21Country: Has John Dillinger’s infamous wooden gun been discovered?

Collector and historian makes argument that his artifact is the real deal
Updated: Oct. 13, 2022 at 5:30 PM EDT
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AUBURN, Ind. (WPTA21) - It was a rare opportunity for the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum to host the Hoosier Hoodlum’s famous jail escape vehicle. John Dillinger historian and collector Mark Love found and restored the 1933 Ford V8 the anti-hero stole from Crown Point Jail Sheriff Lillian Holley. For the past year, it has been on display in a community once ravaged by Dillinger’s gang: Auburn.

Though the car’s time at the museum has come to an end, Love brought what he says, is an even rarer artifact to share with ABC21. The story begins with Dillinger’s legendary jail break. According to the FBI, the gangster was finally arrested, and thrown into jail in Crown Point — awaiting trial for the murder of a police officer. But Dillinger broke out on March 3, 1934, in a way that would cement his name in history. Authorities reported he used a wooden gun to trick guards, robbing them of machine guns, which gave him leverage to lock up jail staff. That all happened, before he made the getaway in Holley’s car. “You could pretty much say it’s the most valuable item that has anything to do with Dillinger,” Love said of the fake gun. “No matter where I go throughout the years, I’ve always been asked about the wooden gun. It has become quite an icon in people’s eyes.”

“I had been contacted before about the wooden gun, but because of traveling around with the car, I didn’t have time to contact the family,” he continued. “They thought I might be a good person to figure out if the gun was real, or wasn’t real. They didn’t know themselves.” Newspapers often preserve some of the best information. Love found and used an article published on November 11, 1934 — it included several photos of the gun, from three different angles. And the author of the tell-all had about the closest relationship with the Hoosier Hoodlum — his father, John Dillinger, Sr. The lengthy title read in part: Dillinger’s Own Story of his Wooden Gun Escape and other Crimes Now Revealed by his Father! Revealing for the First Time Intimate Facts and Photos of the Dead Desperado’s Astounding Holiday Reunion with his Family, At a Time When He Was Quarry in the Greatest Man-Hunt America Has Known — TODAY: An Amazed Young Man’s Version of His Crown Point Jail-Break.

Newspaper written by John Dillinger, Sr. on son's infamous Crown Point Jail escape
Newspaper written by John Dillinger, Sr. on son's infamous Crown Point Jail escape(Daniel Beals)

Fast-forward to 2022, and the story becomes a little more convoluted. There is more than one person making the claim that the wooden gun they own, is the authentic faux weapon used by Dillinger. But Love believes his artifact is the real deal — case closed.

Through his research, Love believes Dillinger worked with his lawyer Louis Piquett and investigator Arthur O’Leary to smuggle in a wooden gun, concealed in a carved out Bible. He claims they had help from the inside. Love shared that in order to make the gun used in the escape, they had to seek help from a wood craftsman in Chicago — but spread the lie that Dillinger carved it from within his cell, to protect the the fact that he had help from the inside.

Love acknowledges that members and known associates of Dillinger may have made more than one copy of the wooden gun. “Even back then, its been told that Blunk [jail official and alleged accomplice] received a thousand dollars for that gun. Had this photo been made right here,” he said gesturing to the newspaper article, “before they sold it, they would’ve plainly seen that that gun wasn’t the real gun.”

Love says the real wooden gun was given by Dillinger to his father — a keepsake to remind him the time he escaped out of one of the nation’s most secure jails, with a toy. He believes it was then handed down to Dillinger, Sr.’s daughter Audrey. He says her oldest son sold it to a man in Chicago. Love obtained it from descendants of the man that made that purchase. Using the newspaper’s detailed photos, Love says his gun, is an exact match.

The historian also acknowledges that other copies of the wooden gun, still have historical value. He said Dillinger’s family had a copy made so they didn’t risk losing the real one, when they spoke publicly about the Hoosier Hoodlum.

Do a quick google search for other Dillinger wooden guns, and the most popular you’ll find — is in Northwest Indiana. In 2015, the IndyStar reported the John Dillinger Museum opened up at the Historic Lake County Courthouse in Crown Point. A follow-up story revealed it abruptly closed two years later. Among that collection, is another wooden gun, claiming to be the authentic version owned and used by Dillinger.

Love remains unconvinced — and believes false copies started to circulate immediately after Dillinger’s jail break. “I’m just glad to finally lay to rest the wooden gun, because it started right after Dillinger escaped from the jail,” he said. Love believes it was Ernest Blunk — the jail employee that Dillinger used to drive the escape car — who started the confusion. “Blunk decided he was going to make a version of the wooden gun and he knew people would believe it. He’s the one that took the famous ride with Dillinger when they escaped the Crown Point Jail. His story at the time is that he was riding with Dillinger, and Dillinger gave him the wooden gun. Right after he got back to Crown Point, he started working on this gun because he knew it would bring quite a bit of money at the time.”

Mark Love shows his wooden gun, comparing it to a newspaper article from 1934
Mark Love shows his wooden gun, comparing it to a newspaper article from 1934(Daniel Beals)

Another wooden gun, which looks significantly more elaborate, and very different than the other two — sold for auction in 2019 for $40,625. The seller of that version, acknowledges other wooden guns circulating, but claims theirs come with a notarized letter from Melvin H. Purveys III — the son of a team member responsible for tracking and killing Dillinger.

But witness Love’s passion for Dillinger, and already established reputation as Dillinger collector, and his argument is convincing. “My father started this in the early 40s. He found it very interesting and he kept doing it and it got bigger and bigger — and pretty soon my father was the largest collector,” he said, adding about his newly acquired wooden gun, “there will not be any doubt in anybody’s mind in the country, which is which. I’m very confident in that.”

For now, Love’s 1933 Ford V8 has already departed the museum in Auburn, and is now on display at another museum in California. He plans to begin touring his wooden gun as well — hoping to generate interest in the infamous desperado. “I’m happy to see that Dillinger is still in the minds of people and what happened,” he said.

ABC21 reached out to South Shore Convention and Visitors Association, the group that owns the John Dillinger artifacts formerly on display in the Crown Point museum, for their response in regards to Love’s claims on his wooden gun. They did not respond back.

As for what’s replacing that car at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum? Their newest display open to the public is the E.L. Cord Gallery of Entrepreneurship. More information on that exhibit, hours, and admission can be found here.