Plan a Northern crime-history themed getaway with your gang.
Escape to a hideaway that once harbored notorious bad guys.
By Renée S. Gordon
Wisconsin’s Northwoods are filled with hundreds of picturesque lakes, wetlands and forests. Opt for serenity and tranquility or discover unique shopping opportunities, great food and a plethora of all-season outdoor activities.
These days, most visitors value the landscape, create no disturbances and respectfully leave nothing behind. That was not the case in 1934 when tranquil little Manitowish Waters was the scene of a series of events that would make headlines throughout the country and change law enforcement procedures forever.
By March of 1933 when John Dillinger escaped from Crown Point Jail he was an infamous career criminal. The day after his escape he hooked up with Baby Face Nelson, who by all accounts was a psychopath, and drove across the state line. J. Edgar Hoover, wanting to jettison himself and his force to national fame, turned up the heat on the search. By this time Dillinger, joined by other gang members, was in Chicago. While there he heard about a quiet, relatively deserted lodge in Wisconsin. They agreed it would be a perfect hideout and made plans to drive the 400 miles. They left the next day in three cars staggered along the route to prevent an ambush.
They were headed to Little Bohemia, a lodge originally built in 1929 by Emil Wanatka. The cost of their three-day stay was $500, paid in advance. The entire gang was present by the early evening of April 20 and all took rooms on the lodge’s second floor except Baby Face. He and his wife took rooms in an adjacent cottage. After a steak dinner several gang members scouted out escape routes. There was a main entrance, wooded areas on both sides and the lodge backed up to the lake.
Wanatka later claimed that he caught a glimpse of two guns on Dillinger and then found a photo of the gangster that helped him identify him. There are hints that Wanatka was aware of who they were, wanted the $10,000 reward and did not want to be arrested for harboring a criminal. His wife was instrumental in contacting the FBI. She passed a note to her brother-in-law, Henry Voss, inside a pack of cigarettes. At that time all telephones were party lines so Voss drove 60 miles to call the police who told him to call Melvin Purvis in Chicago. Purvis chartered two airplanes and told Voss to meet them at Rhinelander Airport.
The raid, originally planned for the next day, was moved up because Dillinger was known to change plans quickly. The agents had one car but managed to rent or borrow four more. Things then began to go horribly wrong. Voss was asked to draw a map and he neglected to note a ditch to the south and a barbed wire fence on the north side of the lodge as well as two dogs, Shadow and Punch. The local police were not contacted, many surmise because Hoover did not want to share the credit. On the way two cars broke down on the snowy roads and some of the 16 agents had to ride outside on the car’s running boards. Headquarters was set up at a lodge about three miles away; once Purvis verified that Dillinger was at Little Bo they headed to the lodge in the dark of night. They blocked the entrance, spread out and the dogs began to bark.
Simultaneously three guests finished their meal and proceeded to their car. They put on the radio and headed for the blocked exit. The agents, believing they had Dillinger, commanded them to stop. The falling snow and loud music kept them from seeing and hearing and the agents opened fire. All three were hit and one later died of his wounds. The gunfire alerted the gang and they immediately jumped into the snow at the rear of the lodge and escaped. The three women, who had been playing cards, hid in the basement as the agents released a fusillade of bullets. All of the gangsters escaped. The agents fired into the house until someone told them they were coming out. To their dismay they captured only the women who were arrested and sentenced to 18 months probation.
The failed capture of Dillinger at Little Bohemia continues to be considered an FBI debacle. The spin at the time was that the gangsters opened fire first. Hoover was furious and issued his first “shoot to kill” order in retaliation. The town of Mercer sued, and won, because of the harm done to its citizens and Hoover’s failure to include local law enforcement to set up roadblocks and assist in tracking the men. Hoover’s resignation was widely called for and the reputation of the new agency plummeted. The raid also resulted in the enlistment of more than 200 new agents, better weapons, additional bulletproof vests, expanded laws and faster vehicles.
The Dillinger Pontoon History Tour is a narrated land- and water-based tour of the sites and area that figured in the raid. It’s the best way to understand the events and the role topography played. From the water you can follow the actual escape route. The tour stops at the Blue Bayou Inn, formerly Kerner’s Resort. Nelson fled south alone and stole a car that stopped in front of the resort during his escape. He crossed the road and entered the driveway of a nearby property and again confronted agents killing agent Carter Baum. A tour of the area and the supposedly haunted Blue Bayou includes memorabilia and information on the raid.
The Blue Bayou is currently one of the best restaurants in the region. The Cajun/Creole cuisine is a local favorite; come for the entrées as well as their Bananas Foster Flambeau. Dine lakeside or watch stunning sunsets from indoors. Manitowash Lake was the center of regional Native American trade and was part of an 1837 treaty. An island in the lake was a native burial site and spirits are believed to guard the lake.
The pontoon portion of the tour begins and ends at the dock at Little Bo. Walking up from the water you can see the rear of the building and the windows from which the men escaped. An addition was made to the lodge in 1936, probably with the reward money, but it has generally remained as it was in 1934. Bullet holes are still visible on the exterior and the driveway is virtually as it was.
The interior has been preserved including the dining room where the women played cards, a slot machine and numerous bullet holes. Display cases showcase items left behind when they fled. The second floor is the real gem: The tiny area still shows the carnage wrecked upon the lodge; hundreds of bullet-peppered walls and a tiny bathroom that seems to have borne the brunt of the attack.
Interestingly, the lodge held a museum shortly after the raid and Dillinger’s father served as a tour guide each summer. Dillinger’s career lasted less than a year and left in its wake 12 dead, seven wounded and earned him approximately $500,000. “Public Enemies,” with Johnny Depp as Dillinger, was filmed here for a month, at night, in 2008. Depp actually used Dillinger’s real bed in the movie and it and other movie memorabilia are displayed.
Little Bohemia offers a tour, exhibits and a restaurant. The menu includes seafood specialties and, on occasion, Dillinger’s favorite cream pie. 21 Plus Salute! The adults-only Hideaway Bar & Deck is a great place to spend some time and soak up the atmosphere.
Grab your gang and escape to this storied Northwoods hideaway.
– Photos by Renée S. Gordon
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