Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: Gangster John Dillinger's exceptionally large penis is housed in one of the Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C.
Origins: One of the more bizarre celebrity legends is the claim that notorious bank robber John Dillinger was not only the proud possessor of an unusually large penis, but that this portion of his anatomy was removed post-mortem and put on display at one of the Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C. (Some versions state that the receiving institution was not the Smithsonian but the Armed Forces Medical Museum, which is on the grounds of the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington.) That the Smithsonian denies having (or ever having had) this piece of classic Americana in their collection is part of the game, of course. (An auxiliary portion of the legend is that Smithsonian docents, upon being asked where
How and when this rumor got started is unknown. No documentary evidence indicates that Dillinger was renowned for either his sexual prowess or his possession of a prodigious member during his lifetime. It is often claimed that the photograph below, taken in the circus-like atmosphere of the Cook County morgue after the elusive bank robber was finally gunned down by FBI agents outside the Biograph theater in Chicago on
The bulge in the center of the photo (Dillinger's arm) was supposedly mistaken by contemporary viewers of fuzzy newspaper photos for his penis, thus starting the tale of an incredibly well-endowed John Dillinger. (How he managed to die in a fully erect state was a question the public either didn't ponder or else attributed to some rather strange misunderstandings about the process of rigor mortis.) We doubt this explanation of the rumor's genesis because the legend does not seem to have begun circulating until many years after the photograph was first published in newspapers, and it doesn't account for how the famous phallus supposedly came to be housed in one of America's premier museums (other than that, because it was an extraordinary anatomical specimen, somebody who felt that it belonged in a museum somewhere happily donated it). How the organ was surreptitiously severed also remains unexplained;
Our psychological take on the rumor? Consider that Dillinger was the FBI's Public
Although the FBI finally caught up with and killed the infamous gangster in Chicago a few months later (with the assistance of Anna Sage, the "lady in red" who tipped off local police to Dillinger's presence and agreed to lead him into a trap), he had given Hoover and the FBI a black eye, leading them on a extended merry chase across the Midwest and humiliating them by escaping yet again when they had him cornered. What better revenge for Hoover than a symbolic emasculation, especially considering that it was a woman whom the FBI finally used to lure Dillinger to his death? Spread the word that Public
Sightings: Look for Kevin and his buddies to refer to this legend in an episode of television's The Wonder Years ("Heartbreak", original air date
In the 1988 Jay McInerney's novel Story of My Life, we found this: "I remember I read somewhere that outlaw guy John Dillinger had one that was about a foot and a half long and it's preserved in the Smithsonian or someplace. Now that's what I call the Washington Monument."
Last updated: 11 June 2010
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