Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Baby Face Nelson: Childlike Mug, Psychopathic Soul

Chasing Glory

"Avoid shame, but do not seek glory — nothing so expensive as glory."

— Sydney Smith

Lester was wise enough to know that bank robbing is an art unto itself. To be successful at it, he knew he would need two things: 1) experience and 2) a dependable crew. He and Chase sought the first by driving to Long Beach, Indiana, a known roost for freelance desperadoes looking for work. Hearing that one of Dillinger's top men, Homer Van Meter, was in town, Lester tracked him down at his hotel.

Van Meter, a parolee from Michigan State Prison, was a hard man with a mean temperament and face of granite; he was a quick-trigger who had served Dillinger well in recent bank hits within the Great Lakes region. Likes and dislikes were distinct, and he seemed to dislike — and made no pains to conceal his feelings — the squirt named George Nelson from the start.

"You, you little punk, you wanna join the Dillingers?" he roared, nearly falling off his bar stool. "Ya' never robbed a bank in your damned life and you think you're material for us?" A second and more robust laugh angered Lester, who would have gone for his gun but thought twice only because this was John Dillinger's personal amigo.

"Yeah, but I have good recommendations," Lester complained.

"Sure, sure ya' do, Nelson! I heard of ya'," Van Meter reported. "Batting dopes' heads in with a Louisville Slugger and stabbing silk-tied mobsters in the back for refusing to buy your favorite wop's booze! Yeah, I've heard of Baby Face Nelson."

Lester reddened. "A guy's gotta start somewhere! And don't call me that. I hate that name."

"Well, frankly there, Baby Face," Van Meter taunted, "I think you're a damned loony-bin. Everybody says so. Ya' have a couple screws loose and we don't want no nut handling jobs for us. So, why don't ya' just take a hike and—"

"You sunuvabitch," Lester growled, turned and walked away. He'd shot men for a lot less and damned that Dutchie — him and all of Dillinger's wolf pack anyway if that was their attitude. He'd get even with them! Maybe that's what he needed, he told himself, to get him going on his own. He was just glad Chase wasn't there to see how he, Big George Nelson, had to back off from that bag of wind.

Loitering about town, trying to solder connections with some of the other forming rackets, Chase and Lester spotted their friends from Sausalito, Carroll and Green who were also again on the make for hired hands. Strapped for change and eager to scratch their yearnings, the job seekers lit out in Lester's automobile, one he bought in California, and armed up. They were going to rob banks.

Not many details are known about Lester's gang at this time except that it moved fast and it moved quickly between three states — Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska — hitting small-town banks with frenzy and always escaping with sacks of currency. Lester was learning in the process, watching his two professionals, Tommy Carroll and Eddie Green in action — how they'd sweep in, spray the ceiling with bullets to unnerve their victims, overpower the startled guards, corral all customers and tellers into one corner, force one or two employees to open the cash drawers and the vault, bag the money, then, spraying the walls with gunfire as citizens dove for the floor, scoot into the already gunned-up getaway car. Neat, Clean. If a guard tried to be a hero, or a teller refused to hand over the cash, well, then Lester would blast them into eternity as warning signs to other banks to come to play ball. Chase, ever loyal, often waited in the car, foot poised over the accelerator, ready to rev it on a given sign. Helen would sometimes tag along, crouched in the back seat, biting her fingernails but tingling at the excitement. She told her husband he looked his dashing best cradling a Thompson submachine gun in the crook of his arm.

He played the image to the hilt.

What Lester didn't know about robbing banks he made up for in gab and gall, the first on the scene and the loudest. The cussing, cursing, gaudily dressed runt would shout at the frightened customers to open their purses and billfolds and to turn out their pockets, shout at the guards to disarm themselves — or else, shout at the tellers to move quicker, shout at the bank managers to shut up, shout at the clerks to help them collect the money.

In no time, the law interpreted the gang as his. Chase, Carroll or Green didn't care as long as they got paid. But, Lester Gillis, aka George Nelson, was wholly flattered — even though the reporters had somehow gotten hold of that accursed nickname and used it every time they mentioned him in their papers. Always the same: Baby Face Nelson.

John Dillinger, 1933. (FBI)
John Dillinger, 1933.

One reason why he may not have complained too energetically about a mere nickname is because he had weightier matters on his mind. What notoriety he did receive was very limited. Many times after a bank hold-up, other gunsels got the credit. Bloodletters and Badmen, by Jay Robert Nash, states: "Nelson was outraged because the publicity mistakenly went to...the Dillinger gang or to Pretty Boy Floyd. Baby Face felt credit should be given where credit was due. Although he admired the work of the level-headed Dillinger, he also hated him because of Dillinger's publicity and the impressive rewards offered for his capture."

The gang's hub was St. Paul, Minnesota, there they would hide out, refresh until the heat cooled, and in the meantime partake of the town's shows, fine restaurants and museums, no different than any other tourist — sans the .45 Colt automatic tucked under their jackets. St. Paul's police department was so corrupt during the 1930s that fugitives running from the law could count on the cops to provide uncontested lodging; the only stipulation was that the transients cause no trouble while in the fair city. A popular phrase among the underworld at the time described outlaws who had seemed to vanish as being "either dead or in St. Paul".

John Paul Chase had taken leave of the gang during this time to visit relatives at home. Lester and Helen resided in the posh, celebrity-status Hotel St. Francis, frequenting its glamorous Moorish-heavy speakeasy, the Granada Night Club. Located in the hotel's basement, it catered to a liquor-loving crowd that, despite Prohibition, drank well into the morning hours. Lester and Helen rubbed shoulders with the famous and infamous — headline criminal figures as well as Hollywood and theatre stars of the day. Guests included Clark Gable, Jack Benny, Harry Houdini, Charlie Chaplin, George Burns and Gracie Allen.

The luxurious St Francis hotel, St Paul MN (Courtesy of hotel)
The luxurious St Francis hotel, St
Paul MN (Courtesy of hotel)

It was here that Homer Van Meter, who so bluntly gave Lester the heave-ho in Indiana, was forced to swallow pride and invite him to join the Dillinger gang. According to Jay Robert Nash, Van Meter approached Lester in February of 1934 when he and another member, John Hamilton, were the only two left of the Dillingers still at large. "Bank busters Harry Pierpont, Charles Mackley and Russell Clark were all in custody in Ohio," Nash writes. "Dillinger himself was languishing in the so-called escape proof Crown Point Jail in Indiana...Van Meter and Hamilton went to Nelson...interested in a merger."

"Johnny's breaking out of that tin can soon," Nash quotes Van Meter as saying. "Do you have any big action for us?"

To which Lester reportedly replied, "On one condition. Can John Dillinger take orders?"

"Why, you little—" Van Meter started, but stifled when the other overrode him.

"Eddie Green has marked two jugs, one in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and the other in Mason City, Iowa. Big dough there. And they're my jobs with my men. Take it or leave it."

Van Meter bit his lip, staring steely at the pesky gnat. "All right...all right. I think we'll tag along."

Two weeks later, John Dillinger indeed broke from Crown Point, the jail he had vowed would never hold him. Once again, he made a laughing stock of the judicial system. And he laughed all the way to St. Paul on his way to meet his new partner, Baby Face Nelson.

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