Fargo is known more for grim winters and grain elevators than for gangsters and gun molls.
But when legendary bank robber John Dillinger was gunned down in Chicago on July 22, 1934, by the feds, he had a Fargo woman by his side.
Her name was Edythe "Polly" Hamilton, and she'll be depicted by actress Leelee Sobieski in the big-budget film "Public Enemies," that stars Johnny Depp as the notorious gangster. The movie opens Wednesday.
The real Hamilton was Dillinger's steady companion in the last month of his life. The big question is whether or not she knew his real identity.
While some newspapers reported that Hamilton was nothing more than an innocent pawn - clueless to the true identity of her charming new beau - others said she knew exactly what she was doing but feigned ignorance so she couldn't be charged with harboring a dangerous criminal.
But long before Hamilton's face and name graced front pages across America, she'd had a checkered past spotted with colorful characters.
'One of Fargo's respected families'
Polly was born Edythe Gertrude Hamilton on June 23, 1908, to Edith and J. Robert Morley Hamilton, then living in an elegant Victorian home at 330 8th Ave. S., Fargo.
The red-headed baby girl, nicknamed "Rita," had two older brothers, Ercyl, 12, and Robert Arthur, 2.
A native of Canada, Robert Sr. moved to North Dakota in 1894 and married Edith M. Boake, according to the "Atlas of Cass County, North Dakota, 1906."
He worked as a solicitor for the New York Life Insurance Co. in Grand Forks for several years before moving to Fargo to become agency director.
The Hamiltons were known as "one of Fargo's respected families," according to early Fo-rum reports.
In the Cass County atlas, Robert was described as a "devout republican (sic)," an official of the First Methodist Church of Fargo, and director of the local YMCA.
Robert may have been an impressive civic leader, but he wasn't much of a family man.
He abandoned his wife and children in 1913 and returned to his native Canada. Edith had to hire lawyers to force Robert to pay $100 in alimony per month.
The Hamiltons' fortunes continued to fall. By 1913, they had moved from their grand home by the river to Colonial Flats, a respectable apartment building (now Prescott on the Park) on the northwest corner of First Avenue South and Seventh Street, according to Clay County historian Mark Piehl.
Three years later, the family moved again - this time to a flat at 505 3rd St. N. "That was a pretty big step down," Piehl says of the industrial area just north of the Great Northern tracks.
Edith worked as a nurse while oldest son Ercyl took various jobs to support the family. Lit-tle Rita, meanwhile, was growing up.
"Polly was one of the peppiest youngsters I ever saw," Ercyl later told a Forum reporter. "Hard to manage because she was eager to have a lot of fun with a vivacious personality that attracted everybody."
She ran away from home in 1925 to join a vaudeville troupe and returned to Fargo two years later with a "living statue act," appearing in a Fargo theater before again hitting the road with that company, according to the Moorhead Daily News.
Divorced and all alone
The young woman eventually landed in Chicago, where she studied nursing and eventually met and married Roy Keele, a Gary Ind., police officer.
Keele "didn't prove to be a very good bet as a husband, according to the family here," The Forum reported in 1934. While out of work, he and Hamilton lived with her mother in Fargo for a while. He later returned to Chicago, divorcing his young wife on charges of "neglect."
Unemployed, embarrassed about her divorce and all alone, Hamilton returned to the Windy City. There she met Anna Sage, who ran a thriving prostitution ring at the Kostur Hotel in Gary.
Sage invited the young woman to work at the Kostur, although it's unclear exactly in what capacity. Some newspapers reported she worked as a prostitute. But local historical colum-nist Curtis Eriksmoen ventured she was more of a Girl Friday.
"With Hamilton's training in nursing, she could help Sage look after the girls, maintain her ledger books and help take care of housekeeping chores," Eriksmoen wrote in a 2008 col-umn.
Hamilton also waitressed in the hotel's notoriously rough saloon, aptly nicknamed "The Bucket of Blood."
She eventually joined Sage in East Chicago, where the madam ran her most lucrative brothel, thanks in part to police protection through her former boyfriend, police officer Martin Zarcovich.
According to Eriksmoen, Hamilton shared an apartment with Sage, performed many of the same duties she had at the Kostur, and made extra money as a sandwich-shop waitress.
In early June 1934, Hamilton, just 26, would meet one of America's most wanted criminals at a Chicago night club. Her life would never be the same.
'A great big Indiana farm boy'
He introduced himself as "Jimmy Lawrence," a Board of Trade clerk. He had undergone plastic surgery to look less like America's most infamous bank robber, but friends still com-mented to Hamilton that he looked like John Dillinger.
In a 1934 interview with the Chicago Herald and Examiner, Hamilton described her new beau as a shy, good-natured man who called her "Countess," drank very little alcohol, never swore, and gave her two-dozen roses and an amethyst ring for her birthday.
Dillinger took her out every evening to nightclubs, movie halls and amusement parks, yet never flashed anything larger than a $20 bill. "Now that I know he was John Dillinger, I can understand why he always liked the shooting ranges," Hamilton told the Herald and Exam-iner. "Customers would line up to watch him knock over the targets."
Dillinger and Hamilton had dated for a week when she introduced him to her friend, Anna Sage. They frequently played cards in Sage's home. "It was at Mrs. Sage's that we found out what a great big Indiana farm boy he was," Hamilton said. "All he asked for was a home-cooked dinner. Baking powder biscuits and chicken gravy were what he liked best ... and would you believe it, he'd wash the dishes."
Hamilton said they were engaged and she was "just goofy about him," although she never knew if he loved her. Some believed Hamilton bore a resemblance to the woman many con-sidered to be Dillinger's one true love, Evelyn "Billie" Frechette, a striking beauty of Native American descent.
Sage, meanwhile, had plans of her own. Despite Dillinger's attempts to alter his appear-ance, she still recognized him as the FBI's most wanted criminal. Because she was facing deportation for "bad moral behavior" to her native Romania, Sage saw Dillinger as a bar-gaining chip to have charges against her dropped and to earn a cash reward in the process. Her old boyfriend Zarcovich is believed to have contacted federal agents on the matter.
Days before Dillinger's shooting, Sage met with FBI Special Agent Melvin Purvis and told him she would lead him to the gangster. When Sage was invited to join her friend and Dillin-ger to watch "Manhattan Melodrama," a gangster film starring Clark Gable, at Chicago's Biograph Theater on July 22, she contacted Purvis. She said she would wear a white blouse and orange skirt to make the trio easy to identify.
The threesome left the Biograph that night walking arm-in-arm, then separated. Sage - her orange skirt turned red by the theater lights - walked in front of Dillinger. At this point, the agents circled the wanted man, and Purvis, sweating profusely in the 100-degree heat, an-nounced: "Stick 'em up, Johnny, we have you surrounded."
Dillinger attempted to run, allegedly reaching into his pants pocket to draw a weapon. He was met with a hail of bullets and died immediately.
Hamilton and Sage, hereafter known as the "Lady in Red," fled the scene. Hamilton re-portedly fled to her workplace, and went drinking with a friend of hers, according to PBS' "American Experience." Although she claimed to know nothing of Sage's plan, the govern-ment briefly sent her with the madam to Detroit to protect their identities.
Hamilton hides out in hometown
It didn't take long for news of Dillinger's connection to a Fargo girl to spread. Agents dis-covered a photo of Hamilton in Dillinger's watch. On July 25, 1934, a Forum banner headline trumpeted: "FARGO GIRL WITH OUTLAW WHEN SLAIN." Much speculation as to Hamil-ton's whereabouts followed.
When reporters contacted her brother Ercyl, he was quick to defend his baby sister. "Of course, Polly could easily meet and go around with Dillinger without knowing who he was," he told The Forum.
On Sept. 22, 1934, The Forum reported that Hamilton had returned to her hometown and been a "secret visitor" of her family, now living in the Oak Grove neighborhood of 6 6th St. N.
"A prisoner in her mother's home - hiding, sneaking out only after dark meeting friends secretly, living a hide-and-seek existence that meant constant uneasiness, partly because of shame, partly because of fear - that's the story of the girl's visit to Fargo," The Forum re-ported.
Hamilton told her brother and mother she had been warned "not to talk" and made few comments to her family about details of the shooting. She claimed she knew Dillinger only as "Jimmy Lawrence."
By the time the Forum story ran, Hamilton had already left Fargo for Minneapolis, travel-ing under the alias of "Kay Sullivan" to protect herself from Dillinger's remaining mob.
Hamilton again wound up in Chicago. She returned to waitressing, and eventually married a salesman named William Black. They reportedly lived a quiet, respectable life until Ham-ilton - now "Edythe Black" - died of tongue cancer on Feb. 19, 1969. Her mother had passed away years earlier, on Aug. 4, 1952. The Hamilton matriarch was preceded in death by Ercyl, who died from injuries sustained in a car crash earlier that year.
Nowadays, the Hamilton's original residence near Island Park is the home of retired Lu-theran minister James T. Alger and his wife, JoAnn, a retired nurse and anthropologist. They moved into the old Victorian home 41 years ago, converting it from a duplex back into a single-family home to raise their four children, James says. They were delighted to learn Dillinger's girlfriend once lived there, and have eagerly collected information on Hamilton over the years. Just last week, they relocated a stepping stone emblazoned with "Hamilton" to a more prominent place.
"We like to pretend that Dillinger may have been here at some time so there's a bullet hole or two in the walls," says the minister, with a chuckle.
Readers can reach Forum reporter
Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525