Childhood & Early Life
Baby Face Nelson was born as Lester Joseph Gillis in the Patch’area of Chicago, Illinois on December 6, 1908. He was the seventh offspring of Joseph and Mary Gillis, both Belgian immigrants. His father who worked in a tannery and labored to raise a loving family
On July 4, 1916, when he was just seven, Nelson was arrested for inadvertently shooting a friend and was sent to the state reformatory for a year.
By the time he turned 12, he was already an expert car thief, operating in a neighborhood gang of juveniles involved in assorted petty crimes. In 1921, when he was just 13, the police arrested him again for car theft and consequently he was sent for a year to the juvenile correctional facility.
In 1922, he was once again arrested for a similar offence and sentenced to 18 months to St. Charles School for Boys, a penal school; during this time, his father committed suicide. Even during his school days, Nelson had a short temper and would often get into altercations with his classmates.
The sole member of his family who had taken to crime, Baby Face Nelson held himself responsible for his father’s death and started to support his mother and siblings with a part of his ill-gotten gains even though he was constantly in and out of juvenile correctional facilities.
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By the time he married, Baby Face Nelson was employed at a neighboring ‘Standard Oil’ station frequented by a gang of car tire thieves. He associated with them as well as some local criminals, including one for whom he would deliver bootleg alcohol in the suburbs of Chicago.
In the 1930s, he was associated with the ‘Touhy Gang’ in organized crime, primarily armed robbery of the homes of the rich. Their use of adhesive tape to truss up the homeowners earned them the name of ‘The Tape Bandits’.
Nelson committed his first bank robbery on April 21, 1930, and then looted the ‘Itasca State Bank’. While both the robberies yielded only $4,000 and $4,600 respectively, he more than made up with richer pickings from robbing homes, including that of the Chicago mayor ‘Big’ Bill Thompson from where he got $18,000 worth of his wife’s jewelry. The aggrieved lady described her attacker, saying "He had a baby face. He was good-looking, hardly more than a boy…”
A roadhouse robbery in Summit, Illinois November 23, 1930, that went wrong ended in three people losing their lives and another three wounded.
Nelson committed his first murder when he killed Edwin R. Thompson, a stockbroker, while robbing a Waukegan Road tavern on November 26, 1930.
In addition to the rest of the gang, Nelson too was arrested and sentenced to incarceration at the state penitentiary at Joliet. However, in February 1932, he managed to escape during a prison transfer and fled to Reno, where he was given shelter by William Graham, a hardcore criminal, and gambler.
Under the alias of Jimmy Johnson, Nelson continued his criminal activities in the Bay area. Associating with Eddie Bentz, a known bank robber, on August 18, 1933, he robbed a bank in Grand Haven, Michigan. Even though not lucrative, this, his first major bank robbery, convinced him to form his own gang.
On October 23, 1933, Nelson, looted $32,000 from the First National Bank of Brainerd, Minnesota.
Nelson, along with his family and other gang members, fled to San Antonio, Texas, however, a tipoff on December 9, 1933, led to a bloody encounter that left one detective dead and another wounded. While the gang fled the city, Nelson and his family went to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he recruited Fatso Negri and John Paul Chase for more bank robberies.
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Nelson’s new gang associated with the infamous gangster John Dillinger to rob the Security National Bank at Sioux Falls, South Dakota for $48,000, a motorcycle policeman was severely wounded with machinegun fire.
The ‘Second Dillinger gang’, as they came to be called even though there was no designated leader, raided the First National Bank’in Mason City, Iowa on March 13, 1934, just one week after the Sioux Falls strike.
Nelson and Chase fled to Reno where Bill Graham and Jim McKay, their old bosses, were being prosecuted for mail fraud. Nelson and Chase abducted and killed Roy Fritsch, the chief witness testifying against the duo; the quartered body, however, was never found.
On April 22, 1934, the FBI, acting on a tip-off, raided the ‘Little Bohemia Lodge’ in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin where Nelson, his wife, and other gang members were spending the weekend. A chaotic and bloody gun battle ensued leaving an innocent bystander and an FBI agent dead and four others severely wounded, however, the entire gang managed to flee after a series of escapades resulting in severe criticism of the FBI.
When the FBI came to know of Nelson’s involvement in the Dillinger gang, the Bureau made him a high-priority target following which, Nelson became notorious nationally.
The fugitive status, however, did not prevent Baby Face Nelson, along with Dillinger and others, from robbing the Merchants National Bank in South Bend, Indiana on June 30, 1934. While Nelson took a shot in the chest and was saved due to his bulletproof jacket, a policeman lost his life and several others, which included hostages and bystanders, were wounded in the gunfire.
With the FBI manhunt gathering force, Nelson and Helen, along with Chase, fled to California but returned to Chicago on July 15, 1934. A reunion with the other gang members was disturbed by a couple of Illinois state troopers; as usual, Nelson and Chase escaped under cover of fire though Chase was badly injured.
Dillinger was killed by the FBI on July 22, 1934, and Pretty Boy Floyd was proclaimed by the FBI to be Public Enemy No. One. Following Floyd’s death in an FBI shootout on October 22, 1934, John Edgar Hoover, the FBI director declared Baby Face Nelson to be the new Public Enemy No. One.
Nelson, Helen, and Chase went on the run but returned to the ‘Lake Como Inn’ in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin on November 27, 1934, taking the waiting but ill-prepared FBI agents by surprise and were able to escape without even a single shot being fired.
With the FBI agents hot on the chase, a furious but brief gun battle took place in the town of Barrington that resulted in the death of Nelson from multiple bullet wounds; two FBI agents were also killed in what is now referred to as ‘The Battle of Barrington’.