Saturday, April 24, 2010

Bad Belgians Part1: Lester Gillis aka "Baby Face" Nelson

As promised in my last post, the next several postings will redirect our gaze to the contributions Flemings have made here in Chicago. In part, this is a continuation of a story I began on this blog nearly two years ago. On the other hand, it is an intentional, re-focus on commemorating the contribution of a specific Fleming, Arnold Van Puymbroeck. That commemoration is actually set to take place June 13, 2010 here in Chicago, one day after Arnold's 80th birthday (if you have an interest in attending please contact me).

However, there is no direct connection between the story below and Arnold Van Puymbroeck. Except of course the fact that both were Belgians and called Chicago home. That said, the next several posts are intended to illustrate the fact that many individuals of Flemish descent have seamlessly assimilated into their host societies leaving barely a hint of their Flemish origins.

Many people around the world have an image of Chicago that can be distilled down to that of the gangster era in the 1930s. Al Capone, perhaps, thankfully for us, usually heads up that personification. But Lester Joseph Gillis, better known to the world (and to Al Capone) as "Baby Face Nelson", has come to epitomize the next tier of bad boys. Nelson/Gillis has gone down in history as "Public Enemy Number 1" of that era. Movies have been made of him (such as the one posted at the top) and wild, inaccurate tales told about him. But until a recent book came out, Baby Face Nelson: Portrait of a Public Enemy, few were aware of the connection between Nelson/Gillis and Belgium.

Lester Joseph Gillis was the youngest child born to two young immigrants from Leuven (now in the province of Flemish Brabant/Vlaams Brabant) on the feast day of Sint Niklaas (December 6, 1908), Despite his auspicious birthday, his life would be less than a gift to his parents and the Belgian Colony of Chicago.

Gillis' parents, unlike many of the Belgian immigrants in Chicago, were not janitors. Rather, his father had risen to a managerial position in a manufacturing company. His mother was a stay-at-home mother. Although their home at 944 N. California was near many other immigrant Belgians, there is little evidence that the family attended the Belgian Church, St. John Berchmann's, on Logan Square.

Young Lester, while well-dressed, unfailingly polite, and of slight build and stature, quickly earned a reputation as someone not to mess around with. While he did develop friendships with other Chicago kids of Flemish ancestry - such as George Ackerman or Homer Van Meter (a descendant of Emanuel Van Meteren, who found and employed Henry Hudson for his voyage of discovery to New York in 1609) - many of his other friends in the Back of the Yards neighborhood where he lived were Italian Americans. Several of these - such as Tony Accardo and "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn - became nationally famous examples of Chicago's gangster underworld (McGurn as the key gunman behind the St. Valentines Day Massacre of 1929; Accardo as the head of the "Chicago Outfit" as well as the mobster infamous for beating two men to death with a bat).

But while the Italian and Irish kids in the "Patch" (as the neighborhood was then called) were his friends, Lester Gillis found trouble without much help from others. As a child he stole from local stores and concocted various schemes to make money (such as siphoning off beer from a speakeasy and reselling it). Despite beatings from his parents (where his sister later recalled, he never cried), Lester did not change. Eventually these actions brought young Gillis to the attention of the law and bought him time in various reform schools during most of his teen years.

Even before he was in his teens, Lester would hot-wire neighbors' cars and take his friends on joy rides. His love of cars drove an enthusiasm for auto mechanics. It also enabled him to develop a strong tie to an owner of a gas station/auto repair shop on Sacramento Avenue, Albert Van Houton. Van Houton encouraged Gillis and fenced the stolen parts through his shop. But despite working as a mechanic for roughly a year (when he was a 19 year old newlywed), Gillis quickly outgrew auto repair and even his sidelight of stealing and 'chopping' cars as a livelihood. His mother later attributed his change of career - and the name change to "George Nelson" to the bad influence of Van Houton and the relentless harassment of corrupt Chicago cops trying to shake Gillis down for cash.
What Gillis did find a calling for was robbing banks. It began as a logical offshoot of his skill as a driver and a mechanic. Bank robbers in the early years of the Great Depression depended on Thompson submachine guns and souped-up sedans. Gillis was great with both. And to that he added intelligence, fearlessness and steely nerves. The fact that he had a boyish demeanor and was unfailingly polite to his victims quickly caught the eye of newspaper reporters looking for a flashy 'edge' to their story. When one matronly victim began referring to him as "boyish", jealous, older crooks sneeringly began calling him "Baby Face" (but not, of course, to his face). "Baby Face" Nelson was born.
Unfortunately, even reincarnated as "Baby Face" Nelson, Gillis did not have long to live. J. Edgar Hoover, keen on PR for his "G-Men" as the FBI were known at that time, made it clear that he was intent on stamping out the lawlessness that grew with the Depression. Immediately after his agents gunned down John Dillinger in ambush on a Chicago street (July 22, 1933), Hoover proclaimed Nelson "Public Enemy #1". In the hunt that followed, Nelson and his loyal wife gave Hoover's G-Men the slip for months at a time.
In the end a wild car chase and gun battle in the northwest Chicago suburb of Barrington ended this Bad Belgian's career as a gangster. His wife ended up in prison and his young son lost touch with his roots. Lester Gillis - a.k.a., "Baby Face" Nelson - however, kept his. Nelson/Gillis is buried in St. Joseph's Cemetery in River Grove, Illinois, just outside Chicago. In life he moved away from the Belgian Colony of Chicago and his Flemish roots. In death he returned to rest near thousands of others from Chicago's Belgian Colony.

Copyright 2010 by David Baeckelandt. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted without my express, written consent.