Why you should care

Because there are some things in history that you just can’t be all that cocksure about.

Talk about a dick pic. You needn’t have a dirty mind to notice the protrusion holding up the sheet covering John Dillinger’s corpse after the notorious gangster had been shot dead. But it helps — helps to explain, that is, how America’s most wanted man became one of its most endowed in the years following his death in 1934. It may have just been Dillinger’s arm under that sheet, but the subsequent growth of his penis in the public’s imagination would come to show a lot about America’s obsession with outlaws, death and … ahem, big guns.

There’s no real evidence to suggest the infamous bank robber was either a consummate lover or particularly well-endowed during his lifetime. But as Elliott Gorn, a history professor at Loyola University Chicago and author of Dillinger’s Wild Ride, observes, when it comes to the Depression-era gangster’s tale, “the sexualization of Dillinger was … there from the beginning.” When America’s Public Enemy No. 1 was shot dead by FBI agents as he left the Biograph Theater in Chicago after escorting two lady friends to the movies on July 22, 1934, the myth-building began almost immediately, the press regaling the public with stories of “the woman in red” who betrayed him and how Dillinger, as Gorn puts it, “lived as he died, with a smile on his face and a woman on each arm.”

Urban legend held that the outlaw’s epic Johnson had been severed, preserved in a jar and stored at the Smithsonian.

Enflamed in part by the highly publicized morgue photo — touched up by more prudish newspaper editors to remove the shocking bulge — the posthumous legends of Dillinger’s manhood appear to have started, says Gorn, in the gangster’s home state of Indiana, where the buzz on the street was that the famed escape artist would lose consciousness when aroused because of the massive blood flow required to support his amorous encounters. By the 1960s, these and other rumors had morphed into an urban legend — one known to every American adolescent — and held that the outlaw’s epic Johnson had been severed, preserved in a jar of formaldehyde and stored at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History or atop J. Edgar Hoover’s desk at the FBI.

john dillinger

John Dillinger’s legacy grew in the public’s mind after his passing.

Source Getty

A belief in Dillinger’s mythic member was so common among the American public, however, that both the FBI and the Smithsonian have been forced to address it. “It’s one of those urban legends that’s been around for a long time,” the FBI’s official historian, John Fox, once told The Washington Post. “But there’s no evidence that the corpse was mutilated in any way — except for the bullets he was shot with.” For its part, the Smithsonian even developed a form letter to respond to queries about the matter, stating, “We can assure you that anatomical specimens of John Dillinger are not, and never have been, in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution.”

How did such a tall tale so easily enter the annals of U.S. history? “The Dillinger story,” says Gorn, “was one of America’s great noir moments of sex and violence, freedom and betrayal.” America has always loved its outlaws and renegades, especially those who thumb their nose at authority and tip their hat to the ladies, and the Dillinger legend certainly touched all of those pulse points. Or, as Hoosier Folk Legends puts it more directly, “in the oral tradition heroes display manliness not only through courageous deeds but also through sexual prowess.”

Of course, many a folk hero has paid the ultimate price — castration — for being an outlaw, and the Dillinger saga similarly restores this sense of social order: “The outlaw’s manhood,” as Gorn puts it, “safely pickled in formaldehyde and stashed away in the federal bureaucracy.”

There’s just one more thing. A thing, according to a discovery in 2006 made by The Washington Post’s Peter Carlson, that is stashed away in the bowels of the Smithsonian in a jar labeled “J. Dillinger. FBI Transfer. SI Mammals Div.” It’s a “legendary item that’s been the subject of fevered rumors for decades,” Carlson notes, describing it as “a long, narrow pale white object about 16 inches long.”

It’s been there as long as anyone can remember, but has never officially been recorded in the collection. It’s also made of a synthetic material like latex and is presumed by those who work at the museum to be the relic of a long-ago practical joke. Why the world’s largest museum holds on to the pseudo phallus is anybody’s guess, but perhaps the explanation is as simple as this: Some urban legends, and larger-than-life gangsters, just happen to die hard.

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