FOX RIVER GROVE – Someone snitched.
On Nov. 27, 1934, “Baby Face” Nelson, the infamous bank robber and part of public enemy No. 1 John Dillinger’s crew, was hiding out in Fox River Grove.
Some say Nelson was discovered after casing a bank, but local historian and Fox River Grove native Craig Pfannkuche doesn’t think that was the case. The FBI wouldn’t have had time to set up the ambush that left two agents – and Nelson – dead.
“Someone [told] on Nelson when he was in Fox River Grove, so the FBI guys knew he was going to be coming back,” Pfannkuche said.
It was just down the road, along Route 14 in Barrington near the entrance to Langendorf Park, where the shootout happened. Special Agent Herman Edward Hollis died, as did an investigator, Samuel Cowley.
Nelson, too, was shot multiple times and died later that day. His body was left in Skokie.
He was born Lester Gillis, but went by George Nelson. The nickname “Baby Face” came from his boyish looks.
He didn’t much like it, Pfannkuche said.
And Dillinger didn’t much like him.
“Dillinger was known as the gentleman bank robber,” Pfannkuche said. “Nelson liked to shoot the places up.”
Of all places, why was Nelson hiding out in Fox River Grove?
Nelson and Dillinger had the protection of one of the village’s most prominent citizens, Louis Cernocky Sr., who was a big liquor distributor for the lower Fox River Valley and owner of the Crystal Ballroom.
When the heat was on, Dillinger and Nelson needed somewhere to go, and Cernocky had a friend in Manitowish Waters, Wis., who owned Little Bohemia Lodge. It was there, about seven months before Barrington, that Nelson and Dillinger got into another shootout – this one more well-known, on April 23, 1934.
The FBI raid was botched, although Nelson’s wife and two other women were taken into custody.
A building at the northeast corner of Lincoln Avenue and Route 14 is where Nelson ended up staying. At the time, Route 14 was a seldom-used two-lane road and Fox River Grove’s population was about 700.
“They could party and nobody would mind,” Pfannkuche said. “They could get all the alcohol they wanted because Cernocky was the distributor.”
Fox River Grove was beautiful, the river itself was clear, and it wasn’t like Crystal Lake, which was a little too high class for the Dillinger/Nelson crowd.
“You’ve got to remember something about Dillinger, Nelson and those guys – they didn’t consider themselves to be city boys,” Pfannkuche said. “They’d really stick out on towns like Crystal Lake.”
Everybody knew they were there, too, Pfannkuche said, but they kept their mouths shut.
Until someone didn’t and Nelson found himself in his final gunbattle, taking the two FBI agents down with him.