Even though COVID-19 has shut down cultural institutions such as museums and libraries for most of 2020, that has not stopped me from learning some interesting new history. Last month, I learned that I live close to where the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) found the dead body of Baby Face Nelson in 1934. Baby Face Nelson, the nickname of Lester Gillis, was a notorious bank robber known for killing the most FBI agents ever (three total). His nickname came from his apparently youthful appearance.
Although a criminal his entire life, Baby Face Nelson grew in notoriety once he joined the FBI’s Public Enemy No. 1, John Dillinger. John Dillinger’s group, known as the Dillinger Gang, participated in numerous bank robberies, and were not afraid to use violence in the process.
In July of 1934, the FBI eventually shot and killed the 31-year-old Dillinger, because a Romanian prostitute, Ana Cumpănaș, tipped off the FBI, in return for their aid in preventing her deportation back to Romania. Unfortunately for Cumpănaș, she still ended up being deported. According to the FBI’s website, Cumpănaș told the FBI that she would be wearing an orange dress while watching a film with Dillinger and another woman at the Biograph Theater in Chicago. Somehow, the dress changed from orange to red in newspaper accounts, and Dillinger’s betrayer came to be known as the “Woman in Red.”
After Dillinger’s death, another member of the Dillinger Gang, Pretty Boy Floyd, became the FBI’s Public Enemy No. 1. The FBI shot and killed Floyd in October of 1934, so then Baby Face Nelson became Public Enemy No. 1. On the run from the police for a month, the FBI eventually caught up with him on November 27, 1934, in Barrington, Illinois, a suburb approximately 45 minutes northwest of Chicago. Two FBI agents died as a result of a skirmish with him, that came to be known as the Battle of Barrington.
The Battle of Barrington left Baby Face Nelson severely wounded, so he asked his friends and wife (who was hiding in a ditch during the battle) to take him to a friend’s house at 1627 Walnut Ave. in Wilmette, a wealthy northern suburb of Chicago. He died soon after their arrival there, at the age of 25. His friends then left his body in front of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church Cemetery in Niles Center (the former name of the Chicago suburb of Skokie). Afterwards, the FBI received an anonymous call informing them of the location of Baby Face Nelson’s body. While figuring out what to do with his body, the FBI brought it to nearby Haben Funeral Home. During this time, the FBI also searched for Baby Face Nelson’s wife, Helen, whom they soon found and imprisoned for a year.
Although Al Capone is undoubtedly Chicago’s most notorious gangster, the Dillinger Gang arguably comes in second place. Both groups have inspired popular culture through countless films and books ever since. If you want to learn more about these criminals, as well as others, and see some of their FBI files, check out the FBI’s history page on its website: https://www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/lester-gillis-baby-face-nelson.
Sources and Further Reading
“1627 Walnut Ave. Wilmette, IL 60091.” Redfin. https://www.redfin.com/IL/Wilmette/1627-Walnut-Ave-60091/home/13782931 (accessed November 13, 2020).
“John Dillinger.” FBI. https://www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/john-dillinger (accessed November 13, 2020).
“Lester Gillis (“Baby Face” Nelson).” FBI. https://www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/lester-gillis-baby-face-nelson (accessed November 13, 2020).
Skokie Heritage Museum. “Skokie’s Historic Bike Tour.” Skokie Park District. 2016. https://www.skokieparks.org/downloads/pdfs/SkokieBikeTour.pdf (accessed November 13, 2020).
“Wife Lying in Ditch Saw Nelson Shot.” New York Times. June 12, 2008.
Wilmette Historical Museum. “Wilmette History Trivia Quiz: Wilmette Historical Society.” Yumpu. 2013. https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/view/5148519/wilmette-history-trivia-quiz-wilmette-historical-museum (accessed November 13, 2020).