Baby Face Nelson-Battle of Barrington witness: 'We were scared to death'

Barrington to re-enact famous 1934 gangster shootout

 
 
Updated 11/25/2015 8:44 AM
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  • "Baby Face Nelson" was born Lester M. Gillis on December 6, 1908, in Chicago. He died in 1934 after the Battle of Barrington shootout with FBI agents.

    "Baby Face Nelson" was born Lester M. Gillis on December 6, 1908, in Chicago. He died in 1934 after the Battle of Barrington shootout with FBI agents. Courtesy of Department of Justice

  • FBI Special Agent Herman Hollis was buried in Des Moines, Iowa. Hollis and fellow agent Samuel P. Cowley were killed in the Battle of Barrington on Nov. 27, 1934, while trying to capture Lester "Baby Face Nelson" Gillis.

    FBI Special Agent Herman Hollis was buried in Des Moines, Iowa. Hollis and fellow agent Samuel P. Cowley were killed in the Battle of Barrington on Nov. 27, 1934, while trying to capture Lester "Baby Face Nelson" Gillis. Courtesy of Department of Justice

From time to time over the past eight decades, Bill Eiserman has stopped by Langendorf Park in Barrington, reliving the day he and his older brother witnessed what is now called the "Battle of Barrington," an intense shootout between FBI agents and notorious gangster Baby Face Nelson.

Lake Villa resident Bill Eiserman was 6 when he witnessed the Battle of Barrington -- the infamous shootout between gangster Baby Face Nelson and FBI agents.
  Lake Villa resident Bill Eiserman was 6 when he witnessed the Battle of Barrington -- the infamous shootout between gangster Baby Face Nelson and FBI agents. - Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

Although he was just 6 at the time, Eiserman, now 87, can vividly recount the terrifying sights and sounds he witnessed just a few hundred feet from the gunfight that left two agents and Nelson dead.

"We got down there fairly close, and some officer or adult of some kind said, 'You kids better get the hell out of here,'" recalls Eiserman, who now lives in Lake Villa. "We were scared to death. We didn't know what the heck was going on.'"

On Friday, the 81st anniversary of the battle, Eiserman will experience some of those sights and sounds again when he attends a re-enactment of the gunfight that's become a part of Barrington lore.

The re-enactment is the last in a series of events Barrington has hosted this year to mark the village's 150th anniversary. It will begin at 3 p.m. at Langendorf Park, 235 Lions Drive, and will feature actors portraying significant figures in the shootout.

David Nelson, a former Barrington mayor who is leading the re-enactment as a member of the town's Sesquicentennial Committee, said organizers have taken steps to ensure that the events Eiserman saw are accurately reproduced. David Nelson -- no relation to Baby Face -- said the clothes, cars and even guns will all be appropriate for the period.

"The Barrington Police Department took our actors to their shooting range so they could practice shooting to make it realistic to the real event," he said.

Eiserman and his then 10-year-old brother, Bob, wandered upon the real event Nov. 27, 1934, while delivering magazines to businesses along what was then Route 12, now Route 14. The two young boys had to work because Eiserman's father died two years earlier, leaving the family without a breadwinner during the Great Depression.

The pair spotted a Barrington police officer standing in the middle of the road and firing a machine gun into the air trying to stop traffic.

"Being kids, we wanted to find out what was going on. We thought maybe it was an automobile accident," Eiserman said.

"We got partway down (the road) and saw what looked like fireworks going on and we thought, 'Why would there be fireworks going on?'."

Special Agent Herman E. Hollis was killed Nov. 27, 1934, while trying to capture Lester "Baby Face Nelson" Gillis.
Special Agent Herman E. Hollis was killed Nov. 27, 1934, while trying to capture Lester "Baby Face Nelson" Gillis. - Courtesy of Department of Justice

Those fireworks were the gunshots between Baby Face Nelson, then 25 years old and considered Public Enemy No. 1, John Paul Chase, a member of his gang, and FBI agents Samuel P. Cowley and Herman E. Hollis.

According to an FBI account, agents on a stakeout earlier that afternoon had spotted Nelson, his wife and Chase driving in Wisconsin. About 3:15 p.m., Cowley and Hollis caught up with the criminals in Barrington.

Nelson pulled off the roadway at the entrance to the park, and he and Chase opened fire as the agents stopped their car about 150 feet away, according to the FBI account. During the ensuing gunfight, Chase, Cowley and Nelson all suffered fatal gunshot wounds, though Baby Face managed to drive away from the scene with his wife and Chase.

On November 27, 1934, Special Agent/Inspector Samuel P. Cowley was killed while trying to capture Lester "Baby Face Nelson" Gillis.
On November 27, 1934, Special Agent/Inspector Samuel P. Cowley was killed while trying to capture Lester "Baby Face Nelson" Gillis. - Courtesy of Department of Justice

Eiserman said he and his brother were crawling in a ditch on the side of the road, toward where they could see the flashes of gunfire, when they saw Baby Face's getaway car speed off. Nelson would die later that night and was dumped in a ditch near a cemetery, according to the FBI.

Dawn Karis, Eiserman's daughter, said their family has often visited the memorial at Langendorf Park for the two slain FBI agents and has heard her father recount that day several times.

"It seems to be part of our family history as much as it was for him," Karis said. "Dad recalls it as if it were yesterday."

David Nelson will serve as the host of Friday's re-enactment. He will set the stage for the spectators of what the area was like in the 1930s before narrating the action as it is reproduced by the actors.

Among the cast members is Jeff Kelsch, who will play the role of "Getaway Driver" from behind the wheel of one of his vintage cars. Kelsch owns a 1934 Chrysler Six Brougham that also appeared in "Public Enemies," a film about Baby Face Nelson contemporary John Dillinger.

A memorial in Barrington's Langendorf Park honors the FBI agents killed in a 1934 gunfight with Baby Face Nelson.
  A memorial in Barrington's Langendorf Park honors the FBI agents killed in a 1934 gunfight with Baby Face Nelson. - Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Eiserman said he is looking forward to Friday's event and hopes spectators use it as an opportunity to remember and thank the FBI agents who lost their lives that day.

"These agents gave up their lives to try to get Public Enemy No. 1 controlled, and we have to appreciate that," he said.

Langendorf Park in Barrington on Friday will be the site of a re-enactment of the Battle of Barrington, the famed gunfight that left gangster Baby Face Nelson and two FBI agents dead.
  Langendorf Park in Barrington on Friday will be the site of a re-enactment of the Battle of Barrington, the famed gunfight that left gangster Baby Face Nelson and two FBI agents dead. - Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

The event is free to attend. Spectators are asked to park in the north parking lot of the Barrington Park District.

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