The 1930s Gangster in American Memory: A Case Study on the popular memory of John Dillinger and Al Capone

The 1930s Gangster in American Memory: A Case Study on the popular memory of John Dillinger and Al Capone

Representations of the gangster are ‘not just about history but about memory… [they] are as much about us as him.’

-Elliott J. Gorn, “Re-membering John Dillinger.”

John Dillinger                                  Al Capone

During the 1930s Americans became fascinated with the gangster, typically depicted as a violent man who took on law enforcement and robbed banks or bootlegged alcohol. John Dillinger and Al Capone are two of the most well-known Depression-era gangsters. Dillinger has been represented as an outlaw and sympathetic anti-hero who robbed banks. Capone has been remembered as a violent mobster who illegally distributed alcohol. They are different types of gangsters yet Americans remember them both for the four reasons that will be outlined in this article. The Capone and Dillinger people believe they know today are allusions created by the media, film and television to entertain and fascinate.

An escape from the Great Depression

The gangster was originally sensationalised to provide the American public in the economic climate of the Great Depression an entertaining escape from the harsh realities of everyday life. The historian Bergreen, in Capone: The Man and the Era argues ‘had John Dillinger never existed it would have been necessary to invent him, for he acted out a populist fantasy of revenge on the big business interests that had brought the country to its knees.’ Dillinger took on big business by literally stealing money from banks and this captivated the public. Representations of Capone as a violent mobster meanwhile fascinated and entertained Americans. The gangster was needed as a visible challenge to federal government and big business after the devastation of the Depression, and representations of the gangster provided entertainment to Americans.

An example of success and wealth

The Depression-era gangster has been portrayed as an organised and efficient operator who could successfully acquire wealth. Pasley, in Mob Culture (2005), states, ‘Legend was… actively constructing a revised mythology of the gangster as businessman around the figure of Al Capone.’ Although the mobster type of gangster such as Capone was violent, he successfully managed to bootleg alcohol with great success and this caused much of the public to embrace him. At the same time Dillinger efficiently and successfully robbed more than ten banks by carefully planning and studying security and escape routes. Both Capone and Dillinger became examples of the efficient and successful organiser, who attained success and wealth.

The gangster sought public affection and used the media to his advantage

The gangster that has been remembered by Americans was infatuated with being loved by the public of his time, and recognised that his legacy was being cultivated by the media. Both the mobster Capone and the outlaw Dillinger loved attention from the public, in fact they revelled in it. Capone spoke to the media and loved the attention of crowds. He even appeared on the front cover of TIME Magazine in 1930, with his smiling face symbolic of his stature and ambition to be adored and remembered. Meanwhile Dillinger has been remembered as being acutely aware of his public persona because it adds entertainment and intrigue to his legend. Dillinger famously rested his arm on the shoulder of Lake County Prosecutor Robert Estill while under arrest, and photographs of this event have depicted the playfulness that has contributed to Dillinger’s legend as an outlaw. Historian Gorn, in Re-membering John Dillinger, states that photographs of Dillinger ‘reveal a facet of the story not quite captured anywhere else.’ Dillinger became famous for his crooked smile through photographs and the media, which represented him as a mischievous outlaw. Popular photographs of the gangster cultivated memory and present an image of the gangster as mischievous and arrogant, rather than simply evil and violent.



There is a fascination with criminals and their perceived battle with authority

The public has historically been intrigued by the perceived clash between criminals and law enforcement. As a result the gangster has been represented as an anti-hero or villain who provides a challenge to federal agents. For instance, the evil Capone comes up against Prosecutor Eliot Ness’s hero in sensationalised television and film such as The Untouchables. Dillinger has likewise been depicted as confronting federal agents in films such as Public Enemies.  Notably Public Enemies was based on Bryan Burrough’s popular history ‘Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34.’ This suggests that film adaptations, while sensationalised and fantasised to an extent, have sought to reproduce the gangster people already think they know. The gangster has been remembered as battling federal agents and clashing with authorities, because audiences find this representation appealing.


It is important that we seek to understand public memory and question why we remember and represent certain people and events the way we do. The gangster is an allusion created to entertain and fascinate. Both Dillinger and Capone as gangsters have been remembered the way they have because they could provide the public an escape from the Depression, they could be used as an example of success and efficiency, they sought public affection and influenced memory by using the media to their advantage, and they supplied the public drama by challenging authority. The 1930s American gangster continues to be remembered in film and television as a certain character the public thinks they know.

Suggested readings:

“Al Capone,” Federal Bureau of Investigation,

Bergreen, Laurence. Capone: The Man and the Era. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.

Burrough, Bryan. Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and Birth of the FBI, 1933-34. New York: Penguin Press, 2004.

Girardin, G. Russell and William J. Helmer. Dillinger: The Untold Story (Expanded Edition). Indiana University Press. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2009.

Gorn, Elliott J. Dillinger’s Wild Ride: The Year that Made America’s Public Enemy Number One. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Gorn, Elliott J. “Re-membering John Dillinger.” In The Cultural Turn in U.S. history, edited by James W. Cook, Lawrence B. Glickman and Michael O’Malley. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008.

“John Dillinger,” Federal Bureau of Investigation,

Schoenberg, Robert J. Mr. Capone. New York: William Morrow and Company., Inc., 1992.

Suggested film and television:

De Palma, Brian. The Untouchables. Paramount Pictures, 1987. See

Mann, Michael. Public Enemies. Universal Pictures, 2009. See

Purdy, Jon. Dillinger and Capone. Concorde- New Horizons, 1995. See

Winter, Terence. Boardwalk Empire. HBO, 2010-. See


One comment on “The 1930s Gangster in American Memory: A Case Study on the popular memory of John Dillinger and Al Capone

  1. nicolajblack says:

    Edmund, this is arguably one of the more exciting topics I’ve seen on the blog so far. Your comment: “It is important that we seek to understand public memory and question why we remember and represent certain people and events the way we do. The gangster is an allusion created to entertain and fascinate .. they could provide the public an escape from the Depression” – it kept reminding me a lot of the Ned Kelly gang image and narrative, and its implications for Australian identity. I think there are a lot of similarities – Capone and Kelly were both criminals, but they seemed to speak for the disenfranchised – and while they committed a lot of terrible crimes, public memory has painted them as heroes, and despite all the criminal activity, it’s difficult to deny that status.

    Al Capone and John Dillinger are such scary, interesting romantic characters – would love to read or watch more about their lives and what they did, they really did make the Depression era seem like the Golden era for gangsters.

    Nicola Black

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