Aww George, not the livestock!
The infamous George “Baby Face” Nelson was born Lester Gillis in Chicago, IL on December 6, 1908. Lester’s parents were Belgian immigrants who lived just north of the Maxwell Street market in the city. His father worked in the Union Stockyards, his mother tutored schoolchildren in French. The Gillis boys were allowed to wander the streets of the West Side almost unchecked by their parents. Little Lester was easily the smallest kid in the on his block and was a favorite target for the local bullies. But soon, he decided to fight back and quickly became one of the most feared children in the neighborhood. He was known as a kid adept with a switchblade and as someone not afraid to inflict pain.
By the age of 14, he was an accomplished car thief. Gillis’ early criminal career included stealing tires, running stills, bootlegging, and armed robbery. In 1922 he was convicted of auto theft and was sentenced to a boys’ home. While in jail, his father, now a heavy drinker in part because of the shame of his son's criminal activities, committed suicide. Gillis blamed himself for his father's death and began giving a portion of the money he stole to his mother to help support the family.
After serving 24 months, he was paroled and back on the streets. Within five months of being released, Baby Face was arrested again after being caught robbing a department store. After telling the judge to go to hell, Lester was sent to the infamous Chicago Boys Home. Upon his release from there, he started up a protection racket back in his old neighborhood on Halsted Street in order to make some quick cash. The iron fist with which he ruled his area caught the eye of Al Capone, and Capone hired Lester to become one of his top enforcers. It was during this time that Lester Gillis adopted the alias “George Nelson”, after a prizefighter he admired.
When he wasn’t busy busting heads for Al Capone, Baby Face found himself a girlfriend, a petite 18-year-old Woolworth’s salesgirl named Helen Wawzynak. Just before Christmas, 1930, Nelson struck it big. A robbery of a prosperous gem dealer in suburban Wheaton, Illinois, gained him $5,000. "What depression?" he laughed as he flipped an engagement ring into her hand one evening. The couple was devoted to each other and their children for their whole lives and often traveled as a family, even when law enforcement officials were hunting Nelson.
Baby Face decided to hit another jewelry store in January 1931, but was arrested and sent off to Joliet Penitentiary. While there, a witness came forward that identified him as the perpetrator of the Wheaton robbery. If he was found guilty of that charge, it could have added another 25 years onto his sentence. On the morning of February 17, 1932, while Nelson was being transported by commuter train to a hearing, he feigned nausea and told his guard that he needed to use the bathroom. The guard undid George’s handcuffs and he sprang from his seat and knocked the guard over. George jumped off the train and ran to a waiting car being driven by his wife.
By tracing a series of auto thefts featuring a short man and a petite woman, the police were eventually able to track George to Reno, Nevada. Before they could get their hands on him, George hightailed it to California. When they got there, George began doing jobs for Sicilian mob boss Giuseppe (Joe) Parente. Parente made Baby Face the head of his bootlegging operation and also used him to collect protection money and as his top enforcer. George continued to commit jewelry store robberies in order to make some money on the side. Parente was also the person who began to call George “Baby Face,” after the popular song of the time. George hated the name, but put up with it because Parente was his benefactor.
Baby Face grew tired of being a glorified runner for Joe Parente, so he packed up his family and moved to Long Beach, Indiana with dreams of becoming a bank robber and taking down even bigger scores. Nelson idolized John Dillinger and wanted to terrorize the Midwest and put his name in the papers next to the greats like Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd. He quickly put together a gang and carved a path of destruction across several states, robbing small town banks in Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska. They tried to keep the robberies clean, but if a guard tried to be a hero or a teller took his time getting the money, Nelson wasn’t afraid to blow them away. Helen accompanied the gang on many of their jobs, usually sitting in the backseat of the getaway car telling her husband how dashing he looked.
Nelson became so well known that he was invited to join John Dillinger’s gang. As the gang began pulling jobs together, Nelson began to act even more unstable, once killing a man in cold blood on the way to a bank, and then shooting people inside the bank for any reason at all. The group continued to commit robberies, but many of the jobs ended up going sour due to George’s hot-headedness.
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover vowed to put an end to the crime spree that was marching through the Midwest. Hoover sent teams of FBI agents to Chicago and created the “Public Enemies List.” Much to Baby Face’s chagrin, John Dillinger was #1 while George Nelson was only #2. The gang was almost captured several times, and eventually split up in order to be harder to trace. George and Helen criss-crossed the United States, going from Wisconsin to California and back again. On July 22, 1934, John Dillinger was killed and George celebrated his new status as “Public Enemy #1.”
Baby Face returned to Illinois and hid in Barrington, a small town northwest of Chicago. Someone tipped off the FBI, and on September 27, 1934 George’s car was ambushed while driving south to Chicago. There was a high-speed shootout, with two cars of FBI agents versus George, Helen, and their friend John Chase in another. Eventually, two of the cars were too damaged to continue, but Baby Face emerged from his car and began to boldly walk towards the FBI agents, dual machine guns blazing. He managed to kill the remaining two agents, but took seventeen bullet hits himself. George collapsed in the road, his lower torso completely shattered, and began to crawl to the final car that wasn’t disabled. John Chase and Helen managed to help Baby Face into the car and the three drove south.
George “Baby Face” Nelson’s body was found the next day, abandoned in a cemetery in Niles Center, IL. He vowed never to be taken alive, and in that he succeeded.