I’ve been busy lately with the start of a new semester and other new responsibilities, but I’ve allotted enough spare time here and there to briefly keep up with the news. The notorious Hoosier bank robber John Dillinger has been making the rounds there lately, eighty-five years after his bloody demise at the hands of federal agents outside of Chicago’s Biograph Theater. Apparently, a niece and nephew of the gangster have brought to question whether or not it was he who actually perished that summer night in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, claiming that the corpse autopsied and buried at Indy’s Crown Hill Cemetery doesn’t share several characteristics with Dillinger himself. For their part, the FBI field office in Chicago tweeted out that the Thompsons, -Dillinger’s purported relatives- were peddling a conspiracy theory, and that the body they examined and buried included three sets of fingerprints, all which positively matched samples taken while the miscreant was still alive1. It’s been an interesting saga to follow.
Who knows who’s buried there! I’m inclined to say it’s Dillinger, though Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa, Tupac, and D.B. Cooper might just as easily stake a claim to the grave. At any rate, an exhumation to find out who exactly’s down in that hole will be a tough process, as Dillinger’s dad had the casket reburied under a layer each of concrete and scrap iron, along with four more slabs of cement to discourage grave robbers and vandals2.
My favorite Dillinger story involves his time up in Crown Point, Indiana, where legend says he escaped from jail with a gun carved out of wood. We’ll get to that story in a second. Lake County, where the tale transpired, was established in 1837 from a portion of LaPorte County, and later, a part of the adjacent Porter County3. For six years starting in 1838, the county seat was at Crown Point, originally known as Lake Court House, and local government worked from a log cabin. From 1839-1840, the courthouse moved to Liverpool, now a suburb located between Hobart and Gary a few blocks west of I-65 just north of Ridge Road4. Soon it moved back to Crown Point, where it remains today.
Despite its status as county seat, Crown Point is the seventh-largest community in Lake County after Hammond, Gary, Merrillville, Schererville, East Chicago, and Hobart in that order. Hammond, Gary, and East Chicago even have their own superior courthouses! If you’ve never been there, many of the region’s cities flow uninterruptedly into each other as a vast mass of hard-to-differentiate propinquities of industry, urban decay, slums, suburbs, and commercial strips. To an outsider, calling out the Lake County’s cities and towns as separate municipalities is a pointless exercise, just as much of a relic of the white flight that plagued the region in the 60s and 70s as its abandoned buildings are5. Development is just so conclusive. It’s like driving on US-33 from Goshen through Dunlap, Elkhart, Osceola, Mishawaka, and South Bend, without the pleasant parts.
Crown Point, though, manages to be different. About twelve miles south of where Broadway meets the Borman Expressway, the county seat’s downtown feels remote enough to retain much of its character without much of the sprawl. Lake County was a totally different place by the time the city got the county seat back in 1850, though it goes without saying. For thirty years, a frame courthouse was enough to suit the county’s governmental needs. One story and measuring 67×37 feet, the courthouse was constructed by local Jeremy Hixson for around a thousand dollars. By the late 1870s, officials recognized they needed something larger due to the county’s population steadily creeping up, and they commissioned architect J.H. Cochrane to design a new one in a big way.
Cochrane designed the original courthouse at a cost of $52,000, as well as its neighbor in Valparaiso, the Porter County seat about six years later. Today, his section of Crown Point’s building stands at the middle of the square as a nine-bay, cruciform structure. As viewed from the east and west, the two-and-a-half story building features a central, projecting entrance pavilion with a triangular gable. Heavy limestone quoins and horizontal bands, along with substantial brackets around the roofline contrast with the courthouse’s red brick and give the structure an Italianate feel, a motif that’s repeated in each of its flanking wings as well as its substantial clock tower, which terminates in a terra-cotta mansard roof and flagpole. Despite those influences, Cochrane’s courthouse is clearly not Italianate. Even without a mansard roof, I’d call it closer to Second Empire, especially given the similarities of its clock tower to the one atop the Randolph County Courthouse.
In 1909, the building was expanded, a process that added two gabled wings to the north and south. Looking at it today, you’d never know that these sections weren’t original- Chicago architects Beers & Beers took extreme care in following the scale and style of Cochrane’s original plans6. The project also added two supplementary, flanking cupolas to the new areas, and a final expansion in 1928 by Crown Point’s Henderlong Lumber Company (following the construction of Gary’s 1926 superior courthouse) added yet another pair of wings to the building’s north and south ends. Though each are only a single, flat story with entrances to a raised basement, they still manage to convey the architect’s intended style7, while ensuring with foresight that it would need little exterior remodeling to comply with later ADA requirements.
Anyway, this version of the courthouse, ladies and gents, is what John Dillinger saw in his rearview mirror on March 3, 1934 after fleeing the old Lake County Jail in Sheriff Lillian Holley’s new Ford. Though local authorities boasted that the jail was “escape proof8” Dillinger -locked up and awaiting trial after robbing a bank and killing a cop in East Chicago two months earlier9– managed to do the impossible by threatening guards with a gun he later claimed had been carved from wood with a safety razor9. Grabbing a pair of machine guns, he locked the guards and some county trustees who happened to be there in his cell and bounced to Chicago in Sheriff Holley’s car. One problem, though: absconding with the automobile across state lines meant that he’d disobeyed the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act. Ultimately, that’s what got the FBI on the case, leading to his death outside the Biograph on that steamy night five months after he left Crown Point.
Though sheriffs stopped living at the front of the Crown Point jail in 1958 and inmates were transferred to a new building sixteen years later, it still stands at 232 S. Main Street in Crown Point, just two blocks south of the courthouse that Dillinger skipped his date with. Similarly, the old Lake County Courthouse hosted its last trial in 197111 before a morose new campus opened up at the northwestern edge of town. The same year saw the construction of a modern superior courthouse in Hammond, which replaced an old Richardson Romanesque structure there. Six years later, a modern superior courthouse was installed in East Chicago. But despite the architectural modernization of the Lake County court system, today Crown Point’s “Grand Old Lady” still thrives as home to fifteen boutique shops on its basement level, the Lake County Historical Society on the main floor, a ballroom in the old treasurer and auditor’s rooms in the second floor, and a restored courtroom on the third level, available for weddings, meetings, and performances12.
Several other counties proudly feature their old courthouses after their usefulness was exhausted. Buildings in Noblesville, Evansville, and Shoals exclusively serve as event centers or museums, and even more essentially do, as they contain minimal government offices. Nevertheless, I love that they’ve all found ways to keep their historic courthouses intact and viable.
When I told a local attorney friend of mine about my project years ago, he suggested that it might be interesting to write about the most famous trial in each of our county’s courthouses. I agree, though I never really started to dig in. Regardless, the Lake County Courthouse in Crown Point might hold the record for the most famous trial never to occur in our state. I’m not a student of law history, but John Dillinger breaking out of jail with a wooden gun to avoid trial speaks for itself. That both the old jail and old courthouse are still proudly standing is a testament to their importance in Crown Point, and I’d encourage anyone to get up and experience the duality of its charming downtown that features both buildings and many more old sights, seemingly hundreds of miles away from the rest of Lake County’s dilapidated sprawl.
Lake County (pop.491,456, 2/92)
Crown Point (pop. 28,412)
Built: 1878, expanded 1909 and 1928
Cost: $52,000 ($1.29 million in 2016)
Architect: John C. Cochrane
Courthouse Square: Harrisonburg Square
Height: 126 feet
Current Use: Non-governmental
1 FBIChicago. (2019, August 1). #ICYMI: On 7/22/1934, #FBI agents shot and killed the notorious gangster John Dillinger, bringing about the beginning of the end of the Gangster Era. Learn more about the history and death mask: http://ow.ly/natN50vk0Rv [Twitter]. https://twitter.com/FBIChicago/status/1156971966764638211
2 Seidel, Jon. “Dillinger descendants drop bombshell: they have ‘evidence’ he was not killed outside the Biograph” The Chicago Sun-Times [Chicago]. August 1, 2019. Web. Retrieved from https://chicago.suntimes.com/news/2019/8/1/20749313/john-dillinger-biograph-theater-chicago-indiana-grave-exhume-history-channel
3 Schoon, Kenneth. Calumet Beginnings: Ancient Shorelines and Settlements at the South End of Lake Michigan. Indiana University Press [Indiana]. 2003. Print.
4 Enyart, David. “Lake County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2019. Web. Retrieved August 27, 2019
5 “Lake County, IN” Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago History Museum [Chicago]. Web. Retrieved August 27, 2019.
6 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Lake County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved August 27, 2019.
7 National Register of Historic Places, Crown Point Courthouse Square Historic District, Crown Point, Lake County, Indiana, National Register #04000203.
8 “John Dillinger” Famous Cases and Criminals. FBI. United States Department of Justice / Web. Retrieved August 27, 2019.
9 Webster, Nancy Coltun. “Dillinger jail escape among area’s most brazen incidents” The Chicago Tribune [Chicago]. February 26, 2016. Web. Retrieved August 27, 2019.
10 National Register of Historic Places, Lake County Sheriff’s House and Jail, Crown Point, Lake County, Indiana, National Register #88003039.
11 Courthouse History. Keith Vincent. 2018. Web. Retrieved from http://courthousehistory.com.