While there’s no evidence of any famous gangsters or mafiosos visiting Elkhart, John Dillinger’s gang did come close.
Four gang members — two men, a woman and a fourth accomplice who might have driven the getaway car — reportedly robbed a New Paris Lumber Yard in the late 1920s, Lucille Steward told The Elkhart Truth in an article published in 1993. Steward — an 83-year-old woman living in Goshen when the article was published — said she was in the lumber yard store when the robbers made all the employees and customers sit on chairs and hold their hands up. They then took off with their money and other personal effects. Steward said she later read in the paper that the robbers belonged to the Dillinger gang.
Some of the stolen items were later found in a cottage along Syracuse Lake, where the gang members reportedly stayed. The Elkhart Truth was unable to find any other information or articles about the New Paris Lumber Yard robbery.
The Dillinger gang also reportedly took bulletproof vests, guns and ammunition by force from two police stations — one in Warsaw and another in Auburn — according to the 1976 bicentennial edition of the Goshen News. They were said to have also robbed the Merchant’s National Bank in South Bend, wounding six civilians and killing a policeman. The South Bend stickup came weeks before Dillinger was killed in Chicago in 1934, according to the article.
Public libraries and local museums didn’t have any information suggesting that the mafia — the organized criminal network based in Italy and the United States — had any dealings in Elkhart or the county. Elkhart County Sheriff Brad Rogers also said he and his staff have never heard of any mafia activity in the area.
But gangsters from Chicago would often pass through Goshen in the summer to visit Syracuse Lake or Wawasee during the 1930s, according to Goshen Historical Society curator Dale Garber. Stories of the gangsters’ violent crimes partly led to the building of a concrete pillbox in 1936 across the street from two banks in downtown Goshen.
Police dispatchers would work out of the structure, communicating with officers throughout the city.
“They would send messages to the police cars by radio, but the cars would not be able to send messages back, so they would have to come by (the pillbox),” Garber said.
But the outpost was built during the Great Depression, and Garber said it was mostly constructed as a way for the federal government to put people to work. In fact, he said there were never any bank robberies at the two banks before or after the pillbox was built.
There’s also a common misconception that police officers would shoot out of the round holes in the pillbox’s glass panels, Garber said. These holes are actually for ventilation, as the structure gets really hot during the summer and really cold during the winter.
Serious crime wasn’t a problem in South Bend either, said Indiana University of South Bend Professor of History Emeritus Dr. Patrick Furlong. Despite that, people continue to be fascinated by rogues, such as John Dillinger and Al Capone.
Newspapers often featured crime stories on the front page in the 1930s, operating on the principle that if “it bleeds, it leads,” Furlong said. And Dillinger loved the spotlight. He enjoyed publicity, and Furlong said he was well known for sticking up banks in his home state of Indiana.
“Nothing is more attractive than an armed robbery directed at somebody who is rich or directed at some institution that is rich,” Furlong said. “So a bank is an attractive target that attracts publicity. In an era when banks weren’t popular because they foreclosed mortgages, hearing about somebody sticking up a bank (was) of great interest.”