BLUFFTON, Ohio — John Dillinger, Public Enemy No. 1, is more than a man, he’s a legend. One act on Aug. 14, 1933, set in motion events that would make Dillinger a household name in Allen County for decades and has spawned countless family stories.

On that sleepy summer day, Dillinger and a gang of professional thieves came to Bluffton and robbed the local bank at gunpoint. The gang opened fire on Main Street while heading out of town.

Ken Hauenstein, 90, who was born and raised in Bluffton, says he remembers the day well.

“I was sitting on the window of the old bank,” Hauenstein said. “John was in the bank. He had a guy with a gun on the teller. The guy turned to me, pointing his gun and then turned back to covering the teller. Evidently John told him to leave me be because I was just a child.”

Hauenstein and wife, Gerry, just celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary. They live with their daughter, Alice Radabaugh, and her husband, David, in Findlay.

Hauenstein said he was 7 or 8 years old when Dillinger robbed the Bluffton bank. He and a friend, Richard Bassinger, were playing at the grade school playground and left. They were walking up the street, heading toward the bank, when Hauenstein said he glanced over at the alley of the bank and saw a car parked with all of the doors open and a man pacing while glancing at both ends of the alleyway.

Hauenstein and his friend continued walking down the sidewalk and looked over to see the gang robbing the bank.

“I wasn’t scared,” he said. “I just crawled up on the windowsill and watched. I saw them stuffing money into little burlap bags until John was satisfied.”

After the gang was satisfied with their haul, they left the bank by the back door, entered the car and drove off down the alley and out of town, Hauenstein said.

When Dillinger robbed the Bluffton bank he wasn’t the leader of the gang yet, or even acting on his own free will, said John Carnes, curator of collections at the Allen County Museum in Lima. Before becoming public enemy No. 1, Dillinger was serving out a prison term for robbery.

“Dillinger was in Indiana State Prison,” Carnes said. “He was finishing a term for robbing a guy in his hometown. He made a lot of friends in prison. He was the first one paroled.”

One of those friends was Harry Pierpont, leader of a bank robbery gang and the brains of the outfit. Pierpont gave Dillinger a mission when he was released — gather trusted men and money to break the rest of the gang out of prison, Carnes said.

“Nothing was going on in Bluffton,” said Fred Steiner, previous editor of the Bluffton News and owner of The Bluffton Icon.com. “It was a sleepy day.”

There was almost no one in the bank when Dillinger and the gang robbed the bank that day, he said. Dillinger knew the layout of town well but had underestimated the amount of money in the bank and walked away with only $2,500.

“Dillinger cased the town for a couple of days,” Steiner said. “There’s one theory he rented an apartment for a couple of weeks and watched everything.”

As the gang left the bank with their haul they opened fire on the street, shooting out windows and sending anyone in pursuit running, he said. One of the thieves sprayed bullets from his sub-machine gun in a 180 degree arc from the alleyway, Steiner said.

Steiner researched Dillinger for a story he did in the 1980s, he said. While doing the research he talked to as many people as he could find who had a story to tell about being there that day.

“This was the biggest event to take place in Bluffton,” Steiner said. “There are many family stories about how, ‘I was there.'”

The Dillinger bank robbery has risen from historical event to an urban legend during the last 84 years since it happened, he said.

There was a guy who had a gas station at the north edge of town who said Dillinger and his gang, well-dressed and polite men, stopped at his gas station to fill up their vehicle before committing the heist, Steiner said.

“They waved to him on their way out of town,” Steiner said.

The editor of the Bluffton News in 1933 was a firsthand witness to the robbery and wrote a descriptive story on the event afterward, Steiner said. The description of the event was so detailed it could only have been written by someone who was there.

“Everyone had a Dillinger story and they were all great,” Steiner said. “I question them, but I love every one of them.”

As for Hauenstein, few events in his life match that day for excitement. He went on to graduate from Pandora High School in 1946 and mowed the school’s yard for three months after graduation. He worked at Geiger’s Coal Yard in Bluffton for a time. He retired from Borden Dairy in Findlay after 38 years of delivering ice cream and milk to department stores.

He says he’ll never forget sitting on the window ledge of that old bank building and watching John Dillinger commit a holdup.


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BRYAN REYNOLDS
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