Little Bohemia Lodge
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Little Bohemia Lodge is a rural vacation lodge and restaurant located off US Highway 51 in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin. The lodge was built in 1929 by Emil Wanatka on land he acquired that same year. Little Bohemia gained fame and infamy as the setting of a botched raid by the FBI (then called the Division of Investigation) against the John Dillinger Gang.
The historic rustic lodge remains as it was at the time of the federal raid and along with original bullet holes from the gun battle still in the walls and windows, Little Bohemia Lodge has a collection of memorabilia from the gun battle.
The Gun Battle
On the afternoon of April 20, 1934, Nelson, Dillinger, Van Meter, Carroll, Hamilton, and gang associate (errand-runner) Pat Reilly, accompanied by Nelson's wife Helen and three girlfriends of the other men, arrived at the secluded Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, for a weekend of rest. The gang's connection to the resort apparently came from the past dealings between Dillinger's attorney, Louis Piquett, and lodge owner Emil Wanatka. Though gang members greeted him by name, Wanatka maintained that he was unaware of their identities until some time on Friday night. According to Bryan Burrough's book Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933–34, this most likely happened when Wanatka was playing cards with Dillinger, Nelson, and Hamilton. When Dillinger won a round and raked in the pot, Wanatka caught a glimpse of Dillinger's pistol concealed in his coat, and noticed that Nelson and the others also had shoulder holsters.
The following day, while she was away from the lodge with her young son at a children's birthday party, Wanatka's wife informed a friend, Henry Voss, that the Dillinger gang was at the lodge, and the F.B.I. was subsequently given the tip early on April 22. Melvin Purvis and a number of agents arrived by plane from Chicago, and with the gang's departure imminent, attacked the lodge quickly and with little preparation, and without notifying or obtaining help from local authorities.
Wanatka offered a one-dollar dinner special on Sunday nights, and the last of a crowd estimated at 75 were leaving as the agents arrived in the front driveway. A 1933 Chevrolet coupé was leaving at that moment with three departing lodge customers, John Hoffman, Eugene Boisneau and John Morris, who apparently did not hear an order to halt because the car radio drowned out the agents yelling at them to stop. The agents quickly opened fire on them, instantly killing Boisneau and wounding the others, and alerting the gang members inside.
Adding to the chaos, at this moment Pat Reilly returned to the lodge after an out-of-town errand for Van Meter, accompanied by one of the gang's girlfriends, Pat Cherrington. Accosted by the agents, Reilly and Cherrington backed out and escaped under fire, after a number of misfortunes.
Dillinger, Van Meter, Hamilton, and Carroll immediately escaped through the back of the lodge, which was unguarded, and made their way north on foot through woods and past a lake to commandeer a car and a driver at a resort a mile away. Carroll was not far behind them. He made it to Manitowish and stole a car, making it uneventfully to St. Paul.
Nelson, who had been outside the lodge in the adjacent cabin characteristically attacked the raiding party head on, exchanging fire with Purvis, before retreating into the lodge under a return volley from other agents. From there he slipped out the back and fled in the opposite direction from the others. Emerging from the woods ninety minutes later, a mile away from Little Bohemia, Nelson kidnapped the Lange couple from their home and ordered them to drive him away. Apparently dissatisfied with the car's speed, he quickly ordered them to pull up at a brightly lit house where the switchboard operator, Alvin Koerner, aware of the ongoing events, quickly phoned authorities at one of the involved lodges to report a suspicious vehicle in front of his home. Shortly after Nelson had entered the home, taking the Koerners hostage, Emil Wanatka arrived with his brother-in-law George LaPorte and a lodge employee (while a fourth man remained in the car) and were also taken prisoner. Nelson ordered Koerner and Wanatka back into their vehicle, where the fourth man remained unnoticed in the back seat.
As they were preparing to leave, with Wanatka driving at gunpoint, another car arrived with two federal agents – W. Carter Baum and Jay Newman, and a local constable, Carl Christensen. Nelson asked the men who they were and upon the agents identifying themselves, Nelson opened fire with a custom-converted machine gun pistol, severely wounding Christensen and Newman and killing Baum, shot three times in the neck. Nelson was later quoted as having said that Baum had him "cold" and couldn't understand why he hadn't fired. It was found that the safety catch on Baum's gun was on.
Nelson then stole the FBI car. Less than 15 miles away, the car suffered a flat tire and finally became mired in mud as Nelson attempted unsuccessfully to change it. Back on foot, he wandered into the woods and took up residence with a Chippewa family in their secluded cabin for several days before making his final escape in another commandeered vehicle.
Three of the women who had accompanied the gang, including Nelson's wife Helen Gillis, were captured inside the lodge. After grueling interrogation by the F.B.I., the three were ultimately convicted on harboring charges and released on parole.
With an agent and an innocent bystander dead, and four more severely wounded, including two more innocent bystanders, and the complete escape of the Dillinger gang, the F.B.I came under severe criticism, with calls for J. Edgar Hoover's resignation and a widely circulated petition demanding Purvis' suspension.
In the summer of 2008, some scenes from the Michael Mann film Public Enemies were filmed on location at Little Bohemia. The events of the shootout were drastically altered for artistic purposes, such as showing Nelson and Van Meter being gunned down by Purvis in a grassy field near Little Bohemia, when in reality, Van Meter was killed in August 1934 in St. Paul, and Nelson was killed in November 1934 in a shootout that also led to the deaths of agents Samuel P. Cowley and Herman Hollis.
Little Bohemia remains operational today as a restaurant and gathering place. A historic display of artifacts and memorabilia from the Dillinger gun battle is available for public viewing along with recent memorabilia and autographs from the filming of Public Enemies.