On This Day: Bank robber Baby Face Nelson dies in shootout with FBI

Julian Gavaghan
Yahoo News26 November 2013

NOVEMBER 27, 1934: America’s former Public Enemy No 1 “Baby Face” George Nelson was killed during a public shoot-out with the FBI that also left two lawmen dead on this day in 1934.

The youthful-looking outlaw, 25, who stole $111,600 during an 18-month bank robbing and home invasion spree, was gunned down in a Chicago suburb.

Nelson, who killed lawmen for fun, was exchanging fire using a .351 Winchester self-loading rifle while chasing an FBI car when the Battle of Barrington turned deadly.

The two G-men, Thomas McDade and William Ryan, eventually pulled over in the hope of getting out and ambushing the following iconic Depression-era gangster.

However, they did not know the bullet-riddled radiator in Nelson’s Ford V8 had forced him to stop near a park entrance opposite three petrol stations.

Also, McDade and Ryan were unaware that two other FBI agents, Herman Hollis and Samuel Cowley, had been following the outlaw, who had escaped jail in 1932.

The other G-men swerved to a halt 100ft further up, got out of their Hudson and shot at Nelson, whose wife Helen Gillis ran for cover under his instruction.

He and his accomplice Paul Chase shot back as around 30 bystanders watched the gun battle with a mixture of fear and excitement.

Nelson’s short-yet-stout 5ft 4in frame was shot a total of 17 times –with six bullets from Cowley’s submachine gun and 11 pellets from Hollis’s shotgun.

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Yet somehow Nelson, who had already gunned down at least six other lawmen, had the strength to keep returning fire and ultimately killed both Cowley and Hollis.

He was too weak to drive, however, and Chase stole the agents’ car and drove his boss to a safehouse, where he bled to death while in bed and in the arms of his wife.

His body was left wrapped in a blanket – since, according to Gillis, “he always hated being cold” – and placed at the front of a Catholic cemetery in Skokie.

Nelson’s death – despite costing the lives of two agents – represented a major success for the newly beefed-up FBI, which then run by the formidable J Edgar Hoover.

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A silent British Pathé newsreel – titled “Farewell Baby-Face”– showed the former crime boss along with some of the other scalps the Feds had recently taken.

It also showed inside Alacatraz, where a number of gangsters had been incarcerated, including bootlegging giant Al Capone.

Nelson had been Public Enemy No 1 a month after Hollis killed Pretty Boy Floyd, who carried out the Kanas City Massacre of four policemen.

Unlike other Depression era gangsters, who often maintained a Robin Hood-style image, Nelson was remembered as hot-tempered and unforgiving.

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Yet, despite his cruel image, the father of two was a devoted family man and took his wife, son Ron and daughter Darlene on the run with him.

However, his fate was spelled out following the July 1934 death of his former crime partner John Dillinger, who was also gunned down by Hollis among other FBI agents.

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He had joined forces with FBI’s first Public Enemy No 1 in March of the after helping Dillinger escape from Crown Point Jail, Indiana.

In April, the four-man Second Dillinger Gang famously gave the FBI the slip after a shootout at the Little Bohemia lodge in Wisconsin.

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But – with Hoover determined them all - their numbers were up and by August, Nelson was the only one left.

His exciting death ensured his place in history and his life has been covered in both in several movies, including the 1957 on-screen autobiography Baby Face Nelson.

He is also more fictionally depicted in the Coen brothers’ 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?

In that he was shown as a bipolar gangster who enjoys machine-gunning down cows and a man who laughs as he’s taken to the electric chair in a torch-lit parade.

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