research for his master’s thesis on the history of a trading post that operated
in a remote part of the Big Bend from the mid-1920s through mid-1940s, former
Upton County sheriff Glenn Willeford paged through the guest register owner Elmo
Johnson had kept. One of the signatures suddenly caught his attention. |
entries up from the bottom of page 105 he read “John Dillinger…Chicago.”
The signature bore no date, but it came after an entry on March 24, 1934 and prior
to another signature dated April 1, 1934.
More than likely, Willeford
thought, someone who had come to the Rio Grande to fish or swim in the river on
Johnson’s ranch thought it would be funny to put the notorious Depression-era
outlaw’s name in the book. It sure wouldn’t be the first time in history someone
had scribbled a phony signature in a guest register.
Willeford knew the
rough outline of Dillinger’s story, including the fact that he had broken jail
by using a wooden gun to threaten his guards and remained at large for several
months before the FBI finally tracked him down and killed him. But he didn’t know
the exact dates.
Doing more research, Willeford found that Dillinger had
escaped from jail in Crown Point, Indiana on March 3, 1934. The outlaw with the
big smile and little mustache had last been seen six days later in Chicago, and
his whereabouts remained unknown until agent Bob Purvis gunned him down in front
of Chicago’s Biograph Theater on July 22.
Assuming the FBI had a copy
of Dillinger’s signature on a fingerprint card, Willeford sent the bureau’s crime
lab a photocopy of the 1934 register page for comparison. Within the month the
lab reported that the known Dillinger signature did not match the questioned signature.
“One argument against the handwriting being Dillinger’s,” Willeford had
said in his letter to the bureau, “is that some people feel he would not have
wanted anyone to know where he was. Conversely, it may be argued that the outlaw
wanted to leave the impression he was going into Mexico in order to throw his
pursuit off track.”
While Willeford had not been the first person to notice
the Dillinger signature on the guest register, he was the first to try to prove
or disprove its authenticity. One motivating factor was his awareness that there
had been talk for years that Dillinger had spent some time in the Big Bend while
on the lam.
Rooney of Marathon told Willeford
a story she’d heard many times from her parents. Every summer her family gathered
for a reunion. Nearby was an old tourist court adjacent to Phantom Lake called
Splitgarber’s, a collection of small frame cabins operated by Charles Splitgarber.
most reunions, the ones held by her clan saw plenty of story telling. Some of
those stories got told year after year, especially one her dad liked to tell.
Mrs. Rooney repeated it for Willeford:
“One day…, these two black hardtop
sedans rolled into Balmorhea….They
stopped there at Crenshaw’s . There was two women with ‘em and about four-five
men. The women would get out and go into the store and buy groceries like bread
The men stood around outside their cars while the women did
“They had dark three-piece suits and fedora hats like they
wore then,” she continued. “My dad said they didn’t speak to anybody, they didn’t
bother anything, but they were looking around constantly…. As soon as the ladies
would get…the groceries, they’d get back in the cars and head back west again.
Of course being a small town, the rumor said they were staying in the Splitgarber’s
The visitors stayed around Balmorhea
about a month. “Then one morning they were just gone,” she said.
Dillinger got killed in Chicago, his photograph and pictures of his other gang
members appeared in all the newspapers. That’s when people in Balmorhea
realized who their low-key visitors had been – Dillinger and his gang.
the FBI’s assertion that the signature submitted by Willeford did not match Dillinger’s
known signature, the cop-turned-history detective was not totally convinced. Studying
photographs of the trading post in its heyday, Willeford noted that the table
holding the register “Dillinger” signed stood high enough to have caused whoever
signed the book to do so at an angle that could have affected their handwriting.
Too, Willeford found that when Dillinger made his break in Indiana, he
freed an inmate he had befriended. On the way out, the man started to grab one
of several wool overcoats hanging on the wall inside the jail.
we’re going, you won’t need one,” Dillinger supposedly said.
Cox - August
4, 2011 column
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