The Battle of Barrington
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The Battle of Barrington was an intense and deadly gunfight between federal agents and notorious Great Depression Era gangster, Baby Face Nelson, that took place on November 27, 1934 in the town of Barrington, outside Chicago, Illinois. It resulted in the deaths of Nelson, Federal Agent Herman "Ed" Hollis and Agent/Inspector Samuel P. Cowley.
Public Enemy Number One
With the death of "Public Enemy Number One" John Dillinger in July 1934, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, known at the time as the Division of Investigation, focused on eliminating what remained of the notorious Dillinger Gang. Lester "Baby Face Nelson" Gillis, whom newspapers of the era dubbed "Dillinger's aid", had managed to elude the federal dragnet. By late November 1934, the new Public Enemy Number One was hid out in the isolated piney woods of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Bolstered by his new found status, the diminutive Nelson bragged he would rob, "...a bank a day for a month."
Gunfight on Highway 12
On the morning of November 27, Nelson, sporting a thin mustache on his youthful face, Helen Gillis (Nelson's loyal wife), and John Paul Chase, Nelson's trusted right-hand man, departed Lake Geneva and traveled south, toward Chicago, on U.S. Route 12 (now U.S. 14). Nelson planned to meet two underworld figures in Chicago and had reasoned daylight the safer time to travel as agents would expect an evening departure.
Near the village of Fox River Grove, Illinois, Nelson observed a vehicle driven in the opposite direction. Inside the car were federal agents Thomas McDade and William Ryan. McDade and Ryan were traveling to Lake Geneva to support a fellow agent who had relayed an encounter with Nelson. The agents and the gangster recognized each other simultaneously and after several U-turns by the agents and by Nelson, Nelson wound up in pursuit of the federal car.
As Nelson's powerful V-8 Ford, driven by Helen Gillis, caught up to the weaker federal sedan, Nelson and Chase opened fire on the agents. Incredibly, McDade and Ryan were not killed or injured. The agents returned fire, sped ahead and ran off the highway. Taking defensive positions, McDade and Ryan awaited Nelson and Chase. The agents, however, were unaware a round fired by Ryan had punctured the water pump and or the radiator of Nelson's Ford. With his Ford rapidly losing power, Nelson was now pursued by a Hudson automobile driven by two more agents: Herman Hollis (who was thought to have delivered the fatal shot to John Dillinger) and Samuel P. Cowley.
Battle with Hollis and Cowley
With his new pursuers attempting to pull alongside, Nelson instructed Helen Gillis to steer into the entrance of Barrington's North Side Park, just across the line from Fox River Grove, and stop. Hollis and Cowley overshot Nelson's Ford by over 100 feet (30 m). With their car stopped at an angle, Hollis and Cowley exited, took defensive positions behind the vehicle and, as Helen Gillis fled toward a drainage ditch, opened fire on Nelson and Chase.
Within seconds of the gun battle starting, a round from Cowley's Thompson submachine-gun struck Nelson above his belt line. The .45 caliber bullet tore through Nelson's liver and pancreas and exited from his lower back. Nelson grasped his side and leaned on the Ford's running board. Chase, in the meantime, continued to fire from behind the car. When Nelson regained himself, he suddenly stepped into the line of fire and advanced toward Cowley and Hollis. Cowley was hit by a burst from Nelson's machine gun, after retreating to a nearby ditch. Pellets from Hollis' shotgun struck Nelson in the legs and momentarily downed him. Hollis, possibly already wounded, retreated behind a utility pole. With his shotgun empty, Hollis drew his service revolver only to be struck by a bullet to the head from Nelson's gun. Hollis slid against the pole and fell face down. Nelson stood over Hollis for a moment then limped toward the agents' bullet-riddled car. Nelson backed the agents' car over to the Ford, and, with Chase's help, loaded the agents' vehicle with guns and ammo from the disabled Ford. After the weapon's transfer, Nelson, too badly wounded to drive, collapsed into the Hudson. Chase got behind the wheel and, along with Helen Gillis and the mortally wounded Nelson, fled the scene.
Nelson had been shot a total of nine times; a single (and ultimately fatal) machine gun slug had struck his abdomen and eight of Hollis's shotgun pellets had hit his legs. After telling his wife "I'm done for", Nelson gave directions as Chase drove them to a safe house on Walnut Street in Wilmette. Nelson died in bed there, with his wife at his side, at 7:35 that evening. Hollis, with massive head wounds, was declared dead soon after arriving at the hospital. At a different hospital, Cowley hung on long enough to confer briefly with Melvin Purvis, telling him, "Nothing would bring [Nelson] down." He underwent unsuccessful surgery before succumbing to a stomach wound similar to Nelson's.
Following an anonymous telephone tip, Nelson's body was discovered wrapped in a Native American patterned blanket in front of St. Peter Catholic Cemetery in Skokie, which still exists today. Helen Gillis later stated that she had placed the blanket around Nelson's body because, "He always hated being cold..."
Fate of Helen Gillis and John Paul Chase
Newspapers reported, based on the questionable wording of an order from J. Edgar Hoover ("...find the woman and give her no quarter"), that the Bureau of Investigation had issued a "death order" for Nelson's young widow, who wandered the streets of Chicago as a fugitive for several days, described in print as America's first female "public enemy". After surrendering on Thanksgiving Day, Helen Gillis, who had been paroled after capture at Little Bohemia Lodge, served a year in prison for harboring her late husband and died in 1987. Chase was apprehended later and served a term at Alcatraz and died in 1973.
- Nickel, Steven; William J. Helmer (2002). Baby Face Nelson: Portrait of a Public Enemy. Cumberland House Publishing. pp. 341–360. ISBN 1-58182-272-3.
- Special Agent Herman E. Hollis. Officer Down Memorial Page. Accessed 12 June 2008.
- Inspector Samuel P. Cowley. Officer Down Memorial Page. Accessed: 12 June 2008.
- "CRACK AGENT TAKES CHARGE.; Washington Orders H.H. Clegg to Direct Nelson Chase." New York Times. 28 November 1934. Accessed 12 June 2008.
- "Blasting a G-Man Myth". Time Magazine. 1979-09-24. Retrieved 2008-08-09.
- "Blasting a G-Man Mythk". Time Magazine. 1979-09-24. Retrieved 2008-08-09.
- Burrough, pp. 479-80.
- Burrough, p. 482.
- "Wife Lying in Ditch Saw Nelson Shot." New York Times. 6 December 1934. Accessed 12 June 2008.
- Nickel, Steven, and Helmer, William J., Baby Face Nelson, Cumberland House, 2002, p.364
- "'Kill Widow Of Baby Face!', U.S. Orders Gang Hunters". Chicago Herald-Examiner. 1934-11-30.
- Nickel, Steven, and Helmer, William J. Baby Face Nelson. Cumberland House, 2002, pp. 343–363.
- Graham, Doug T. "Baby Face Nelson-Battle of Barrington witness: 'We were scared to death' Barrington to re-enact famous 1934 gangster shootout". Daily Herald. Retrieved July 8, 2016. Eye witness, then 6 years old, recounts the event 81 years later. Includes video.