Blog post by Randi Richardson
In 1924 John Dillinger, a petty criminal and resident of Mooresville, Indiana, was found guilty of a bungled robbery attempt and an assault on a local grocer. Unable to afford a lawyer, the court threw the book at him. He was sentenced from 10 to 21 years in prison. Although John’s accomplice, an ex-convict, served only two years in prison for the same crime, John spent nearly a decade behind bars. When he was released from prison in May 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, he was a very bitter man.
With jobs opportunities practically nonexistent, John turned immediately to a life of crime. In June he was arrested for robbing a bank in Ohio. And from September 1933 until July 1934, it is alleged he and his gang killed ten men, injured seven others, robbed various banks and staged at least three jail breaks for which he was identified as Public Enemy No. 1.
His criminal career ended at 10:30 PM on Sunday, July 22, 1934, at he left the Biograph Theatre in Chicago after watching Clark Gable in “Manhattan Melodrama.” He was in the company of two women when he was shot by three FBI agents. Minutes later he was declared dead.
Many years have passed since the death of John Dillinger, but his notoriety has not been forgotten. Few, however, are aware that he was once just an ordinary boy who married an ordinary girl, and that girl was a native of Monroe County, Indiana.
John was born in Indianapolis on June 22, 1903, to John Wilson and Mollie (Lancaster) Dillinger. He had an older sister named Audrey. In 1907, when John was a few weeks shy of his fourth birthday, his mother died and Audrey became his caretaker until his father remarried in 1912. Not too surprisingly, he had a troubled childhood, frequently in trouble with the law for one small thing or another. Believing that a rural environment might be the solution to John’s problems, John’s father moved the family to Mooresville, Morgan County, Indiana, in 1921.
John’s behavior, however, did not change. He was as wild and rebellious as ever. In 1922 he was arrested for car theft which led him to enlist in the Navy rather than face charges. His military career was brief and ended months later with a dishonorable discharge and a return to Mooresville.
On a return visit home, John attended a party thrown by some friends of Beryl Hovious, the 17-year-old daughter of Stephen Hovious and his second wife, Cora (Vandeventer) Wray. Beryl was born in Stinesville, Monroe County, Indiana on August 6, 1906. She had a younger sister, Mary, that was born there as well in 1911. Sometime between then and 1920 Stephen moved his family to Morgan County where his father, William S. Hovious (1821-1892), had resided for many years.
According to information that Beryl shared with her great nephew, Tony Stewart, a few years before her death, John was immediately attracted to her and she to him. She found his politeness and good manners especially appealing. She described him as a perfect gentleman who made her feel special.
It wasn’t long before they tied the knot at the Morgan County’s clerk’s office on April 12, 1924. Because Beryl was yet a minor, only 17, and needed parental permission to marry, she gave her age as 18. John was nearly 21. Following the brief ceremony, they walked to the home of John’s father where they lived for a short time in a cramped room. Eventually, however, they moved to the home of Beryl’s parents while John looked for a job. After John found work in a furniture shop in Mooresville, they rented a small home.
Whatever marital bliss they shared was short lived. On September 6, 1924, John went with Ed Singleton, an ex-convict, to play pool. Ed brought with him a jug of corn liquor and the two became quite intoxicated while they celebrated a night on the town. Well into his cups, it didn’t take John much convincing when Ed proposed robbing the owner of a local grocery.
The heist didn’t go exactly as planned. Anything but. It was a misadventure that changed John’s life. Although he was not new to crime, he had never been convicted. This time he ended up initially at the Indiana Reformatory in Pendleton and later in the State Prison.
For the first few years the couple exchanged letters, and Beryl made several visits to see John during his incarceration, but travel wasn’t as quick or easy in the 1920s as it is today. A lack of funds also made the journey difficult.
The distance between them took a toll on the relationship. Beryl did not do well with the extended separation, and on June 20, 1929, two days before John’s birthday, she was granted a divorce. John was devastated. Within the next few weeks, according to many unsubstantiated sources, Beryl married Harold McGowen. Efforts to confirm that marriage, however, have been unsuccessful.
Regardless of the legality of the marriage, 23-year-old Beryl was noted as the wife of 34-year-old Harold C. McGowin (sic) in 1930. They lived in a rented home on Wayne Avenue in Martinsville. Harold was the owner of a garage. That relationship was also short lived, but efforts to determine how and when it ended were no more successful than that of locating a marriage record.
One thing is, however certain. Beryl was single by July 8, 1932, when she went from her home in Martinsville to Bloomington with 36-year-old Charles Byrum to secure a marriage license. Charles, also a resident of Martinsville, had recently divorced in April. Beryl noted that she had only been married once and that marriage ended in 1929. Two days after obtaining a license, the couple married in a traditional ceremony at the home of Beryl’s sister, Bertha Hickman, in Terre Haute. The wedding announcement reported that the couple would set up housekeeping in Martinsville where Charles managed the Linco oil station. (In 1930, Charles was an auto salesman in a garage. Perhaps this was the same garage that Harold McGowen owned!)
A decade later, in 1940, Beryl was still with Charles in Morgan County. They had purchased a house in Hall where Charles worked as a salesman for Farm Bureau.
Eventually they were joined by a daughter, Marilyn. She was born on August 21, 1941, according to her son, Steven Harless, who posted the information on Ancestry’s website. No documentation of her birth has, however, been found in any vital record which suggests she may have been adopted. In fact, Beryl’s great nephew, Tony Stewart, noted that Marilyn was adopted, and it seems likely that the information came from Beryl who he interviewed at her home in 1989.
Tony, a Monroe County native raised in California, questioned Beryl about her relationship with John Dillinger in one, if not the only, interview she ever granted on the subject. Details from the interview are too lengthy to include here but can be found in either his book referenced below or one of several articles found online or clipped from newspapers in the Hovious family history file at the Monroe County History Center.
Beryl and Charles remained together until Charles died in 1968 at the age of 72. His obituary was published in the Martinsville Reporter-Times on September 19. Only two immediate family member were mentioned as survivors—his wife, Beryl (Hovious) Byrum and a daughter, “Mrs. Marilyn Kitchen of Five Points.” Burial was in the Mt. Pleasant Cemetery of Hall, Indiana, where Charles had lived since 1937.
Death claimed Beryl on November 30, 1993, in a Morgan County nursing home. She was 87 at the time. She was survived by one daughter, Marilyn Kitchen of Mooresville, and a sister, Bess Dow, of Martinsville. Burial was at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery in Hall at the side of her husband and within sight of many members of her Hovious family.
- Mollie Ellen Dillinger Death Record, Marion County, IN, July 1, 1907. Digital image available at Ancestry.com.
- Beryl Hovious married Charles Byrum, wedding announcement, Martinsville Times-Reporter, July 15, 1932, p. 2.
- Beryl Byrum, obituary, Martinsville (IN) Reporter-Times, December 1, 1993, p. 3.
- Stephen Hovious married Cora Wray, April 11, 1904, Marriage Record, Monroe County, Indiana.
- William Steele Hovious, Union Christian Cemetery, Morgan Co., IN, FindaGrave.com.
- Stewart, Tony. Dillinger, the Hidden Truth (Lulu Enterprises, Inc., 2010). Includes information from Tony Stewart’s interview with his great aunt, Beryl (Hovious) Dillinger McGowen Byrum. See book description online at DILLINGER, THE HIDDEN TRUTH – RELOADED (lulu.com).
- Beryl E. Hovious and John H. Dillinger, Indiana marriage record index, Ancestry.com.
- Harold C. and Beryl McGowin, Martinsville, Morgan County, Indiana, 1930 Federal Census record at Ancestry.com
- Steve Sturgeon, “Stinesville Native Only Wife of John Dillinger,” Ellettsville Journal, July 8, 2009, p. 1. A copy of this article is available in the Hovious family file at the Monroe County History Center, Bloomington, IN.
- Mary Hovis (sic) Birth Record, October 20, 1911, Monroe County, Indiana.