| The Chicago newspapers that devoted many
days and many pages to the killing of Dillinger
devoted only a couple of days to the death of
Baby Face Nelson...and let it go at that. No place
of his death was reported--not even the location
where his body was found, nude but wrapped in a
blanket, because Lester "hated the cold." The
only follow-up story was published a week later
by The International News Service.
Journal-American. A greatly expanded story is
described in 'Baby Face Nelson: Portrait of a
Public Enemy,' but neither his wife Helen nor his
two children have declined to elaborate.
Lester J. Gillis, a/k/a
BABY FACE NELSON
Baby Face Nelson might be discounted as a runty, irascible,
trigger-happy gun-nut who hated his nickname, became linked
to John Dillinger through a mutual bad-ass acquaintance, and
killed some people, including three federal agents. That's what
one might think.
And one would not be wrong.
On the other hand, he really liked cars--stole them, worked
on them, and raced them at Chicago's Robey Speedway; and
his mother Mary assured everyone that he "never lied" to her.
Unlike his outlaw friends, he rarely drank and never cheated
on his wife, Helen, who stayed with him even in gun battles.
(Today he would be called a borderline psychopath, over-
compensating for his wimpy name and diminutive size in a
co-dependency marriage to an otherwise harmless dime-store
clerk, who somehow loved this wierdo.)
When he graduated to bank robbery, "Lester" was not the
kind of name to make your blood run cold. So he adopted the
nom de guerre George Nelson until FBI bulletins came out.
Then he became Jimmy Wilson.
Exactly how Lester, aka "George Nelson," acquired the
nickname "Baby Face" isn't clear, but it probably was
attached to him by a young woman bank-teller who said the
robber had a "baby face"--likely inspired by a popular tune
of the day, "Baby Face," as in "You've got the cutest little
baby face," which still drives many people nuts.
So, stuck with "Baby Face Nelson," which he kept trying
to change to Jimmy Williams, it's little wonder that Lester
turned really mean. (Anybody who stormed into a bank
declaring he was Lester Gillis would have caused bank
officials and tellers to snicker.)
He had been an all-around delinquent while growing up
in what Chicago called "The Patch" on the Near West Side,
and the suicide of his dad when he was eight didn't help
matters--except make him closer to his mom, who "always
knew" when Lester was lying (probably because she never
actually asked if he stole things or robbed banks). Nor did
she squawk when Lester married a cute sixteen-year-old
dime-store sales girl named Helen Wawrzniak; and
probably it was a relative who slipped him a pistol with
which he escaped from a guard on his way to the prison at
After that he set up a better no-account bank-robbery
gang which included Homer van Meter, one of the group
that, on September 26, 1933, had broken out of the Indiana
state penitentiary at Michigan City, thanks to guns
supplied by recently-paroled John Dillinger. Van Meter
knew Dillinger from prison days and he prevailed on
Nelson to advance the bribe money needed to spring
Dillinger from the jail at Crown Point, Indiana. He argued
that Dillinger's notoriety and flair for the dramatic would
add much-needed class to Nelson's two-bit operation, and
Nelson reluctantly agreed, even though he knew that his
own lackluster crew would instantly become known as the
Dillinger Gang. (Today, careful researchers call Nelson's
gang the Second Dillinger Gang.)
HIS FATHER A SUICIDE, his
rights trampled upon by brutal lawmen
(because he basically was a cop-hating,
car-stealing, car-racing, car-crazy
nogoodnik, even if he was faithful to his
wife), is it any wonder that Lester Gillis
went to the bad? In a word, yes. He
was a bad-tempered asshole who made life
miserable even for his fellow outlaws,
because he was pugnacious,
irritable, and actually liked to shoot people.
According to one newspaper account, the
dying Nelson, a good Catholic boy--or maybe
not such a good Catholic boy--first was
taken to a Waukegan Road monastery whose
monks said the Catholic equivalent of "Not
no, but hell no!"
Next stop, Father Coughlan's, in
Winnetka, who was happy as a p*g in sh*t to
see a freaked-out driver, a panic-stricken
Helen, and a shot-up Nelson, not quite dead.
He said something like "Jaysus! Get
that fukker outa here before my sister
comes home! I know a safe place!"
On July 22, 1934, Dillinger already had bee betrayed by
the duplicitous Anna Sage, the "Woman in Red," and killed
by federal agents outside the Biograph Theatre. (They also
wounded two passers-by, who are rarely mentioned.)
Nelson immediately split for California, where he
dabbled in the booze business before returning to the
Chicago area the following November. He headed for the
Lake Como Inn, near Lake Geneva, just across the state
line in Wisconsin, whose owner Hobart Hermansen had
been assigning him and/or Dillinger or others to what the
outlaws called the Doll House, a little two-story cabin
separate from the Hotel proper. The feds had gotten wind
of this and "prevailed" on owner Hermansen let them use
his place as a trap. (Actually, Hermansen didn't have much
choice in the matter; he was a bootlegger, courting the
ex-wife of Bugs Moran who lived in another lake house a
hundred yards or so down the road, and the feds could
have charged him with harboring.) Then came the "Battle
of Barrington" that baffled nearly everyone, except maybe
Baby Face, no doubt including Mr. Gillis.
AT LAST: The location in Niles Center (now Skokie) where Nelson's body was found after he
died in Jimmy Murray's safe-house at 1627 Walnut in the northern Chicago suburb of Wilmette.
THE LAKE COMO INN, near Lake
Geneva, Wisconsin, and staked out by
the FBI, was a favorite of Nelson's,
who liked to stay at the "Doll House,"
separated at left from the main hotel.
The G-men initially mistook Nelson's
car for the owner's, Hobart
Hermansen's 1934 Ford, but then
immediately called the Bureau office in
Chicago. Nelson realized he'd driven
into an unset trap and sped south
toward Barrington, where he killed two
Federal agents, escaped in their car,
and died that evening in Wilmette.
The next day, Federal authorities
tried (not very successfully) to explain
that their "Show no mercy" order did
not actually mean "Shoot to Kill" or
"Kill on sight."
Ray and Marie Henderson, occupants of Jimmy
Murray's safe house, were a bit freaked out by
Lester's arrival. Evidently Murray himself hurried
over to help move the body to St. Paul's Cemetery in
Niles Center (now Skokie) where police found it the
Mr. Haben, undertaker, who as a boy witnessed
the arrival of "Baby Face" Nelson, later posed next to
the slab where ol' Les was laid out at what was then
the Haben-Bradley Funeral Home.
Lester's gravestone, next to his wife Helen and
other family members, at St. Joseph's Cemetery, in a
suburb west of Chicago. Buried nearby is his
boyhood friend and later accomplice, Jack Perkins,
who thereafter hooked up with the Mob but still
looked after the Widow Gillis in her later years.
Although a Catholic "backslider," Les remained
close to Father Coughlen, a "spiritual" priest of the
tavern variety and ecclesiastical counselor to the
bank-robbing community, from whom Mr. Gillis
sought shelter in his hour of need. If the good Father
heard his Confession and gave him Last Rites, Lester
may have done a little time in Purgatory (later
abolished by the Church) but might eventually have
reached Heaven. If both were too rattled that
evening to think about saving his soul, the Devil may
have still have been impressed enough to employ
him as Hell's equivalent of a Wal-Mart Greeter.
|WITH NELSON DEAD, John Paul Chase was soon caught in California, and meanwhile
Helen had quickly surrendered to the FBI. But the local newspapers went nuts, for the
Bureau already had issued a show-no-mercy statement that one paper translated into a
"KILL WIDOW OF BABY-FACE" headline. The Feds then began arresting anyone ever
connected with Nelson--except for Father Coughlan, a sort-of priest, and Jimmy Murray,
who by now was a dubious informant trying to save his own hide. Not until 1937 did a
new neighbor, who had just moved in nearby and who happened to be a Kennilworth cop,
advise the FBI of new information pertaining to Nelson's guns, which were still in the
area and "too hot to handle." But Hoover, now chasing American Nazis in the
German-American Bund, considered bank-robbers history and no action was taken.
As bad luck would have it, the G-men had sent their only car into Lake Geneva for groceries,
and when a V-8 Ford approached they assumed it was only the Hermansens coming back. A
couple of feds stepped outside, only to realize that in the car were Baby Face Nelson, his wife
Helen, and a starstruck young bootlegger named John Paul Chase, who had ridden back with
them from California. Nelson quickly realized he'd stumbled into a trap that wasn't set, and he
chatted briefly with the agents (holding an automatic pistol under a newspaper), and then
hurriedly left. The feds put in a panicky call to Chicago, hoping Nelson could be
intercepted--since they had no car in which to give chase.
Melvin Purvis immediately dispatched two cars to head for Lake Como via the Northwest
Highway (then U.S. 12, later U.S. 14), and near the hamlet of Fox River Grove Agent Thomas
McDade thought he recognized Nelson's car and turned around to give chase. Likewise thinking
he recognized a G-car, Nelson spun his Ford around and as the two passed a second time,
Nelson was certain. But instead of running, Nelson turned around yet again and began chasing
McDade. As he pulled up beside McDade's coupe, McDade's partner got off a lucky shot that
managed to hit Nelson's fuel pump near the northern outskirts of the town of Barrington,
allowing the agents to make it through town and set up an ambush.
Meanwhile, an FBI Hudson, carrying Inspector Sam Cowley and Agent Herman Hollis, had
encountered the running gun battle, wondered why it was going in the wrong direction with the
wrong car in pursuit, and turned around to catch Nelson from behind. But Nelson's Ford already
was conking out, and Cowley and Hermanson's Hudson skidded to a stop near where Nelson
ditched his own car at the dirt road entrance to Barrington's city park.
While Helen ran for cover in a nearby ditch, Nelson and the Feds opened up on each other.
What happened next isn't clear, but Hollis, with a Thompson, managed to get a .45 slug under
Nelson's bullet-proof vest but was killed when Nelson hit him in the head just as he reached a
nearby telephone pole. Nelson, now mortally wounded himself, shouted "I'm going to get those
sons of bitches" and marched straight into the fire from Sam Cowley's shotgun, taking buckshot
wounds in both legs.
Most accounts have Nelson firing a Thompson, but apparently it jammed so he grabbed a .351
rifle from Chase, who had been reloading guns, and also killed Sam Cowley.
Despite his wounds, Nelson managed to get into the Federal car, back it up to his own, help
load weapons into it while Helen by the time Helen reached the G-Men's Hudson, and then told
Chase he had to drive. They headed west on a crossroad to the town of Winnetka, near Lake
Michigan and the house of The Reverend Philip Coughlen.
It was early evening and Father Coughlen was thoroughly dismayed to when the shot-up
Hudson, bearing a bloody Baby Face Nelson, pulled into his driveway. He took one look and he
said, in so many words, "For God's sake!," and said to get the hell out of here and he'd lead
them to a safe place. Later he called the police, said he didn't know where to go at that point,
and that Nelson and company lost him when they turned off on a side street. Just as likely he led
them to Wilmette and a house at 1627 Walnut Street, then left in a hurry.
It turned out that 1627 was one of the "safe houses" of Jimmy Murray's, a dedicated rascal
who not only had masterminded the country's largest-ever train robber at a hamlet north of
Chicago in 1924, but after his released he opened the Rainbo Barbeque cafe just north of that
city's limits, turning it into a gangster and outlaw hangout for the likes of John Dillinger and
Baby Face Nelson.
Probably unconscious by this time, Nelson and the equally upset residents at 1627 carried
him inside and laid him on a bed, where he died about 7:30. Then Helen and others drove his
body to the corner of a nearby cemetery and laid him, wrapped in a blanket, in a shallow ditch
next to it. Then they made an anonymous telephone call to the police, who found him there the
Young Lester and his even younger Helen
HOBART HERMANSEN'S LAKE COMO INN
|Baby Face Nelson's sister, Juliette, after talking to Helen Gillis before she surrendered to the
Feds, gave the following account of his death. For some reason, local newspapers never followed
up on the house were he died nor did they describe where Nelson's body was found.
|Above: Jimmy Murray's "safe house" at 1627 Walnut in
Wilmette, where Lester shuffled off his mortal coil.
|Mr. Haben remember's the late Nelson's arrival, and
Lester is buried in the Chicago area, next to his sister.
BUY DA BOOK
It just happens to be
the only book!
It's even signed
by da authors
(AT LEAST 'TILL
HE RUNS OUT)
|Win a few, lose a few... Maybe Mary just didn't
ask Lester the right questions.