Saturday, July 18, 2009

Trial Reenactment of Evelyn "Billie" Frechette at the Landmark Center

Jennifer J. Hasbargen as Daisy Coffey and Honorable Paul H. Anderson
IT'S SO NICE TO SEE how quickly the events at St. Paul's Landmark Center are filling up during their John Dillinger retrospective, sparked by the recently released movie Public Enemy starring Johnny Depp.

And of course they would fill up fast, each event provides such a unique look into history, such as the reenactment of Evelyn "Billie" Frechette's court trial in which she is accused of harboring a criminal.

The folks at the Landmark gave director Steven P. Peterson quite a special challenge -- hiring lawyers instead of actors to perform Charles N. Adams Jr.'s script, which borrows heavily from the actual court transcript. On the night I saw the reenactment, Peterson appeared pleased with the results, joking, "I think lawyers are some of the best actors!"

The trial is narrated by John Dillinger, played by Patrick Ostergren of Lind, Jensen, Sullivan & Peterson, P. A. I suspect some of his lines were written on his prop newspaper. But the lack of actorly skill on stage was quickly eclipsed by the interesting case itself, coupled with the entertaining prosecuting and defending attorneys. This was their environment, after all, so Richard Stebbins who played defense attorney Louis Piquett and the Honorable Paul H. Anderson who played prosecuting attorney George F. Sullivan did a great job of being lawyers in this reenactment. They were comfortable enough to add dashes of humor in their interactions with each other. Sullivan, for instance, would thrust a photo of John Dillinger in Stebbins' face -- this was an unnecessary act as the photo was really quite large. After a particularly successful witness examination, Sullivan saunters back to his chair, holding his hands as if they were pistols, and pretended to fire them in victory. Piquett fired back at times, too. At a particularly ridiculous question asked by Sullivan, Piquett replied, "That question should be taken out and shot!"

The witness testimony, rather than the theatrics, pulled in this audience member more than anything. We hear from the landlord and caretaker of the building in St. Paul where Dillinger and Frechette were staying, as well as from a college student who was walking nearby. This all made for vivid, "first-hand" accounts of a very exciting moment in St. Paul history -- that of gunshots, a daring escape, fleeing a scene, and losing the cops.

The facts also come out about Department of Justice's Herold H. Reinecke and his uncouth interrogation techniques upon Billie. James Patrick Barone, Minnesota Assistant Attorney General, did an effective job of portraying the "high-powered griller." Billie was interrogated off and on for 10 hours. In those 10 hours, she was not allowed to use the restroom, she was punched and slapped in the face, and Reinecke neglected to ask her if she wanted a lawyer, wanted to call a lawyer, or even if she knew what she said that day could be used against her in court.

Reinecke didn't bother to write down anything Billie divulged that day, and her defending attorney, Louis Piquett, made a good point of stating why these things she did say shouldn't be admisable in court. After all of those excruciating hours, of which Billie only intermittedly spoke, how could Reinecke reasonably remember the pertinent facts here in court today -- months later. A good point, maybe, but not enough to keep Billie from going to a detention farm in Milan, Michegan. While there, she was in familiar company: Machine Gun Kelly's wife was there, too. When Billie was released from the dentention farm, she went on a theatrical tour with Dilinger's family.

Later, Piquett would be tried in court with the same charges he defended Billie of -- harboring a criminal. After all, it was he who had a fake wooden gun made and smuggled to Dillinger when he was in Lake County Jail in Crown Point, Indiana. He ended up taking control of 30 officers with that gun before his escape. After the show, Richard Stebbins said, "That's good lawyering," of the character he played.

A few of the actors did extra research and came out on stage as themselves to read a little more information about what came of these people in the months and years following the trial. And that's when things got even more interesting. It turns out that Dillinger wanted to put a hit out on the officer who beat up Billie, but Piquett convinced Dillinger to do nothing of the sort or else he would refuse further defense services. We also found out that Dillinger and Billie met at a party. The dashing gangster came up to Billie and said, "Where have you been all my life?"

On the night I attended, relatives of the judge from the original case were also in the audience. The judge was Gunnar Nordbye, played by Tony Palumbo, whose full head of white hair was quite fitting to play the character as it turns out. Besides having a career of 45 years in the courts, Judge Gunnar Nordbye apparently had a morning ritual. "Correct me if I'm wrong," Palumbo said, addressing Nordbye's relatives. "But did he start each morning with some whiskey while the sun came up?" There was silence for a moment before an answer came from behind me: "Grape juice and bourbon!"

After the show and these interesting mini-presentations, the audience and actors were encouraged to visit the exhibit of Dillinger, Frechette, and other unique gangster memorabilia in one of the courtrooms upstairs. Though it's been modified in size over the years, the exhibits are in the actual courtroom where Billie was tried. Snacks were provided as well, and it was wonderful to peruse these moments in history with complementary -- legal -- hooch.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

John Dillinger's Death Mask and Other Gangster Goodies

Photo taken by AngieD

"DON'T YOU WORRY I WILL BE OUT sometime and believe me I am going to stay out," wrote John Dillinger while in Indiana State Penitentiary. The letter is to his niece and it's a long one in which he expresses happiness at her success in school and even small talk about the weather.

The letter is handwritten by Dillinger in a vein-like scrawl and the paper has yellowed with age. It is currently on display now through July 16 in St. Paul's Landmark Center. According to the Landmark Center's website, in addition to being a post office, the building also originally served as the Federal Court House for the Upper Midwest.

The letter is fascinating, but it's a tough match for the other objects on display. Here is a sample of what this exhilarating retrospective includes:

• A book entitled The Dillinger Book of which there were only a handful of copies made before it was pulled from production. This book apparently infuriated J. Edgar Hoover.

• Another handwritten piece, but much shorter and to the point than the friendly letter mentioned earlier. This note, you see, is an actual hit list penned by Dillinger himself.

• Homer Van Meter's Hat. It's a well-crafted straw number, but slightly ruined. The hat sits under glass with a wooden dowel poking through a spot where the brim meets the crown. The dowel isn't meant as a stand for the hat -- it's to aid in showing the trajectory of the bullet that killed this member of Dillinger's clan on Aug. 23, 1934. Four members of the St. Paul police helped in the final capture of Van Meter, and their signatures can be found written on the leather headband on the inside of the hat. The brand of the hat? Sarnoff New York.

• The beautiful courtroom within the Landmark Center, where this retrospective is on display, should be mentioned as well. The famous trial of Evelyn "Billie" Frechette -- featured recently in the movie Public Enemy -- took place here.

Like many of the pieces in this exhibit, the main attraction likewise lays under glass. Within 36 hours of Dillinger's fatal gunshot, at least four molds were made of his face.

• One of those molds is in this exhibit.

The orangy-yellow form of John Dillinger's dead face sits between black and white photos from when he was first brought to the morgue, still bloodied, and a photo of him cleaned up.

All throughout the exhibit there are photos of Dillinger and from the grin on his face in each and every one of them, it seems he just might have been enjoying being Public Enemy Number One.

Check out this exhibit and see if you will agree, even in death the grin still remains.

Rare opportunity to view original
artifacts from the 1930s gangster-era.

To accommodate crowds, the hours of the exhibit have been extended, and the following artifacts will be on display from 6:00pm-10:00pm July 14-16.