the details of how the country’s most ruthless bank robbers matched wits with Warsaw’s heroic lone night police officer, J.D. Pittenger.”

Part of the museum’s indoor exhibit up to now includes one of the bulletproof vests stolen, along with the complete uniform of Pittenger and the infamous Dillinger wooden gun he used to escape from Crown Point’s jail.

Displays of guns used in that time and the original FBI Wanted Poster are also at the museum, along with photos of prosecutors, police and news reports from Dillinger’s time. Part of the news reports on display don’t only include several newspaper articles from the Times-Union but include a TV news reel from local stations during the time period that will be played. One of the photos hanging on the wall with Dillinger’s mock body on the morgue table shows women in bathing suits and crowds surrounding his body that was put on public display, treating Dillinger has if he was a celebrity.

“This is the heat of the Great Depression,” Steffe said. “The banks weren’t all that popular, and to a lot of people he was sticking it to the man, and they liked it. He was a very likeable guy. He was a character.”

Part of that character can be seen in famous quotes from Dillinger displayed on the walls at the museum, including one that says:?“I rob banks for a living. What do you do?”

Dillinger was killed by Chicago police and federal agents outside the Biograph Theater on July 22, 1934.

Dillinger had reportedly altered his appearance significantly by dyeing his hair, plucking his eyebrows, removing his fingerprints and undergoing plastic surgery, leading some to believe there was a lookalike killed and buried in his place. He was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery in the family plot.

In July 2019, Dillinger’s nephew was granted a permit by the Indiana State Department of Health to exhume the 85-year-old corpse, but it was later learned the exhumation would be part of a documentary project seeking to conduct forensic testing on the body to determine if it was in fact Dillinger.

“Right after he was killed, rumors circulated that it wasn’t him,” Steffe said. “They (the FBI) claim they have fingerprints, but they disappeared. Now the family wants the body dug up and the FBI says they won’t, and then the History Channel drops a documentary, and then the cemetery comes out and says it would disturb other plots. This has all the earmarks of a government cover up.”

Steffe said he believes the exhumation of Dillinger was the FBI’s chance to prove that what they’ve been saying all along is true.

The Dillinger exhibit will be on display through the end of the year, but Steffe hopes those who have donated some of the memorabilia – like the Kosciusko County Sheriff’s Office and Warsaw police – will allow it to remain up for an entire year since the health pandemic mandated the museum close.

For those wanting to see other things the museum has to offer, there are plenty. The building – built in 1870 – is history in itself. It operated as the county jail until 1982, and up until nearly its closing, the sheriff was required to live there. There are jail cells still in their same condition – including graffiti on the wall, tables and bunks – and there are the living quarters where the last sheriff lived. The last sheriff to live with his family there was Dave Andrews, Steffe said.

Civil War up through Operation Desert Storm items also are on display, along with many school items from schools past in the county.

The museum, which largely runs by donations, is free to attend but donations are appreciated.

In January, museum workers realized two old school bells were stolen from outside of the building that were placed next to the building’s air conditioning unit.

It’s disappointing, Steffe said, because he doesn’t know what anyone would do with them. They’re not worth any money in scrap, he said, but conceded the museum doesn’t plan on ever seeing them again. Anyone with information about the theft of the bells can contact Warsaw police.

For questions or more information about the museum, call 574-269-1078 or visit www.kosciuskohistory.com.