Seeking John Dillinger's preserved privates

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Celebrity bank robber John Dillinger died on this date, 75 years ago. In honor of the iconic American outlaw, Oxford University Press posted a blog entry about Dillinger's reportedly massive penis, rumored to be stored in formaldehyde at the Smithsonian. The post was penned by Brown University professor Elliott J. Gorn, author of Dillinger's Wild Ride: The Year That Made America's Public Enemy Number One. From OUPblog:
 Files 2009 06 Gorndillinger The story of Dillinger’s legendary proportions originated with a morgue photo that circulated just after he died. There he is on a gurney, officials from the Cook County Coroner’s office gathered around, and the sheet covering him rising in a conspicuous tent at least a foot above his body, roughly around his loins, though truth be told, it looks more like where his naval should be. Probably his arm, rigid in rigor mortis, was under the sheet. No matter. It looked like he died with an enormous hard-on. Newspaper editors quickly realized how readers interpreted the photo, withdrew it, retouched it, then reprinted it in later wire-service editions, with the sheet nice and flat against the dead man’s body.

But the damage was done. Soon, Dillinger’s likeness appeared in crude pornography. Mostly, however, rumors of his enormous manhood persisted in oral tradition until roughly thirty years after his death, when it congealed into the urban belief tale centered on the Smithsonian.

In a literal sense, the story is almost certainly not true. Dillinger’s autopsy reported nothing unusual about the man. Government workers just look perplexed when asked about the legendary object. No one has ever produced substantial proof that the famed member exists.
"Is It True What They Said About John Dillinger?" (Oxford University Press, thanks Megan Branch!)

Wild Ride: The Year That Made America's Public Enemy Number One by Elliott J. Gorn (Amazon)



  1. From the OUP blog:

    The Smithsonian has a form letter they send out routinely, denying any knowledge of Dillinger’s missing member.


    If y’all haven’t seen Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, y’all better damn well do so before it leaves theaters: great story, good acting, and absolutely sublime visuals by a pioneering director. Anti-nostalgic, tough, and bloody.

  2. I’ve heard that this is because there was some fashion of medical museum next to the Smithsonian, and so as a result, people would get the various specimens of the aftermath of STDs mixed up with the contents of the Smithsonian. Thus the urban legend.

  3. Actually this is funny. Not two months ago (actually I believe it was around the time of the movie’s premiere) on the WGN morning news here in Chicago, they had a guy on whose father was a crime photographer back in Dillinger’s day. He also had a snip of cloth that supposedly had spots of Dillinger’s blood from his death scene…. He grew up hearing the stories from his father.

    Anyhow, he claimed that his father said it was a crank on the bed that was pushing up the sheet. Definitely not Dillinger Jr.

  4. Hey if you’re gonna have rumors circulate after you after you’re gone, that’s not a bad one to have! I wonder if he would have been pleased :p

  5. In fact, it’s still alive and in a geriatric home in Albuquerque, under an assumed name.

  6. “I’d heard that Dillinger was open to others’ viewpoints, but I had no idea he was such a big-tent kind of guy!”

  7. “I did hear tell how they called Dillinger the Leaping Bandit on account of his practice of leapin’ over bank counters … but from where I were settin’, t’weren’t exactly a leap. More like a kinda pole-vault, if’n you gets my meaning.”

  8. If you just glance at the top image, the angle of Dillinger’s sheet makes the guy in the background look as though he’s doing ballet…

    Just me?

    Thought so.

  9. No wonder he could fool people into thinking he had a gun in his pocket when he was just glad to see ’em.

    I second the notion that the movie w/ Johnny Depp is good. A gritty portrayal of the times.

  10. “rumors of his enormous manhood persisted in oral tradition…”

    whawhaWHAT? *heehee*

  11. Guy at the morgue cuts off Dillinger’s rigor mortised dick and takes it home in a paper sack. He says, “Honey,look what I’ve got,” and shows it to his wife…

    “Oh, no!” she shrieks, “Johnny’s dead!”

  12. Oh yeah? If his penis was really normal-sized, then why don’t they just release the autopsy photos? And I don’t mean the short-form autopsy photos that they give anyone who asks, but the long-form? And what about Dillinger’s college records? Why won’t they release those??

    I want my country back!!!

    1. its his arms foldedover each othern. they did that back then to dead people. seems like people would have respect for the dead.

  13. If it’s not to be Dillinger’s ding-a-ling, then I suppose the Royal Canadian Mounted Police must be deemed the true highest achievement in taxidermy.

  14. Its not in the Smithsonian. Its in the National Museum of Health and Medicine at Walter Reed in DC. I saw it, once, on a behind the scenes tour.

  15. There was an unusual book back in the ’70s called The Book Of Lists, which was exactly as it sounds. In the second volume of the series, if memory serves, there was a list of famous preserved sex organs. What made the list even funnier was that they listed actual measurements(!)
    Anyhow, one of the people on the list was Dillinger. It said that during the autopsy they were astonished at his member, which the book said was 13″ flaccid, and 20″ erect. Interestingly, they talked about the Smithsonian thing, but they claimed that Dillinger’s wang had actually been on display in the Walter Reed Medical center, which was nearby, and that people got confused, thinking they were all part of the same institution.

    The only other person I remember from the list? Rasputin.

  16. “Dillinger’s autopsy reported nothing unusual about the man” – not being privy to autopsy practice, do people normally report such things? “Cause of death was a gunshot wound, and BTW he was hung”?

  17. I used to be a volunteer at the Smithsonian Institution’s Information desks back in the early 1980s. We referred to this bit of trivia as “the Dillinger question.” This was kind of like the goats.ex of the day. We’d compare notes on the reaction of new information desk volunteers. I always liked to see if they could maintain a straight face in the face of such silliness.

    Some people would call up and boldly ask “So! Y’all have Dillinger’s penis on display somewhere, WHERE IS IT?” Some would ask with a giggle “Uhh, do you have any unusual exhibit items of John Dillinger?”

    The answer was always “No. The Smithsonian does not, and never did have any such thing in the collection. As far as anyone knows, it was buried with the rest of Mr. Dillinger.”

    By the way, working the information desks at the Smithsonian is not the dull job you might have thought. Of course, you get lots of routine questions; however, we also got lots of funny, informative and fascinating questions. It was our job to forward those to the museum staff.

  18. @24) Deformities and abnormalities do tend to get mentioned – probably because they count as identifying features or whatever.

    I’m not sure if being impossibly hung would count (technically) as the above, but I doubt pathologists have a special immunity to the “woha lookit this guy!” thing that’s had people talking about the rumour for decades.

    It’s pretty obvious that to the bystanders, whatever is tenting up the sheet isn’t anything special compared to the ID of the guy on the stretcher – that suggests to me that from their angle it’s obviously NOT a 20″ erection.

  19. (and 14-20″ is so beyond normal human ranges that I suspect he’d have an abnormal gait – makes it difficult to leap counters and run from the cops efficiently)

  20. “…which the book said was 13″ flaccid, and 20″ erect…”

    OK. A tape measure works for the first number. How do you get the second during an autopsy?

  21. Sorry everyone, but the federal goverment(in this case I’m talking about the Smithsonian)does lie, or at lease mistaken.

    The John Dillinger “penis” rumor at the Simthsoian is true. It was in a harge jar of formaldehyde at the old Army Medical museum located on the national mall in Washington,DC. It was torn down in 1969 and the Hirshhorn art museum now stands where it was.

    When I was 14 years old (I’m now 56) I saw it in the old Medical museum myself. I was born and rasied in DC and lived on Capital hill and went to the Mall museums often. It those years the old Medical museum was a funky creapy old place that smelled of formaldehyde with lots of weird thing in jars.

    Don’t beleive the denials of the Smithsonian. If I had not seen it for myself I probably whould not beleive it either. BUT IT WAS THERE ON DISPLAY in 1967, 42 years ago!

    The only defence I can give the Simthsonian is that, no one there has seen it in a very long time and has any knowledge of it first hand and the records are, well lets say keep closed. Anyway thats my guess.

    People will always beleive what they want, pro or con.


    1. I am 61 years old and I did see John Dillinger’s penis in a jar of formaldehyde many years ago,when I visited the Army Medical Museum in Washington,D.C.Why ,is there a coverup?I saw it with my own eyes and it was huge.Gerry

  22. I also saw this displayed in the old Army Navy medical museum at 7th and Independence SW Washington DC. It was in a large glass vial and clearly labeled as having belonged to John Dillinger.

    We went there on school trips every year during the 60s and I also went by myself during the summer breaks. I bet I saw that display more then ten times. Don’t try to tell me that this was not there.

    they moved this collection to the grounds of the walter reed hospital sometime during the 70s, but Ive never been to that location.

  23. obviously this is a hoax. just look at how far up it is in the picture. . . .it isnt anywhere near the middle of his body but more where his belly button should be

  24. I’m one of those who saw it. It was in the fifties and as a teenager, I was taken to the museum by a boyfirend whom, I suppose, thought I would be fascinated and perhaps a bit turned on. However the shlong and the cyclops babies, etc., all in big glass jars, were more of a turn off than a turn on. Ugh!

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