Year of the Gangster, Part 5
Firefight on Highway 12
The Year of the Gangster, Part 5
The burial of Special Agent Hollis in Des Moines. Cowley was buried in Utah, remembered “as
A fierce gun battle had erupted just off a blacktop highway in a small and unsuspecting town called Barrington about 30 miles northwest of Chicago.
The date: November 27, 1934—75 years ago today.
On the one side were two dangerous gangsters—the hot-headed “Baby Face” Nelson and his criminal side-kick John Paul Chase.
On the other were two veteran Bureau special agents—Sam Cowley, a high-ranking inspector who was actually spearheading the hunt for Nelson, and Herman “Ed” Hollis, one of three agents who fired the shots that felled John Dillinger that summer and an important player in the pursuit of Baby Face.
In less than five minutes, what came to be known as “The Battle of Barrington” would be over. In less than 12 hours, only one of the four would still be alive to talk about it.
At the center of it all was Nelson. Ever since he’d brutally shot and killed Bureau agent Carter Baum at a Wisconsin resort that spring—and especially after Dillinger and “Pretty Boy” Floyd had fallen—Nelson had been high atop our list of public enemies. Just 25 years old—born a few months after the Bureau itself—Nelson was already a prolific and particularly violent criminal, robbing banks and reportedly murdering several lawmen and innocent bystanders along the way.
Earlier that afternoon, agents on a stake-out had spotted Nelson, his wife Helen, and Chase driving in Wisconsin. They got the license plate and alerted Cowley. By about 3:15, after Nelson had disabled the car of another pair of agents with a hail of bullets, Cowley and Hollis caught up with the criminals at Barrington.
Nelson pulled off Northwest Highway 12 (now Highway 14) at the entrance of a park and prepared to do battle. He and Chase opened fire as the agents stopped their car some 150 feet away. (Helen Gillis jumped in a nearby ditch and wasn’t involved in the shooting.) The agents jumped out, took defensive positions, and began shooting. Cowley struck first—hitting Nelson with multiple rounds. But Nelson continued to fire, badly wounding the agent. Hollis bravely jumped forward and hit Baby Face in the legs with a barrage of shotgun pellets, but Nelson fired back and killed him.
The credentials of Special Agent Hollis, cancelled after his death in 1934. Hollis was transferred to the FBI office in Chicago after the failed raid on Little Bohemia in April 1934. He was soon working exclusively on the chase for John Dillinger. He later cultivated two key informants in the Nelson case, including a Gillis family friend, Father Philip Coughlin.
Bleeding heavily, Nelson drove off with his wife and Chase. But by 8 o’clock that evening, he had succumbed to his wounds. His body was dumped in a ditch near a cemetery, most likely by Chase, and found by Bureau agents later that evening.
The Bureau had taken down a major gunslinger, but the price was high. Cowley—a steady, unassuming leader who had headed up all of the agency’s major gangster cases—died early the next morning. His body was returned to Salt Lake City, his hometown, and laid in state in the Utah capitol. Hollis—another effective and ultimately heroic agent—was buried in Des Moines, Iowa.
What’s in a name? Nelson was born Lester Joseph Gillis, but took the name George Nelson as a
For the young Bureau, 1934 had been a pivotal year. Working closely in every case with local and state authorities, they had taken down or helped take down Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, and many of their fellow gangsters. The nation breathed a collective sigh of relief, as the gangster era passed into history. Along the way, the agency had honed its skills and put itself on the crime-fighting map, and in 1935, it had a new name to go with its growing capabilities: the Federal Bureau of Investigation—the FBI.