“Baby Face Nelson” was born Lester J. Gillis on December 6th, 1908. The Chicago native would go on to become one of the greatest bank robbers of the 1930s and Public Enemy No. 1 by the end of his lifetime.
It is said that Nelson’s nickname came from his youthful appearance and small stature, measuring in at only five feet four inches and weighing in at about 133 pounds.
Nelson started leading a life of crime from an early age. By age 13, he had joined a youth gang and participated in auto theft and bank robberies. In 1922, Nelson was caught and committed to a boys’ home. Soon after his release for the first offense, he found himself back in the same place for similar charges.
Nelson found himself in and out of jail throughout his life. In February of 1932, he successfully escaped prison guards during a transfer from two Illinois state prisons. The infamous criminal headed west to Reno, but eventually made his way to California. Once there, he linked up with John Paul Chase, the leader of a liquor smuggling operation. The two worked together on several criminal activities.
Nelson eventually made his way back to the Midwest and met several other notorious criminals, like Homer Van Meter and John Dillinger.
In April of 1934, Nelson, John Paul Chase and his wife, Helen Wawzynak, officially joined the Dillinger gang.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) attempted to track down Nelson and the Dillinger gang on a vacation to the Little Bohemia Lodge in Northern Wisconsin. The FBI was unsuccessful in capturing the criminals. Instead, the incident resulted in the death of three men and their escape. Rewards were offered for Nelson’s capture or information leading to his whereabouts.
Several other armed robberies soon unfolded, and many resulted in the death of several police officers. On July 22, 1934, Dillinger is believed to have been shot and killed, and the following day, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover declared “Baby Face Nelson” as “Public Enemy No. 1.”
Following Dillinger’s death, Nelson and Chase made numerous trips across the continental U.S.. On November 27, 1934, the pair stole a car and drove it to Wisconsin. Two special agents, Thomas McDade and William Ryan, then spotted the stolen vehicle in Barrington, Illinois. Inspector Samuel P. Crowley and Special Agent Herman Edward Hollis proceeded to engage in an armed car chase down U.S. Highway 12 in an attempt to finally stop Nelson.
Nelson was critically injured as a result of the gunfight. Later that evening, he passed due to his injuries.
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