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Arizona’s toughest captured Dillinger from right field

The TPD Task Force in charge of capturing the Dillinger Gang. Frank Eyman is in the middle of the photo. (Photo obtained through the research of Mike Anderson)

Let us remember Frank Eyman, considered to be one of the toughest individuals to ever put on a badge.

The former Bisbee baseball player and long-time Arizona lawman is most known for his capturing of notorious “Public Enemy Number One,” John Dillinger and his gang, but beyond the badge he was much more.

Baseball enthusiast and Bisbee native Mike Anderson first came upon the name Eyman during his 10-year career working for the Pima County Sheriff’s Office.

“Knowing there was a baseball player in Bisbee by the name of Frank Eyman, I decided to look at records,” Anderson said.

He became the foremost expert of Eyman and his effort in capturing of Dillinger.

Eyman was born on March 8, 1898, in Lemont, Illinois. At 19 years old, he joined the U.S. Army and was assigned to the 17th Calvary Regiment at Camp Harry J. Jones along the U.S. and Mexico border in Douglas, Arizona. The cavalry seldom worked besides patrol across the border and play baseball. During that time, he  played on the regimental and unit baseball teams.

Baseball Players are playing at historic, Warren Ballpark in Bisbee, Ariz. The ballpark was constructed in 1909 and is the oldest ballpark in in use throughout the U.S. (Photo obtained through the research of Mike Anderson)

He married Mary Adams of Bisbee in February 1919. By April, he completed his military service, and returned to Illinois. He was back in Southeastern Arizona a year later and signed a contract to be an outfielder for the Bisbee Colts semi-pro baseball team which was considered to be the best time in Cochise County.

The right-handed Eyman hit over .300 throughout in three seasons with the Colts and was considered an above-average fielder, making eyebrow-raising catches along the fence in the outfield.

In 1921, Eyman became a special agent for the Elgin and Eastern Railroad. He and his wife moved to Tucson in 1926, becoming a special agent for the Southern Pacific Rail Roads eventually joining the Tucson Police Department in 1930 as a motorcycle patrolman.

Dillinger and his gang climbed atop the FBI watch list after robbing banks and police stations in 1933.  With a nationwide manhunt underway, the gang decided to lay low over the winter.

They chose Tucson.

Two of the gang members, Charles Makely and Russell Clark, checked into the Hotel Congress, across from the railroad depot. On the morning of Jan. 22, 1934, a grease fire broke out at the hotel. Makely and Clark were evacuated and the men asked firefighters to retrieve four heavy bags of luggage, which containing cash and guns. For $12, the firefighters climbed up the fire escape, snagged the luggage and the two men disappeared.

The following morning, the firefighters sat around the station reading a detective magazine. Inside the pages was a story and photos of the Dillinger gang. The firefighters recognized the men from Hotel Congress. TPD Chief Gus Wollard assembled a task force to capture all four members. Eyman became one of the officers assigned to the task.

Police tracked gang members to a house on Second Street near the University of Arizona. On Feb. 25, the cops tailed Makely from the rental house to Grabbe Electric and Radio Store on Congress Street as he tried to purchase a police radio. Makely became the first member snared.

The task force returned to the rental house, where motor officer and ex-minor league ballplayer Chet Sherman pretended to deliver a message to Clark. A struggle ensued as Sherman lunged to capture Clark. Eyman and another officer rushed through the back door, pistol whipping Clark into submission. The heat intensified as Dillinger and Pete Pierpont were still wandering the city.

The force located Pieront’s girlfriend at the Arizona Motel. During a traffic stop, Eyman convinced Pierpont to go to the police station to receive a registration sticker. Upon his arrival, Pierpont discovered he had been duped by Eyman. 

“Pierpont was a dangerous man. He was the one who killed three officers throughout their crime spree,” Anderson said. “For the toughest member to be caught by being outsmarted, says how bright Eyman was in capturing him.”

Dillinger would be captured the same day. As he returned to the house  he was met by a group of officers. Dillinger went without force, exclaiming, “Well, I’ll be damned!”

The Dillinger Gang were caught and arraigned in Tucson, Ariz. The four men were found guilty and a judge ordered the members be extradited East. (Photo courtesy the Associated Press.)

A judge ordered the members be extradited east. Dillinger was sent to a Crown Point Prison in Lake County, Indiana which was deemed inescapable. He proved them wrong on March 3, 1934, when he stole the sheriff’s car and made his way to Chicago where he assembled a new gang.

On July 22, 1934, the FBI tracked Dillinger to the Marboro Theater in Chicago and upon the end of the movie Dillinger exited through the alley. Authorities trapped him for the final time. He was shot and killed while trying to reach for his gun.

Eyman was promoted to lieutenant and captain for his contributions in capturing the Dillinger gang. He would go onto serve in World War II as a naval officer, eventually becoming the TPD chief of detectives. In 1950, Eyman was elected to his first two-year team as the Pima County Sheriff but resigned in 1955 to become warden of the Arizona State Prison in Florence.

Frank Eyman was a prison warden in Florence, Ariz. He was known for stopping a prison raid, saving two men on duty. (Photo obtained through the research of Mike Anderson)

“He was so tough that he stopped a prison riot in 1958 when prisoners held two officers captive,” Anderson said. “He was so tough he stopped the riot by yelling, ‘If you SOBs even so much as scratch my men, I’ll kill all of you!’ as he led an effort to retake the cell block and rescue the guards.”

Eyman was known as a hard-nosed prison warden with his tactics of welding the front doors of the prison. Notoriety ensued as he would gain attention from movie producers casting him to play a prison warden in The Way to the Gold (1957) and Riot (1969). Eyman retired as the toughest warden in the state in 1972 and lived in Casa Grande until his death from acute pneumonia on March 13, 1984.

Sergio Calderon is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at sacalderon@email.arizona.edu

Click here for high-resolution photos. 

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