Baby Face Nelson Robbed His First Major Bank – in Grand Haven
His name was actually Lester Joseph Gillis, but was known also as George Nelson or "Baby Face" Nelson. He got his nickname of Baby Face because of his age and youthful appearance.
A Life of Crime
Baby Face Nelson started his life of crime at an early age of just 12. He was arrested in July 1921 after he accidentally shot a friend at school with a pistol he had found. He served over a year in a state reformatory. Once he was released, he was again arrested...this time for stealing a car and going joyriding at the age of 13. After that arrest, he was sent to a penal school for a year and a half and was released in April of 1924.
Finally being a free man, he found a job working at a Standard Oil station in his neighborhood. Through that job he became associated with a group of tire thieves known as the "strippers". Within a couple of years, Nelson and the gang were involved in organized crime.
Beginning the Life of a Bank Robber
Baby Face Nelson robbed his first back on April 21, 1930 working with a larger gang. They made off with about $4,000. After several additional robberies and a murder during an armed robbery that year, Nelson was eventually caught and was given a one year to life sentence in the Joliet state penitentiary.
During a prison transfer in February of 1932, Nelson escaped and fled to Reno, Nevada. Through various contacts in the crime world, Nelson eventually teamed up with Eddie Bentz and they returned to the midwest the following summer.
Baby Face Nelson Robs a Bank in Grand Haven, Michigan
Nelson decided he wanted to be the head honcho of a bank robbing gang. Eddie Bentz would scour bank records and pose as a customer to learn the physical layouts of banks throughout the midwest. Their first major bank robbery took place on August 18, 1933. The bank they chose to rob was the People's Savings Bank in Grand Haven, Michigan.
Botched Bank Robbery
The planned robbery didn't go as smoothly as Nelson and his gang would have liked. It was decided a group of four men would go inside and rob the bank, while a fifth would drive the getaway car. At about 3 o'clock in the afternoon, Baby Face Nelson and his group took their machine guns and entered the People's Savings Bank in Grand Haven at 300 Washington Avenue. They informed everyone in the bank (a cashier, a teller, three other bank employees and three customers) to hit the floor. The teller, a man named Arthur Welling, was able to press an alarm that alerted the police of the bank robbery. The alarm also alerted a businessman next store. Edward Kinkema grabbed his shotgun and ran toward the bank.
The getaway driver was discovered by a security guard who fired at him with a Remington repeater shotgun. The driver took off. That left Baby Face and the others in the gang without a means to get away. One member of the gang, Earl Doyle, as tackled to the ground and captured. (He was later convicted and sentenced to life in prison.) The two remaining gang members used bank employees as human shields to make their way back outside of the bank where they were confronted by a crowd of armed Grand Haven residents. During the resulting gunfire, four citizens were wounded (none seriously). The gang members found a car and made their way towards Ohio.
Along the way, the group abandoned the first car and stole anther. Just before hitting the Michigan/Ohio sate line, that second car blew a tire. The car crashed into a tree in Hudson, MI. Finally, after stealing a third car, the gang eventually were able to make it across the state line.
Back in 1933, a bank robbery was considered a state crime. It was not yet a federal offense like it is today. Once the gang crossed the state border, Michigan police couldn't cross the state line to catch the group. After all they went through, Nelson only ended up stealing a total of $2,300. (Today that would be about $52,000).
Nelson's Life as a Bank Robber
Nelson and his own gang continued to rob banks and trains throughout the following year. After federal agents killed John Dillinger in July of 1934, Nelson became "Public Enemy Number 1". Throughout his life of crime, Baby Face Nelson killed more FBI agents than any other criminal. He was fatally shot by FBI agents during a shootout near Chicago, Illinois on November 27th, 1934. He was just 25 years old at the time of his death.
A Detroit News newspaper featuring a story on the robbery was once offered for sale on Amazon.