The Battle of Barrington

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A plaque at the Barrington Park District in Barrington, Illinois commemorates the site of the Battle of Barrington, a 1934 shootout that claimed the lives of two FBI agents and resulted in the death of notorious Chicago gangster Baby Face Nelson.

The Battle of Barrington was an intense and deadly gunfight[1] 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[2] and Agent/Inspector Samuel P. Cowley.[3][4]

Public Enemy Number One[edit]

With the death of public enemy number one, John Dillinger, in July 1934, the FBI, 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 piny 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[edit]

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, left Lake Geneva and traveled south toward Chicago on State Highway 12 (now 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 heading 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.[5]

Nelson's powerful V-8 Ford motor car, driven by Helen Gillis, quickly caught up to the weaker federal sedan. Nelson and Chase opened fire on the agents's vehicle. Incredibly, McDade and Ryan were not killed or injured. The agents returned fire, sped ahead and ran off the highway. Hurriedly 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 alleged to have delivered the fatal shot to John Dillinger) and Samuel P. Cowley.[6]

Battle with Hollis and Cowley[edit]

With his new pursuers attempting to pull alongside, Nelson instructed Helen Gillis to pull into the entrance of Barrington's North Side Park, just across the line from Fox River Grove, and skid to a halt. 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 cal 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 found his submachine-gun jammed, so he switched to a customized fully automatic .351 Winchester WSL rifle. Suddenly, Nelson stepped into the line of fire and advanced toward Hollis. Nine bullets from Cowley's submachine gun struck Nelson, seemingly to no effect, in the chest and stomach before Nelson mortally wounded Cowley, while pellets from Hollis's shotgun struck Nelson in the legs and momentarily downed him.[7] As Nelson regained his feet, 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 Winchester. Hollis slid against the pole and fell face down. Nelson stood over Hollis for a moment, the Winchester smoking at the barrel, then limped toward the agents's bullet-riddled car. Nelson backed the agents's car over to the Ford, and, with Chase's help, loaded the agents's car with guns and ammo from the disabled Ford. After the weapon's transfer, Nelson collapsed--too badly wounded to drive. 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 seventeen times; nine submachine gun slugs had struck his torso and eight shotgun pellets had torn into his legs.[7] 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.[8] 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[9] 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, as she said, "He always hated being cold..."

Fate of Helen Gillis and John Paul Chase[edit]

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".[10][11] 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. Chase was apprehended later and served a term at Alcatraz.[12]

References[edit]

  1. ^ 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. 
  2. ^ Special Agent Herman E. Hollis. Officer Down Memorial Page. Accessed 12 June 2008.
  3. ^ Inspector Samuel P. Cowley. Officer Down Memorial Page. Accessed: 12 June 2008.
  4. ^ "CRACK AGENT TAKES CHARGE.; Washington Orders H.H. Clegg to Direct Nelson Chase." New York Times. 28 November 1934. Accessed 12 June 2008.
  5. ^ "Blasting a G-Man Myth". Time Magazine. 1979-09-24. Retrieved 2008-08-09. 
  6. ^ "Blasting a G-Man Mythk". Time Magazine. 1979-09-24. Retrieved 2008-08-09. 
  7. ^ a b Burrough, pp. 479-80.
  8. ^ Burrough, p. 482.
  9. ^ "Wife Lying in Ditch Saw Nelson Shot." New York Times. 6 December 1934. Accessed 12 June 2008.
  10. ^ Nickel, Steven, and Helmer, William J., Baby Face Nelson, Cumberland House, 2002, p.364
  11. ^ "'Kill Widow Of Baby Face!', U.S. Orders Gang Hunters". Chicago Herald-Examiner. 1934-11-30. 
  12. ^ Nickel, Steven, and Helmer, William J. Baby Face Nelson. Cumberland House, 2002, pp. 343–363.