Fargo, N.D., 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's depicted by actress Leelee Sobieski in the big-budget film "Public Enemies," which stars Johnny Depp as the notorious gangster. The movie opened Wednesday.

The real Hamilton was Dillinger's steady companion in the last month of his life. The big question is whether 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 beau -- others said she merely 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 in Fargo.

The red-headed baby girl, nicknamed "Rita," had two older brothers, Ercyl, 12, and Robert Arthur, 2.

The Hamiltons were known as "one of Fargo's respected families," according to early Forum reports. But Robert abandoned his wife and children in 1913 and returned to his native Canada.

Edith worked as a nurse while oldest son Ercyl took various jobs to support the family.

"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.

Divorced and alone

Polly 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, Polly 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 columnist Curtis Eriksmoen ventured she was more of a Girl Friday. 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 commented 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 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."

Sage, meanwhile, had plans of her own. Despite Dillinger's attempts to alter his appearance, 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 bargaining 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 authorities.

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 Dillinger 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, announced: "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 reportedly fled to her workplace, and went drinking with a friend of hers, according to PBS's "American Experience." Although she claimed to know nothing of Sage's plan, the government briefly sent her with the madam to Detroit to protect their identities.

Hamilton later wound up in Chicago again. She returned to waitressing and eventually married a salesman named William Black. They reportedly lived a quiet, respectable life until Hamilton -- now "Edythe Black" -- died of tongue cancer on Feb. 19, 1969.