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Lester Joseph Gillis

"Baby Face Nelson"
December 6, 1908—November 27, 1934
 


Lester Joseph Gillis ("George"), was a bank robber in the 1930s better known as Baby Face Nelson due to his youthful appearance and stature, a diminutive 5'3" (1.63 m) tall.

 

Early years

Born in Chicago, Illinois, Lester Gillis began his criminal career stealing cars and spending time with future members of the gang of Roger "Terrible" Touhy. Arrested for theft at age 13, he was sent to penal school. A petty thief into his late teens, Nelson's career with the notorious gang leader, Al Capone, ended almost as quickly as it began due to Nelson's violent disposition and defensive temperament.

Lester's robbery spree came to an end when he was arrested in 1931. Nelson was given a sentence of one year to life in the state prison. In early 1932, Baby Face overpowered his guard while being transported and escaped. Assisted by master yegg (safe-cracker) Eddie Bentz, Nelson robbed his first bank in Grand Haven, Michigan on August 18, 1933. The robbery was a near-disaster even though most of those involved made a clean getaway.

Nelson came to greater prominence in 1934, when he joined the Dillinger gang. In contrast to the dashing John Dillinger, Nelson is the antithesis of popular, Robin Hood-like gangsters of the Depression era. Having an unfortunate tendency to let his temper overcome him, Nelson did not hesitate to kill lawmen and innocent bystanders alike. He was credited with killing more than a dozen law officers, and enjoyed hunting law enforcement officers from a list he kept of their vehicle information. Paradoxically, though, Nelson was a devoted husband and father who often had his wife, Helen Gillis, and children with him while running from the law.

After John Dillinger's death in July 1934, Nelson became Public Enemy Number One. Nelson was said to have boasted of robbing one bank a day for a month, in order to outdo Dillinger. That never occurred.

The Battle of Barrington

The running machine gun battle between FBI agents and Nelson took place on November 27, 1934 outside Chicago, in the town of Barrington resulting in the deaths of Special Agents Herman Hollis and Samuel P. Cowley.

The battle began when Nelson, Helen Gillis, and John Paul Chase were driving down a road and saw a police car driving the opposite direction. Nelson hated police and federal agents and used a list of license plates he had compiled to actively hunt them at every opportunity. He apparently recognized the car and decided to chase them. Once they both stopped, the shootout started. Nelson's wife and Chase used their car for cover. Nelson, however, simply walked towards the agents, reportedly shouting, "I'm gonna kill you sons of bitches!". After the fight was over, Nelson nearly collapsed on the ground from his wounds; he'd been shot 17 times. Gillis and Chase helped Nelson into the car of the two FBI agents, and with Nelson giving directions, Chase drove away from the scene.

The next morning, another team of FBI agents was dispatched to the scene to investigate the situation. They found the bodies of the two agents who had been killed in the skirmish the day before. The new team scouted the area for any possible signs of Nelson. Following an anonymous telephone tip, Nelson's body was discovered in a ditch, wrapped in a blanket. The ditch was in front of St. Peter Catholic Cemetery in Skokie, which still exists today. His wife later stated that he had died of his wounds at exactly 8 p.m. She had placed the blanket around his body because, as she said, "Lester always hated to be cold..."


Burial

Gillis and Nelson are buried at Saint Peter's Cemetery in River Grove, Illinois.

Murders

* W. Carter Baum, during the Little Bohemia shoot-out.


In popular culture

Nelson has been the subject of multiple films. Those include a 1957 film, Baby Face Nelson, starring Mickey Rooney and a 1995 film of the same name starring C. Thomas Howell. He was portrayed by Richard Dreyfuss in the 1973 film Dillinger. In the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Michael Badalucco portrayed George Nelson, a manic-depressive, depression-era bank robber, who was similar in appearance and demeanour to Baby Face Nelson, but despised being called by that name. He will be portrayed by British actor Stephen Graham in the forthcoming film Public Enemies.
 


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You probably know him as Baby Face Nelson and as one of the most dangerous criminals America has even known. His antics have made him notorious all over the world and his life was a fascination to many people. He was linked with another famous criminal of the times, John Dillinger. A bank robber, a car thief and a bootlegger, Baby face showed off his "criminal talents" and engaged the police head on every chance he got.

His real name was Lester Joseph Gillis and he was born on December 6th 1908 on the outskirts of Chicago in an area known as "the Patch". His parents were Belgian immigrants, and Lester was their 7th child. Ironically, among the many rules his father had while Lester was growing up was that of no guns allowed in the house (not even toy guns) and another was that the children were supposed to stay away from the family car. I say ironically because Lester first started his life of crime boosting cars.

The nickname Baby Face was given to him because he looked a lot younger than he actually was, almost like a baby. His life on the streets began early on, as he got mixed up with the wrong people and started skipping school on a regular basis. In fact, by the time he was in the 8th grade, he was more out on the streets than in the classroom. He would go out with his friends and shoplift whatever they needed, and Baby Face, being the youngest in the group, was always responsible for the diversion. But they soon upped the odds and moved on to cars. Baby Face was really moving up in the criminal world and by the time he was 13 he was caught stealing a car and sent to juvy for a year (in 1921).

He did have a very young looking face. During his second term in jail, his father committed suicide, in part due to Lester and the shame his actions had caused his family. Baby Face felt responsible and began sending his mom some of the money in the takes. In 1928, he fell in love with a girl from Chicago, Helen Wawzynak, and within a year they were married even though both their families protested to the union. Lester's first child, Robert, was born on April 4th 1930, only six months after their marriage (you do the math) and their second, Darlene, in 1932. Just like his father, Lester was a devoted family man and took them everywhere with him, even when being hunted by police.

He was convicted in 1931 for a bank robbery and sentenced to 1 to 10 years in Illinois. While being locked up, he was charged with another robbery in Du Page County and also got convicted. Slowly, the years in prison began adding and Lester, who was now calling himself George, was looking for a way out. He found one while he was being transported back to jail from a court appearance in 1932. His train was late and the officer decided to take him back by cab. Lester pulled a gun on him (which is believed to have been planted by his wife) and got away.

After a little while in Reno, Baby Face associated with John Paul Chase, a smuggler and bootlegger. This partnership was going to last for the rest of their lives. They began smuggling in trucks and doing armed robberies, and became so close that they introduced themselves as half brothers. Lester moved to a good neighbourhood with his family, as was his custom, where he lived until May 1933. While in Indiana, he would meet with a bunch of bank robbers, among them being John Dillinger, though at the time he was hardly famous. They all formed a gang, a very dangerous one at that, having killed some federal agents during their bank robberies. Needless to say, that brought a lot of attention from the police and FBI.

He was portrayed in numerous cinematic productions, Baby Face always managed to escape them and take a few more officers down with him every time he did. The day that it all ended for him, November 27 1934, Baby Face was outside a little town called Barrington, a little distance from Chicago. Being chased by FBI agents Lester launched into a car chase that ended with a gun battle. Although he killed the two agents following him, Lester was shot 17 times and succumbed from the wounds later that night. His body was dumped by his wife and another accomplice near Niles Center Cemetery.

His tragic death was only natural due to his very violent lifestyle (even Al Capone reportedly sent him off because he was too dangerous and too difficult to handle). After Dillinger's death in 1934, he was Public Enemy no 1 and had the police and FBI running after him all over the country. It is said that in order to outdo Dillinger, he pulled a bank robbery every day for a month, although that is very unlikely. Still, he remains one of the most violent and dangerous men from the "gangster days" of America.
 


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Depression-era gangster Baby Face Nelson was the FBI's "Public Enemy #1" in the 1930's, occupying that spot until his violent death in 1934.

Born in Chicago, IL, as Lester Gillis, on December 6, 1908, he grew up on the streets, already an accomplished car thief and petty criminal by the time he was twelve years old. He was arrested for the first time when he was 13, and sentenced to a year in a juvenile correction facility. Soon after he was released, he was arrested again, and sentenced to 18 months incarceration. In 1931, Gillis, who had a number of aliases by this time, was convicted of bank robbery, and was sentenced to 1-10 years in the Illinois State Penitentiary at Joliet. While in jail, he was tried and convicted of another bank robbery charge, and was sentenced to a year to life in prison. While being transported between jails, the prisoner, who was calling himself George Nelson at that time, escaped. He hooked up with John Chase, and would continue in partnership with him until their deaths.

In 1933, Nelson shot and killed a man during a robbery. He went on to murder several others, including some FBI agents. By this time, Nelson was working with John Dillinger's gang.

During a chase in 1934, Nelson was shot and mortally wounded. Acting on a tip, FBI agents found his body wrapped in a blanket at the side of the road near a cemetery in Illinois.

Nelson was married to Helen Wawzynak, and they had two children.


 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 24 December, 2008