The early 1930s were some of the most lawless years in American history. The criminal era was defined by such figures as Al Capone, Bonnie and Clyde, and John Dillinger. Another young outlaw who made a name for himself was Lester Joseph Gillis. He took on the alias George Nelson, but it was his nickname that made him famous around the United States. A nickname that no one dared call him to his face: “Baby Face” Nelson.
He was given the name Baby Face because he was small and had a very youthful face, so much so that he might’ve even been mistaken for a teenager. But beneath the small stature was a criminal who was quick to kill anyone who got in his way. In fact, Nelson killed three FBI agents during his exploits, more than any other single person in history.
Nelson was born in Chicago in 1908. By the time he was only 14 years old, he was on the path to being a career criminal and had served two stints in correctional institutions for juveniles. Nelson ran with a street gang, where he honed his criminal ways. At the age of 20, he took a wife, Helen, and later had two children.
This being the time of Prohibition, Nelson took jobs driving bootleg alcohol throughout Chicago and its suburbs. He eventually graduated to armed robbery, and he robbed his first bank in April 1930 at the age of 21. Nelson and his cohorts realized how lucrative bank robbery was, and they continued to rob more financial institutions around the Chicago area. But armed robbery is a dangerous business, and a botched robbery of a tavern in Summit, Illinois, near Chicago, in November 1930 left three people dead. Though Nelson didn’t fire the fatal shots during that incident, he committed his first murder only three days later when he killed a man during another tavern robbery.
It was also around this time that Nelson stole $18,000 worth of jewelry from the wife of Chicago’s mayor, Big Bill Thompson. Mrs. Thompson described her assailant: “He had a baby face, he was good looking, hardly more than a boy, had dark hair and was wearing a gray topcoat and a brown felt hat, turned down brim.”
Nelson’s luck ran out when he was arrested for bank robbery in 1931. The following February, Nelson escaped from custody while being transported to stand trial for a separate bank robbery charge. He headed west, spending some time in Reno before ending up in the San Francisco Bay Area. Here he met and formed a partnership with fellow criminal John Paul Chase. In the summer of 1933, Nelson returned to the Midwest, eager to rob more banks. He hit a bank in Michigan in August and then decided it was time to form his own gang – he was done working for anyone else.
With his new recruits, Nelson hit a bank in Minnesota in October 1933. After the score, he and his men decided to spend some time in Texas. In December 1933, a woman in San Antonio told police that two “high-powered Northern gangsters” were in the city. This led to a confrontation in which one of Nelson’s men, Tommy Carroll, shot two detectives, killing one. Nelson again fled to San Francisco, where he reunited with John Paul Chase and another criminal named Fatso Negri for yet another wave of bank robberies.
At some point in early 1934, Nelson teamed up with the notorious John Dillinger, who was targeted by the FBI as ‘Public Enemy Number One.’ Details aren’t certain, but it is widely believed that Nelson’s gang helped Dillinger break out of jail in Crown Point, Indiana in March 1934. Dillinger and Nelson and his gang went to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area after Dillinger’s escape. The new crew, which now included Dillinger and Nelson and his men, robbed banks in South Dakota and Iowa.
In April 1934, Nelson, Dillinger, some of their other men and their wives and girlfriends went to the Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin to relax for a weekend. The wife of the owner of the lodge alerted authorities about the presence of the wanted gangsters, and FBI agents scurried to the secluded Wisconsin town to try to apprehend the men. The time window was so tight that the FBI didn’t alert local authorities to their plan – a decision that ultimately led to deadly chaos.
Around 75 people were at the lodge eating dinner the night the FBI agents conducted their raid. Three civilians leaving dinner that night didn’t stop when agents tried to halt their car. The agents opened fire and killed one of the innocent men inside the vehicle. The gangsters heard the gunshots and fled the lodge, some running into the woods to escape. Nelson exchanged fire with FBI agents before also fleeing on foot. Nelson eventually ended up at a house where he kidnapped five people and ordered them to drive him away.
As they getting ready to leave the house, a car with two federal agents and a local constable happened upon the house. Nelson asked them who they were and they identified themselves. He immediately opened fire on the law enforcers, killing one of the FBI agents. Nelson escaped capture, but his murdering a federal agent put him at the top of the FBI’s Most Wanted List.
Over the next several months, members of Nelson’s gang were surgically captured or killed by law enforcement because of the high profile they earned after the shootout at the Little Bohemia. Nelson and his wife laid low and tried to avoid detection, for a short while at least. Only two months later, on June 30, 1934, Nelson, Dillinger, and a few other accomplices robbed an Indiana bank, killing a policeman in the process. FBI agents and police officers looked for Nelson and Dillinger all over the country, thirsty for revenge after the deaths of so many of their men.
After Dillinger was ambushed and killed outside a Chicago movie theater in July 1934, George ‘Baby Face’ Nelson was left as Public Enemy Number One. Nelson and his wife drifted around the western United States, spending time in California and Nevada, attempting to evade capture, but ended up back in Chicago in November 1934.
On November 27, 1934, Nelson was driving toward Chicago with his wife and John Paul Chase when he and an FBI agent in a passing car recognized each other. Nelson immediately turned the car around to pursue the agents in the other car. As they caught up, Nelson and Chase began firing at the agents. The agents returned fire, damaging Nelson’s car. In the midst of the firefight, another car of agents arrived and began pursuing the outlaws and Mrs. Nelson. The outlaws pulled into a park in Barrington, outside Chicago, and stopped the car. The second car of agents entered the park and another shootout ensued. Nelson shot and killed one of the agents, Herman Hollis, and wounded another, who would later die of his injuries.
During the shootout, Nelson was shot nine times. Nelson, his wife Helen, and Chase drove away from the park where the shootout took place. Nelson knew his injuries were most likely fatal, so he had Helen and Chase take him to a safe house in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette. Nelson died there later that evening. He was 26 years old.
Helen Nelson surrendered and served a year in prison for harboring a criminal. John Paul Chase was arrested a month later and spent over 30 years in prison, including almost 20 in Alcatraz. He was finally paroled in 1966 and he died in 1973 at the age of 71.
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