Luck ran out for Baby Face Nelson in a hail of bullets at the young age of 25, but not before he became one of America's most ruthless killers.
The 1930s was perhaps the “golden era” of American outlaws and gangsters. It was, after all, the decade that saw the rise and eventual fall of iconic bad guys (and gals) such as Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Baby Face Nelson.
Among the most infamous of the bunch, Baby Face Nelson was born Lester Joseph Gillis in Chicago, Illinois, on December 6, 1908. His official FBI biography states that he began his life of crime roaming the streets of Chicago “with a gang of juvenile hoodlums” in his early teens, leading to his first term of incarceration in 1922 at the age of 14.
That life of crime ended in a hail of bullets at the young age of 25, but not before Baby Face Nelson cemented his legacy as one of American history’s most ruthless killers.
Baby Face Nelson: The Outlaw Who Enjoyed Killing
Before he became a hardened killer, a teenage Baby Face Nelson started out stealing tires and cars, bootlegging, and committing armed robberies. On one occasion in early 1930, he and come accomplices raided the home of a wealthy magazine owner and made off with jewelry that’d be worth about $3 million today. Later that year, he stole an enormous stash of jewelry from none other than the mayor of Chicago’s wife.
Meanwhile, a few months after that $3 million heist, he carried out his first bank robbery — something he’d do again and again over the next few years with his gang of outlaws. It was also with his gang of amateur thugs with which he carried out these crimes that “Baby Face” earned his nickname, inspired by his short stature and boyish appearance.
And soon — with his new nickname firmly in place and his wife and partner in crime, Helen, along for the ride — Nelson would graduate to much bloodier crimes — ones that would bring him to the attention of law enforcement, the media, and the American zeitgeist itself.
In fact, Nelson is one of the storied few in American history who has held the title of the FBI’s “Public Enemy No. 1.” According to an article in The New York Times from 1934, “He had reached this ‘peak’ after spending half of his twenty-six years in outlawry.”
What’s more, Baby Face Nelson still holds the record for killing the most FBI agents in the line of duty (three).
Further bolstering Nelson’s criminal reputation were the outlaws with whom he associated, namely John Dillinger.
Nelson’s partnership with Dillinger was particularly profitable for all of the outlaws involved. The gang robbed a string of banks for large amounts of money, according to Dillinger’s FBI biography. However, unlike many other murderous gangsters of the 1930s, Nelson seemed to have an atypical bloodlust.
Richard Lindberg, author of Return to the Scene of the Crime, wrote: “Standing only five feet four inches, Gillis compensated for his physical limitations with a murderous temper and a willingness to employ a switchblade or a gun without hesitation or remorse for the intended victim.”
“Where outlaws such as Pretty Boy Floyd and the Barkers would kill to protect themselves when cornered, Nelson went out of his way to murder — he loved it,” added Jay Robert Nash in Bloodletters and Badmen. “His angelic, pear-smooth face never betrayed his instant ability to kill.”
The Battle Of Little Bohemia Lodge
In April 1934, Baby Face Nelson vacationed at the Little Bohemia Lodge in remote northern Wisconsin accompanied by his wife and members of the Dillinger gang. The FBI learned of their whereabouts on April 22, 1934, and dispatched agents to the scene. Luckily for Nelson, barking dogs alerted the gangsters and they slipped out the back under cover of darkness.
Nelson fled to a nearby home, where he took two hostages. Special Agents W. Carter Baum and J.C. Newman, along with local constable Carl C. Christensen, arrived on the scene before Nelson could make another uncontested getaway.
Nelson rushed the lawmen’s car and ordered them to exit the vehicle. However, before they could comply, Nelson, opened fire with his .45 automatic, hitting all three, and killing Baum instantly. He then made his escape using the FBI car.
Meanwhile, FBI agents and self-appointed deputies continued shooting at the Little Bohemia Lodge. Agents eventually realized that the gangsters had escaped and the Battle of Little Bohemia Lodge ended at dawn. The FBI was able to apprehend a cadre of female stragglers, including Helen Gillis, who soon got out on parole.
Nelson’s Last Stand
While Nelson may have avoided capture at Little Bohemia, it was only a matter of months before the law finally caught up with him.
In the early afternoon hours of November 27, FBI agents encountered Nelson about 60 miles from Chicago. A few minutes later, another agent spotted him driving a stolen car and got his license plate number. It was then that Nelson’s wife and John Paul Chase, his long-time partner-in-crime, accompanied Baby Face on what turned out to be his final hours of life.
Shortly after that, Inspector Samuel P. Cowley of the FBI’s Chicago Office received word that Nelson may be heading towards Chicago in a stolen vehicle. Cowley immediately dispatched agents Bill Ryan and Tom McDade to look for Nelson’s car and headed out in a second car along with agent Herman “Ed” Hollis.
A little more than an hour after Nelson’s initial encounter with the FBI, Agents Ryan and McDade spotted Nelson driving on the highway and initiated the pursuit. A firefight ensued and Agent Ryan managed to shoot the radiator of Nelson’s car and then raced ahead and pulled over.
From there, Agents Cowley and Hollis passed Nelson on the highway and began following him. His car disabled, Nelson pulled off the road at the entrance to the North Side Park in Barrington, Illinois. Cowley and Hollis stopped their car about 150 feet away.
Nelson and Chase opened fire on them with automatic weapons before the agents could exit their vehicle. The gun battle, which reportedly lasted four to five minutes, claimed the life of Agent Hollis. Agent Cowley was also mortally wounded during the skirmish. Nelson received seventeen gunshot wounds and was helped into the FBI’s car by Chase and they rode off.
Finally succumbing to his numerous wounds, Baby Face Nelson took his last breath around 8:00 p.m. in Wilmette, Illinois.
Agent Cowley, having survived the shootout initially, did not make it far into the next day. He died in the early morning hours of November 28, cementing Nelson in the annals of history as a horrifying bane to law enforcement.
Later the same day, responding to an anonymous tip, FBI agents found Nelson’s body in a ditch by a cemetery near Niles Center, Illinois.
Nelson’s now widowed wife, Helen, spent the duration of the firefight safely lying prone in a field, hiding from the flurry of bullets flying between the fugitives and the FBI. She escaped the scene in the stolen FBI vehicle with Nelson and Chase.
The FBI picked up Helen Nelson two days after that fateful battle. She pleaded guilty to violating her parole and was sentenced to serve one year and one day at a federal women’s prison, located about 50 miles outside of Detroit, Michigan.
As for her husband, his criminal trajectory spanned from petty teenage shenanigans to the FBI naming him the most dangerous person in the United States. Baby Face Nelson’s short-life was a high-speed onslaught of villainy that showcased a delight in killing hardly even seen among fictional gangsters, let alone real ones — securing his infamy in the United States for all time.
Fascinated by Baby Face Nelson? Next, check out these female gangsters that stole and killed their way into the underworld, before looking at three of the most ruthless and powerful gangsters alive today.