Baby Face Nelson’s First Major Bank Robbery Was in Michigan, 1933
Michigan has had its share of famous gangsters who visited: Al Capone, John Dillinger...and Baby Face Nelson. The name Lester Joseph Gillis may not have frightened people back in the early 1930’s, but the alias he used – ‘Baby Face Nelson’ – sure did. He had committed a few robberies as part of other gangs, but his first major robbery - with his own gang - happened right here in Michigan.
He was born in Chicago in 1908, and before his life of crime he tinkered with cars and wanted to be a race car driver.
Nelson began his life of crime when he was a teenager. The nickname “Baby Face” came from the wife of Chicago mayor Big Bill Thompson - Gillis held her up and stole $18,000 worth of her jewelry. Describing him to police, she described him as having “a baby face…..good looking, hardly more than a boy”.
Baby Face married 16-year-old Helen Wayzynak, had a couple of kids, and was a faithful husband. She even accompanied him on his sprees but was never accused or charged with complicity.
Baby Face Nelson eventually became friends with another criminal, Eddie Bentz, and together they planned to rob the People’s Bank in Grand Haven, Michigan. They put together their own haphazard gang who – in retrospect - didn’t seem to be very good at robbing banks.
On August 18, 1933, when they muscled their way into the Grand Haven bank at 3pm, they aimed their machine guns and told everyone to get on the floor. After a teller pressed an alarm, the next-door shop owner came over with a shotgun. Baby Face’s getaway driver saw the guy with the shotgun and took off, leaving the gang behind!
Using bank employees as hostages, they exited a side door, where they came face-to-face with an angry mob. A few townspeople were wounded and one of Baby Face’s gang members was captured. Baby Face and the rest of his gang stole a nearby automobile and escaped.
They left Grand Haven, replaced that stolen car with another, and headed south. They got a flat tire in Lenawee County in the town of Hudson, so they stole yet a third automobile and headed for the border.
Fortunately for Nelson and his gang, they were able to get away across the border without fear of arrest, thanks to bank robberies not yet considered to be federal crimes.
His crimes continued for almost a year when Public Enemy #1, John Dillinger, was shot by feds in July 1934. From then on, Baby Face was elevated as the next Public Enemy Number 1.
Four months later, in November 1934, Baby Face Nelson was gunned down by the FBI near Chicago. He was only 26 years old. His loving wife Helen refused to ever marry again. Check out some pictures below!