Lester Joseph Gillis (December 6, 1908—November 27, 1934) ("George"), was a bank robber in the 1930s better known as Baby Face Nelson due to his youthful appearance and stature, a diminutive 5'3" (1.63 m) tall.
Lester's robbery spree came to an end when he was arrested in 1931. Nelson was given a sentence of one year to life in the state prison. In early 1932, Baby Face overpowered his guard while being transported and escaped. Assisted by master yegg Eddie Bentz, Nelson robbed his first bank in Grand Haven, Michigan on August 18, 1933. The robbery was a near-disaster even though most of those involved made a clean getaway.
Nelson came to greater prominence in 1934, when he joined the Dillinger gang. In contrast to the dashing John Dillinger, Nelson is the antithesis of popular, Robin Hood-like gangsters of the Depression era. Having an unfortunate tendency to let his temper overcome him, Nelson did not hesitate to kill lawmen and innocent bystanders alike. He was credited with killing more than a dozen law officers, and enjoyed hunting law enforcement from a list he kept of their vehicle information. Paradoxically, though, Nelson was a devoted husband and father who often had his wife, Helen Gillis, and children with him while running from the law.
After John Dillinger's death in July 1934, Nelson became Public Enemy Number One. Nelson was said to have boasted of robbing one bank a day for a month, in order to outdo Dillinger. That never occurred.
The battle began when Nelson, Helen Gillis, and John Paul Chase were driving down a road and saw a police car driving the opposite direction. Nelson hated police and federal agents and used a list of license plates he had compiled to actively hunt them at every opportunity. He apparently recognized the car and decided to chase them. Once they both stopped, the shootout started. Nelson's wife and Chase used their car for cover. Nelson, however, simply walked towards the agents, reportedly shouting, "I'm gonna kill you sons of bitches!". After the fight was over, Nelson nearly collapsed on the ground from his wounds; he'd been shot 17 times. Gillis and Chase helped Nelson into the car of the two FBI agents, and with Nelson giving directions, Chase drove away from the scene.
The next morning, another team of FBI agents was dispatched to the scene to investigate the situation. They found the bodies of the two agents who had been killed in the skirmish the day before. The new team scouted the area for any possible signs of Nelson. Following an anonymous telephone tip, Nelson's body was discovered in a ditch, wrapped in a blanket. The ditch was in front of St. Peter Catholic Cemetery in Skokie, which still exists today. His wife later stated that he had died of his wounds at exactly 8 p.m. She had placed the blanket around his body because, as she said, "Lester always hated to be cold..."
Nelson has been the subject of multiple films. Those include a 1957 film, Baby Face Nelson, starring Mickey Rooney and a 1995 film of the same name starring C. Thomas Howell. He was portrayed by Richard Dreyfuss in the 1973 film Dillinger. In the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Michael Badalucco portrayed George Nelson, a manic-depressive, depression-era bank robber, who was similar in appearance and demeanor to Baby Face Nelson, but despised being called by that name. He will be portrayed by British actor Stephen Graham in the upcoming film Public Enemies.
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