John Dillinger tree carving in Elkhart turns out to be hoax

ELKHART, Ind. (AP) — Wayne Parcell grew up hearing his fair share of tall tales about John Dillinger and his gang of outlaws traveling through Elkhart County.

He was even told the story of his father, Orville Parcell, narrowly missing an encounter with Dillinger on the road back in the early 1930s.

Orville was delivering bread on his regular route on Lincolnway in Osceola when he saw the notorious gangsters coming down the road, Parcell remembered.

“He recognized the cars right away ’cause nobody else around here had cars like that back in the early ’30s,” Parcell said. “He knew it was John Dillinger right away, so he wisely pulled off to the side of the road and let him go by.”

FILE - John Dillinger
FILE – John Dillinger

That’s why a few years ago, Parcell wasn’t really surprised to see a carving reading “J Dillinger 1931” on a tree near his home by Hubbard Hill Retirement Estates south of Elkhart.

At the time, the 79-year-old Elkhart native was searching for mushrooms in the small wooded area in the subdivision. He was surprised to see the tree, no more than 15 feet into the tiny timber, had survived the rise of the housing development.

Parcell admitted he didn’t tell anyone about the carving right away because he couldn’t be sure it was genuine or not.

“I was thinking he either put it on there or somebody put it on there as a hoax. But it looks like it’s been there 85 years,” he said several years after his discovery.

He knows from his own research that Dillinger was in the area, so it wasn’t too far-fetched to think he carved his name into the tree.

And it’s true, Dillinger and his gang made a name for themselves by traveling throughout the Hoosier state to rob stores, banks and even police stations in the early 1930s. More locally, Dillinger reportedly robbed a New Paris lumber yard in the late 1920s, Lucille Steward told The Elkhart Truth in an article published in 1993.

The 83-year-old woman, who was living in Goshen at the time, told the Truth she was in the lumber yard store when the robbers made the employees and customers sit in chairs and hold their hands up. That’s when they took off with everyone’s money and other personal belongings.

Some of the stolen items were found in a cottage at Syracuse Lake, where the gang members reportedly stayed.

However, there’s no further proof that Dillinger ever stopped in the city of Elkhart during his illegal escapades. There are a countless number of folklore stories placing the gang in the city and county, said Marcia Brenneman, the Elkhart County historian.

“Things get passed down and get embroidered, I’m sure,” she said. “It’s possible. I’m kind of iffy about (the carving) too. It sounds like something someone did as a prank.”

Brenneman confirmed that Dillinger was definitely in Elkhart County, but can’t conclusively say he was in Elkhart city. From 1931 to 1934 is when the gangsters were “really at their peak” because of the Great Depression, she said.

“It sounds like something he might have done,” she said.

But despite their hope that the tree was, in fact, carved by Dillinger, Brenneman soon discovered it wasn’t.

At the time of the supposed 1931 carving, Dillinger was convicted of assault and battery with intent to rob and conspiracy to commit a felony, according to the FBI website. The gangster was incarcerated at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City until he was paroled in May 1933.

If carving read 1933 or 1934, then it’s “very conceivable” that Dillinger literally made his mark in Elkhart, Brenneman said. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

Parcell said he’s a little disappointed to hear the tree was not legitimately carved by the infamous gangster from Indianapolis, but he’s glad to know the truth.

“I guess that makes sense,” he said. “I wanted to find out for sure whether it really was him or if it was put on there as a hoax.”


Information from: The Elkhart Truth


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