Lester Gillis was born in December of 1908 in Chicago, Illinois. His first arrest came on Independence Day at age 12. Young Lester discovered a handgun and inadvertently shot a pal in the jaw. He served a year in reform school before being released to steal his first car at age 13. This bought the lad another 18 months in the boys’ penal facility.
Gillis was a great many dichotomous things. He was a natural leader, a committed husband, and a doting father. He married Helen Wawrzyniak at age 20 and sired two kids he adored. By 1930, however, Gillis was making serious bank in the burgeoning field of armed robbery.
The press referred to his gang as the “Tape Bandits” after their propensity to truss up robbery victims with tape. On one of his first major scores, Gillis and his troops made off with $205,000 in jewelry from magazine-executive, Charles Richter. That would be more than $3 million today. After several more lucrative home invasions, Gillis robbed his first financial institution. While the $4,000 he stole was dwarfed by his previous jewel heists, Gillis found in bank robbery his true calling.
In October of 1930, the brazen Lester Gillis robbed the wife of sitting Chicago mayor Big Bill Thompson, making off with $18,000 in jewelry. Mrs. Thompson got a good look at Gillis during the robbery and described him thusly, “He had a babyface. He was good looking, hardly more than a boy, had dark hair and was wearing a grey topcoat and a brown felt hat, turned down brim.” Though no one close to him dared use the moniker, the press and subsequently the rest of the planet came to refer to Lester Gillis by his nom de guerre–Baby Face Nelson.
Despite his obviously sincere affection for his wife and kids, Les was an inveterate killer. During a 1933 robbery of the First National Bank of Brainerd, Minnesota, he covered the gang’s getaway by emptying his Thompson submachinegun at gawking bystanders. A year later a paint salesman named Theodore Kidder cut off Lester’s car in Chicago traffic. Gillis let his fulminant temper get the better of him and chased the terrified Kidder until he pinned his car against a curb. When the hapless salesman exited the car to de-escalate the conflict, Baby Face Nelson blew him away.
The specific composition of these criminal gangs ebbed and flowed based upon the vagaries of prison, territory, friendships, and untimely deaths. Soon Les found John Dillinger, and the two became tight as, well, thieves. Cross-country crime sprees can be taxing, so by April of 1934 Nelson and Dillinger were in serious need of some downtime. The two retreated to the Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, for a little well deserved R and R. Accompanying them were Homer Van Meter, John “Red” Hamilton, Tommy Carroll, a young apprentice thug named Pat Reilly, Les’ bride Helen, and three girlfriends.
Sadly there is only one way to gain experience, and that is frequently just not terribly graceful. While the FBI is typically a well-oiled machine these days, back in the 1930’s tactical Law Enforcement procedures were in their infancy. The result was an almost darkly comedic little slaughter.
Emil Wanatka, the owner of the lodge, was playing cards with Dillinger and noticed his holstered sidearm as Public Enemy Number One raked in his earnings. Wanatka told his wife who told a friend who called the feds. The famed G-Man Melvin Purvis hustled over with a few FBI shooters, and they assaulted the lodge straightaway.
The Feds attacked en masse from the front just as the unsuspecting evening dinner crowd was departing following the famed Little Bohemia $1 Sunday night special. Three innocent diners, Eugene Boisneau, John Hoffman, and John Morris, were firing up their 1933 Chevrolet Coupe just as the FBI agents approached. Somebody misunderstood somebody, and the feds opened fire. Boisneau died on the spot, and his two buddies were badly wounded. Catastrophically, the gunfire also alerted the professional killers inside the lodge.
The Little Bohemia fight has been exhaustively dissected elsewhere. Suffice it to say, Hamilton, Carroll, Van Meter, and Dillinger took to the woods and escaped. True to his idiom, Lester Gillis aka Baby Face Nelson snatched up his Thompson and fearlessly charged at the G-men, exchanging fire with Purvis himself. After this initial skirmish, Gillis fled alone in the opposite direction.
Several cars later Les found himself at the home of a local named Alvin Koerner along with a total of seven hostages. He quickly thinned the herd to three and was climbing into yet another vehicle when a government car carrying FBI agents Jay Newman and W. Carter Baum as well as a local constable named Carl Christensen drove up. Nelson approached the vehicle and disarmingly asked the newcomer’s identities. The G-man identified themselves, and Lester Gillis pulled a most remarkable customized weapon out from underneath his coat.
Hyman Lebman was a Texas gunsmith whose shop specialized in hard-to-find ordnance. His San Antonio establishment featured hunting guns, boots, and saddles upstairs, but he kept the truly good stuff in the basement. In the heady days before the 1934 National Firearms Act, machineguns were cash and carry. Lebman’s mechanical gifts and the creations he spawned ultimately prompted many a Chicago gangster to undertake a Texas road trip.
Lebman built customized full auto Winchester M1907 rifles. A Lebman 1907 captured from the Dillinger gang is on display at the FBI building in Washington, DC. His specialty, however, was what he called his Baby Machinegun. These full auto 1911 pistols represented the most concealable firepower mankind might conjure.
When Lebman was testing one of his early examples in his basement firing range the thing got away from him and stitched a row of holes through the floor above, nearly killing his young son Marvin. The final versions could be had in either .45ACP or .38 Super and included a modified Cutts compensator as well as the foregrip from a Thompson submachine gun. Extended magazines carried either eighteen or twenty-two rounds depending upon the caliber, and the little monsters cycled in excess of 1,000 rpm.
In 1933 Lester Gillis walked into Lebman’s shop along with his pretty wife Helen and young son Ronald using the alias Jimmy Williams. A skulking fellow gangster named Charles Fisher kept him company. An odd friendship ensued, and the mobster’s family later took dinner with that of Lebman in the gunsmith’s home. When Gillis departed San Antonio, he left with five full auto Babies in .38 Super, four unmodified 1911 pistols in .45ACP, and a brace of Thompsons. Gillis paid Lebman $300 apiece for the Tommy guns.
Gillis stood in the dim light outside the agents’ government vehicle and drew one of Lebman’s .38 Super full auto 1911’s from his coat. Before the G-Men could react, he hosed down the car at more than 1,000 rounds per minute. Constable Christensen and Agent Newman were badly wounded. At a range of less than ten feet, Agent W. Carter Baum caught three of the zippy little .38-caliber rounds in the neck. The hapless government agent bled out and died in short order.
Gillis later remarked that he had been surprised that the feds had not fired first, feeling that they had the tactical advantage. However, when Baum’s weapon was recovered it was found that he had not had time to disengage the safety on his 1911. Gillis took the FBI car and eventually successfully made his escape.
The Rest of the Story
Helen Gillis was captured in the lodge by the FBI along with Homer Van Meter’s girlfriend Marie Comforti and Tommy Carroll’s squeeze Jean Crompton. These three women were interrogated aggressively and eventually convicted of the crime of harboring fugitives. They were paroled soon thereafter.
Lester Gillis inherited the title of Public Enemy Number 1 after the violent deaths of John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd. On November 27, 1934, Gillis and an associate named John Paul Chase were cornered by federal agents Samuel Crowley and Herman Hollis at a turnout in Barrington, Illinois.
Armed with what was likely a Colt Monitor BAR, Gillis killed the two G-Men. However, he caught eight buckshot in his legs and a single .45ACP bullet from a G-Man Thompson to the belly in the process.
This heavy .45ACP round perforated his liver and pancreas before exiting out his back. Gillis died later that evening in his wife Helen’s arms. He was 25 years old.
Hyman Lebman had to stop his machinegun business after the passage of the 1934 NFA, but he continued working as a gunsmith in San Antonio into the 1970s. He finally closed his business after relentless pressure from the feds. His son Marvin described the gangsters to whom his dad sold his guns as “men in nice suits and hats.” Hyman Lebman died of Alzheimer’s Disease in 1990.