Tucson, Arizona. The Day Dillinger Was Defeated by a Dime Novel

Posted on November 7, 2015


Image credit: tucson.org

Image credit: tucson.org

Those of you who follow my blog will remember the recent post about the exhibition currently at the Tucson Museum of Art, Western Heroes of Pulp Fiction: Dime Novel to Pop Culture.

While most might believe those trashy barbershop books have little literary value, John Dillinger found out their contents could be, well, positively arresting,

After a string of bank robberies back east, Dillinger and his gang checked into the Hotel Congress in downtown Tucson, intending to lose themselves in the heat of the desert until things cooled off a bit back home.

Using false names, they took up residence on the third floor of the hotel in early January of 1934, and settled down to  enjoy the hotel’s fine dining and Tap Room bar.

Image credit: hotelcongress.com

Image credit: hotelcongress.com

Then, on January 22, a fire started in the basement of the hotel and quickly spread to the third floor through an air shaft. The switchboard operators immediately notified the gang who, with the aid of firemen, made their escape down fire ladders.

Once safely on the ground, a handful of money encouraged one of the fireman to return to the third floor to retrieve their luggage.

Later, while relaxing at home with his most recent copy of True Detective magazine, the well-tipped fireman recognized that the men he had helped escape the fire were none other than John Dillinger and his gang.

He alerted the police, a few questions were asked, and in the space of five hours without a shot being fired, Dillinger and his men were captured at a nearby house.

IMG_2442A pulp fiction magazine in the hands of an alert fireman had accomplished what the FBI and law enforcement officers in several states could not do – put the nation’s number one criminal behind bars.

But there’s more to the history of this lovely old building than this almost stranger than fiction story.

The Hotel Congress was built in 1919 to serve the cattle industry and railroad passengers of the Southern Pacific Line. Its elegant lobby and dining room provided an oasis of Eastern refinement in what was then a rough and tumble town.

The building holds some great art, including a Western scene in the Tap Room painted by well-known artist Pete Martinez in the late 1930’s. The Southwest Deco – if there is such a term –  embellishments in the lobby were painted by a wandering artist who pulled into the hotel on a bicycle in 1989.

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Image credit: tour.airstreamlife.com

Still beautiful inside and out after all these years – though now minus its third floor – the Hotel Congress is the last surviving historic hotel in downtown Tucson.

Dillinger drank here.

Dillinger drank here. We would have too, but were there just a bit too early.

Posted in: Travel - Arizona