Mackinaw City Vacation, Explore Mackinaw City | Mackinaw Area Visitors Bureau

Gangster John Dillinger Escaped the Heat (and Cooled His Heels) in the Straits of Mackinac Prior to Chicago Shooting Death

The Great Lake region is rich with gangster history, steeped in the Prohibition era of the 1920s and early 1930s. Of course, when one things of mafia leaders, Al Capone immediately comes to mind. But, another leader in underground crime was John Herbert Dillinger (born June 22, 1903 in the Oak Hill section of Indianapolis)…who apparently fled to the Straits of Mackinac (specifically, to Bois Blanc Island in northern Lake Huron, about a dozen miles east of Mackinaw City).

Bois Blanc Island (sometimes referred to as Boblo Island despite complaints from people downstate who are familiar with the Boblo Island Amusement Park in Bois Blanc, Canada, in the Detroit River) is an island in Lake Huron in the southernmost part of Mackinac County. At about 34-square miles, the island is 12 miles long and six miles long.

According to a blog post on, it is “alleged that a cabin hidden deep in the woods of Bois Blanc had once been the hideout of none other than Public Enemy Number One, notorious Chicago gangster John Dillinger. As the story goes, John Dillinger underwent plastic surgery in 1934 to disguise his identity and evade capture, and while he was recovering from this surgery he hid out for several months in a log cabin somewhere in northern Michigan.’ Local tell maintains that this hideout was in fact situated on Bois Blanc Island itself, at the eastern extent of Twin Lake, where the ruins of three log cabins are still visible today.”

Although the writer won’t disclose exactly where the remains of the hideout are located, it is noted that it is “covered in moss in a shaded glen of spruces next to a cedar swamp.”

The blog goes on to say “that if there was any truth to Dillinger’s residence on Bois Blanc, those living on the island at that time have taken the secret to their graves, as island people are naturally reticent, and loathe to meddle in the affairs of others. Another factor was the bootlegging trade, in which many islanders had allegedly been complicit. During Prohibition, there was money to be made in moving illegal booze, and many otherwise legitimate folk had a hand in keeping the spigot flowing, especially if they already made their living on the water, and needed to make ends meet. Why would they rat-out Dillinger if it would bring the attention of the law to their island and potentially to their own less-than-legal actions? Not to mention the mob might take its own retribution upon anyone who snitched on them.”

FBI records note that “Dillinger, whose name once dominated the headlines, was a notorious and vicious thief. From September 1933 until July 1934, he and his violent gang terrorized the Midwest, killing 10 men, wounding 7 others, robbing banks and police arsenals, and staging 3 jail breaks—killing a sheriff during one and wounding 2 guards in another.”

Dillinger was shot and killed in an alley next to the Biograph Theater in Chicago on the evening of July 22, 1934. This past summer, 85 years after Dillinger was buried in a family plot at the Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis, his nephew and niece (Mike and Carol Thompson) have filed a permit with the Indiana State Department of Health to exhume the body. They question whether the person shot on that infamous day in Chicago (and subsequently buried in Indiana) is in fact the notorious gangster and they want to conduct DNA testing to determine the actual identity of the body. The state approved the request, but the cemetery is fighting it to preserve the integrity of the site. A court battle continues…

For more about rum running, gangsters and Prohibition in the Straits of Mackinac, read “Mackinaw City at the Heart of Northern Michigan Rum Running” by author Russell M. Magnaghi.