Baby Face Nelson-Battle of Barrington witness: Re-enactors got it right

  • Cynthia Westby portrays Helen Gillis and Dylan Nelson portrays Baby Face Nelson in a re-enactment of the "Battle at Barrington" shootout between Baby Face Nelson and federal agents 81 years ago.

      Cynthia Westby portrays Helen Gillis and Dylan Nelson portrays Baby Face Nelson in a re-enactment of the "Battle at Barrington" shootout between Baby Face Nelson and federal agents 81 years ago. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

  • 87-year-old Bill Eiserman of Lake Villa was 6 years old when he witnessed the Battle of Barrington, the famed shootout that killed Baby Face Nelson and two FBI officers.

      87-year-old Bill Eiserman of Lake Villa was 6 years old when he witnessed the Battle of Barrington, the famed shootout that killed Baby Face Nelson and two FBI officers. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 11/27/2015 7:48 PM

A shootout 81 years ago between Baby Face Nelson and an accomplice and two FBI agents just off Northwest Highway in Barrington left three men dead, including the notorious gangster.

That skirmish, which came to be known as the Battle of Barrington, was witnessed by a handful of people including Bill Eiserman, 87, who saw parts of the firefight from a ditch on the side of the road.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

On Friday, Eiserman returned to the scene of that battle, now a parking lot near the Barrington Park District, along with around 250 spectators to watch the battle be re-enacted by local actors wearing clothing of the era, driving vintage cars and pretending to fire weapons of the period.

"They did a great job," Eiserman said of the performers. "What an experience, huh?"

In addition to replicating the events of Nov. 27, 1934, Eiserman said Friday's cold weather was exactly the same as he remembered it being 81 years earlier.

Actor Dylan Nelson portrays Baby Face Nelson during a re-enactment of the "Battle at Barrington" shootout between Nelson and federal agents 81 years ago.
  Actor Dylan Nelson portrays Baby Face Nelson during a re-enactment of the "Battle at Barrington" shootout between Nelson and federal agents 81 years ago. - Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

During the real Battle of Barrington, Baby Face Nelson, then considered Public Enemy No. 1, and John Paul Chase, a member of his gang, exchanged gunfire at what is now Langendorf Park with FBI agents Samuel P. Cowley and Herman E. Hollis after the agents spotted them driving on Northwest Highway in a stolen car.

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Actors portraying federal agents pursue Baby Face Nelson and members of his gang during a re-enactment of the "Battle at Barrington" shootout, which took place 81 years ago.
  Actors portraying federal agents pursue Baby Face Nelson and members of his gang during a re-enactment of the "Battle at Barrington" shootout, which took place 81 years ago. - Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

For the re-enactment, the actors portraying the significant figures in the shootout drove off Northwest Highway and into the parking lot, where they made four laps in front of the crowd, intermittently firing off blanks at each other, before getting out of the cars and using them as protection for more fake shooting.

"It was very exciting," said Dylan Nelson, who portrayed Baby Face Nelson -- no relation -- in the re-enactment. "We were sitting over there waiting to start and we felt like we were actually going to rob a bank or something -- it was a little bit of adrenaline running."

Actor Dylan Nelson, portraying Baby Face Nelson, poses for a photo with Eve Berry, 9, of Barrington after a re-enactment of the "Battle at Barrington" shootout between Baby Face Nelson and federal agents 81 years ago.
  Actor Dylan Nelson, portraying Baby Face Nelson, poses for a photo with Eve Berry, 9, of Barrington after a re-enactment of the "Battle at Barrington" shootout between Baby Face Nelson and federal agents 81 years ago. - Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The adrenaline running through the actors' veins was one of the only things keeping them warm in the frigid temperatures. The cold is a possible culprit for why one of the re-enactment's key moments took longer than planned.

After initial shooting with fake handguns, Dylan Nelson -- as Baby Face -- switched to a Thompson submachine gun, also known as a Tommy gun, and started walking toward the federal agents. But when he tried to fire, nothing happened.

Dylan Nelson said there wasn't a Tommy gun that shot blanks, so the plan was for Jeff Kelsch, who played the role of getaway driver, to hide behind a car and shoot blanks from an Uzi to replicate the iconic machine gun noise.

"It jammed up a couple of times," Dylan Nelson said. "But finally once it started shooting everyone cheered.'

After the gun jam cleared, Dylan Nelson went to work shooting the federal agents before hopping in the car and driving away to the cheers of the crowd.

The historical background about the Battle of Barrington was read by Dylan's father David Nelson, a former Barrington village president who organized the re-enactment as a member of the town's Sesquicentennial Committee, and North Barrington resident Kara Kretz, who both fought the bitter wind while reading from their notes.

"Baby Face" Nelson was born Lester M. Gillis on Dec. 6, 1908, in Chicago, and died after the Battle of Barrington in 1934.
"Baby Face" Nelson was born Lester M. Gillis on Dec. 6, 1908, in Chicago, and died after the Battle of Barrington in 1934. - Courtesy of Department of Justice

Kretz told the crowd that Baby Face Nelson was described by the media of his day as a "merciless killer" who possessed an "intense hate of coppers and G-men." The Baby Face Nelson of 2015 was nice enough to pose for photographs with admirers after the show was over.

The event was the last in a yearlong series celebrating Barrington's history during the village's 150th anniversary.

"It was perfect for the end of the 150 celebration that even on a cold day during a holiday weekend, we had such a great turnout to appreciate a moment in Barrington's history," Village President Karen Darch said.

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