Baby Face Nelson and the Touhy gang
Lester Gillis was born on December 6, 1908 and grew up in Chicago but he became known as Baby Face because he had a very youthful appearance. His habit of stealing other people’s cars meant that his teenage years were spent in and out of reform schools. Although he married his sixteen year old girlfriend in October 1928 after she became pregnant, the birth of a son did not motivate him to stay out of trouble. Instead, he joined a gang that stole tires before graduating to driving trucks with bootleg whiskey. Two years later, the need to feed a wife and two children led him to form a gang that specialized in armed robbery, including jewelry stores, banks and the homes of rich people. Despite assuming the alias of George Nelson, the frequent number of jobs meant that he would eventually be recognized, although mugging the wife of William “Big Bill” Thompson, the mayor of Chicago, did not help. He and most of his gang were arrested in February 1931, but he used a smuggled gun to escape while being transferred to prison in February 1932.
Contacts with Roger Touhy’s gang got Nelson a job guarding liquor shipments in San Francisco where he came to know Johnny Chase and Joseph “Fatso” Negri. After six months, he felt there was too much chance of being caught so he went to Reno, where he met Alvin Karpis, who was on vacation. He wanted to work with the Barkers but Karpis felt he was too rash, so arrangements were made for Nelson to learn from Ed Bentz, a veteran bank robber. Bentz selected a target, prepared a getaway map and even suggested that Homer Van Meter and John Dillinger take part in the first job but Nelson refused to work with strangers. Against his better judgment, Bentz found himself agreeing to lead the actual raid at Grand Haven, Michigan on August 18, 1933. The robbery was almost a disaster, since the two men left outside proved unable to stop the owner of a nearby furniture store from scaring off the getaway car. Bentz was able to grab another car but the getaway map had been in the getaway car. Worse, a member of the gang was captured by the bank manager and the car quickly ran out of gas, while a second commandeered car developed two flat tires. It took all night to make it back to their meeting place and when it turned out that each person’s share was $600 Bentz said good-bye to Nelson and his band of incompetents.
Nelson’s brief career as bank robber nearly came to an abrupt end a few weeks later when Frank Nitti, Al Capone’s successor, ordered a hit against him because of his ties to rival gangster Roger Touhy. Warned by Karpis, Nelson avoided Nitti’s hitmen and shifted operations to St. Paul, where he recruited Homer Van Meter and Tommy Carroll. They robbed the First National Bank in Brainerd, two hours north of St. Paul, on October 23. After forcing the janitor to let them into the bank before it opened, they then took the employees prisoner when they arrived for work and walked out with $32,000.