A November 27, 1934 gunfight between federal agents and notorious gangster Baby Face Nelson went down in history as “The Battle of Barrington”—an epic tale of good guys (the feds) versus bad guys (former associate of the Dillinger gang) in the depths of the Great Depression. There’s a plaque in town at Langendorf Park, and the village even held a re-enactment of that battle during its 150th anniversary in 2016.
The story is well-known and widely documented. However, there are some who say that the truth about who killed Baby Face that day was hidden by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to prop up the reputation of his crime-fighting organization.
Seem impossible or implausible? We opened the archives and stumbled on babyfacenelsonjournal.com, a website run by mobster historian Jim Adams that recreates outlaw lore in colorful detail. One entry, “Forgotten Hero of Barrington,” caught our eye.
The piece alleges that a 26-year-old off-duty Illinois State Patrolman named William Gallagher was at Bob Malone’s Sinclair gas station not far from the spot on Highway 12 (now Highway 14) where gunfire broke out that day. Gallagher is said to have borrowed a rifle from Malone (not being on duty and having his own) and stumbled into one of the most epic battles in Barrington history. Adams’s tale further purports that Gallagher joined the agents in the fight and opened fire on Nelson’s car—potentially delivering the fatal shot to one of the most wanted men in America.
Intrigued, we began digging further. Of all the newspaper accounts of the incident, William Gallagher is mentioned most prominently in a November 28, 1934 article in the Chicago Tribune. It confirms that the “state highway policeman” was at a gas station and asked for a gun. “The attendant handed him a rifle, but the gangsters had headed east as Gallagher opened fire. He did not hit them.”
That alone was revealing. If a Barrington officer was involved in the gunfight, why hadn’t we heard of this sooner? A query to Adams put us in direct contact with perhaps the best source of all—none other than Patricia Gallagher, William Gallagher’s daughter.
“There is no doubt in my mind that he fired the shot that killed Baby Face Nelson,” says Patricia Gallagher, who was born in Barrington before moving to California. “He was at Bob Malone’s gas station, heard shots fired, got a rifle that belonged to Malone, a 32 Marlin, and he crawled over there. My dad was in a culvert and he could hear them (Baby Face, his wife Helen Gillis, and partner John Paul Chase) running back and forth and moving luggage from one car to another. When they finally got loaded, my dad said ‘this was my chance,” and as they finished loading, he took his shot.”
She says William Gallagher was one of seven, the first generation son of immigrants from County Mayo, Ireland. He was born and raised in a house at 131 Raymond Avenue, where he was still living that infamous November day.
“He was very private about telling his story,” Patricia Gallagher explains. “If I was to ask him a direct question he would respond and would give me his version of what happened. But he was like those men who served in World War II. After it was over, they didn’t want to talk about it.”
Based on what she calls “volumes of research” and extensive forensic analysis based on her own experience as a police officer, Patricia says she believes Hoover was trying to cover up the fact that a young off-duty cop from Barrington was the real hero.
“I was in law enforcement for 20 years and did a lot of criminal investigations. The story that the FBI put out was filled with gaping holes. Some of it just didn’t make sense. The number of bullet holes, for one. Supposedly he was shot 16 times and you don’t run around and move stuff from one car to another with 16 bullet holes in you,” she explains, referring to the FBI account that claimed Nelson, his wife Helen Gillis, and partner John Paul Chase were transferring luggage from their shot-up Ford V-8 to the agents’ 1934 Chrysler. “I’m sure my dad fired the 17th shot because supposedly Baby Face was driving away. He got hit and then Chase got out, pushed him into the passenger seat, and off they went.”
As further evidence in her case, Patricia Gallagher cites another eye-witness from Barrington—Frances Kramer, owner of a neighboring Sinclair station on Hough Street where the shootout could be heard.
“Mrs. Kramer was interviewed by one of the newspaper reporters the day of the shooting and she was so excited to be telling her story and the way it happened,” Patricia explains. “The next day, she was interviewed by another newspaper and her demeanor changed 180 degrees. The FBI got to her and told her to keep her mouth shut.”
As it turns out, the November 28, 1934 Chicago Tribune article that mentions William Gallagher also includes quotes from Kramer and her son, Harold. “We could hear the roar of the motors and then shots as the government men fired at the gangsters’ car,” Frances Kramer told Barrington Chief of Police E.W. Baade, continuing in vivid detail.
“This was all Hoover’s doing,” Patricia Gallagher says. “He needed as much glory and attention as he could possibly get for the FBI because it was a brand new organization.”
Shortly after the Battle of Barrington, William Gallagher married Patricia’s mother, Frances, and moved to a house on Hough Street. He lived in the Barrington area for a few more years before resigning from the Illinois State Police in 1942 and forming a volunteer police department in Lake Villa.
And even though he didn’t boast about his involvement publicly, William Gallagher did keep a thick scrapbook of assorted newspaper clippings friends sent to him from throughout the Illinois area. It was his point of pride, and now Patricia Gallagher says it’s her “badge of honor.”
“Baby Face and my dad were born three weeks apart,” Patricia says. “They were both born in the Chicago area, both raised Catholic, both immigrant parents, and the irony is that even though they were both raised so similarly, one took the path towards crime, and the other took the path toward law enforcement.”
She shares her father’s scrapbook with schools and area police departments in California, and continues to advocate for him to get the credit he deserved for his part in bringing down Baby Face Nelson.
“My dad was just written out of history,” Patricia says. “The FBI was trying to control everything at that time. The truth has come out about Hoover and what he was doing. It’s time my father got his due recognition.”