The bravery of two FBI Agents helped take down career criminal
“Baby Face” George Nelson on the bloodiest day in Barrington’s history.
WORDS BY SIMON MURRAY
On the morning of November 27, 1934, “Baby Face” George Nelson left Wisconsin heading south toward Chicago. It was a cloudy, overcast morning. Cold. A far cry from the idyllic Indian summer of only a year before.
A career criminal, bank robber, and murderer, Nelson (born Lester Joseph Gillis) had recently been upgraded by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to Public Enemy No. 1, after the recent deaths of crime boss John Dillinger and associate “Pretty Boy”
Floyd. Nelson, just 25 years old—born a few months after the nascent Bureau itself—was now the most wanted man in America.
By 8:00 p.m. that evening Nelson would be dead in a flurry of bullets, as would Special Agent Her-man Edward Hollis. A second FBI agent, Inspector Samuel P. Cowley would die early the next morning from wounds sustained during the short but furious gunfight. At most, what would come to be known as “The Battle of Barrington” lasted five minutes.
Only 36 hours earlier, Nelson had stolen a car with his criminal sidekick, John Paul Chase. Given the nickname “Baby Face” for his youthful appearance and diminutive stature, Nelson—unlike Dillinger, who enjoyed a Robin Hood-like reputation—was a notorious and particularly bloodthirsty gangster, prone to indiscriminately kill lawmen and innocent bystanders alike.
Inspector Samuel P. Cowley of the FBI’s Chicago Office had been assigned to search for Nelson. Along with Special Agent Herman “Ed” Hollis, the pair had been part of the team that had apprehend-ed Dillinger, with Hollis being recognized for his “fearlessness and courageous action” by J. Edgar Hoover himself.
Nelson, accompanied by Chase, his wife Helen Gillis, and a cache of high-powered guns and ammunitions headed south on State Highway 12 (now 14). As Nelson’s Ford—reportedly driven by Gillis—approached the village of Fox River Grove, Nelson spotted a vehicle going in the opposite direction, pegging it as a G-Man’s (short for Government Man’s) car. He was right. It belonged to FBI Agents Thomas McDade and William Ryan, who were on their way up to Lake Geneva, following a tip that Nelson had been hiding out in the woods there.
Reportedly, a game of cat and mouse ensued, with the Agents quickly identifying the stolen vehicle and the passengers inside. Both cars attempted several U-turns on the highway in an attempt to out-jockey the other for position. Several fast-paced turns later, and Gillis was successful in bringing the Ford around behind the Agents.
Chase, automatic rifle at the ready, fired five rounds into the Agents’ sedan. The Agents, outflanked, were able to return fire; one of Ryan’s bullets piercing the radiator of Nelson’s Ford, partially dis-abling it. Unbelievably, McDade and Ryan were not killed or injured in the attack. The Agents quickly pulled off the highway; unaware the round had struck the radiator of Nelson’s Ford, which was now being pursued by Hollis and Cowley.
Realizing his new pursuers were trying to pull alongside the dis-abled Ford, Nelson had Gillis veer off Highway 12 at the entrance to Barrington’s North Side Park and stop there. As Helen Gillis fled toward a drainage ditch—under instructions from Nelson—the agents stopped their car some 150 feet away. As Gillis took cover, a .45 round from Cowley’s Thompson submachine gun hit Nelson above the waistline.
“A few seconds after the firing started I could see Les jump up and grab his side,” Helen Gillis was quoted as saying in the Decem-ber 6, 1934 edition of The New York Times. “I seemed to know [at that point] it was all over.”
But the slug had only momentarily winded him. Chase, who had not been hit in the exchange, continued to fire at the Agents from be-hind the car. Meanwhile Nelson, who had been sitting on the running board of the Ford, regained himself. Going to fire more rounds from his machine gun, it jammed, precipitating his switch to a .351 rifle.
To the astonishment of Chase and the Agents, a wounded Nelson stepped brazenly into the line of fire. As he advanced towards Hollis and Cowley, he began firing with the rifle so fast, several witness testimonies swore that Nelson was using a machine gun.
The Agents quickly regained themselves. Six bullets from Cow-ley’s submachine gun struck Nelson in the abdomen. But instead of slowing his advance, Nelson kept coming. A shot from his .351 mortally wounded Cowley. Next he turned his attention to Hollis, who hit Nelson with a shotgun blast to the legs that momentarily downed him. Hollis, possibly already wounded, retreated behind a utility pole for cover. His shotgun empty, Hollis tried to draw his service revolver, only to be killed by Nelson’s .351 from a fatal shot to the head.
Taking the Federal car, the three fugitives found their way to a house “somewhere near Chicago,” Gillis told the New York Times—most likely a safe house in Wilmette. Reportedly, Nelson attempted to drive but was too weak. At 7:35 that evening, three hours after the battle, Nelson died in bed.
Following an anonymous telephone tip, Nelson’s body was dis-covered wrapped in a blanket in a ditch near the St. Peter Catholic Cemetery in Skokie. “The body being clothed only in underwear,” Hoover was recounted as saying in a transcript. “Five shots in his stomach, five shots in his left leg, five shots in the right leg, and two shots in the chest.” Or seventeen shots in total. (It was reported that Nelson finally succumbed to Cowley’s original .45 bullet that initially entered his side during the gunfight.)
It’s been noted that Nelson—upon hearing of his newfound no-toriety as Public Enemy No. 1—boasted he would rob “A bank a day for a month.” Even if taken as little more than an exaggeration, the ultimate sacrifice by Cowley and Hollis prevented what could have been a particularly murderous spree from one of the most violent gangsters of the 20th century.