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Dillinger and the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin
Emil Wanatka and the Lodge
The Little Bohemia Lodge was and still is, located in the northern woods of the upper portion of Wisconsin. It was built in 1931 by Emil Wanatka, a Bohemian immigrant from the Austria-Hungary region. He arrived in New York from Germany and knew one swear word in English. He drifted to Chicago, working at a famed restaurant there as a bartender. He bought a half share of the restaurant during the Depression, then finally owned it entirely. He catered to sports figures, politicos, bootleggers, and gangsters. But that was then, and now he only owned the lodge. It was a two-story log building. Downstairs was a large living room, a bar, and a generous kitchen. Upstairs there were ten bedrooms.
The Gang Leaves Chicago
Early morning on April 20, 1934, the Dillinger gang departed Chicago for the four hundred mile trip to Little Bohemia in three vehicles. Dillinger kept them spread out on the highway. Homer van Meter was in the first car with his girlfriend, Marie Conforti. His job was to ascertain if the lodge was safe enough, then check the area for avenues of escape. The driver of another car was Pat Reilly, who brought Dillinger and Hamilton to his doctor when they had wounds from the Mason City robbery, and naturally, Dillinger was in his own vehicle..
Van Meter and company reached the lodge at approximately one in the afternoon. Another vehicle was leaving, which was occupied by Wanataka’s brother-in-law, Lloyd LaPorte.
The Gang Arrives at Little Bohemia
van Meter spoke to Wanatka, who served them lunch, and asked if he was able to put up ten people for a number of days. Wanatka said that there was plenty of room there. After lunch, he surveyed the rear of the establishment, noticing steep banking along the lakefront. This would allow ample cover in an emergency situation.
A few hours later, Dillinger and the rest of the gang arrived. Dillinger, Red Hamilton, and Patricia Cherrington were given rooms in the main building. Baby Face and his wife, Helen, were given a cabin just a short distance from the lodge. Tommy Carroll and his wife, Jean, also shared the cabin. They all had assumed names.
Entertainment at the Lodge
Wanatka was invited to play cards with the gang in the bar, but none of them drank. Carroll and Nelson were the most social, but the rest said little or nothing. After Dillinger won the first game, he reached over for the money, and Wanatka noticed his .45 in a shoulder holster. He also soon saw guns on Carroll and Nelson.
The guests made Mrs. Nan Wanatka a little shaken, and when Emil told her about the guns, she was even more nervous. Her sister was there, but she didn’t let on that anything was out of place. Her sister left and she eventually made it to bed, but her husband awoke her later, saying that he thought that Dillinger was one of the men there. The next day, Wanatka showed his wife the newspaper picture of Dillinger, and she agreed that it was him. He called Dillinger to the office, saying that he didn’t want any trouble, and asked them to leave. Dillinger said that he just wanted to rest, eat, and sleep for a few days, and would pay him well. Wanatka agreed to that.
After lunch, they all shot behind the employees’ quarters, but Wanatka could outshoot them all at 80 yards. Then they decided to throw a baseball around. Everyone liked Nelson, who was a good tipper and the female employees thought that he was handsome. The night before, he invited all of them to the bar for a drink. Wanatka thought that he was dangerous and not to be taken lightly.
Dillinger Took Over Little Bohemia
In the afternoon, Dillinger told Pat Reilly to go to St. Paul to get more ammo and $2,500. Patricia Cherrington wanted to go along.
Mrs. Wanatka wanted to get 10-year-old Emil, Jr. out of there. Every time a car arrived, Dillinger would ask if the family knew the occupants. Every time the phone rang, someone monitored the call. The opportunity arose to get the boy out of the house: George LaPorte’s son was having a birthday party, and Wanatka asked if he could take young Emil. Dillinger agreed to it, but wanted van Meter to go along.
When Wanatka returned, he was upset that he was being ordered around on his own property. He made a decision to contact the police. He wrote a letter to a friend, an Assistant U.S. Attorney General, but now he had to try to mail the letter. He gave the letter to his wife while having dinner. She hid it in her corset, then asked if she could go to the birthday party to see her family. He let her go without an escort, and she took the family car. She soon saw that she was being followed by Baby Face Nelson.
The Secret is Out
She made it to her brother, Lloyd’s place, and lost Nelson for a few minutes. She told her brother what was happening, including the fact that the gang was there, and passed the letter that her husband wrote, off to him to mail. She secretly let her brother out, and she stopped at a grocery store in Mercer. Nelson stared at her through the store window, pointing a finger at her in warning. Lloyd later told her that he was able to mail the letter without being seen at the railway station.
He and she drove to the birthday party, and an hour later, some said as a joke that they heard that Dillinger was there. She called everyone into the bedroom, and admitted what was happening. Her brother-in-law, Henry Voss, suggested going to Rhinelander, 50 miles away, to call the FBI office in Chicago for immediate assistance, since the letter wouldn’t be delivered until Monday, and it was Saturday. She said that she would agree to that, if her husband approved. He was to come to the lodge the next day for a pack of cigarettes. If Wanatka approved the plan, she would have a note in the pack that said, “go ahead, Lloyd.”
When she returned home, she was not questioned by the gang. Her husband came to bed at 10, she told him the plan, and he agreed.
After a sleepless night, Nan wrote the note and put it in a pack of Marvels. Though she rarely drank, she went to the bar and took two aspirins with a shot of whiskey. A few hours later, her mother and Lloyd LaPorte arrived. Dillinger and Baby Face hung around the area where they were visiting. Lloyd said that he forgot his cigarettes, and asked Nan if she had some. He grabbed a few, then put the rest of the pack in his pocket. Wanatka came in, and told his brother to go to the bar for a drink. While handing him a drink, he told him to go to the mens’ room to get a pack of cigarettes. On the pack of Camels, Wanatka had written the information on the gang’s cars, as well as all their names. He returned to the kitchen and talked more with his sister. When he finally got up to leave, she handed him a pattern and dress material to drop off at the Voss’ residence. He and his mother left, but the gangsters paid them no mind.
Fifty miles later, Voss and LaPorte were in Rhinelander, looking for a phone.
Melvin Purvis Gets the Call
About 1 p.m., Melvin Purvis received a call at his residence from a U.S. Marshal in Chicago. He was told that there was reliable information on where Dillinger was, and was given the phone number to call.
Henry Voss said that Dillinger and five other men were at the Little Bohemia Lodge. He told Voss to wait at the Rhinelander airport for him and to wear a handkerchief around his neck for recognition. Purvis called his office, ordered two planes chartered, every available man to respond, and notified Hoover in Washington, D.C. Hoover told him to send men from St. Paul, as they were closer. Assistant Director Hugh H. Clegg was still in St. Paul, and would run the operation.
Within the hour, more than fifteen agents had gathered, and were getting vests, guns, ammo, and tear gas. Purvis selected eleven to head in by plane, and the rest would drive out. In three hours, Purvis and his men would land in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, and be at Little Bohemia in an hour and a half after that.
Dillinger's Last Dinner at Little Bohemia
But Dillinger and the gang were paying their bill at that point. He wanted an early dinner and planned to leave when Pat Reilly returned with Cherrington.
Mrs. Voss showed up as the gang was having their dinner, and said that Henry had gone to Rhinelander to phone the FBI. Mrs. Wanatka took her to the refrigerator room and told her that they were leaving as soon as Reilly returned. Mrs. Voss said that she’d drive to Rhinelander to tell Mr. Voss. Mrs. Wanatka went to the bar again for more whiskey to take with her aspirin. Emil walked in, and asked her if she was drinking, which was totally out of character for her. Baby Face Nelson walked silently behind them. He had been suspicious of Nan since the Mercer trip.
Nelson missed the car that had driven into the parking lot. It was Reilly and Cherrington. Reilly was nervous, as there were no cars in the driveway. While he was gone, Dillinger ordered the cars parked in the garage. He felt that he might be walking into a trap, and drove off. He planned to return when there was a cover of darkness.
It's 6 o'clock on a Saturday...
Purvis and his men were about an hour away from Rhinelander. Nan Wanatka was thankful that her son was safe at her brother’s. Maybe the FBI would make it in time, but there would probably be a shootout.
Dillinger was upstairs looking at a map, and it was after 6 o’clock, but Reilly wasn’t back yet.
FBI Lands at Rhinelander Airfield
The two planes from Chicago just arrived at Rhinelander airfield. The St. Paul plane carrying Assistant Director Clegg was already there, and he had seventeen men. Purvis was second in command. Clegg had already met with Voss, but his wife was still en route. He had no idea that Dillinger’s plans had changed, so he told Clegg that there was no hurry to get to Little Bohemia. An agent was sent ahead with Voss to his lodge, about a mile below Little Bohemia. Clegg and the others would be along as soon as they could rent cars.
The raid was scheduled for 4 a.m., and Wanatka would have all innocent parties in the basement by then. The St. Paul car would have their men block the roads around the lodge.