U.S. 40 did not have much traffic in 1934, so state and county officers didn’t have a lot of traffic to stop at their roadblock in the Truckee River Canyon east of Sparks. But neither did they stop John Dillinger. They had gotten a report that the famed bank robber was headed across Nevada on his way to the coast.
In fact, he was nowhere near Reno, or Nevada, or the West, but he was so hot that there were sightings of him all over the nation.
The failure of their roadblock on April 10, 1934, did not stop local officers from responding six days later to a tip that Dillinger was headed specifically to Reno, grabbing their guns and rushing east into the canyon again. “The posse planned to give no quarter to the outlaw,” said a Reno Evening Gazette report. Dillinger unsportingly failed to appear again.
In fact, as far as we know, Dillinger never got nearer to Reno than Tucson in his entire career, but the alarms he could cause were common. He had essentially become the face of the era of the auto gangs, groups of bandits who took advantage of having the same weapons and better cars than police to skitter from state to state before federal laws existed to stop them.
Dillinger was the template for innumerable crime movies about how a punitive law enforcement system threw people away into prison systems that trained them for crime. The latest Dillinger movie, Public Enemies, was released on July 1.
The son of an affluent Indianapolis businessman who moved his family to the small town of Mooresville to curb his rambunctious teenaged son, Dillinger’s first crime was a botched robbery of a grocer. Led into confession with assurances of a light sentence, Dillinger got 10 to 20 years (his older confederate got a lighter sentence), during which he found mentors in some of the nation’s toughest professional criminals. When he was released from prison after nine years into a depression-ridden nation, he had a career.
The era of the auto gangs was much shorter than that of the Prohibition lords. Dillinger’s “professional” crime career lasted just 427 days from his prison release on May 10, 1933. His initial publicity came from his athleticism—he leaped over bank counters—and his relative courtesy toward those he encountered during robberies. But it was his repeated escapes that kept pushing him back into the spotlight and made him a national figure. There were five instances in his 15 months—an October 1933 escape from a Lima, Ohio, jail; a November flight through a police ambush in Chicago; a March 1934 getaway from a St. Paul, Minn., FBI arrest; his sensational “wooden gun” escape that same month from the Crown Point, Ind., jail in the sheriff’s car; and an April 1934 getaway from an FBI-surrounded Wisconsin resort.
After this last incident, comic Will Rogers told his radio audience, “Well, they had Dillinger surrounded and was all ready to shoot him when he come out, but another bunch of folks come out ahead, so they just shot them instead. Dillinger is going to accidentally get with some innocent bystanders some time. Then he will get shot.”
Little wonder the Nevada law officers responded so energetically to the rumors that Dillinger was on his way. In another sense, though, it was something of a surprise that they were so anxious to do their duty. After all, though Dillinger had not been in Reno, the town had been hiding plenty of other outlaws.
Cooling off town
Big cities like Chicago were the normal sanctuaries of the auto bandits. John Toland later wrote, “Here were the fences for stolen goods, the buyers of kidnap money, the doctors who never reported gunshot wounds. … There were also other, smaller cities and towns almost as important: the underworld heavens, sanctuaries specializing in ‘cooling-off joints,’ where a criminal with money could find safety.” Scattered around the nation were refuges like Joplin, Mo., St. Paul, Reno, and Hot Springs, Ark. These small safe harbors were sources of relaxation and entertainment. In these places, political power controlled corrupt police forces.
In Reno, the bosses were people like William Graham, Henry “Tex” Hall, James “Cinch” McKay, and George Wingfield. All were prominent businesspeople, Wingfield in banking, mining, real estate and horse racing. The other three were often described in print as “sportsmen.” All of them enjoyed a veneer of respectability, but they were all skilled and ruthless criminals themselves.
Graham appears to have been the one who handled many of those sheltered in the town. For instance, Lester Gillis—better known as George “Baby Face” Nelson—always checked in with Graham first thing when he arrived in Reno seeking a haven.
Nelson was an unusual figure in the pantheon of the auto bandits, a family man with a wife, Helen, and two children. He probably arrived in Reno the first time in February 1932 after an Illinois escape during transport to prison. He was referred to Reno’s Graham by Chicago’s Touhy gang. After staying in Reno for a while under the name Jimmie Johnson, Graham put him in touch with associates in San Francisco, where Nelson met John Paul Chase, who became his closest partner in crime. Nelson was back in Reno that fall, working for Graham as a driver and general assistant, which gave him exposure to many of the other outlaws enjoying refuge in the city.
Also in Reno were members of the Barker-Karpis gang, who probably arrived in December.
The Barkers and their associates such as Alvin Karpis had been robbing banks and were about to go into kidnapping.
Karpis is one of the few prominent members of the auto gangs who survived the era, so his is the best account we have of Reno as a gangster haven. In Reno, he said, “We felt a million miles away.” He and Nelson hit it off that winter. They discovered they had lived in the same Chicago neighborhood as kids.
“Reno was quiet as far as action was concerned, but there were plenty of people in our line of business around taking it easy, and there was a lot of socializing,” Karpis later said. “I met one kid I enjoyed, a sharp young guy with a teenager’s face and good taste in clothes. He was Lester Gillis, who would one day be the notorious Baby Face Nelson. He was an escapee out of Illinois, and the Nevada boys were taking care of him. I used to go out to his place and have meals with him and his wife and two children. They were a pleasant family.” (Nelson turned 24 that month.)
The Nelsons had a home far south of downtown, on Caliente Street, from which melting into the surrounding countryside could be accomplished. Helen Gillis developed friendships and a social life, but Karpis reports that Nelson disliked being dependent on the local bosses.
“Baby Face Nelson had some bullet-punctured years ahead of him, but at this point he was more or less being looked after financially by Graham and McKay and not liking it very much,” according to Karpis. “He hated being dependent on the whims of these two guys. That was the rub.”
Karpis told Nelson that the Barkers were full up, but when he returned east he would look for a spot for him in another gang. Soon both men were back in the Midwest.
On June 15, 1933, the Barker-Karpis gang kidnapped Minnesota brewer William Hamm. Hamm was released after a $100,000 ransom was paid. Karpis brought the money to Reno to be laundered. He got $95,000 for the tainted $100,000.
The gang next kidnapped St. Paul banker Edward Bremer, picking up $200,000. But this crime, coming so soon on the heels of the Hamm kidnapping and a third one, the kidnapping of John “Jake the Barber” Factor, drew more attention to the Midwest crime wave generated by the auto gangs, helping to make it a national policy issue. New federal legislation was drafted, and new pressure fell on law enforcement.
“The [Bremer ransom] money felt good to touch, but a problem still hung over us—how the hell were we going to spend it?” Karpis later recalled. “It was hot. The FBI had marked it, and they’d soon enough round up anyone who passed the stuff. We decided to discount it with the same two Reno guys who’d taken the Hamm money. Doc [Barker] carried the money out to Reno and flew back with a big fat zero. Nobody wanted to touch it. It was too damned hot. But the Reno guys had been generous. They gave Doc seven thousand-dollar bills to distribute among the kidnappers. It was a nice thought.” One of the bills later showed up in the pocket of a Barker hood gunned down in Al Capone’s hometown of Cicero, Ill.
Nelson, meanwhile, had drifted into St. Paul crime circles, then linked up with the Dillinger gang. He was among those who escaped from the Little Bohemia resort in Wisconsin.
Nelson came and went in Nevada, on the run after more Midwest bank jobs and a growing squeeze on the auto gangs. One by one the leading auto gangsters were killed or imprisoned—Kate Barker and her son Fred, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd. (These commonly used nicknames were not real nicknames. As Capone biographer John Kobler has noted, most gangster nicknames are invented by reporters.)
Law enforcement was being given more support and getting its act together. Federal officials were showing more interest in Reno. They put together a fraud case against Graham and McKay on the strength of testimony of Riverside Bank manager Roy Frisch, a former Reno City Council member. On March 22, 1934, Frisch departed his home on Court Street, a couple of doors from Wingfield’s home, bound for the Majestic Theatre to see Ann Harding in Gallant Lady. After the movie, Frisch was seen walking home. He was never seen again.
On one Nevada trip, Nelson checked in with Graham and Tex Hall and renewed his acquaintance with Reno mechanic and pilot Frank Cochran and his wife, Anna. Nelson had apparently made friends with Cochran in connection with his previous role as Graham’s driver, and the two couples had become friends. Cochran installed a police siren in Nelson’s car and acquired exotic ammunition not used since the world war for him. He also altered Nelson’s car to accommodate a larger gas tank and an additional spare tire.
On the run
On July 22, 1934, Alvin Karpis and John Dillinger separately attended Chicago showings of Manhattan Melodrama, a Myrna Loy/Clark Gable movie. Dillinger was killed as he left the theater. The “Public Enemy No. 1” gimmick invented by the FBI especially for Dillinger was then reassigned to Nelson.
Four days later, a hung jury was declared in the Graham and McKay fraud trial in New York. A new trial was planned. The case would drag on for years.
Nelson, now white hot, sometimes connected with John Chase in Reno. But if Nelson had been uncomfortable working for Graham before, he probably didn’t like it any better now. The town was full of feds and informants. Federal agents were gathering more information on Nelson’s movements than he would ever have imagined. One indication of the sweep of their investigation was that they found and questioned a dentist who had treated Anna Cochran in Hawthorne, a desert hamlet midway between Reno and Las Vegas. Frank Cochran had contact with the FBI but alerted Nelson to their presence after leading the FBI to believe he was cooperating with them.
Nelson and his family sometimes drove aimlessly around Nevada. He and Karpis both spent time in Las Vegas, but it was not the diverting place it later became. Among other places, Nelson stayed at Walley’s Hot Springs in Douglas County and the Big Chief trailer court in Fallon. He reportedly laid low at a camp near Walker Lake for a time.
With the whole nation on the watch for him, Nelson was back in the Midwest on Nov. 27, 1934. In Barrington, Ill., Nelson, Helen Gillis, and John Paul Chase encountered FBI agents, and the two bandits shot it out with them in a field.
Nelson told his wife to run into an adjoining field. After being hit with a shot from one of the agents, Nelson marched on them with a rapid firing rifle, his body taking shots but still marching forward until two of the agents were mortally wounded. Chase and Helen Gillis then got Nelson into an FBI car and took him to a safe house where he died. Because of his forward march, Nelson was one of the few auto gangsters killed by federal agents not to die from shots in the back while fleeing.
J. Edgar Hoover ordered his agents to “find the woman [Helen Gillis] and give her no quarter.” The press took its cue and demonized her as “the Tiger Woman.” There were reports that law officers were planning to shoot her on sight, and an FBI official prescribed no “mercy.” She frustrated any such plans by turning herself in on Thanksgiving. She was not allowed to attend her husband’s funeral, and Hoover personally ordered that she not be allowed to sleep while she was interrogated to find out information about surviving gangsters, particularly those who sheltered Nelson while he died. Helen Gillis received a year in prison for sheltering her husband.
Karpis was tracked down by FBI agents in New Orleans in 1936, but they delayed arresting him so that Hoover—under criticism for being a “swivel chair detective” instead of a working law enforcer—could fly out to make the arrest personally, which he may have done on May 1. (Karpis claimed he was first grabbed by agents, who then called Hoover onto the scene to make the formal arrest.)
Karpis was the last of the major auto gangsters nabbed, and his arrest is often treated as the end of the era. He served 33 years of a life sentence at Leavenworth, Alcatraz, and McNeil Island and was released on parole in 1969, eventually moving to Spain, where he died in 1979.
After release from prison, Helen Gillis became a working mother, raised her children in Chicago, and died in 1987.
Graham and McKay were tried three times, the first two trials ending in hung juries. They were finally convicted on Feb. 13, 1937. When they got out of prison, the boys back home welcomed them with open arms, though the two never regained their former power. By one account, Graham paid tax on his income of $1,280,000 while in Leavenworth, so he presumably was well off when released from prison after nine years.
Their ally George Wingfield also lost his power, from the Depression collapse of his banks rather than from prosecution. Law enforcement never caught up with him.
Tex Hall and Frank and Anna Cochran were indicted for harboring Nelson. Hall was convicted and imprisoned for six months. The charges were dropped against Anna Cochran, but her husband was convicted and imprisoned, notwithstanding Reno big shots who testified to his good character. In 1948, after his release from prison, a group of prominent Reno people circulated a petition asking for a presidential pardon for Cochran, which U.S. Sen. Patrick McCarran of Nevada forwarded to President Truman.
According to federal documents I obtained, a San Francisco special agent alerted J. Edgar Hoover to the pardon application and pointed out that if Cochran had done his duty and reported Nelson’s presence to law enforcement, two FBI agents might never have been killed. Hoover ordered a vigorous investigation of Cochran by the Salt Lake City office—the FBI report referenced Cochran’s “double cross” of the Bureau—but the pardon was ultimately granted. When Frank died, the Reno newspaper obituaries writers made no mention of his involvement with Nelson, if they knew of it. Anna moved to Churchill County and when she died her obituary was similarly incomplete.
On Dec. 27, 1934, John Paul Chase was arrested at Mount Shasta in Northern California. He was the first person tried under a new law making the killing of a U.S. agent a federal offense, though Chase said he did not kill either of the agents at Barrington. His trial began on March 18, 1935. He was convicted, but the jury recommended mercy, and he was spared the death penalty in favor of a life sentence.
On July 11, 1935, the San Francisco Examiner reported that Chase had confessed that he and Nelson had abducted bank manager Roy Frisch in 1934. Little more was heard of this until 1937 when, with Graham and McKay safely convicted, the FBI reported the Chase confession. Chase was brought back to Nevada but was unable to locate where Frisch’s body was dumped. Though the Frisch disappearance technically remains an open case to this day, the FBI thereafter treated it as solved.
Chase was paroled from Leavenworth on Oct. 31, 1966. He became a custodian in Palo Alto and died on Oct. 5, 1973.
The legacy of the auto gangs lived on in crime and popular culture. On Nov. 19, 1936, two years after John Dillinger broke out of the Crown Point jail using a wooden gun he had carved and colored with shoe polish, Elko sheriff’s deputies discovered that convicted Nevada murderer Luther Jones—awaiting sentencing in the Elko jail—had carved a gun from a bar of soap and colored it dark with a pencil.