By Massad Ayoob
Situation: You watch in horror as a routine arrest turns into a cop-killing. The police are all down or out of ammo … but there’s a dropped gun where you can reach it.
Lesson: This young man was not the first citizen to save police lives with a gun, nor the last.
More than 80 years after his death, John Dillinger remains a household name, the most famous “celebrity criminal” of the 20th century. Long since lost to the radar screen, though, are his many criminal accomplices … and the good guys with guns who took them down. Buried even more deeply is the fact some of Dillinger’s cohorts fell to the guns of law-abiding armed citizens. This is the story of one of them, whose name was Herbert Youngblood, Dillinger’s partner in the infamous Crown Point, Indiana jailbreak.
Law enforcement thought Dillinger had reached the end of his long criminal trail when he was and locked up in the Lake County jail in Crown Point, under the supervision of Sheriff Lillian Holley. Photos of the time show the authorities took the infamous Public Enemy Number One quite seriously: the jail was surrounded by law officers with shotguns and Thompson submachine guns and even militiamen, the latter armed with Springfield rifles.
On March 3, 1934, John Dillinger pulled off the most notorious of the many jailbreaks he was involved in over the years. Historians still debate whether he used a real gun, or a fake one carved of wood or soap — Dillinger bragged it was the latter — but he was able to convince jail personnel it was real, and that was enough. One by one, he cornered them at gunpoint, assisted by fellow inmate Herbert Youngblood.
There is no indication Dillinger knew Youngblood, a 29-year-old African-American, until he met him at the Crown Point jail, but Youngblood was one of three active henchmen during the break. At one point using a toilet plunger as a club to cow the intimidated jailers, Youngblood switched to a loaded Thompson submachine gun as soon as he and Dillinger raided the armory. I’ve never seen the exact inventory of what guns they “liberated” that day, but by all accounts the two former inmates were heavily armed when they took Sheriff Holley’s personal Ford V-8, the most powerful sedan in the sheriff’s department garage, and quietly drove away unchallenged with two hostages: Deputy Sheriff Ernest Blunk and mechanic Edward Saager. The other two inmates who had been in on the escape had second thoughts, and went no farther than the sheriff’s garage. Dillinger and Youngblood later released the hostages unharmed.
Youngblood apparently left the Thompson with Dillinger when they parted company, the latter allegedly dropping him off near a streetcar stop on Chicago’s Western Avenue. The legend says Dillinger left him with a “thanks” and a hundred dollar bill.
There is no solid evidence the two escapees ever had contact with one another again. Dillinger went along on his own violent path, which ended in a pool of blood outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater on the night of July 22, 1934.
Herbert Youngblood didn’t last nearly as long.
Youngblood made his way to Port Huron, Michigan, roughly 350 miles from Chicago. It was a good choice for a fugitive. Until the Volstead Act ended Prohibition a few months earlier, this area of the Great Lakes had been a funnel for bootleg booze and a wanted fugitive might have considered it a place where criminals might be winked at instead of stared at. Advertised as a “gateway to Canada,” Port Huron put someone in Youngblood’s situation close to a border across which to escape if he sensed the police too close on his trail. Finally, Port Huron at that time had a small but growing African-American community in which a black man could inconspicuously blend.
Unfortunately for Herbert Youngblood, being inconspicuous was not in his nature. We do not know what Youngblood was doing to get money for the almost two weeks he remained at large, but newspapers said later he was drinking heavily in local bars during that period, flashing a large roll of bills and bragging about his friendship with the notorious Dillinger to all who would listen. On March 16, 1934, a Friday morning, his behavior backfired on him.
Youngblood turns up that morning at a tiny Port Huron grocery store owned by Mrs. Pearl Abraham. He is armed with two semi-automatic pistols, a “.38 automatic” according to reports and a ten-shot Savage .32 ACP. Both are concealed.
He is drunk and obstreperous. Loudly proclaiming himself a “badman,” he takes a pack of cigarettes and refuses to pay for them. Making an ass of oneself is not a crime, but petty theft is, and that’s what causes the owner’s son to call the Sheriff’s Department.
Three lawmen arrive. One is the Sheriff himself, William van Antwerp. With him are his second in command, Undersheriff Charles Cavanaugh, and a deputy, Howard Lohr.
They accost Youngblood and pat him down. Cavanaugh relieves him of the .38. It appears everything is copacetic and this is going to be a routine arrest.
But they’ve stopped their search when they found the first gun. And now, Herbert Youngblood’s hand dives into his pocket and comes out with the second pistol.
The tiny store explodes into a short but savage death duel. Youngblood fires first. Multiple bullets tear through Cavanaugh’s chest, piercing both lungs. Cavanaugh draws and returns fire, even as he is falling. The other cops draw and fire too and Youngblood is hit, but he still keeps shooting. The Sheriff is wounded in the upper body. Deputy Lohr sustains a severe chest wound.
Both are pumping bullets into Youngblood, but Youngblood is still up and shooting.
Caught up in this horror is Eugene Fields, the storeowner’s son. Suddenly, he sees a dropped police service revolver on the floor.
He picks it up, brings it to bear on Herbert Youngblood, and shoots him twice.
And at last, Youngblood collapses to the floor, and the gunfight is over.
Undersheriff Cavanaugh did not survive the multiple bullets Youngblood pumped into his chest. Dead at age 47, he left behind a widow and a child.
Deputy Lohr was gravely wounded, but survived, as did Sheriff van Antwerp. Fields had sustained a superficial wound to one shoulder.
Accounts vary, but Herbert Youngblood sustained at least six and perhaps as many as 10 gunshot wounds before he went down. He died in a local hospital four hours later. He had apparently been hit by all four men who had shot at him. Before he succumbed, he claimed he had been partying with Dillinger a matter of hours before. There is no evidence to support that, and it is generally believed he made that statement in hopes of sending police on a fruitless false trail.
For police, the lessons are stark, and you’ve probably heard them all before. Cops aren’t the only ones who carry backup guns. When you find and remove one weapon from a suspect, don’t assume that’s all he has. Go with the “plus one” rule: each time you find one weapon on him, there’s a damn good chance he has another.
There’s a reason for “cuff first, then search.” Youngblood was able to make the first move. He might or might not have been able to get the hidden gun out with his hands manacled behind his back, but he certainly could not have fired from that position with the deadly accuracy he delivered that terrible day.
There’s no such thing as a routine call. What seemed at first to be just another loud-mouth drunk turned into a cop-killer in an instant.
Never give up! The heroic Undersheriff Cavanaugh overcame both surprise and mortal wounds to return fire even as he fell, buying time for brother officers to unlimber their guns and shoot the cop-killer. That may have been the difference between two wounded cops and a wounded citizen who survived and what might well have otherwise been three murdered policemen and a dead citizen.
For citizens, note that Eugene Fields was apparently known to the police officers as the owner’s son, a complaining witness instead of a potential accomplice of the suspect. Under other circumstances, in a situation as dire as a shootout such as this one, an unknown person picking up a gun and firing could have been perceived by the embattled officers as another attacker instead of a rescuer, with tragic results.
That said, Fields’ action was obviously the right one. He could have simply run to safety while cops and thug were shooting it out. Instead, he executed a “battlefield pickup” of a dropped gun and, it seems, fired the final shots that ended the deadly danger Youngblood presented. Amidst the cacophony of what the local newspaper described as a “gun battle which filled the tiny store with dense smoke,” Fields stopped Youngblood from inflicting further death and destruction. There was certainly an element of enlightened self-interest: a witness to the shooting of the cops, and the man who had called them in the first place, Fields had every reason to believe he might be the next to die if Youngblood stayed on his feet. Yet that does not detract from his heroism in shooting the killer down.
What had Youngblood been in jail for at Crown Point in the first place? He had been there awaiting trial for … murder. His bragging to all who would listen in the Port Huron bars, and describing himself as a “badman,” are good indicators. Once he broke out of jail with Dillinger, his self-image was apparently conjoined with that of the nation’s most famous criminal. Though apologists say John Dillinger never killed anyone, the witnesses were sure it was Dillinger who machine-gunned East Chicago, Indiana policeman Patrick O’Malley to death during a bank robbery in January of 1934, and that’s how Dillinger was seen by the public and, we must assume, the now hero-worshipping Youngblood.
Michael Bentt was the man who played Herbert Youngblood in the recent Dillinger movie, “Public Enemies.” Preparing for the role, he studied Dillinger, and came to respect him. Timesherald.com, the website of the Port Huron Times Herald, quotes the actor: “Think about it, 1934? You know relationships between blacks and whites were not as they are now. And for John Dillinger to embrace this black man back then … and for John to embrace that, it just speaks about the guy’s character.” Bentt’s viewpoint could explain why Youngblood’s dying words were a lie to misdirect the authorities away from the master criminal who had gotten him out of jail, and who, history would later show, was in Chicago at the time of Youngblood’s death. Perhaps it was just that rare case of “honor among thieves.”
Not The Only One
Eugene Fields was not the only citizen to pick up a gun and fight back against Dillinger minions during the years those men terrorized the Midwest. On June 30, 1934, the John Dillinger/Baby Face Nelson gang hit a bank in South Bend, Indiana. In the shootout that followed, Dillinger’s fellow traveler Homer Van Meter shot and killed police officer Harold Wagner with a customized .351 Winchester semi-automatic rifle. Armed citizen Harry Berg stepped out of his nearby jewelry store and shot Baby Face Nelson in the back with his .22 caliber target revolver, and ducked back behind cover before Nelson’s return fire from a Thompson submachine gun could reach him: the tiny bullet had stopped on Nelson’s bullet-proof vest.
Moments later, Berg re-emerged, and this time his sights were on the cop-killer Van Meter. As the jeweler fired, the criminal’s knees were seen to buckle: he had scored a head shot on Van Meter. Dillinger caught his cohort and threw him into the getaway car, and the gang fled, successfully escaping.
It was later learned the armed citizen’s .22 slug had glanced off the murderer’s head, temporarily stunning and disabling him but not penetrating the brain. Accomplices confessed to police much later that at their hideout, the psychopath Nelson was in a mouth-foaming tizzy that he had almost been killed by a potential victim, and Van Meter had to be placated by Dillinger himself to keep him from returning to South Bend to murder the armed citizen who had nearly killed him.
As much as everyone likes to say shot placement trumps ballistic power level, we have to recognize that if citizen Berg had been armed with something more powerful, the outcome might have been different. Had he been using, say the .38 Super that Colt introduced in 1929 expressly to defeat body armor of the time, his shot to Nelson’s back might have proven fatal and his hit to Van Meter’s forehead at the hairline might, instead of carving a groove out of his skull, have penetrated and pierced the brain. Had that been the case, neither of those vicious criminals would have gone on to commit more murders, as both apparently did.
Earlier, on October 13, 1933, the Dillinger gang robbed a bank in Mason City, Iowa and once again had reason to regret the existence of armed American citizens. In his office in an upper floor of a building across the street, elderly Judge John Shipley saw what was happening and took umbrage at the band of heavily armed bandits who were not only looting a bank but terrorizing the citizenry. He unlimbered what the newspapers of the time called an antique revolver from the Frontier era, and opened fire.
One of his bullets hit Dillinger Gang member John Hamilton, and another burrowed into John Dillinger himself. The judge ducked away from the window he fired from and got behind cover as Dillinger’s vengeful return burst of fully automatic gunfire merely chewed up the outer walls of the building. The gang made their escape. Both Dillinger and Hamilton had been hit in their right shoulders. Was the judge being merciful, and merely aiming to “wing” them … or did his ancient six-shooter just tend to hit off from point of aim? This, history does not record.
Contrary to the modern narrative of the gun prohibitionists, history is replete with cases of armed citizens helping cops and even saving cops in deadly force situations.
It is sad to see two wedges driven between natural allies, the armed citizens and America’s police. One wedge came from the gun prohibitionists, when anti-gun mayors turned some of their appointed municipal police chiefs into puppets who mouthed their bosses’ sentiments. Another, perhaps more sadly, came from a minority in the pro-Second Amendment community who strangely decided that to be pro-individual rights must automatically make them anti-police.
This case shows a more real paradigm. The police came to that little store to help the staff deal with a belligerent customer. They didn’t know they were dealing with a homicide suspect more deeply invested than ever in his criminal identity. When Herbert Youngblood opened fire on them, those cops bravely fought back, to protect not only themselves but the citizens in the store. When all three of them had been shot, one of those citizens picked up a dropped police handgun and ended the threat, saving the cops in turn.
Such things should not have to happen. But when they do, they should end with the murderer neutralized. Thanks to three courageous law enforcement officers and one brave armed citizen, that’s exactly how this incident ended.