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Is John Dillinger's Preserved Willie on Display at the Smithsonian?

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Is John Dillinger's penis on display at the Smithsonian?

Wanted: John Dillinger

(FBI mugshots courtesy U.S. Dept. of Justice)

Dear Urban Legends:

You are no doubt tired of hearing this, so I will be brief and not waste much of your time. I believe I read an article by Robert Anton Wilson a ways back regarding the Smithsonian or some D.C. museum housing private parts of famous people — John Dillinger, for example.

Is there any truth to this folklore?



Dear Reader:

No truth that I could uncover. Moreover, the very idea that so august and respectable an edifice as the Smithsonian Institution would house an exhibit of celebrity genitalia rings absurd. They've denied it time and time again.

For example: "In response to your recent inquiry," reads a statement from the Smithsonian quoted in Dillinger: The Untold Story (Indiana University Press, 2005), "we can assure you that anatomical specimens of John Dillinger are not, and have never been, in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution."

A spokesperson queried by the New York Times in 1994 put it even more bluntly: "We have no penises."

There seems little room for doubt.

What about Walter Reed Army Medical Center?

There's another well-known museum in Washington, D.C., the National Museum of Health & Medicine at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, whose exhibits do boast both celebrity body parts and diseased/abnormal sexual organs. But though it is home to such fascinating oddments as President Eisenhower's gall bladder and John Wilkes Booth's vertebrae, you won't find private parts of famous people anywhere on the premises, I'm told. Specifically, according to the Museum's online FAQ, you won't find the private parts of Prohibition-era gangster John Dillinger:

Do you have 20th-century gangster John Dillinger's penis in the collection?

No. There was a photograph published after Dillinger was killed that showed him lying on an autopsy table. He's naked except for a towel on his midsection and it seems to indicate he has a very large penis. Because the museum was the only place showing body parts people thought they must have cut it off and sent it to us. We don't have it, but we get a lot of phone calls asking if we do.

The mystery of the posthumous pelvic bulge

Despite decades of denials, the Smithsonian Institution alone receives over a hundred requests for viewings of the purportedly pickled penis per year, according to a report in Maxim magazine.

There has to be a reason for all this prurient interest, and as it turns out one needn't search far to find it. For several years running one of the most popular entries on the now-defunct World Sexual Records website was this question: "Is it true that John Dillinger had a 20-inch penis?" It's a line of inquiry that goes back at least half a century, I discovered, suggesting that the size of Dillinger's organ has long been an urban legend unto itself.

It all started, apparently, with the photograph mentioned above showing Dillinger's draped cadaver shortly after he was gunned down by FBI agents in 1934. In it, there appears to be an abnormally large, er, protrusion in the pelvic region — so large a protrusion, in fact (the height of which has been estimated at anywhere from 13 to 28 inches), that one of the pathologists in attendance felt compelled to remove the anomalous appendage and preserve it for posterity.

Or so the story goes.

Skeptics have objected all along

Skeptics have objected all along that the disproportionate protuberance — which isn't even visible in another famous photograph of the cadaver — could be explained by factors as unremarkable as a raised knee under the sheet or the placement of the cadaver's arm, etc. It's even conceivable that the entire tableau was staged as someone's idea of a joke. For what it's worth, the official autopsy report makes no mention of a detached or missing penis — in fact, it makes no mention of Dillinger's private parts at all.

None of which is to say that someone with privileged access to the corpse couldn't have made off with the precious organ between the autopsy and burial and preserved it in formaldehyde; stranger things have happened. There's no shortage of people who claim to have seen it. For that matter, a con artist could have passed off the pickled privates of an imposter as Dillinger's at some point in time, unintentionally giving rise to this very urban legend.

It isn't too far a stretch to imagine John Dillinger's Penis as a lucrative sideshow attraction back in the day . . . right next to the jar containing Adolf Hitler's Brain.

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