Wednesday, November 26, 2014


The End of "Baby Face" Nelson

On this date in 1934, gangster George “Baby Face Nelson” was gunned down west of Chicago in one of the most terrifying gun battles in mob history. Law enforcement officers managed to corner the feared Dillinger gang member near the city park in and a harrowing car chase ended in a bloodbath that left several dead in what came to be known as the “Battle of Barrington.”

“Baby Face” Nelson was born as Lester Gillis in Chicago on December 6, 1908. He grew up just steps away from the South Side Stockyards and roamed the streets with a gang of young hoodlums during his early teens. He grew up tough but at five feet, four inches tall, his height was always a source of agitation to him. He wanted recognition and fame and later in life, he got it as one of the most bloodthirsty bandits of the Depression era.

By the age of fourteen, Gillis was an accomplished car thief and while he wanted to be known as “Big George Nelson,” fellow members of his gang dubbed him as “Baby Face” because of his juvenile appearance. Nelson’s early career included stealing tires, bootlegging, and armed robbery. In 1922, he was convicted of auto theft and committed to a boy’s home. He was paroled two years later, but within five months he was back in again on another charge. When he was finally released, Nelson graduated from petty theft to sticking up brothels and bookie joints and then selling the same establishments protection against further theft. 

While working the protection rackets in 1928, he met a pretty young salesgirl at a Chicago Woolworth’s store named Helen Wawzynak, and he married her. His wife retained the name Helen Gillis throughout their marriage. She stuck with him no matter what happened and would be with him until the very end of his life.

In 1929, Nelson began working for the Capone operation, specializing in labor relations. He could always be counted on to get labor unions to kick back part of their dues to the organization. He enforced his demands with beatings and strong-arm tactics and eventually, his brutality got him dropped from the roster of reliable gunmen. Nelson went back to robberies and later that year was apprehended for a jewelry store heist.

Nelson was sent to prison in January 1931 and after a year’s confinement, was removed from the state Penitentiary in Joliet to stand trial for a bank robbery charge in Wheaton. On February 17, 1932, he escaped from prison guards while being returned to Joliet and fled the state. He turned up next in Reno, Nevada, and then moved on to Sausalito, California. There, he met John Paul Chase, with whom he would be closely associated for the rest of his life. 

Chase, who was just a few years older than Nelson, had lived most of his life in California. He had worked on ranches and in railroad repair shops and then, in 1930, became associated with a liquor-smuggling operation that was run by bootlegger Joe Parente. When Nelson arrived in California, Chase was still involved with the bootleg gang. Nelson worked with Chase as an armed guard for the liquor trucks and the two of them became close friends. Chase frequently introduced Nelson as his half-brother.

Nelson’s wife joined him and they remained in California until May 1933. Nelson went to Long Beach, Indiana, to recruit a bank-robbing gang. The first member of his crew, after Chase, was expert machine-gunner Tommy Carroll, a light-hearted character who had once been a promising boxer. Eddie Green, an expert at scouting out bank locations, also joined Nelson and they began hitting banks all over the Midwest.

In February 1934, Nelson and the others joined up with the Dillinger gang. By then, most of the members of Dillinger’s original gang, save for Homer Van Meter and John Hamilton, had been killed or incarcerated. They worked together during several chaotic and dangerous robberies and then ended up at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin in April 1934.

When the FBI agents arrived, the gangsters holed up at the lodge managed to slip away, leaving wives and girlfriends, including Helen Gillis, behind. 

Nelson managed to escape in the chaos after the botched FBI raid and made his way back to Chicago. He hired a lawyer to try and spring his wife in Wisconsin while the couple’s children, a five-year-old boy and four-year-old girl, stayed with Nelson’s sister at 5516 Marshfield Avenue in Chicago. The Dillinger girls appeared before a federal magistrate on May 25 and all of them feigned ignorance, offered guilty pleas to harboring fugitives, and were let off with a probationary slap on the wrist. Helen joined back up with her husband about a month later.

After Dillinger was killed (or vanished, depending on what you believe) at the Biograph Theater in July 1934, Nelson, Helen and John Paul Chase left Chicago for California. That summer, Nelson and Chase made several trips back and forth and on one occasion, they were stopped for speeding in a small town. They paid the $5 fine at the local police station and were released. The automobile, which contained machine-guns, rifles, and ammunition, was never searched.

In late August, they returned to Chicago and a month later, Nelson went to Nevada and Chase traveled to New York City. They eventually joined back up again in Chicago and on November 26, they went to Wisconsin.

On November 27, the Feds tracked Nelson, Helen, and Chase to Wisconsin. They intended to hide out at the Lake Como Inn (now the French Country Inn), just north of the Illinois state line. The Lake Como was a no-questions-asked kind of place on the waterfront, owned by Hobart Hermansen, a former bootlegger who was courting the estranged wife of George “Bugs” Moran, who had a summer place a little farther down the same dirt road. FBI agents received a tip from Chase’s girlfriend, Sally Blackman, that the bank robbers intended to winter at the inn. The agents pressured Hermansen into loaning them his place. They were caught off guard when a Ford they mistook for the owner’s pulled up out front. Nelson realized that he had driven into an ambush at the same time the agents recognized the driver of the car. Nelson, with a pistol hidden on his lap, exchanged a few pleasantries with the agents and then drove away unhindered, since one of the agents had driven the only FBI auto into the town of nearby Lake Geneva for groceries.

A frantic telephone call to Chicago sent three carloads of federal agents toward Wisconsin in hopes of intercepting Nelson on the Northwest Highway (then US 12, now US 14). The first team of agents, Thomas McDade and William Ryan, encountered Nelson’s car near the village of Fox River Grove and turned around to chase him, only to discover that Nelson had also turned around. As the two vehicles passed one another a second time, Nelson spun the wheel and, instead of running, started chasing his pursuers. The surprised feds accelerated, but Nelson stayed right behind them. Agent McDade pressed the gas pedal to the floor and his car surged ahead. As he did so, Nelson grabbed Helen’s shoulder, pushed her down to the floor of the car, and screamed at Chase to let them have it. 

Chase opened fire and his bullets punched holes in the right side of the agents’ windshield. Nelson accelerated to keep pace with the FBI men, snatched up his pistol with his left hand, leaned it out the window, and began firing shots at the car ahead. Agent Ryan returned fire, blasting out the back window of Nelson’s car. He fired a full clip at the pursuing sedan. Meanwhile, McDade struggled to keep control of the car, which was now traveling at more than seventy-five miles per hour. They were rapidly overtaking a slow-moving milk truck, lumbering along in the lane ahead of them.

As Ryan’s automatic emptied, he reached for a second pistol and realized that Nelson’s car had backed off. He told McDade, who had not had time to worry about the gangsters behind them. He swerved into the opposite lane to miss the milk truck and was horrified to see a westbound car hurtling towards them. He pushed the car ahead and managed to pass the truck and swerve back into the right lane, narrowly avoiding a fatal collision. 

Ryan continued to watch through the ragged glass of the back window as he saw Nelson maneuver around the milk truck, and then slow down to widen the gap between them. Suddenly, McDade missed a sharp turn in the road and their car bounced into a field and came to a stop. Both agents jumped out, guns in hand, and took cover behind the vehicle. However, Nelson’s sedan never appeared.

Ryan and McDade were not aware that within moments of pulling away from Nelson, two more FBI agents had joined the chase, once again turning Nelson into the one being pursued. At some point between Fox River Grove and Barrington, agents Sam Cowley and Herman Hollis encountered the high-speed gun battle that was taking place. Wondering why it was going in the wrong direction with the wrong car in pursuit, they turned around to try and catch up with Nelson from behind. 

As they came up behind Nelson’s Ford, they saw smoke and steam start to bellow from under the hood. Apparently, a bullet from Ryan’s gun had struck the radiator of Nelson’s car. As the gangster hopelessly punched on the accelerator, the second FBI car came in close behind them. One of the agents leaned out of the window of the car with a machine-gun in his hand. As Chase opened fire, Nelson tried valiantly to get just a little more speed and distance from the faltering car. The guns roared as Helen crouched on the floor, her head between her knees, her left hand clutching her husband’s leg.

Through the smoke that was churning from the damaged engine, Nelson saw that they were entering the northwest side of Barrington. The FBI car continued to gain on them and then pulled alongside. Nelson had to make a desperate move.

Ahead, along the north side of the highway, were three gas stations – a Standard, a Shell and a Sinclair. On the opposite side of the highway, surrounded by a mostly open field, was a gravel road leading to Barrington’s North Side Park. About four hundred yards ahead, houses began to appear on both sides of the road. 

Thinking fast, Nelson suddenly swerved into the park entrance and hit the brakes, causing the Ford to slide to a stop. Hollis slammed on his brakes but the FBI vehicle slid past the entrance in a long, shaking slide. As the car passed by Nelson’s halted automobile, Agent Cowley fired a burst of shots.

Nelson ordered the others out of the vehicle and lunged out of the driver’s side door. He hurried around to the back of the car as Chase and his wife tumbled out of the passenger’s side. He yelled at his wife to run, instructing her to get into the nearby field and lay flat on the ground. Helen sprinted through the tall grass between the road and the park’s football field, dropping to her stomach as gunfire erupted. 

The first shots came from Chase, who was crouched down at the front of the Ford. Steam from the damaged radiator slightly concealed his position and he used the distraction to open up on the FBI agents on the road. Seconds later, Nelson, standing at the rear of the sedan with a machine gun, also opened fire.

The FBI agent’s Hudson had screeched to a halt in the middle of the highway, about one hundred and twenty feet away. Bullets tore into the vehicle as Cowley jumped out of the passenger side and took cover behind the vehicle. Hollis, shotgun in hand, scrambled out of the same door and hid behind the front bumper. For the next three minutes, a furious battle raged as bullets slammed into the two cars, kicked up clouds of dust, and bounced off the pavement of the road.

Hidden in the weeds about twenty yards away from the Ford, Helen raised her head for one quick look as the shooting continued. She later reported, “I saw Les jump and grab his side. I knew then that was the end.”

Less than a minute into the battle, a .45 slug from Cowley’s Thompson machine-gun pierced Nelson’s left side, just above his belt. The bullet tore through his liver and pancreas before punching a hole out of the lower-right portion of his back. Doubled over and clasping his side, he ran to the running board of the car and exchanged weapons with Chase, firing the other bandit’s gun as Chase reloaded his own. No words were spoken, according to Chase, who later swore that he didn’t know his friend had been wounded. 

With a fresh drum in Nelson’s Thompson, he attempted to fire through the Ford’s side window. Between shots, Chase heard him complain about his weapon jamming and he threw it aside. Nelson picked up a rifle from the backseat and moved to the rear of the vehicle. Chase assumed that he was going back to his original position, but soon discovered that Nelson had walked out into the open and was advancing on the FBI agents and their Hudson. 

Nelson charged at them, almost manically, firing at them and sweeping his weapon back and forth. Cowley suddenly abandoned his position and darted left to the south side of the highway, where he stumbled into the ditch. Rising to his knees, he attempted to shoot at Nelson, but his machine-gun refused to fire. Nelson sent several slugs in his direction and Cowley crumpled onto his left side.

A second later, Hollis leaned out and fired his shotgun. The impact from the heavy weapon knocked the legs out from under Nelson. He fell to the ground, but managed get back up and he kept on coming toward the FBI agent. Nelson fired at Hollis, turned to fire several more shots at the downed Cowley, and then hammered the front of the Hudson. 

As Nelson came closer, Hollis turned and tried to run. He ran toward a telephone pole on the north side of the road, located between the Standard and Shell stations. As he ran, he fired backward at Nelson, but then his gun jammed. As he neared the telephone pole, he dropped the shotgun and drew an automatic from inside his coat. Before he could fire, Nelson’s next barrage of bullets hit him. Nelson kept coming at the agent, firing again and again as Hollis slumped against the wooden pole, which was now chewed up by stray bullets. He cried out, and then fell facedown onto the edge of the highway. 

Nelson stood over the agent for a moment, his weapon poised to fire more shots into the man on the ground, but then he lowered it, apparently satisfied that Hollis was dead. He limped across the road toward the Hudson, dragging his left leg behind him and spattering blood on the pavement. He climbed behind the wheel of the Hudson and pulled up behind the disabled Ford. He shouted for Helen and Chase, who gathered their weapons and trotted over to where Nelson was parked in the car. When he saw Chase, Nelson groaned, “Drop everything and get me to a priest.”

Chase told him to wait a minute while he grabbed their cases from the other car, but Nelson told him to forget all of it. He tried to crawl over the passenger side, leaving a trail of gore on the seat. He told Chase, “You’ll have to drive, I’m hit pretty hard.”

Helen came running out of the field and climbed into the car. Chase hit the accelerator, pointing the vehicle back west toward Fox River Grove. Helen sat in back, next to her wounded husband, cradling his head in her arms. Nelson looked up at her, his eyes blurry and filled with pain. “I’m done for,” he gasped.

Chase drove as fast as he could along the unfamiliar road with no idea of where to go. Nelson was slumped against the passenger door, drawing deep breaths, while Helen wept and continued to hold his sagging body. Nelson did the best he could to direct his friend to safety. Three miles west of Barrington, he told him to turn right on Kelsey Road, then right again on Route 22. Heading east again, they passed two miles north of Barrington, heading toward Lake Zurich. When not in town, Chase kept the gas pedal mashed to the floor and within a half hour, they reached Highland Park. Nelson was fading fast, but he instructed Chase to head south on Skokie Road. Entering Wilmette, they drove to 1155 Mohawk Road, a home that belonged to the sister of Father Phillip Coughlan, a Catholic priest who had grown up on Chicago’s West Side and who had close ties to many gangsters and underworld figures. 

Late in the afternoon, the rectory maid notified Father Coughlan that there was a young woman knocking on the back-door window, asking to see him. The priest went to the kitchen and found Helen Gillis in the doorway. She urgently told him that her husband had been shot and needed his help. Coughlan grabbed his coat and hat and followed her. Chase had pulled into the garage and helped Nelson get out, hoping to bring his wounded friend into the house. Nelson muttered a faint greeting when the priest arrived. He was leaning against the back of the car, his face white and bloodless. Helen begged the priest to bring Nelson inside, but Coughlan refused because it was his sister’s house. Instead, he offered to lead them to safe location. Helen asked that they all go in the same car, but again, the priest refused. The bullet-riddled Hudson could not remain in his sister’s garage. Coughlan helped to ease Nelson back into the passenger seat of the Hudson. Once the bandit was situated, the priest noticed a warm stickiness on his right hand. He looked down to see it was covered with blood.

Father Coughlan got into his Ford coupe and backed out into the street. With the Hudson following, he turned north on Ashland Avenue, then west on Skokie Road. Two blocks later, he noticed the Hudson do a quick u-turn and speed off in the opposite direction. He turned around and tried to catch up with them, but he lost the vehicle in traffic near Lake Street. He later confessed that he was relieved, but also saddened. He realized that Nelson must have thought he was leading them into a trap.

Coughlan was right. Even in his weakened state, Nelson was suspicious about the way that the priest was acting, mistaking his confusion about where to safely hide the injured outlaw for possible betrayal. As they drove, he instructed Chase to lose him, and they drove off with an alternate destination in mind. Nelson feebly told Chase where and when to turn, traveling south and keeping mostly to residential streets as they left Wilmette and entered Winnetka, then Niles Center (which is now Skokie.) At one point, Nelson appeared to pass out and Chase turned into an alley to wait for him to wake up. A minute or so later, Nelson regained consciousness and urged his friend to keep driving. 

On Sixteenth Street, Nelson told Chase to slow down. Pointing to a narrow alley that ran behind Walnut Street, he told him to make the turn. Chase drove down the alley to a red two-car garage at the rear of a light gray stucco cottage that faced Walnut Street. The address of the cottage was 1627 Walnut Street. Chase pulled into the garage and asked Nelson who lived there. Nelson mumbled, “Friends.”

Chase went to the front door and knocked and a tall, dark-complexioned man in his late 30’s answered. Chase told him that someone outside needed him and the man accompanied him back to the garage. 
When the man saw Nelson in the car, Chase knew that he instantly recognized him. The two men, with Helen following, carried Nelson into the house. They entered through a side door and passed through the kitchen. Along the way, Chase glimpsed an older man and a young woman who appeared frightened at the sight of the bloody and wounded bandit. They went into a small bedroom, where they placed Nelson on a large iron bed. The other man walked out, leaving Chase and Helen to take care of Nelson. Helen later recounted, “All three of us knew Les was dying, but there was nothing we could do.”

They did their best to make him comfortable and stop the bleeding. Helen was given scissors and other supplies and she cut the bloody clothing from her husband’s body. She stuffed cotton into the bullet hole in his stomach and the gaping exit wound in his back, and then covered both wounds by wrapping him with long strips of cloth that were torn from a bed sheet. Helen cleaned his buckshot-spattered legs, and then covered him with a blanket when he told her that he was cold. 

Nelson sighed. He felt better, he told his wife and friends, the pain was gone and now he just felt numb all over. Helen held onto his hand and waited for the end to come.

About an hour after Nelson, Helen, and Chase had arrived at the house on Walnut Street, the man who had helped carry the bank robber inside came and told Chase that he needed to move the damaged government vehicle. Chase agreed but Nelson begged him not to leave. Minutes later, the man came back again and reiterated that the car had to be moved. Nelson again appealed to his friend to stay and Chase promised to stay, but noticing that Nelson was slipping in and out of consciousness, he made the decision to slip away for a few minutes. Before long, Chase quietly left the bedside, exited through the side door, and drove away. He later insisted that he had planned to return after he ditched the car, but being unfamiliar with the area, he soon became lost. Attempting to head south into Chicago, he ended up going north and found himself back in Winnetka. When the Hudson ran out of gas, he abandoned it near some railroad tracks. This forced him to make another decision. Knowing there was nothing he could do to help his friend, he realized that he needed to try and get away. Chase caught a train to Chicago and disappeared.

Helen was left alone with her dying husband. Shortly after Chase departed, Nelson seemed to realize that he had little time left. He asked her to say goodbye to their family and when he began to talk about their children, he cried a little. Finally, he gasped out his final words, “It’s getting dark, Helen. I can’t see you anymore.”

Nelson’s eyes glazed over and his breathing became shallow and raspy, and then stopped altogether. The infamous “Baby Face” Nelson was dead.

Rain fell on the Walnut Street cottage until the early morning hours. Helen Gillis sat with her husband’s corpse until nearly dawn, and then the man who had helped them came into the room and told her that the body needed to be moved. Helen wanted to take her husband to an undertaker’s, but she knew it was impossible. The man told her that he would find a place where the body could be left. He promised to call an undertaker later on.

After wrapping the body in an imitation Indian blanket, Helen and the man carried it outside and placed it in the backseat of an Oldsmobile that was parked in the driveway. She climbed in next to her husband, cradling him in her arms as the man drove. They drove deeper into Niles Center and at the southwest corner of Niles (now Conrad) and Long Avenues, they reached St. Paul’s Cemetery. The driver pulled over to the curb and they wrestled the body from the car. Nelson’s naked, bloody corpse was placed on the grass. Helen tucked the blanket around him, hoping that he would be comfortable because Lester “always hated the cold.”

A few blocks away, just south of Howard Avenue, Helen dropped Nelson’s bloodstained clothing out the window. The driver continued south until they reached Chicago’s North Side. The man asked her if this was a suitable spot for her to be let out and she said that it was, even though she had no idea where she was or where she should go. Before she stepped out of the car, she gave the driver the name of a mortician who had handled the funerals of her mother and her sister. He promised to call and notify the undertaker where to find Nelson’s body and then drove away.

Helen wandered the unfamiliar streets for over an hour. Finally, around 5:00 a.m., she hailed a cab and slipped into the warm backseat. The driver asked her where she wanted to go and she just told him to keep driving.

At 6:45 a.m. the bullet-riddled Hudson was discovered by a Winnetka milkman, who notified a local patrolman. Federal agents arrived at the scene within an hour and found bullet holes and plenty of blood.

At 7:30 a.m., Philip Sadowski, the owner of a funeral home on North Hermitage Avenue, received a telephone call from a man with a “rough voice” who informed him that the body of a man named Gillis was lying in a graveyard in Niles Center, a block away from Harms Road. Sadowski told him that he was unable to retrieve the body. He was in the midst of preparing for a funeral and besides, he added, morticians don’t recover bodies, he would have to notify the coroner to do that. The man on the other end of the line told him to notify anyone he wanted to, but that he wanted him to handle the arrangements.

Sadowski reported the anonymous call to the Chicago Coroner’s Office and was advised to contact the Niles Center Police. Acting on the undertaker’s information, Captain Axel Stolberg and a patrolman went out to the area to look around. Sadowski, however, had failed to mention the name of cemetery and the body was not found. The pair returned to the police station, only to hear about a call that had just come in from someone who found bloody clothing near where the officers had just been searching. 

News of the discovery was passed on to federal agents who had spent the morning searching Winnetka. Four agents arrived to help Captain Stolberg search the area again. It was almost noon when FBI agent Sam McKee signaled that he had found the remains of Baby Face Nelson. 

Nelson’s body lay in the grass, with his head resting on the curb. He was naked, except for the cloth strips that had been wrapped about his waist and he was drenched with blood. His right arm was across his chest and his left hand was frozen into a claw just above the wound in his stomach. His feet were crossed and the agents realized that he had been dead long enough for rigor mortis to set in. The body was picked up, carried to a car, and then driven to the mortuary for an official identification. Fingerprints confirmed that the dead man was Lester Gillis, a.k.a. “Baby Face” Nelson.

The body was photographed and examined. The press reported that he had been shot 17 times, but the official count was actually nine. By mid-afternoon, news of Nelson’s death was sweeping the city. The body was transported to the Cook County Morgue and placed on a slab for public display. More than two thousand morbid curiosity-seekers filed past the dead bank robber during the hours that followed.

Once Nelson was confirmed dead, the massive manhunt for the killers of FBI agents Cowley and Hollis shifted to his two companions at the “Battle of Barrington” – John Chase and Helen Gillis.

With little cash and no car, Chase had checked into the Garfield Arms, a downtown hotel, and hid out in his room, only venturing out a couple of times to buy newspapers. Chase soon devised a clever way to get out of the city by answering a newspaper ad looking for drivers to deliver automobiles on the west coast. Using the name Elmer Rockwood, Chase applied and was accepted. He received a paycheck for driving a Studebaker to Seattle, and when he arrived there, he disappeared once again.

The search for Helen got the most publicity. When Hoover ordered his agents to “find the woman and give her no quarter,” the press interpreted this to mean that Helen was to be shot on sight. Some stories even suggested that she had replaced her husband as Public Enemy Number One. Even worse, a United Press story labeled Helen as “the Tiger Woman” and portrayed her as a “ruthless gun moll of the Bonnie Parker type, leading her cohorts in bank raids and battles with officers of the law.” She was the brains of the gang, they claimed, pushing her husband into a life of crime. The account also claimed that during the gunfight in Barrington, Helen had been loading guns for Nelson and Chase. 

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, but even the FBI started to believe the newspapers. One agent was quoted as saying, “I’d hate to shoot a woman but I’m not following Cowley and Hollis because of ideas over a woman like that.” Assistant Director Clegg echoed the sentiments when reporters asked him what the government’s procedures were in apprehending Helen. He told the newsmen, “From now on, mercy goes by the boards.”

On Thanksgiving morning, November 29, Helen Gillis – America’s most wanted “outlaw” and the so-called “Tiger Woman – resumed wandering around the streets of Chicago. She had spent most of the night sleeping in the doorway of an abandoned building. She eventually ended up in her old neighborhood, where she watched her father, from a safe distance, as he left for work with a small crowd of people around him. The ones that were not reporters were FBI agents, waiting for Helen to show up. Asked if he had a statement for his daughter, Vincent Warwick made a plea that was published the following day: “Come home. Surrender and give up alive or you’ll be mowed down by machine guns. Remember your babies.”

Helen moved on and spent the rest of the day around Humboldt Park. She considered calling her sister-in-law, Julie, but was certain that her telephone was tapped. As evening approached, she dreaded the idea of spending another night on the streets. Near Lafayette School, she stopped a young girl and paid her a dollar to deliver a note to Julie’s apartment. 

At that moment, Julie’s husband, Bob Fitzsimmons was on the phone, as he had been most of the day. This time, he was speaking with Special Agent McKee, who had called to ask about the time and place of Nelson’s funeral. According to Helen’s wishes, the body had been turned over to Sadowski’s funeral home, but no arrangements had been set. McKee urged Fitzsimmons to try and get Helen to turn herself in. Bob agreed to do his best to get the family to contact her. If they were successful, he asked that agents take her into custody in a quiet manner, avoiding publicity if possible.

Just minutes after Fitzsimmons hung up, the girl arrived with Helen’s note. Bob and Julie immediately left the house and when they were certain they were not being followed, they went to the school and found Helen sitting in the dark on the front steps. For the next hour, they drove around as Helen tearfully told them of everything that had taken place. She said that she would have surrendered sooner but she was afraid that she might be shot. She added that she was hopeful that a deal could be arranged with the FBI that would allow her to attend her husband’s funeral.

At 10:25 p.m., Fitzsimmons called the FBI and was put in touch with Special Agent Virgil Peterson. He passed on the wish that Helen wanted to surrender but also asked if she could be allowed to attend her husband’s funeral. Peterson was in no mood to bargain. He told Bob that no promises could be made and demanded that Helen immediately turn herself in. It would be in her best interests, he emphasized, if she surrendered. After Helen agreed, Fitzsimmons told him that they would meet the FBI agents at the southwest corner of Jackson Boulevard and Halsted Street.

A short time later, Helen was taken into custody. The press was not notified of the arrangement. At the Banker’s Building, Helen was surrounded by six agents and hurried into the building through a rear entrance. After checking to be sure that no newsmen were present, she was taken to the nineteenth floor, led along a little-used passage that cut through a storage room, and placed in the main office.

For the next five days, Helen’s presence in the building was kept secret while she was being interrogated by the federal men. Hoover stressed that she must be made to talk and that Earl Connelly, who had stepped into the role of head of the Chicago office after Hoover had moved out Melvin Purvis, should question her constantly so that she would be unable to sleep. But Connelly was not cruel. In fact, Helen later stated that he was very nice and treated her quite well.

Helen did talk, however. She reluctantly shared an abundance of information while carefully avoiding the mention of any crucial names. Many of Nelson’s associates were merely “friends of Les’,” whose names she claimed to not know or could not recall. Their companion at Barrington, Helen said, was “a fellow named George.”

On December 4, word finally leaked to the press that Helen Gillis had been in federal custody since Thanksgiving night. No details were given about her surrender, only that she had been “cooperating” under questioning. The Bureau wanted to hold her longer for further interrogation, but once word got out, they were forced to proceed with the only legal recourse that was available. 

On December 6, Helen was delivered to the Dane County Jail in Madison, Wisconsin, where she had been taken after the raid on Little Bohemia. The next morning she was brought to the judge’s chambers and he asked her why she had violated her probation. She could only tell him, “I knew Les didn’t have long to live, and I wanted to be with him as long as I could.”

More than 150 spectators jammed the courtroom for her hearing. Looking small and frail, Helen admitted that she had violated her probation. Her probation was revoked and she was taken immediately to serve her sentence of a year and a day at the Women’s Correctional Farm at Milan, Michigan. 

Chase was eventually captured and sent to Alcatraz. He was a model prisoner on the “Rock” and well-liked by the staff and other inmates. Over the years, he developed a passion for painting and was regarded by many as an accomplished artist. He also became close friends with the prison chaplain, who obtained painting materials for Chase by selling some of his work in San Francisco.

In 1955, Chase became eligible for parole and the chaplain became his strongest advocate, insisting that Chase was a changed man who could be a useful part of society. J. Edgar Hoover heard of the chaplain’s campaign on Chase’s behalf and immediately started to work against him, ensuring that Chase remained on Alcatraz. At the bottom of a memo, he wrote, “Watch closely and endeavor to thwart efforts of this priest who should be attending to his own business instead of trying to turn loose on society such mad dogs.” Hoover continued to try and ruin Chase’s chances for release for the next 11 years but in October 1966, he finally made parole. He moved to Palo Alto, California, where he lived a quiet life, working as a custodian and performing odd jobs until his death in October 1973 from colon cancer.

Despite being a model prisoner while behind bars, Helen Gillis served almost the entire year of her sentence. On December 6, 1935, federal agents escorted her to San Francisco, where she was arraigned on charges of harboring her late husband, and placed in a cell to await trial. 

Assistant U.S. Attorney R.B. McMillan, who was supposed to prosecute Helen, wrote a letter to the attorney general stating that the 22-year-old widow was clearly no threat to society and appeared so pathetic that further prosecution seemed pointless. Hoover received a copy of the letter and was enraged. He insisted that the wife of “Baby Face” Nelson belonged in prison.

Helen appeared in court on December 13. The young woman who had married Lester Gillis seven years earlier, and who had been the constant companion of “Baby Face” Nelson, quietly pleaded guilty and applied for probation. Her attorney stated that she was only guilty of being a faithful wife to a misguided husband, adding that she had been punished enough. Prosecutor McMillan (likely to Hoover’s chagrin) added his recommendation to her plea for probation, citing her record of excellent behavior over her past year in federal custody. Finally, the judge declared, “I believe you’ve been punished enough. I want you to lead a good life and be a good mother to your children.” Helen was ordered to serve one year’s probation and finally, she was free.

She gave very few interviews in the years that followed, but on one occasion, she summed up her life with Nelson. “I loved Les. When you love a guy, you love him. That’s all there is to it. If I had my life to live over again, I’d do just as I did. I’d stick to my husband any time, any place, no matter what he did.”

Helen grieved, and then she got on with her life. In 1937, she returned to Chicago with her children and spent the next fifty years staying away from publicity. Her children married and moved away, Ronald to LaFox, Illinois, and Darlene to southern Wisconsin. Helen visited them frequently and in her last years, she lived with Ronald.

She never remarried. One week after she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, she died on July 3, 1987, in a hospital in St. Charles. Her last wish was to be buried next to her husband in the Gillis family plot at St. Joseph’s Cemetery in River Grove. 

On that day, a chapter was closed on a piece of “Public Enemy” history as the final participant in the Battle of Barrington was forever laid to rest.

1 comment:

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