Wednesday, July 28, 2010

He Can Soothe You Like Vanilla, The Gentleman's a Killer

Behind the iron lung in the Allen County Museum basement is a jail cell and two wax figures.  A prisoner, standing inside the cell with his hands around the bars, staring down the sheriff who sits behind a big desk, pouring over the Lima News.  Against the wall in a big glass display case is a records book, forever open to the same page.  Halfway to the bottom, in neat black cursive, a name, a date, and a crime.  1933.  Bank Robbery.  The man at the desk is Sheriff Jess Sarber, which means the name on the page, and the man in the cell, can only be John Dillinger.

If you saw Public Enemies, you didn't see Johnny Depp waiting patiently in an Allen County jail cell, and you didn't hear one character utter the name "Jess Sarber," but this tragic jailbreak is immortalized in Lima.

The placards on the wall tell the story better than I ever could.  Dillinger and his gang swept through Ohio during the summer of 1933, knocking over banks and nearly uncatchable.  Dillinger himself only got caught in Dayton when he stopped to visit a girlfriend in September of that year, and was jailed in Lima to await trial for a bank robbery in Bluffton.

The important thing to know about the Lima jail is that the jail building itself was built on to the sheriff's house as the world's most unwelcoming house addition.  That's why it's not unusual that both Sheriff Jesse Sarber and his wife, Lucy, were present when three men calling themselves police officers from Michigan City walked in to the jail and asked to see John Dillinger.  When Sheriff Sarber asked to see their badges, they drew their guns instead, shot Sarber in his left side, and demanded the keys to Dillinger's cell.

Obviously, these men weren't police officers.  They were part of Dillinger's gang; Charles Makley,  Russell Clark, and Harry "Pete" Peirpont.  While the bullet Peirpont fired at Sarber worked its way down his leg to sever an artery, Peirpont and Makley beat Sarber with the butt of their guns as his wife cried and begged for his life.  She would be the one to find the key that released Dillinger, but the damage was already done.  Jess Sarber would die that night, and John Dillinger would walk free for another year, until that fateful night in Chicago.  But you've already seen that movie.

Makley, Clark, and Harry Pierpont would be tried for murder almost a year to the day of Sarber's death.  Their trial would be overseen by the new sheriff, Donald Sarber, who watched his father's murderers with one hand on the machine gun resting in his lap.  The black and white photograph hanging on the wall that captures that moment belies the tension in the room.  Sarber leans far back in his chair, one leg propped up over the other, one hand holding the gun at a restive, almost jaunty angle, the other wrapped around his chin.  If you couldn't see his face, you might think he was relaxed.  But his eyes are sharp.  Focused.  There are killers in the room, and he knows it.

There's no one else here in the basement with me, so I reach out and wrap my hand around one of the bars.  The metal is cool under my fingers, making my palm feel indescribably hot.  I wonder how it felt for Mr. Dillinger.  Was he hot-blooded and itching for escape?  Or did he know his men were coming for him, and waited here, calm and confident?  His men found him playing pinochle.  I'm inclined to believe it was the latter.


Robin said...

A great story. The only thing I find frustrating about your blog is that certain words are in dark green. Set against that dark blue background they are unreadable. Each time I hit one, the flow of the story is lost.

On a strictly positive note, there were none at the end, and you had me in the last couple of paragraphs.

thisamericantourist said...

Sorry about that, Robin. I'm afraid that's a adwords thing, not something of my own doing. I can't change the color of the words, but I might change the color of the layout, so it's not quite so obtrusive.

I'm glad you liked the read, anyway!

Anonymous said...

i find if I double click on the dark word the real word becomes visible.

Ashleigh said...

Interesting story...of course, we've never heard of it. You can't fit everything into a movie, I suppose. Sad though. Thanks for sharing it.