Meet Lester Joseph Gillis, AKA George Nelson, AKA ‘Baby Face’ Nelson (a nickname he personally hated). People seldom called him ‘Baby Face’ owing to his hair-trigger temper and extraordinary capacity for senseless violence. Nelson inherited the dubious mantle of ‘Public Enemy Number One’ in 1934 after the death of his sometime colleague and predecessor John Dillinger. Although the two worked together, from Dillinger’s perspective it was only because, by that point in Dillinger’s career, he was so hot that nobody else would work with him.
Nelson also holds another dubious distinction, that of having killed more FBI agents than any criminal in American history. Three, to be exact. He killed Special Agent Carter Baum during the infamous gunfight at Little Bohemia, Wisconsin and also killed Special Agent Herman ‘Ed’ Hollis and Inspector Sam Cowley during his last stand at the ‘Battle of Barrington’ in November, 1934. Nelson himself would die of his seventeen gunshot wounds, still proud of his record and reputation.
Born in December, 1908 Gillis started young. Aged twelve he accidentally shot another boy in the head with a pistol he’d found, serving a year in a reformatory as a result. He was arrested again aged 13 for theft and joyriding which, given his obsession with both cars and guns, is no surprise. For that he drew an extra 18 months.
By 1928 Nelson was putting his obsession with cars to nefarious use. He was working in a Standard Oil station while stealing tires and car parts, becoming steadily better acquainted with members of Chicago’s underworld. He got a job driving bootleg booze throughout Chicago and the adjoining suburbs as part of the gang led by Roger ‘Terrible’ Tuohy, an Irishman often at war with Al Capone. Within two years Nelson and his accomplices had graduated to armed robbery, particularly home invasions of Chicago’s wealthy citizens including the wife of the Mayor ‘Big Bill’ Thompson who was a frontman for Capone. Their habit of using tape to bind their victims before robbing them led to their being nicknamed ‘The Tape Bandits.’
In April, 1930 Nelson committed his first bank robbery. A month after that it was another home invasion.. In October, 1930, another bank. In November, 1930 the gang were linked to the bloody robbery of a tavern in Waukegan that left three people dead and three wounded during which Nelson committed his first murder, that of stockbroker Edwin Thompson (no relation to ‘Big Bill’).
Nelson was caught during the winter of 1931 along with most of his gang and the Chicago Tribune gave him the nickname he hated and by which he’s still known. In February, 1932 he escaped, fleeing West to California where he fell in with pals John Paul Chase and ‘Fatso’ Negri who would form the nucleus of another gang. While in Reno, Nevada, he met Alvin ‘Old Creepy’ Karpis, who took a liking to Nelson and introduced him to his bank-robbing mentor Eddie Bentz. Bentz joined the gang and tutored them leading up to the robbery of a bank in Grand Haven, Michigan. Despite the job itself being a failure it convinced Nelson that he could make it as a bank robber and most of the gang got away.
Moving to known crime hotspot St. Paul, Minnesota, Nelson recruited fellow public enemies Homer van Meter, Tommy Carroll and Eddie Green. With them and two local criminals he took the First National Bank in Brainerd, Minnesota for $24,000 in October, 1933. Witnesses reported his manic glee at spraying bullets in all directions during the robbery, even though such wanton gunplay was entirely unnecessary. After the Brainerd robbery Nelson fled West again to San Antonio, Texas where he rendezvoused with his wife Helen and their son Ronald.
San Antonio proved useful. Here Nelson met underworld gunsmith Hyman Lehman, who specialised in providing guns and ammunition to criminals and had a neat side-line in modifying ordinary weapons for criminal use. Nelson bought a .38 pistol modified to fire full-auto. It was a gun that, at Little Bohemia, Wisconsin, he would use to kill his first FBI agent, Special Agent Carter Baum. Nelson had to flee San Antonio when police, acting on a tip-off, tried to arrest the gang. One detective was killed and another wounded.
It was in March of 1934 that Nelson hooked up with his most notorious crime partner, a certain John Herbert Dillinger, who had just broken out of the supposedly escape-proof prison at Crown Point in Indiana. Dillinger, facing likely electrocution for the murder of an East Chicago bank guard during a previous robbery, had enlisted the aid of the Nelson gang to smuggle him a gun via a prison trusty named Herbert Blunk. Dillinger’s lawyer Louis Piquett was the middleman and Nelson’s gang put up the bribe money in return for Dillinger working with them on subsequent robberies and paying them back out of his share of the take. As soon as Dillinger arrived, Nelson needlessly murdered a local businessman in a road rage incident and the gang had to flee again.
Two days after his latest murder the new gang robbed the Security National Bank in Sioux Falls, South Dakota of around $49,000. During the robbery Nelson machine-gunned and almost killed another police officer who arrived on the scene and didn’t get a chance to draw his own weapon. On March 13 the gang struck again, taking the First National Bank in Mason City, Iowa for $52,000, although gang member John ‘Red’ Hamilton and Dillinger were both wounded in the subsequent shoot-out. In early April Eddie Green was ambushed and killed by FBI agents who initially thought they’d killed Dillinger, by which time Dillinger, Nelson and the others were long gone.
After Mason City, Chase and Nelson fled back to Reno. Nelson had worked for two major local crime-lords during his previous stay there and they were fighting a Federal mail fraud case. A witness, Roy Fritsch, needed to be disposed of and the FBI later determined through informants that Nelson and Chase had done his old bosses a little favour during their stay. Fritsch disappeared and his body has never been found.
It was on April 20, 1934 that Nelson hooked up once more with Dillinger at Little Bohemia, Wisconsin. Acting on a tip from the proprietor, one Emil Wanatka, the guesthouse was surrounded by FBI agents hoping to take the entire gang all at once. It was a disastrous failure. Agents accidentally opened fire on three local workers leaving the bar, thinking they were gang members and the resulting shoot-out was a huge embarrassment for the FBI. All the gang members escaped, but not before Nelson killed Special Agent Carter Baum and left Special Agent Jay Newman and local Constable Carl Christenson seriously wounded. Nelson then stole Baum’s car and escaped back to Chicago after hiding out with a Chippewa Native American named ‘Catfish’ for several days and then stealing another car.
Baum’s murder made Nelson, previously of little interest to the FBI, a highly-wanted man. They’d only been interested in him for two weeks prior to the Baum murder, mainly because of his links to Dillinger. A day after Little Bohemia, John ‘Red’ Hamilton was wounded again, this time as gang members crashed a police roadblock. His wounds were mortal. Hamilton died and was secretly buried by the gang members who had reunited in Aurora, Illinois.
On June 7, Tommy Carroll died in Waterloo, Iowa after being recognised and challenged by police officers. Nelson took Carroll’s death particularly badly as Carroll had been a personal friend. It also did little to sate Nelson’s perpetual love of violence, especially when directed against law enforcement officers. Nelson and his wife went into hiding for several weeks, shifting from place to place the national manhunt swirled around their hiding places.
On June 30, 1934 Nelson and the rest of the gang robbed the Merchant’s National Bank in South Bend, Indiana. It would be the gang’s last robbery. Police officer Howard Wagner was murdered by Homer van Meter and Nelson shot and wounded local a local man in a parked car while firing at bystander Harry Berg. When the gang fled with $28,000, far less than they’d expected, they took hostages to deter police pursuit. The gang split up again, Nelson choosing to stick with old pal John Paul Chase. On July 15 the gang reunited in Chicago only to be interrupted by Illinois State Troopers Fred McAllister and Gilbert Cross, both of whom were seriously wounded by Nelson using the same modified automatic pistol he’d used to kill Special Agent Baum, wound Special Agent Newman and wound Constable Christenson at Little Bohemia. Both men survived.
On July 22, 1934 Dillinger was shot dead outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago. Homer van Meter died in St. Paul, Minnesota on August 23 in another shoot-out with police officers. On October 22 Charles ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd was shot dead after a chase through East Liverpool, Ohio. Nelson was now the only survivor of what the press had called, much to Nelson’s annoyance, ‘The Second Dillinger Gang.’
Nelson, his wife and John Paul Chase spent the next couple of months drifting aimlessly through the Midwest, California and Nevada. Having inherited the mantle of ‘Public Enemy Number One’ Nelson now found many of his former underworld haunts and safehouses closed to him. There was simply too much heat for other criminals to seen helping him or working with him. On November 27, 1934 the end finally came. And not just for Nelson.
Nelson, his wife and Chase were seen driving a stolen car towards the Chicago by FBI agents Thomas McDade and William Ryan. Nelson kept lists of FBI license plate numbers and quickly recognised the agents for what they were, opening fire almost immediately. After a frantic chase through the streets, a bullet from Ryan’s gun disabled Nelson’s car and two other ‘G Men’ arrived on the scene, Special Agent Herman ‘Ed’ Hollis (killer of ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd) and Inspector Samuel Cowley. They were just outside the town of Barrington, Illinois and Nelson’s last stand, the so-called ‘Battle of Barrington’, was about to begin.
Witnessed by nearly 30 people, the ‘Battle of Barrington’ ended with Nelson shot 17 times and Hollis and Cowley both mortally wounded. Inspector Cowley remains the most senior FBI officer ever to be murdered in the line of duty, while Nelson still holds the record for the most FBI agents killed by a single felon. Nelon, himself mortally wounded, was driven from the scene by his wife and Chase in the FBI agents’ car. He died of his wounds at 7:35pm in Wilmette, Illinois and his body was dumped outside St. Peter Catholic Cemetery in the nearby town of Skokie where it was discovered by FBI Agent Walter Walsh.
Leaster Joseph Gillis, AKA George Nelson and ‘Baby Face Nelson,’ lies buried at St. Joseph’s Cemetery in River Grove, Illinois. He’d doubtless be gratified that people still write articles and books about him even today, but I certainly wouldn’t have called him ‘Baby Face’ in his presence.