Little Bohemia Lodge is located in Manitowish Waters in Northern Wisconsin. It is a nice little supper club that claims “fine dining with a Northwoods touch!” That is not its only claim to fame, however. Little Bohemia’s main claim to fame is that it was the location of the Dillinger gang’s shootout with the F.B.I.
The lodge was built by Emil Wanatka in 1929. The Northwoods area of Wisconsin has always been known as a recreation vacation spot and with the abundant natural beauty of this area, it is easy to see why. A little more surprising to learn is that it was also popular with the mobsters and gangsters of the 1930’s. They liked its isolation. It was far enough away from Chicago that nobody recognized them there.
It was 1934 and the heyday of the gangster was in full swing. Prohibition had ended in December 1933 and the mobs were very much into running the liquor, girls and gambling. Bank robbery was in and business was booming. One of the most notorious of these gangs was the John Dillinger gang.
John Dillinger began his career of crime at a young age when he robbed a store with an accomplice, Ed Singleton. Singleton was sentenced to two years for this crime but Dillinger was sentenced to 20 years. Dillinger always claimed that the courts had used him as an example when they gave him such a harsh sentence. He stated that this act made him bitter toward the government and it was what drove him into a life of crime. One thing is certain John Dillinger made a lot of friends in prison. These men would later become his gang members.
Dillinger’s gang was fairly successful and Dillinger, as their leader, had quite a reputation. He was looked at favorably in the public’s eyes and almost seemed to be a hero to some people. This was the Great Depression era when banks foreclosed on people’s homes and property. Most people were glad to see the banks get what they felt they had coming to them.
One of Dillinger’s most notorious moves was in March 1934 when he broke out of the Crown Point Indiana jail. He was being held there for the murder of a police officer. Dillinger broke out of the “escape proof jail” using a gun carved out of a piece of wood and stained black with shoe polish. Just to rub salt in the wound, he stole the lady sheriiff’s car. This was a decision that would lead to his undoing. The FBI (and especially J. Edgar Hoover) wanted John Dillinger and his gang very badly. They had passed numerous laws in order to “put the heat” on Dillinger and anyone who might think of assisting him. One of these was the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act. This basically made it a federal offense to move a stolen car over state lines. When Dillinger broke out of the jail in Indiana, he headed back into Illinois. This allowed Hoover to put Dillinger on the Public Enemy list and Melvin Purvis was hired to head up the Chicago office.
We flash forward to April 1934 now, and John Dillinger who had always figured a way to outsmart the police must have felt at least a little low. Several of his best men had been killed, his favorite girl, Evelyn (Billie) Frechette, had been arrested, he himself had been wounded. He must have been desperate for him to hook up with the psychopath, Baby Face Nelson. In April,the gang was on the run.
They traveled up to Northern Wisconsin. Some versions say that his lawyer Louis Piquette sent him up there to stay in a lodge run by one of his other clients, Emil Wanatka. Others imply that Dillinger was just heading across the state to Minnesota and stumbled on the lodge. Whichever way it happened, Dillinger and his gang arrived at Little Bohemia Lodge on April 20, 1934. Those present were Homer Van Meter, Marie Comforti (Homer’s girlfriend), Pat Reilly, Pat Cherrington, John Hamilton, Tommy Carroll and his wife Jean Delaney, and Baby Face Nelson and his wife, Helen Gillis and John Dillinger.
After a fine steak dinner, the guests settled in for a card game. It was during this card game that Wannatka started to suspect his games of being more than a group of friends on vacation. He noticed that most of the men were carrying guns. He went into the kitchen to find the latest newspapers and that is when he had his fears confirmed. Needless to say, Wannatka and his wife spent a sleepless night as they tried to decide what to do about their situation. On one hand, the gang had paid him a princely sum to use his establishment. On the other hand, they knew that the FBI was cracking down on anyone who harbored this gang.
They came up with a plan to send Emil’s wife and son to a birthday party at a relative’s house where she would try to contact the FBI. Mrs. Wanatka was able to discuss the situation with her brother –in laws at t he party and they agreed to call the FBI office in MIlwaukee. Mrs. Wanatka bravely returned to the lodge with her son.
Sunday passed with the visitors enjoying more cards games and even playing catch with the Wanatka’s young son. No one even suspected that the FBI had been alerted and Melvin Purvis and his men were moving in at that very moment. There are many versions of what actually happened that even but it seems that even the FBI suffers from Murphy’s Law. Agents flew into Rhinelander, Wisconsin but had difficulty finding a place to rent cars from. On the trip from Rhinelander to Manitowish Waters (A distance of 50 miles or so) two of the cars broke down and some of the agents had to finish the trip standing on the running boards.
The agents split up to cover what they thought were all the avenues of escape. They hadn’t been waiting very long when some men left the restaurant portion of the inn. The FBI ordered them to stop but (and versions vary here as well) either they were too inebriated or their radio in the car was up too loud but they ignored the FBI orders and when they continued driving, the FBI agents opened fire. The men inside the car were not part of Dillinger’s gang. They were three men who happened to dine at the lodge that evening. Two were Civilian Conservation Corporation workers named John and Eugene Boisneau and the other was a salesman named John Hoffman. They were, however, carrying rifles when they climbed into the car causing the agents to believe they were part of the gang. Morris and Hoffman were wounded and Boisneau was killed.
Meanwhile, inside the lodge some of the gang had been playing cards when they heard the gunfire. According to some witnesses the gang inside never fired ANY bullets while others stated that some gang members covered the others while they ran upstairs to retrieve the money and more guns. The men in the gang all escaped out the back windows. The agents apparently thought the lodge was set back closer to the lake than it actually was. They slipped out of the back while the agents released a volley of gunfire on the front. The Wanatka family and employees hid in the basement with the three women who had accompanied the gang members. They were lucky to be left alive.
Dillinger, Hamilton and Van Meter headed north up the shore of the Little Star Lake. They stopped at a place about a mile up the road called Mitchell’s Lodge. They commandeered a car and had the owner drive them out of the area. In a typical Dillinger style, the family at the lodge described Dillinger as being very polite.
Baby Face Nelson had gone south along the lake shore and then he grabbed a car with hostages but was stopped by agents. During this gun battle one of the agents, W. Carter Baum was killed by Nelson in his typical ruthless manner. Carter left a wife and two small children when he was killed. Nelson escaped that night and in some versions walked 17 miles to Lac du Flambeau where he hid out in Cabin Number 5 of Dillman’s Bay holding an old indian man hostage for days until things had calmed down enough for him to leave the area.
Unlike the portrayal in the movie ”Public Enemies” , Baby Face Nelson didn’t die in the gunfight at Little Bohemia. It seems almost a miracle that more people weren’t killed when you see the damage that was done from the FBI agent’s bullets.
The lodge is still open today and due to Wanatka’s quick thinking, it has been preserved exactly as it was on the night after the gunfight. There are holes in the walls, and the windows have also been preserved behind panes of glass. In fact, Dillinger’s own father worked there for a time before he and Billy Frechette went on their “Crime doesn’t Pay Tour.”
This little obscure place set in the back woods of Wisconsin has insured its place in history.
There are some websites that I used when I planned my trip to this unique place. One is the Little Bohemia website at www.littlebohemialodge.com. They have a nice history page filled with pictures and descriptions of the night. The lodge is a fine restaurant and bar on the first floor and the second floor is a little museum of Dillinger- it even has the seat from the Biograph Theater that he supposedly sat in the night he died. Its walls are filled with articles of his exploits and even love letters from his grilfriends. It also has some of the clothes left behind by the gang. The present owners have added their own memorabilia from the making of “Public Enemies”. Yes, Johnny Depp was there! It is a fascinating place to visit and is definitely worth the trip. Even those people who don’t believe in ghosts admit they feel a “presence” in this place.
In case you need further convincing, there is a website that has a gangland tour that mentions other places close to Little Bohemia and in other parts of Wisconsin. Here is the link for this site: http://www.travelwisconsin.com/Article_Detail.aspx?articleid=327&menuid=61
I would also recommend the books by G. Russell Girardin: “Dillinger:The Untold Story.” and Elliot J. Gorn’s “Dillinger’s Wild Ride: The Year that Made America’s Public Enemy Number One” .
The Dillinger story has fascinated me (as well as many others) for years. He charmed men and women alike and even those hired to hunt him down admired him. He was a loyal friend and fell hard for the women he loved. He was close to his family and continued to visit them and send them money even after he made the most wanted list. Whether you consider him a cold-blooded killer or a small town hero he is definitely one of history’s most interesting men.
Copyright © 2014, Kathi Kresol