Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Baby Face Nelson: Childlike Mug, Psychopathic Soul

Out With a Bang

"I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul."

— W.E. Henley

Lester was in California when he heard the great news. John Herbert Dillinger, the unconquerable, the illimitable, had goofed. On the humid Sunday evening of July 22, 1934, he had walked into a trap set by the FBI at a movie house in Chicago. He had been betrayed by a woman and riddled by agents' bullets when he tried to run. Cornered, killed just like any other unwise dope.

Now, he, Lester Gillis, Baby Face Nelson, was Public Enemy Number One.

Baby Face Nelson's baby face wife, Helen. (Bob Fischer)
Baby Face Nelson's
baby face wife, Helen.
(Bob Fischer)

After the shootout at Bohemian Lodge and his killing of G-Man Hollis, Lester hid out for a month in an Indian reservation near Lake Flambeaux, Wisconsin. Methodically, he worked his way to and got lost in the shuffle of Chicago. Wife Helen, who had been taken into police custody at the lodge but paroled after three weeks, caught up with him there. So did his old pal, John Paul Chase, whom he had contacted. His plan was to form a new gang. But, Eddie Green, he learned, was dead. And so was Tommy Carroll who died after being shot to pieces by lawmen in Waterloo, Iowa. Federal agents were clearly winning the fight in the Midwest, so Lester bought time to reconsider his next steps by taking his spouse and friend Chase to safer climes, back to the West Coast. There they remained throughout the summer of 1934.

After Dillinger's death, things got no better for the array of motor bandits. John Hamilton had fallen in with bad company, shot and dumped in an Illinois quarry. Van Meter, whom Lester was glad to see get his, went down under a hail of bullets in St. Paul. Around the country, others on Hoover's hit list perished — Bonnie and Clyde near Shreveport, Louisiana; Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd outside Wellsville, Ohio.

The shoot-happy, top-of-the-list Baby Face Nelson, however, continued to sidestep an ongoing manhunt. But, the ghost of Dillinger haunted him. The media kept comparing him to the late, great Indiana-born folk hero in uncomplimentary tones, aghast that the little gunslinger managed to outlive the much more adroit Dillinger. Even the FBI was calling Lester a punk compared to the elusive other, refusing to raise the reward on his head to equal that ever assigned to Dillinger's.

"I'll show them, I'll show 'em who's the better man!" Lester told Chase. "Even if I have to rob a bank a day, they'll see who's the best!"

In August, the Californians took a trip to Nevada for a spell, lingering around the town of Minden, then came back to Chicago. It was Lester's goal to staff up for what he hoped would be a bank-robbing spree. But, he found no takers. The underworld had turned its back on him, for he was just too hot to deal with and by reputation too rabid to be practical. Ominous consensus claimed he wouldn't live until Christmas now that he had stupidly come out of hiding.

FBI Inspector Cowley soon learned that Lester and Chase had returned to familiar climes. Cowley was one of the Bureau's "shining stars," proclaims a report from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. "Only 35 years of age, (he) had managed to build quite a reputation for himself as a man with a brilliant, analytical mind and a tireless work ethic." With Purvis, he had determined not to let this murderer slip through their hands again.

From what agents were able to put together through eyewitnesses, Lester's Ford V-8 travelled frequently on northern Illinois highways between Chicago and Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, just across the state line. From time to time, they would hold up in one of the many resorts or hotels along the way. Unfortunately, according to author Richard Lindberg, "FBI agents laid a trap at Hobart Hermanson's Lake Corso Hotel in Lake Geneva, but they failed to identify Nelson's car."

Cowley, enraged, ordered exclusive round-the-clock surveillance of all main and connecting roads in the said vicinity, some seventy-five miles of farmland, small towns, picnic groves and pleasant lakes. For weeks, G-men travelled and doubled back over gravel roads, eyeing every car, every passer-by; they checked out filling stations along the way, and diners, and farmers' markets. Winter was coming and the days were getting short, but the plainclothesmen were behind the wheel before sunrise when traffic was sparse and didn't quit driving until the sun set. Evenings, they loitered in the diners and at rest stops, hoping for Lester or Chase or Helen's appearance. They could recognize any of them by sight.

Along the rural stretch of Highway 14 on September 27, 1934, the FBI caught up to Baby Face Nelson and his friends heading south toward Chicago.

"With Nelson behind the wheel, the travelling party...were spotted by Agents William Ryan and Thomas McDade," explains Lindberg in Return to the Scene of the Crime. "The FBI men pursued Nelson's sedan down Route 14, bur bullets tore through the radiator, disabling the government car...Moments later, a second federal car, a 1934 blue Hudson sedan driven by Herman Hollis and Samuel Cowley, approached them from the southwest...Turning their car around, the agents pursued...His fuel pump shattered by FBI bullets, Nelson crashed his car in the ditch and prepared to shoot it out with the G-men who took positions behind their Hudson automobile and a telegraph pole."

Lester and Chase rolled from their stricken car, each toting a machine gun. Lester pulled his wife into the shallow gutter along the road and warned her to keep her head down. Chase, who crouched behind a clump of bushes, stared in amazement as his pal walked open-faced onto the dirt road, machine gun in front of him.

"Les, what are you doing?" he screamed.

"I've had enough of this cat-and-mouse! I'm going down there and kill them!" retorted Lester. Pumping the trigger without let-up, he moved forward toward the agents. Cowley and Hollis, who were no less surprised than Chase at his show of lunacy. Crossfire erupted; the noise was blistering. The lunatic kept shuffling on, still squeezing his trigger in instinct even though federal missiles tore at his legs and chest and shoulders. His suit coat shredded into rags. Half dead, Lester's aim didn't falter. Hollis fell back dead. Cowley, wondering what from hell did he encounter, continued to shoot until the nightmare downed him, too. Both agents lay dying in a cornfield in the setting sun.

Their killer, the monster, riddled with seventeen bullets in several vital organs, crawled to the agents' car. When he reached it, he hadn't the strength to lift himself into it. Chase and Helen raised him onto the back seat and rushed him to a priest. The good father could do nothing but offer religious consolation. If he knew for whom the bells tolled, he surely elicited the Last Rites from God emphasizing the Maker's mercy to its fullest aspect.

Lester Gillis and Baby Face Nelson — one in the same — died that night at eight o'clock.

In the Cook County morgue, IL. (Dr. Laurence Naismith Jr.)
In the Cook County morgue, IL.
(Dr. Laurence Naismith Jr.)


Baby Face Nelson often bragged that he would not be taken alive. To that end, he succeeded. But, in doing so, he dragged down several others on his suicide stunt.

John Paul Chase escaped to the West Coast, but was arrested two months later. He was tried for his crimes and spent almost the remainder of his life in prison. Paroled in 1966, he died of cancer in Palo Alto, California, shortly after.

Helen Wawzynak-Gillis surrendered to authorities on Thanksgiving Day, 1934. Having broken the terms of her parole mandated after her arrest at Bohemia Lodge, she was given a year at a women's correctional institution in Michigan. Upon release, she faded into anonymity.

Then, of course there were the agents, Cowley and Hollis, killed in the performance of their duty. Their death, it seems, was not in vain. If there had been even the slightest chance of Lester's redemption as a gun-toting hero to the end, his murder of these two well-loved G-men abolished that.

One way to make the headlines. (Chicago Daily News)
One way to make the headlines.
(Chicago Daily News)

Dillinger walked into the line of Melvin Purvis' feds on a hot Chicago street, not given much of a chance; a pathetic end for a dashing bank robber. His death evoked sympathy. Pretty Boy Floyd had, throughout his criminal career, served as a sort of Robin Hood, using the money he stole to help the poor in his native Cookson Hills, Oklahoma. Gunned down by a large posse without returning a single shot, his death also evoked sympathy.

But, Lester? He was shot to pieces pulling just another one of his many hair-brained temper tantrums in a hair-brained chase at the end of a hair-brained and very useless twenty-six years of life.

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