Peterson’s latest book about John Dillinger
By Robert Cloud
Dr. Lowell Peterson has just published a book on a Wisconsin man who was abducted by the gangster John Dillinger.
Peterson, who grew up in Scandinavia, was a childhood friend of Lee Johnson, a former business owner, Scandinavia village president and volunteer firefighter.
“Lee Johnson and I were friends all the way through grade school, high school and even college,” Peterson told the Waupaca County Post. “We went to Bible camp in the summer together, picked potatoes in the fall together, even crashed a car together. We had a lot of adventures together.”
The adventure in Peterson’s most recent book, “Dillinger: Under the Gun and on the Run,” involves Robert and Evelyn Johnson, Lee’s parents.
In 1934, the year before Lee was born, the Johnson couple were living in a small cabin at the Mitchell Resort in northern Wisconsin.
Late on a Sunday night, April 22, the Johnsons heard a loud banging on their cabin door.
When Robert answered the door after climbing out of bed, he was greeted by a stranger who said they needed to drive a neighbor lady to the hospital.
Robert stepped into his slippers, put on his coat, grabbed his keys and left. His wife fell back to sleep.
Once outside, the stranger pushed a pistol into Robert’s side and introduced himself as John Dillinger.
Dillinger had escaped from a jail in Crown Point, Indiana, on March 3, 1934. Over the next few weeks, he and his gang robbed banks in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Mason City, Iowa. They had also robbed a police station in Warsaw, Indiana, where they stole guns, ammo and bullet-proof vests.
On April 20, 1934, members of Dillinger’s gang began arriving at the Little Bohemia Lodge, in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin.
Two days later, 20 FBI agents stormed the resort in the early evening, shooting up Little Bohemia Lodge.
Peterson’s book includes photos of the bullet-riddled lodge, the damaged walls and fixtures, and how Dillinger escaped by jumping out of a second-story window to a first-story roof, then into a snow bank.
Dillinger and two members of his gang escaped on foot and made their way to the Mitchell Resort, where they abducted Robert Johnson and ordered him to drive them west.
After driving them about 60 miles, Johnson was told to stop his Model A Ford coupe and get out. He expected to be killed.
“Start walking and keep walking until morning,” Johnson recalled Dillinger saying. “Don’t contact anyone. We’re taking the car.”
Johnson would finally return home the following morning to a distraught wife.
“When she saw Robert again, all she could do was weep and weep some more, but this time it was tears of joy and thanksgiving,” Peterson writes.
Later that day, the Johnsons would be questioned by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover himself.
Federal agents and area police hunted for Dillinger and his gang. They were spotted in Johnson’s car near Hastings, Minnesota. A 20-mile, high-speed chase ensued.
In the summer of 1934, there were shootouts in Minnesota, Indiana, Iowa and Chicago. Dillinger “died in a hail of bullets on the street” in front of the Biograph theater in Chicago.
The gang had abandoned the Johnson’s Model A in St. Paul, Minnesota. “Bloodstains and bullet holes in the passenger seat indicated that one of the gunmen … had been shot through the back and seriously wounded.”
The car was first impounded by police, then eventually returned to the Johnsons, complete with bullet holes and bloodstains.
Robert Johnson did not want to drive it, and Evelyn Johnson did not want to ride in it.
The car was sold to Alfred Love for $1,400.
Peterson said he considered telling the story of the Johnsons’ encounter with Dillinger for a long time, but was motivated to write the book after learning that the car had been sold at auction for $165,000.
“Here’s a car that withstood all these years, preserved with the bullet holes and bloodstains,” Peterson said. “The actual car was used in the movie ‘Public Enemies’ with Johnny Depp.”
Peterson said he heard the story as a child from his parents and the Johnsons, then spoke with family and friends of the Johnsons as he was researching the book.
“Dillinger: Under the Gun and on the Run” is available at Three Squares Restaurant at the Waupaca Truck Stop and at the Scandinavia Public Library. It may also be ordered by sending $10 to Peterson House Books, 2627 Beechwood Court, Appleton, WI 54911 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. The $10 covers the cost of the book, sales tax and shipping.