In 1934, as the feds were closing in on John Dillinger and other gangsters, Madison was a small capital city in the grip of a spring drought and a summer heat wave. This week's release of the Michael Mann drama, Public Enemies, starring Johnny Depp, makes for a good excuse to go back and page through old newspapers and phone books to get a glimpse of what the Mad City was like 75 years ago.
Its population then stood at about 58,000, clustered in an area of about 8.1 square miles -- long before Lee Sherman Dreyfus, who served as the state's 40th governor from 1979-1983, described Madison as "30 square miles surrounded by reality." These days, it's somewhere around 75 or 80 square miles, depending on which authority you ask and how they calculate their measurements. Not to digress.
Dreyfus turned eight years old in 1934. Wisconsin's governor back then was Albert G. Schmedeman. Madison's mayor was James R. Law, Jr. Those 8.1 square miles included 30 municipal parks totaling 391 acres. There were 23,000 telephones in service in the city. City streets number 150 total miles, about 80% of them paved (including the freshly paved intersection of Park and Regent streets, celebrated in 1934 with a children's parade, fireworks, a soap box derby, bicycle and foot races, street dancing, a drill-team performance, a 60-float parade and a tug-of-war contest pitting 20 men of Regent Street vs. 20 men of Park Street).
Those city streets were patrolled by a police force numbering 63.
Back in 1934, the current home of Isthmus, 101 King St., was then the site of Capital City Bank. You can't help wondering whether Dillinger and his gang ever entertained any ambitions to rob it. Might have been a tough job. The vault is still here, and looks about as solid as it is thick.
Madison had three high schools in those days: Central, East and West, each with a senior and junior high.
Among the retailers, restaurants and other businesses weathering the Great Depression along State Street in 1934: Dyer's Ground Gripper Shoe Store, Woman's Exchange bakery, Palace Drug Store, Leath & Co. furniture, Kessenich's dry goods, Rennebohm Drug Store, Ward-Brodt Music, the Capitol and Orpheum theaters, Weber's Restaurant, Speth's clothing, Cardinal Pharmacy, Rentschler Floral, George's Restaurant, Beil's Confectionery, Mandarin Café, Sawyer's Bakery, Sears Roebuck & Co., Oriental Novelty Shop, Madison Oriental Rug Co., Coney Island Lunch, Kroger Grocery & Baking Co., Singer Sewing Machine Co., a Penn Oil Co. filling station, Eat More Ice Cream, Great A & P Tea Co., Lotus Café, University Typewriter Exchange, Madison Radio & Refrigerator Co., Mouse-Around Gift Shop, Bluteau Wholesale Meats, Rupp's Clothing, Madison Steam Laundry, Acme Window Cleaning, Lewis Prescription Pharmacy, Burroughs Adding Machine, Wehrmann's Leather Goods, Miss Brown's Cafeteria, Glasser Furs, Netherwood Printing, DeLonge Photo Studio, College Cleaners, Varsity Hand Laundry, Hershleder Furs, Log Cabin Bratwurst Restaurant, Capital City Rent-A-Car, Palace Beauty Shop, Stemp Typewriter, Giller Delicatessen, Chocolate Shop, Riders Pen Shop, Northwest Telephone, Madison Key Service, Shorty's Dug-Out restaurant, Petrie Sporting Goods, White Tower restaurant, College Barber Shop, Varsity Hair Shop, Brown's Book Shop, Western Union Telegraph, Amusement Games Co., Postal Station No. 9, Morgan's Billiards, Goodyear Shoe Repair, University Pharmacy, Clausen Popcorn, The Grille, Mallatt Pharmacy, Gatewood's Book Store and the Campus Soda Grill, along with insurers, realtors, tailors, dentists, dressmakers and residents.
Things change, but history not so much once it's recorded.
"Shrouded in complete secrecy, the three girl companions of John Dillinger and his mobsters were arraigned before U.S. Court Commissioner J.J. McManamy in the county jail at 12:30 p.m.," The Capital Times reported on April 25, 1934. The three had been brought to Madison in the wake of the notorious shootout at Little Bohemia resort near Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin. Bail for each was set at $50,000, "and they were bound over to the federal grand jury which convenes in Madison May 7," the story continued. "Refusing to give addresses or ages, the trio gave their names as Ann Southern, Rose Anker, and Marian Marr." They pled not guilt to charges of harboring fugitives.
Newspapermen were barred from the arraignment, according to the story. Undeterred, the enterprising reporter gazed through the windows as the three molls were brought to the jail and noted, "the girls appeared quite weary and fatigued." The reporter, unidentified by any byline, described Southern as "a blond of the Mae West type," about 5'4" and 130 pounds or so; Anker, who "appeared to be the best looking of the trio," as "a petite auburn-haired girl" of about 5'3" and 110 pounds; and Marr as "a comely brunet" of about five feet, six inches, clad in "lounging pajamas."
The hearing took place behind locked doors, drawn window shades and heavily armed guards.
Elsewhere in that day's paper, it was noted that defense lines had been established around Madison as a precaution against a raid by Dillinger's gang to free the molls. Another headline that day: 5,000 Join in Wide Search for Dillinger.
Thus began a three-month saga that would end with Dillinger being gunned down outside a Chicago movie house.
At the same time, other stories in the Cap Times noted that county relief rolls and costs were climbing again, five years into the Depression. Miller's, at 23 E. Main St., was advertising fur-trimmed coats for $13.88 to $19.88. Carmen's, on South Pinckney, was selling 420 clearance dresses for $5.95 to $12.95, and 150 hats for $1.95 each. "The way tobacco is cut has a lot to do with the way Chesterfield burns and tastes," according to the tag line in another ad.
Noted the paper's society pages for April 25, 1934: "Prominent Women to Attend Birthday Dinner of Altrusa Service Club" and "Mrs. Bleyer Will Relate Her Malaysian Meanderings At Madison Club Tonight."
The comics page was running Alley Oop, Boots and Her Buddies, Mickey Mouse, Barney Google, Wash Tubbs, Salesman Sam and Toots & Casper. The Sunday selection extended to The Nut Bros., Our Boarding House, The Willetts, Flapper Fanny, This Glorious World and Freckles and His Friends.
On the editorial page for April 26: "Preserve the Beauty of the Parks: An Appeal to the People of Madison."
The next day, it was reported that the university's board of regents had approved plans for the Carillon Tower that still stands on campus.
The lead headline in the Cap Times for April 28: "Believe Dillinger Pal Wounded." The subhead read, "'Baby Face' Nelson Shot, Claim; Deputy Injured."
Another story that day noted that Madison's common council had voted to spend $2,000 to equip Madison police with machine guns, amid continuing fears that Dillinger would try to spring the three molls.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church on East Dayton sustained an estimated $8,000 in damage from a blaze, according to that same edition.
Two days later, the headline for April 30 read: "Posse Hunts Nelson Near City." The story noted that police had fielded a report from a farmer who said he'd seen Nelson on a side road between Monroe and Madison. "Armed with shotguns and high-powered rifles, scores of deputies, vigilantes and federal agents were scouring the backwoods by-ways of Dane county and southern Wisconsin today in search of George "Baby Face" Nelson," the story reported.
The sports page that day noted that the Madison Blues had routed Waterloo 18-0 in their baseball season opener.
A week later, the Dillinger hysteria had subsided enough to make room on the front page for reports on the city marbles finals, with 140 local boys competing. Young master Harold De Voe would win the 1934 title.
On May 12, the first substantial rain in 39 days soaked Dane County, saving crops. 1934 was one of the warmest years in U.S. history, with the Dust Bowl ravaging the Great Plains.
The May 23 edition of the Cap Times ran a wire story out of Louisiana under the headline "Clyde Barrow, Bandit, And Gun Moll Slain." By now, 1934 was shaping up as a bad year for outlaws.
Two days later, however, the headline read "3 Girls, Seized in Dillinger Raid, Freed on Probation." The presiding judge, Patrick Stone, declared, "it is doubtful if a jury would have convicted these girls," according to the report.
By now, the true identities of the three molls had come to light. Rose Anker was in fact Marie Conforti, 19. The May 23 story noted that she had "pleaded guilty in a low, well modulated and cultured voice" and "was dressed in a powder-blue wool ensemble, beige stockings, and wore a dark blue felt hat cocked over her right eye, a dark blue scarf with white polka dots, and gray snake-skin oxfords." Whew.
Marr had been an alias for Helen Gillis, 21, wife of Lester "Baby Face Nelson" Gillis. Southern turned out to be Jean Crompton, 22, the main squeeze of Dillinger gang member Tommy Carroll. Crompton, the story noted, "wore her sleek honey-colored hair in a shoulder-length bob and was attired in black and white checked dress with frilly white collar and cuffs" for her appearance in Stone's courtroom. She also "carried a black summer coat with black and gray fur collar. Her tiny pearl earrings and a wrist watch with slim metal band were the only jewelry worn by any of the girls."
Selma Sable Parker of the Cap Times filed a story for the May 27 edition recounting her shopping foray with the trio, who treated her to lunch (potato salad). All drank beer except for Gillis, who savored "hot chocolate with lots of whipped cream." Out on probation, the three bought hats, shoes, bags and perfume" before dashing off to catch the 3:35 train for Chicago. Parker quotes Conforti: "We were surprised at all the nice shops in Madison." Adds Gillis, "Everybody in Madison has been very nice to us."
Two months later, the feds were closing in on Dillinger. The Wisconsin State Journal, which cost three cents in 1934, reported in its July 20 edition that a boat had caught fire about 500 yards offshore from the UW dorms, but that the pilot and six passengers had been rescued. Also noted that day was a complaint lodged with the mayor and common council by Mrs. Lillian Otto Fried, manager of Ann Emery Hall, regarding boys from all over the city were using the pier at the foot of North Francis Street, "often conducting themselves in an offensive manner towards women bathers and littering the premises with broken bottles."
Madison was by now in the grip of the aforementioned heat wave. Temperatures were topping out in the 90s, and in the coming days would crest above 100.
Dillinger rumors had also been heating up. He was hiding near Portage, some said.
Kresge's, on South Pinckney, was advertising "Big Yank" workshirts for 69 cents, including sweat-proof cigarette pocket. Chuck roasts were six cents per pound and sirloin steak was eight cents a pound at Moore's, 3333 E. Washington. Badger Candy Kitchen, 1 W. Main, was advertising caramels, nougatines, nut and fruit clusters, chocolate peppermints and wintergreens at two pounds for 59 cents. The going rate for a half-chicken dinner at The Pines, Chandler's Tavern and Frank's Highway Tavern on Seminole: 25 cents.
The State Journal comics page ran Dan Dunn, Brick Bradford, The Nebbs, Just Kids, Skippy and Big Sister.
The State Journal reported that the Tenney Natators and whupped the Monona Bay swim team 251-156 at Brittingham Beach on Friday afternoon, July 21, with 1,000 spectators on hand. The Cap Times sports page noted that Art Sorenson had won the 1934 Madison golf championship, and Bud Foster had been named the new Badger basketball coach.
The Orpheum was showing Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back, starring Ronald Coleman. Across State Street, the Capitol Theatre was screening He Was Her Man, starring James Cagney and Joan Blondell. At the Parkway, you could see W.C. Fields in The Old Fashioned Way. At the Strand, on the Capitol Square, Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and William Powell were starring in Manhattan Melodrama. The Majestic was screening a double feature: Son of a Sailor, starring Joe E. Brown and Thelma Todd, and Riders of Destiny, starring John Wayne. Another double feature was showing at the Eastwood (now the Barrymore): The World Changes, with Paul Muni; and I'll Tell the World, with Lee Tracy.
WIBA's radio broadcast schedule for the night of Saturday, July 21, included "One Man's Family," the Guy Lombardo Orchestra and the Siberian Singers.
The high temperature for Madison that Saturday was 98 degrees. "A panting and perspiring Madison mopped its brow for the umptysteenth (sic) time in as many seconds Saturday," seeking "relief in lakes, cars and schooners of foaming steins," according to the State Journal. After a parade of 100 floats, cars and motor trucks, Ruth Werner was crowned queen of the south side's weekend frolic. Nakoma Country Club was preparing to host the annual women's state golf tournament.
The July 23 editions of both Madison papers were dominated by news of Dillinger's death. "Dillinger Slain on Woman's Tip," blared the Cap Times, over a subhead that explained, "U.S. Agents Shoot Bandit in Chicago." Elsewhere in the paper, there was notice of a mass meeting to protest pollution of local lakes.
The State Journal headline and subhead read: "Officers Kill Dillinger in Chicago," "Two Women Hit as 17 Feds, Police Slay Desperado." A photo of the gangster's bullet-riddled corpse ran big on the front page, with a caption reading, "Editor's Note: Normally The State Journal refuses to publish pictures of the dead; all such pictures received here go into the wastebasket. But as an object lesson to prove the trite but true quotation that 'crime never pays,' The State Journal publishes here the last photograph taken of John Dillinger, vain and ruthless criminal, as he lay in a Chicago alley after the guns of justice had ended his blood-marked career."
Another headline in that day's State Journal: "Mercury Hits 101, Record."
Both these stories found their way into renowned State Journal fixture Roundy Coughlin's column that Monday, July 23. "They got Dillinger," he wrote. "Well he got plenty before they got him….It doesn't pay folks and that is crime. Must be awful life to lead and nine times out of ten it ends this way…..It says warmer tomorrow. I am going nuts. It's got any heat I ever saw…."
The relentless heat was claiming Madison lives. Two one day, four more a couple days later. Yet fans were still turning out to see the Madison Blues play home games at Breese Stevens Field. There were 1,800 in the stands that Tuesday night, at 40 cents a pop. Marion Callahan would win the state golf tournament at Nakoma, claiming the fourth consecutive title for Madison.
When the heat finally broke later that week, Coughlin wrote: "Well this change in weather might stop them mid-night shows on Lake Mendota but for a few nights they sure were making Sally Rand look as if she was all dressed up."