SOUTH BEND -- They may not be the type of stories told to prospective business owners or visitors to the city.
But the actions of John Dillinger, Al Capone and Mama Chickie certainly have a place in the city’s history books.
The 1934 shootout would be Dillinger’s last bank robbery before he was gunned down later that year by federal officers.
“He terrorized the Midwest,” Travis Childs, director of school programs at the Center for History, says.
The famous robbery stands out as part of the city’s identity. And because a South Bend officer was killed, it also serves as a reminder of how dangerous Dillinger was, despite his modern-day status as almost a folk hero.
The incident is just a piece of the city’s history of illegal activities included in the Center for History’s “Misbehaving Michiana” exhibit. Open until Dec. 31, it explores the city’s “seedy and seamy side” relating to Prohibition, illegal gambling operations, bank robberies and prostitution.
Aside from Dillinger, the exhibit — which contains a mixture of enlarged newspaper articles, photos and a few artifacts — also focuses heavily on Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933.
Childs says Prohibition had an even more profound impact on South Bend than on many places because of the city’s large immigrant population. Many of South Bend’s residents during that time had recently moved from Europe and struggled to adhere to the law.
“They could not fathom the idea of not being able to have a drink,” Childs says. “They were used to drinking every day. Not to get drunk, but that’s what they drank.”
Several photos show an immigrant man standing next to police officers in a secret room of a home at 2210 Olive St. on the city’s northwest side. The man, in handcuffs, is surrounded by dozens of barrels of alcohol, which he hid in the room.
The 1920s and ’30s was an active time for crime in the city, Childs says. Many, he says, looked to profit from Prohibition. That included famous Chicago mobster Capone, who was known to frequent this area when the “heat” turned up in Chicago.
In fact, Childs says there was much criminal overflow from Chicago into this area. Often, if someone was into bootlegging, he or she was often involved in prostitution and gambling as well.
“The three usually went hand-in-hand,” Childs says.
The display also features a section on South Bend’s Edith “Mama Chickie” McShann (1899-1999). Mama Chickie was a well-known madam who operated a prostitution house on Pine Street just west of downtown. Childs says police tended to leave her alone for the most part because her brothel kept the street walkers out of public sight.
Mama Chickie, a prostitute since the age of 12, is remembered by some of her neighbors for the elegant way she dressed, her politeness and her occasional acts of generosity.
Paul Harvey, a South Bend officer from 1965 to 1978, recalls being at the scene when McShann was arrested two or three times. Although she had been involved with prostitution most of her life, Harvey actually felt bad when police apprehended her.
“She was well respected in the black community,” he says. “She helped a lot of people.
“She was a good lady. You kind of had to do it (arrest her) because of the prostitution. You had to do your job.”
Other off-the-wall crime stories from South Bend’s past are also showcased, including a newspaper clipping from May 1850 about a woman who was tarred and feather in the street and had her hair cut off for having “loose morals.”
There is also a write-up from 1905 about a group of boys who smeared Limburger cheese on the walls of a local theater after they were not allowed to congregate in the entrance during a performance of “The Little Outcast.” The odor was so strong many went home before the performance was over.
During the same year, a story detailed an attempt to steal the body of well-known millionaire Clement Studebaker. The goal of the robbery was to hold the body for ransom. Gunshots were even fired during the robbery attempt.
The exhibit also discusses South Bend’s role in illegal gambling. On display is a 1933 slot machine made by Pace Manufacturing Co. in Chicago that the St. Joseph County Police Department confiscated. Such slot machines were common back then. Gambling was often done outside the city in the county, where roadhouses popped up.
Usually, Childs says, if you found a roadhouse with gambling, drinking and prostitution were also likely.
“If you’d fine one, you’d find the others,” he says.
Aside from the slot machine, a 40-pound bullet-proof vest, used by police and dignitaries for special protection, and a 1933 prescription for medicinal alcohol are on display.
“Misbehaving Michiana” continues through Dec. 31 at the Center for History, 808 W. Washington St., South Bend. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $8-$5; free for members. For more information, call (574) 235-9664 or visit the website centerforhistory.org.