Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Baby Face Nelson: Childlike Mug, Psychopathic Soul

Public Enemies

"I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself."

— D.H. Lawrence

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. (Brown Bros.)
FBI director J. Edgar
Hoover. (Brown Bros.)

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover vowed to put an end to the parade of crime marching through America's corn belt. Time had merely modernized the outlaw, gave him a Ford instead of a horse, a tommy gun instead of a six-shooter. Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Henry Starr, John Wesley Hardin and Calamity Jane — these bandits of the Old West hadn't gone away, they were very much still alive, but had changed their names to John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde.

Someone — Hoover knew it must be he — had to put an end to the terror they inflicted on bank owners. His organization — then called simply the Bureau of Investigation — had been taking it on the chin, walloped by a public and press that complained its agents were untrained and inefficient. Criminals, able to escape at every turn, were glamorized.

Hoover needed a rooting call, a wake-up call, as it were, to show the public, the press — and the desperadoes — that he meant business. The days of the Keystone Kops were over. He declared war. He declared war, held a press conference, and presented what he called a "Public Enemies List". Those, whose names appeared on the list, he said, were thenceforward marked for capture or death. His government men — his G-men — would not rest until each criminal passed into oblivion.

Dillinger's name topped the list. Lester Gillis/Baby Face Nelson followed.

According to the FBI's web page, "Hoover assigned Special Agent Samuel A. Cowley to head the FBI's investigative efforts against Dillinger. Cowley set up headquarters in Chicago where he and Melvin Purvis, Special Agent in charge of the Chicago Office, planned their strategy. A squad of agents under Cowley (tracked down) all tips and rumors."

Public Enemy Number One was traced to St. Paul where he and his disciples had flown after the Mason City job. On March 30, reacting to tips, federal agents arrived at the Lincoln Court Apartments where they believed he and girlfriend Billie Frechette were staying. A pitch gun battle ensued and Dillinger escaped.

But, of the other outlaws named on Hoover's hit list, they were not forgotten. Lester, having heard of Johnny's near miss, fled to the woodlands of Iron County, Wisconsin, where he and Helen rented a cabin, awaiting further word from the dispersed gang. Homer Van Meter, Tommy Carroll and John Hamilton skedaddled west of the Mississippi. Eddie Green, the "jugmaker," employed bad judgment in deciding to remain with his girlfriend, Bessie Skinner, in St. Paul. On April 3, agents tracked him down to her apartment. He tried to fight it out but, unlike Dillinger, he couldn't outshoot his pursuers. He died of gun wounds in a hospital days later.

Lester, in the meantime, sulked. That Dillinger had been named Public Enemy Number One aggravated Lester's Napoleonic complex. To him, it was just another scratching piece of evidence that the top he was striving so hard to reach remained unattainable. Adding salt to the wound, Hoover had placed a $20,000 shoot-to-kill reward on Dillinger, but half that for Lester.

"He deeply resented that the bounty on Dillinger's head was higher than that on his own," explains Richard Lindberg in Return to the Scene of the Crime. "The berserk killer interpreted this as a slap to the face and an insult to his good name and reputation. 'Don't these lawmen know they are dealing with the most dangerous man in America?' he snorted. 'They should want to pay top dollar to get the most dangerous man in the country, don't you think?'"

Lester continued to brood, but silently, when back in Dillinger's company. In mid-April, 1934, the gang reconvened in a lodge in northern Wisconsin to plan its next series of bank jobs. The hideaway they had chosen, the Bohemia Lodge, was located 50 miles above Rhinelander in a remote area of timber, visited only by hunters and fisherman, and that was only after the sporting season officially opened in May. In April, the lodge and the entire area were desolate but for a few committed naturalists and the Dillinger/ Nelson gang. The latter had found the ideal sanctuary from prying law enforcement agencies, large and small.

Or so they thought.

But, the resort's owner was skeptical as to why this group of men, dressed like city slickers and with pale-skinned city women, would choose to vacation there miles from nowhere at such an off time. He contacted the local police who, in turn, notified the FBI. From the descriptions he gave of his non-conforming guests, the G-men thought two of them fit those of Baby Face Nelson and John Dillinger.

Melvin Purvis, the FBI's top man in the Mid-West. (FBI)
Melvin Purvis, the
FBI's top man in the
Mid-West. (FBI)

Melvin Purvis, in Chicago, arranged for about three dozen agents from various Midwestern locales to unite at Rhinelander; from there, as a single unit, they would converge on the Bohemia Lodge. Private planes flew select agents in from St. Paul and Chicago. They met on the afternoon of April 22, received a quick briefing from Sam Cowley, then in the cold twilight hours proceeded north to the wilderness.

Bad luck haunted them from the outset. En route, two of their cars broke down; agents in these vehicles were forced to ride the remainder of the way on the running boards of the others despite the biting north-westerly that numbed the skin. Two miles from its destination, the cortege extinguished its auto lamps and rolled, engines humming, onto the open grounds adjacent to the rambling, sombrely lit two-story inn. The slight noise they made, no more than the crunching of frozen twigs and acorns beneath rolling tires, was enough, however, to stir the lodge's few stray hounds loitering on the resort's piazza. In haste, the plainclothesmen fanned out around the building lest the animals' barking alert the inhabitants.

Three men emerged from the lodge, shushed the yelping dogs; then climbed into a coupe parked below the porch. Purvis, still at some distance from the main building, called for the men to halt, but the trio hadn't heard him over their cranking engine. When they pulled away, agents opened fire, killing the driver instantly and seriously wounding the others. Much to the lawmen's dismay, they discovered they had attacked three innocent tourists.

Midnight gunfire could mean only one thing to outlaws — the police. In the midst of a poker game, Dillinger, Van Meter and Hamilton abandoned their aces and eights for revolvers and jackets, and flew out the nearest portals to the woods behind the lot. Tommy Carroll, in another room, scrambled over his window ledge and disappeared into the night. Federal men, although circling the structure, had seen none of these men depart.

Lester was a different story. Having been asleep beside Helen in one of several outlying cabins, he threw on pinstripes over pajamas and, in Baby Face Nelson fashion, darted into the yard blazing an automatic from each grip at silhouettes in the dark. He missed Purvis by inches. Like the others, he took to the cover of the dark forest.

Realizing they had lost their men, the G-men pursued them on foot and by car throughout the night. Several agents remained at the lodge in case the outlaws returned for their women, whom they left behind. Up the road, Dillinger and his two card-playing friends had stolen a farmer's car and evaded the tightening loop of lawmen; Carroll, too, had pirated a vehicle and made his escape. They all managed to disappear without confrontation with the law.

Again, except Lester. He had run the opposite way from the others, lost now, but eventually finding himself in a clearing bordered by a cluster of small fishing cabins, only one of which was lit. Over its door read a darkened sign, "Koerner's Resort — Office — Vacancy". The air smelled of a nearby lake and all was deathly quiet; he could hear two things: his own breath coming in unrhythmic rasping and the sputter of a slow idling engine from the highway just beyond the trees; probably a Bureau car, scouting for the getaways.

He peeked onto the dashboard of the only car in the lot, sitting outside the office. Keys hung from the ignition. That was good. He needed a set of wheels, quickly, and this was it. A quick glance over his shoulder — no one watching him — he slid onto the front seat. But, as he was about to fire the engine, a pair of bright headlamps manoeuvred onto the lot. Lester ducked down in his seat and watched. Inside the shell of the coming auto he could see three figures. By their erratic gesturing, they were hunting. And they had G-man written all over them.

As they glided silently near, their own vehicle behind his own, Lester leaped out and rammed his pair of automatics into the prowlers' open window. "You're coppers, ain't ya?" Three stunned expressions met him back. Lester opened fire point-blank, emptying his weapons into the three agents. The man nearest him, Special Agent Carter Baum died instantly, bullets bursting his skull. The other two groaned in agonizing pain.

Shoving all three limp federals from the car, he leaped into their auto, its pistons still chucking under the hood.

Beat that one, Johnny Dillinger! he thought, and he laughed like a demon as he sped into the night.

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