Dillinger Days Celebrates Capture of Public Enemy No. 1

January 21, 2016

The gang makes a break for it in front of Cup Cafe.

The gang makes a break for it in front of Cup Cafe.

by Mariana Colín

Eighty-two years ago, a fire started in the basement of Hotel Congress. As it spread to the third floor and the guests evacuated, a few firemen, spurred by a generous tip from a few particular hotel guests, went upstairs to retrieve some luggage that was later found to contain a small army’s worth of guns and $26,816 in cash.

Over the next couple of days, the firefighters started to think that the faces of the men who had tipped them so well looked familiar. The police followed the rumors and, after a few days’ search, accomplished what no other law enforcement agency (including the FBI, which was created at the time for this express purpose) was able to do: capturing John Dillinger, famous Public Enemy No. 1, without firing a single shot.

The capture is one of the most famous events in Tucson history, and this weekend, the 22nd annual Dillinger Days continues the near century-long celebration. The festival becomes more and more anticipated every year as a commemoration of the arrest that, along with the trend of Westerns being filmed in and around the Tucson area, added to the city’s growing Wild West reputation in the early 20th century.

The bar, quite during the day, will come alive during the Speakeasy.

The bar, quite during the day, will come alive during the Speakeasy.

“It’s an opportunity to do something really fun to pay homage to the cool history we have here in the Hotel and the city as a whole,” says Michelle Armstrong, Hotel Congress’s Marketing and Public Relations Director.

“We’re not showcasing Dillinger himself, who was basically just a hardened common criminal,” she says. “We’re showcasing the history of the fire, Tucson law enforcement, all the people and events that led up to his capture.” Above all, she says, Dillinger Days is a chance to celebrate one of the most stylish and interesting time periods in American history.

The festivities will begin on Friday the 22nd, with the annual Speakeasy. Ticketholders can dress up in their 1930’s best and head to Hotel Congress for a night of whiskey and beer tastings, sample the famous food of Cup Café, and enjoy live entertainment including music by Kings of Pleasure, a pop-up memorabilia museum, and a reenactment of Dillinger’s capture.


The Hotel Congress lobby, still exhibiting its early 20th century finery.

The Speakeasy also doubles as a fundraiser for the Greater Tucson Fire Foundation, which in turn will use the money to help renovate the historic American LaFrance Fire Truck, which was used to extinguish the fire at Hotel Congress that led to Dillinger’s arrest.

Saturday will expand the fun into more family-friendly activities, beginning with arts and crafts and carnival games in the morning and live music, walking tours, and reenactments throughout the day, which for the first time will be livestreamed on the Cox Communications website for anyone who might not be able to make it Downtown. The celebration will end with a screening of the 1930’s classic A Shriek in the Night, starring Ginger Rogers at the Screening Room, for the period-accurate price of 25 cents.