Lester Joseph Gillis – Baby Face Nelson
Lester Gillis is known by one of the great gangster names of all time, Baby Face Nelson, but to his cohorts and fellow thieves and murderers he was known simply as Jimmy. Nelson worked both alone and with gang members associated with John Dillinger, aiding in his prison escape in 1934, by that time Nelson was infamous as an armed robber, bootlegger enforcer, and murderer. Nelson’s criminal activities began when he was seven years old, the same age at which he first shot another person, although he claimed it was an accident. By the time he was twenty he was working in a gas station that also served as the base for a gang of car thieves, with whom he quickly associated himself.
Between 1930 – 1934 Nelson’s criminal activities expanded, beginning with burglary and armed robbery and developing into bank robbery, and he stretched his activities from the Midwest to San Francisco, gaining a reputation for unprovoked violence. His weapon of choice became the Thompson .45 caliber submachine gun, and he was reported to have “sprayed” crime scenes and pursuers on several occasions. Nelson brought his wife and young children along with him on some of his “business trips,” including a trip to San Antonio and after that town became too hot for him, to San Francisco.
Shortly after Dillinger escaped from Crown Point, using a wooden pistol which may have been smuggled to him by members of Nelson’s gang, Nelson ran down and murdered a paint salesman in an act of what today would be called road rage. Two days later the gang, now with Dillinger participating, robbed a bank in Sioux Falls with Nelson using the machine gun to severely wound a motorcycle policeman. On March 13, in a robbery in Mason City, Iowa, Dillinger and another gang member were badly wounded, and Nelson fled with another gang member to Reno, Nevada. The FBI later determined that Nelson committed a contract killing in Reno.
In late April Nelson, the recovering Dillinger, and several other gang members went to Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin to rest and plan their next move. Spotted by someone at the Lodge during a poker game, police and FBI closed in. In a confused melee and exchanges of gunfire, Dillinger escaped, as did Nelson, though separated, and Nelson kidnaped a couple living nearby, stole at least three cars, killed one FBI agent and seriously wounded another, and held another family hostage for several days before ultimately making his escape from the area. By the end of June Nelson and Dillinger were back to robbing banks together.
After Dillinger was killed in July 1934 Nelson, then on the run, was proclaimed Public Enemy Number One. Nelson traveled through the West, accompanied by his wife Helen, eventually returning to the Midwest, usually staying at the then popular auto camps. After nearly being apprehended near Lake Geneva in November 1934, Nelson headed towards Chicago, where he was finally confronted by FBI agents near Barrington. Nelson and two FBI agents were killed in the ensuing gun battle. Nelson’s wife was uninjured, and later served a year in prison. Baby Face Nelson is seldom presented sympathetically in media as is Dillinger and even Clyde Barrow, instead he is usually presented as the unrepentant murdering thug that he was.