"Baby Face Nelson" - The 'What Ifs' Of Lake Como


When Bureau Inspector, Samuel Cowley, and Special Agent (SA) Herman Hollis awoke that nasty,  cold day in November 1934, they each scanned the headlines of the local Chicago paper.  After perhaps a second cup of coffee, with small gold badges in their pockets, credentials tucked in their suit coats and handguns on their belts, they entered their vehicles.  There were thoughts of wives, children, and gangsters. It was to be another day of pursuing the worst society had to offer. But there was one who they wanted more than others.

Yet later that day and for months and years after, those women and children would cry. 

For one of the actors who caused it all, his lifeless body was placed on the roadside near a cemetery during the getaway.  Helen covered his body, bizarrely remarking later,  "He hated being cold."  Once again, he escaped the firefight but this time, he didn't live to kill again.

On that day in November 1934, sometime around 2 PM at Lake Como, Wisconsin, Life's plans could have been different.  Whether all of it is explained in our own beliefs of Fate, Destiny, God's Plan, or some other sobering thought, the incident at Lake Como is one of those we give thought to and consider how history would have been altered.  As humans, we do that with historical events. 

Had things gone differently,  Cowley and SA Herman Hollis probably would have survived. Had things gone differently, "Baby Face" Nelson, John Paul Chase and maybe even Helen Gillis may have been lying dead in front of the home of Hobart Hermanson; perhaps slumped over and bloodied right in the seats in which they sat in that stolen Ford V8.

Then again, maybe .....Then again, maybe.....Then again, what if?

What if the windows of the stolen vehicle approaching were clear and devoid of the mud and glare?  What if an alarming yell to Winstead upstairs would have ruined any ambush...on and on and on.

Approximately two hours before the fatal shootout with Cowley and Hollis, SA's James Metcalfe,  SA Charles Winstead, and SA C. E. McRae staked out the home of Hobart Hermanson in Lake Como, Wisconsin based upon a tip that Nelson and others would arrive there within days.  The Hermanson's had allowed Bureau agents to use the home itself and thus, surprise Nelson when he showed.  In the many discussions and writings about the killings of Inspector Cowley and SA Hollis, the incident at the Hermanson stakeout is sometimes rarely in print.  And if it is mentioned, it's merely a minor incident before the major disaster.  

But as the Nelson's and Chase approached the house, Metcalfe mistakenly thought it was Mrs. Hermanson. He stood on the porch straining to see the occupants approaching.  Mud and sun obscured his view and that of Winstead's too who sat in an upper window. 

Metcalfe was unarmed at that immediate moment on the porch. It was explained later that the Hermanson's were visited by folks in and out all day. While they allowed the stakeout, they didn't want the agents to be seen wearing or carrying weapons on the grounds. Thus the FBI weapons were hidden inside the house.  There was a brief exchange with Nelson on the whereabouts of "Hobe."

Winstead was in an upper window of the home with a deadly bead on the driver (Nelson) from his rifle, but he couldn't see the occupants. He relied on Metcalfe's observations and passage of information. Winstead could have killed all three of them within seconds. 

But the key to any possible pursuit of the Nelson's and Chase, when they drove off, is found in one small fact long forgotten. SA McRae had taken the Bureau car to seek out lunch in Lake Geneva nearby and was not present.  After being at the stake out so many days, the supplies of the G-Men ran dry. But now there was no vehicle avail for the use of Metcalfe and Winstead.   Nelson and others showed up at the home at the exact moment SA McRae was a few miles away in Lake Geneva with the only Bureau vehicle. The Hermanson vehicle was out also and thus could not be commandeered by the G-Men.  

After a few words with SA Metcalfe, Nelson learned that Hermanson wasn't home. Nelson also suspected a trap as later revealed to his wife and Chase during the ride. As they sped off, the coming exchange of gunfire with SA's Ryan and McDade was set into motion. So was the ultimate bout at the lone intersection at Barrington.  

That is “Baby Face” Nelson...
— Metcalfe To Winstead - Statement

The document below encompasses Winstead's statement on what happened. It also includes Metcalfe's 1945 letter to a friend revealing what happened that same day and his thoughts of pursuit; reflections of his FBI career, and pursuit of his real passion.  A most compelling document.

Winstead's report and the above facts were obtained from the Dillinger file at the FBI; Metcalfe's corroborating letter was generously donated to this site by his son, Judge Don Metcalfe. (We note that during our research, the statements of Metcalfe and McRae were not found in the file in the area where normally they'd be. That's explainable however we note there's no reason those statements should deviate from Winstead's story, or Metcalfe's story to a friend years later.)

Both documents in full are combined and shown here.

For a full reading of the report of Supervisor Virgil Petersen on the shooting, go to this link: