John Dillinger’s Luckless Lookalike

“How do I feel about Dillinger? I just can’t say. But this run-around is getting me down. I surely do wish I was back home.” —Ralph Alsman

In A Nutshell

Following his escape from an Indiana prison in 1934, sightings of celebrity outlaw John Dillinger were reported across the Midwest. One man in particular acutely felt the effects of Dillinger’s escape. Ralph Alsman, a fellow Indiana native, was arrested or detained some 17 times by police due to his close resemblance to the original Public Enemy No. 1.

The Whole Bushel

It’s not hard to see the public appeal of a personality like John Dillinger. Imagine if, at the height of this most recent US banking crisis, a handsome young man executed a series of successful bank robberies followed by dramatic escapes all captured by a sensationalizing media.

John Dillinger cut a Robin Hood–like figure, as he terrorized the very institutions which, to the general public, were the embodiment of the forces responsible for bankrupting the United States and setting off the Great Depression. But more than the robberies, it was Dillinger’s escape artistry that created a national fervor. Authorities in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois all failed to keep Dillinger in custody.

During the spring of 1934, the hunt for John Dillinger reached a fever pitch—wanted posters bearing the outlaw’s likeness papered the Midwest, newsreels depicting the FBI’s manhunt were played in movie theaters (to choruses of boos), and soon Dillinger “sightings” were pouring into police stations and FBI offices. All of this conspired to make life very, very difficult for one Indiana resident.

Ralph Alsman bore an uncanny resemblance to John Dillinger, even sharing distinctive features with the criminal like a mole near the left eye and some particular scarring. And unfortunately for Alsman, his hometown of Brookville, Indiana was only about 80 kilometers (50 mi) from Dillinger’s home in Mooresville, Indiana. The arrests began to pile up. First in Indiana and then in other states, Alsman was taken into custody and interrogated. Despite leaving his home state, and Dillinger’s favorite stomping ground, Alsman continued to be harassed by overenthusiastic police officers, often only exonerated by fingerprinting.

Despite the manhunt, Dillinger didn’t keep a low profile, continuing to attend Cubs’ games and boldly flaunt federal and local authorities. The “shoot to kill” order issued to federal agents at the height of the manhunt likely bothered Dillinger’s doppelganger more than the outlaw. Even after 17 arrests, Alsman managed a stiff upper lip though, or maybe he was just worried about repercussions if he said otherwise. When interviewed by The Pittsburgh Press, said this: “How do I feel about Dillinger? I just can’t say. But this run-around is getting me down. I surely do wish I was back home.”

Within a few months of that statement, John Dillinger was dead and hopefully Ralph Alsman could sleep once again without having to worry about being awakened on the business end of a police special.

Show Me The Proof

Pittsburgh Press: Shoot-To-Kill Order Given To Pursuers
Times Daily: Don’t Shoot! I’m Not Dillinger
Pittsburgh Press: Luckless Double for Dillinger Seized 17 Times and It Leaves Him a ‘Wreck’
PBS American Experience: John Dillinger, 1903-1934