Hotel Congress’ Dillinger Days: A Celebration of Tucson History

January 2, 2014


An actor portrays Dillinger attempting a getaway at Dillinger Days.

by James J. Jefferies

A long-recognized component of Tucson’s image has been colored by a rugged streak, in part because of its indelible perception as an outpost of the Old West (bolstered by decades of Hollywood productions at Old Tucson), but also thanks to the history surrounding the capture of one of the most notorious bank robbers that ever lived, one John Herbert Dillinger, at the Hotel Congress on January 23, 1934. Dillinger was the poster child for an era in which the exploits of criminals fast became fodder for an opportunistic national media eager to print lurid tales of larceny for an American audience hungry for anything to take their minds off the harsh reality of Depression-era economic woes. It was audience already primed for such stories by the explosive gang violence plaguing the country as bootleggers ran their illicit trade in bloody earnest thanks to Prohibition, which had been in effect since 1920.

Dillinger and other infamous scofflaws of the time had become escapist antiheroes for a populace that had grown restless and incredibly skeptical of its institutions. No drinks, no jobs, no fun. Dillinger himself gained fame as an absolutely brazen bank robber with balls of brass, executing a daring string of heists after leaving prison in May of 1933, after having served an 8 and-a-half-year stretch that turned him hard and mean. In October of that year, his gang (after having blasted their way out of the Indiana State Prison, killing two guards) pulled off freeing Dillinger from a jail in Lima, Ohio, after shooting the guard that questioned them as they came claiming they’d come to ‘transfer him to another institution’. It was the lawless trail Dillinger blazed across America that actually spawned a federal initiative to form the Bureau of Investigation, which later became the FBI, as no law enforcement agency then had the power to seek justice across state lines.


Firefighters reenact the fire at Hotel Congress.

This cavalcade of cutthroat crimes came to a screeching halt in Tucson, when Dillinger and his gang had to flee a fire in a nearby room as they hid out under assumed names at the Hotel Congress. They were arrested by the Tucson Police Department after firefighters recognized members of the gang. Not a single shot was fired, just a twist of fate and an eagle eye from Tucson’s finest managed to pull off what so many other law enforcement agencies in America had been unable to do. “It’s just this incredible aspect of the history of Tucson,” explained David Slutes, Entertainment Director for the Hotel Congress. “We feel like it’s something to be proud of, and it should be out in the open.” The first Dillinger reenactment was staged as a small theatrical ‘play’ of sorts right in the lobby of the Hotel Congress in the mid-1990s, and going forward, the story has become an ever-more visible part of the historic hotel’s identity, right down to small signs in the outdoor planters featuring a photo of Dillinger warning you NOT to mess with his plants. “We thought, why not embrace and celebrate this moment…give people a taste of the times, and provide Downtown with a great event,” said Slutes.

Dillinger Days begins their slate of events with a Speakeasy on Friday, January 24th, which will feature live music, a 1930s costume contest, whiskey, cigars, memorabilia from the era, and much more. Dillinger Days culminates with reenactments of the capture, live music, food, a vintage car show, and games, and will very much be a family-friendly slate of events taking place on Saturday, January 25th. A portion of the weekend’s proceeds benefits the Greater Tucson Fire Foundation, whose mission is to assess and respond to unmet needs of the greater Tucson firefighter community by facilitating access to health and wellness resources, while recognizing the firefighting heritage and culture.