Feature Articles

March 2000

Public Enemy Number One:
The Bloody Saga of Baby Face Nelson

By John William Tuohy

John William Tuohy is a writer who lives in Washingon, D.C.

George Lester Gillis was born in a Chicago slum just outside the city, near the stockyards in 1908 and was already involved with several street gangs by his early teenage years.

A small man, only 5 Feet four inches tall, Gillis wanted (in fact he insisted) on being called "Big George" but the nick name never took.

What did take was the name "Baby Face" Nelson, a name Gillis hated so much that he once phoned a Chicago newspaper reporter who used the name in story and threatened to kill him if he ever used it again. And a threat from a cold blood killer like Lester Gillis was something to be taken very seriously.

Before he became the F.B.I's first "Public Enemy Number One" Gillis had a short career as a pick pocketing and sticking up artist, specializing in whore house and bookie joints robberies. Afterwards, Gillis would return to the scene of the crime and sell his victims protection, against himself.

By 1929 he was working for crime czars' Al Capone and later for Roger Touhy as an enforcer in the labor rackets wars. However the black jack beatings he delivered to Union strikers at times were to severe and he often ended up beating his victims to death when he was supposed to just work them over lightly.

By 1931, even the hoodlums who ran the Unions had enough of Baby Face Nelson, and he was banished from their rackets. The following year Nelson leaped into the big time when he robbed a Jewelry store, shot it out with Police, got arrested and sent to Prison.

He escaped from the Big House a year later and drifted out to California where he recruited a local hoodlum named John Paul Chase and moved back east to Long Beach, Indiana, which at the time was sort of a clearing house for the Midwest criminal element.

From there Gillis recruited Tommy Carrol, a top flight machine gunner/thief and Eddie Green another professional thief and "spotter," one who specialized in picking out, and keeping track of, which banks were and were not worth robbing.

In the winter of 1933, Nelson and his gang struck. In quick succession, they robbed banks in Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin, luckily for Nelson, outlaw John Dillenger and company were blamed for most of the heists. The two desperadoes meet the following year and merged gangs.

It was probably the oddest coupling ever in the annals of crime. Dillenger was, unless unreasonably provoked, non violent, Nelson enjoyed killing. The extremely intelligent Dillenger planned out each of robberies in painstaking detail, Nelson bank robbing theory was limited to walking into the bank, shooting every one in sight and walking back out with the loot.

An example of Nelson insanity was displayed one day when Nelson and Dillenger were riding in a car through Wisconsin. Nelson insisted on driving even though he was known by all to be notoriously bad driver, who suffered from poor eye sight. Nelson proved how bad a driver he was when he slammed his car into another car driven by Theodore Kidder, who had stopped for a red light.

After Nelson smashed into his car, Kidder stepped out to inspect the damage. There was a very brief exchange of words between the two men and Nelson abruptly ended the argument by pumping three shots into Kidders forehead and sped off.

Two days later, on March 6, 1934, the Dillenger-Gillis gang robbed a bank in Sioux City South Dakota. What happened during the robbery, sickened and outraged the ever Professional Dillenger. Even through the heist had gone off without glitch Baby Face Nelson spotted an off duty Cop walking in the general direction of the bank. Nelson fired a burst from his Tommy gun through the bank's window, spraying the unarmed and unsuspecting cop with dozens of bullets for no logical or apparent reason.

The next day, when the gang had robbed a Mason City Iowa bank of $52,000.00. Baby Face decided to kill one of the bank employees, again, for no-good reason.

This time Dillenger stopped him.

On April 22, while the gang was holed up at the Little Bohemia lodge in Northern Wisconsin, dozens of FBI agents surrounded the Lodge and called out for the gun men to surrender. Each of the gang members escaped into the darkness, except Baby Face, who decided to stay and shot it out with the Agents.

In the mayhem that followed, the F.B.I agents sprayed enough bullets into the lodge to destroy it and accidentally kill one innocent bystander and shot up two others.

Nelson finally left the hotel through a back door and slipped into the darkness. At a nearby roadblock he found two State Troopers sitting in a car with an F.B.I agent in the back seat. Gillis strolled up to the car, stuck his . 45 through the window and said to the agent "I need the car, I understand you guys wear bullet proof vests so I'm going to shoot low." and then proceed to empty the gun at the three lawmen, injuring the two Troopers and killing the F.B.I agent.

Making good his escape with the lawmen's stolen car, Nelson hid out on a local Indian reservation and reappeared a few months later robbing one bank a day a month through out the Midwest. Much to Little George's delight, he was now Public enemy number one. Gillis was now the most sought after criminal in the United States and he loved every moment of it, clipping and saving newspaper stories about himself that he kept carefully folded in his wallet.

But the cops were catching up to him. Nelsons partner in crime Tommy Carroll was dead, after a shoot out with Police, so was Dillenger and Eddie Green. The glamour to being Public enemy number one, was fading fast.

As the law closed in, Nelson, accompanied by his wife and gunman Paul Chase headed back for Chicago, expecting to find a safe haven there. But the underworld would have nothing to do with him and invited him to leave the area. The mob didn't want anymore attention then it was already getting from the newspaper and the national radio syndicates.

On November 27, 1934, two F.B.I agents spotted Nelsons car near Fox River Grove, Illinois and gave chase. When Nelson realized he was being followed he and Paul Chase fired on the agent's car and the agents, armed with a shot gun fired back.

The bullets flew back and forth until Nelson stopped his car outside Barrington Illinois, and decided to shoot it out with agents in a face to face show down.

Armed with a Tommy gun, and Chase with a Browning automatic rifle the to outlaws pinned down the G-men for ten minutes before Nelson, for some reason, stood up, slung the Tommy gun to his waist and slowly walked into the lawmen line of fire, firing and swearing as he marched at them. Spotting the opportunity to slip out from his cover, one of the F.B.I men jumped in to his car and pulled out a machine gun and opened up on the oncoming Nelson, hitting him several times. But Nelson kept coming and firing at the two Law men, in some sort of zombie like trance.

To try and stop Nelson, the other agent fired three blasts from his shot gun into Nelsons legs and hips, but Nelson, somehow, kept walking toward them.

Nearby construction workers who witnessed the shot out, reported that Nelson only smirked as the bullets smashed into him. Nelson eventually made his way over to the agents.

As one of the agents tried to reload his weapon, Nelson fired a volley into his head and chest. Finding the other agent in a nearby ditch, Nelson fired enough bullets into the lawmen's body to nearly cut it in half.

When the slaughter was over, Nelson calmly walked back to his car, called his wife in from a nearby cornfield where she had fled for cover and said to her "You'll have to drive, I've been hit"

He died a few minutes later. Police discovered his body dumped on the side of country road with 15 bullets in his legs, waist and chest.

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