The Battle of Barrington: FBI Bullets Bring Down Baby Face Nelson

WILMETTE, IL — On November 27, 1934, FBI agents caught up with notorious bank robber George “Baby Face” Nelson, his wife Helen Gillis, and henchman John Paul Chase on a road running trough the Chicago-area town of Barrington, Illinois.

A wild, high-speed shootout exploded that took the lives of agents Samuel P. Cowley and Herman “Ed” Hollis came to be known as “The Battle of Barrington.” The deadly dust-up also proved to the encounter that finally killed Baby Face Nelson.

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Agents had been hunting Nelson and his cohorts hard since June 30, 1934, when the 25-year-old outlaw and his bandit gang stormed the Merchants National Bank in South Bend, Indiana.

Bullets flew and blood literally soaked the streets outside the bank. Numerous witnesses, hostages, bystanders and even Nelson himself got shot. Homer Van Meter, Nelson’s partner, fatally plugged a traffic cop.

When the gang reconvened two weeks later, Nelson coldly executed Fred McAllister and Gilbert Cross, a pair of Illinois State Troopers who happened upon the gathering.

By then, Nelson’s old pal John Dillinger had been gunned down by authorities outside the Biograph theater in Chicago, thereby elevating Baby Face to the status of #1 on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list.

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The Battle of Barrington proper kicked off, then, when agents sped up alongside Nelson’s car on Highway 12 and opened fire.

Baby Face shot back, but a direct hit to his vehicle’s water tank prompted him to order Helen Gillis, who was driving while he pulled various triggers, to pull over into North Side Park.

Wild combat erupted from there. More than a dozen witnesses eyeballing the action. Nelson fatally injured Cowley and Hollis, but not before the feds nailed him nine times with shotgun blasts and a barrage from that most popular gangster hardware: a Thompson submachine gun.

The Tommy Gun launched a .45-caliber slug through Nelson’s liver and pancreas before exiting out his back. Buckshot riddled his legs, knocking him to the ground. Still, Nelson kept firing, switching from pistols to an automatic-converted .351 Winchester rifle.

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Amidst the carnage, Nelson managed to commandeer the felled agents’ car. He ordered Gillis to drive away. The last words witnesses heard Nelson say:

“I’m done for!”

Amazingly, Nelson held on long enough to make it to a safe house, where he finally gave up the ghost.

Later that day, a phone company lineman spotted what looked to be a body wrapped up and laid out on the front steps of a church. Cops arrived and discovered the corpse was that of Baby Face Nelson.

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover then ordered his forces to bring in Helen Gillis, famously commading, “Find the woman and give her no quarter.” The press reported that as a “death warrant” at labeled Gillis “the first female public enemy.”

After hiding out among Chicago’s homeless population for several days, Gillis turned herself in. She explained that she wrapped Nelson’s body because “he always hated being cold.”

Helen Gillis also pointed out that her famously nicknamed husband — much like his old cohort Pretty Boy Floyd — absolutely despised when anybody called him “Baby Face.”

Read more:
Chicago Tribune
CBS Chicago
American Rifleman

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Main photos: George “Baby Face” Nelson [FBI]



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