Post by Graveyardbride on Dec 6, 2013 21:02:28 GMT -5
December 6, 1908: ‘Baby Face’
On December 6, 1908, Lester M. Gillis was born in Chicago. He began roaming the streets at a young age and by the time he entered his teens, he was running with a gang of young hoodlums stealing tires, robbing people and bootlegging. By age 14, he was an accomplished car thief and soon breaking into the homes of the rich and robbing them. Unlike his accomplices, Gillis never lost his juvenile appearance and before long, he was dubbed “Baby Face,” a name he loathed, but was never able to shake. Somewhere along the line, he assumed the pseudonym George Nelson and lived the remainder of his short life as Baby Face Nelson.
At one point, Nelson worked for Al Capone in some of his racketeering operations, but the young Nelson was so violent and erratic that Capone fired him. In 1922, he was convicted of automobile theft and committed to a boys’ home. He was released on parole two years later, but within five months, was brought up on similar charges. At the age of 20, he met and fell in love with Helen Wawzynak, a salesgirl, and the two married. On their marriage license, Nelson used his real name and Helen was always known as Helen Gillis.
In January 1931, Nelson was convicted of robbing a Chicago bank and the judge sentenced him to a term of one year to life in prison at the Illinois State Penitentiary in Joliet. The following year, he was removed from the penitentiary to stand trial for a second bank robbery in Wheaton, Illinois, and on February 17, 1932, escaped while being returned to Joliet. He had sense enough not to remain in Illinois and decided to go west. After a brief stay in Reno, Nevada, he moved on to Sausalito, California, where he was soon joined by his wife and met John Paul Chase, with whom he would be closely associated for the remainder of his life. Nelson stayed in California until May 1933.
In the spring of 1934, after John Dillinger escaped the Crown Point [Indiana] Jail, he headed to St. Paul and shortly thereafter, joined a new gang that included Baby Face Nelson. However, Nelson’s penchant for shooting and killing did not sit well with the calm, cool and collected Dillinger and the two often argued. On one occasion, Nelson was assigned to stand watch outside a bank while other members robbed it and when Dillinger and the others came out, a man was lying on the ground writhing in pain after being shot by Nelson. “Did you have to do that?!” Dillinger reprimanded him. Many who have studied Depression era gangsters claim it was Nelson’s instability that brought unwanted attention – specifically that of J. Edgar Hoover’s newly formed Bureau of Investigation – to the Dillinger gang. While Dillinger insisted his men avoid unnecessary violence and when he let hostages out of the car, would give them bus fare home, Nelson had a hair-trigger temper and little regard for human life.
In April 1934, the gang went into hiding at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin. Unfortunately, the owners of the hideout tipped off government agents and in the early morning hours of Sunday, April 22, agents, led by Hoover favorite Melvin Purvis, opened fire on the building, killing one innocent bystander and injuring two others. As the raid commenced, Dillinger and the other men quietly escaped through a back door, but Nelson returned fire before fleeing. He later forced his way into a nearby home and car-jacked a law enforcement vehicle, killing one of Hoover’s men and wounding a second agent as well as a local policeman. The gangsters’ women, including Helen Gillis, were left behind and all were arrested.
The bungled Little Bohemia raid embarrassed Hoover and the government. The killing of an innocent bystander caused the agency to redouble its efforts to capture Dillinger, who, by this time, was designated Public Enemy No. 1.
The gang, including Nelson, reunited and on June 30, 1934, robbed the Merchants National Bank in South Bend, Indiana. But something went terribly wrong, a gun battle ensued and Nelson was shot in the back, however, because he was wearing a bulletproof vest, he only staggered a little. Then Joseph Pawlowski, a teenager, tackled Nelson from behind and Baby Face went “wild,” shooting with one hand and attempting to dislodge Pawlowski with the other. During the melee, Homer Van Meter shot a patrolman by the name of Wagner, killing him. Later, on Wolf Road outside Chicago, Nelson shot two additional police officers as they approached the gang’s designated meeting place.
On July 22, 1934, a man government agents identified as John Dillinger was ambushed and killed outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater and just three months later, Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd was killed. With Floyd’s death, George “Baby Face” Nelson became Public Enemy No. 1.
After Dillinger’s “death,” Nelson traveled to Nevada and joined John Paul Chase near Minden. The two then returned to Chicago, where they stole a car November 26 and drove to Wisconsin.
Inspector Samuel P. Cowley, one of Hoover’s men in Chicago, had been assigned to search for Nelson and on November 27, 1934, received word that he had been seen driving a stolen car. Two agents spotted the vehicle near Barrington, Illinois, and Nelson brought his car around behind the agents at which point Chase fired five rounds from an automatic weapon into their vehicle. One of the agents returned fire and one of the bullets pierced the radiator of Nelson’s car, partially disabling it. Cowley and Special Agent Herman Edward Hollis approached in another automobile and began pursuing Nelson and Chase. Suddenly, Nelson veered off Northwest Highway at the entrance to the North Side Park in Barrington and stopped. Before Cowley and Hollis could exit their car, Nelson and Chase opened fire. Hollis was killed during the shootout, which lasted four or five minutes, and Cowley, badly wounded, died the following morning. Nelson was also critically injured and Chase had to help him into Cowley’s car. During the gun battle, Helen Gillis had been lying low in a nearby field and jumped into the government vehicle as Chase was driving away.
Baby Face Nelson died around 8 o’clock that evening. In response to an anonymous telephone call, Bureau of Investigation agents found his bullet-riddled body (above) the next day near a cemetery in Niles Center, Illinois.
Nelson’s widow was arrested November 29, 1934, for violating the terms of her parole. She was sentenced to serve a year and one day. Chase was arrested on the west coast in December 1934 and spent 23 years at Alcatraz and another 12 at Leavenworth. He died of cancer October 5, 1973, at the age of 71.
Sources: Bloodletters and Badmen by Jay Robert Nash; Federal Bureau of Investigation; The Case Profile of Baby Face Nelson; and American Gangsters.