Back in 1980 Wisconsin had a tourism slogan: Escape to Wisconsin. The state’s natural beauty and proximity to Chicago make it a sort of backyard travel option for the Windy City. During the 1920s and 30s, however, Wisconsin offered a different kind of “getaway” option. Notorious crime legends such as Al Capone, John Dillinger, and Baby Face Nelson frequently slipped into the Northwoods to elude law enforcement or just find a bit of peace in a not so peaceful life. Today some of the places where the “public enemies” took refuge still exist, and if you want to crash or dine where the notorious “Public Enemies” once did, get in your car for a getaway in Wisconsin.
While researching Backroads and Byways of Wisconsin I met a B&B owner who told me his property was financed by none other than Al Capone. The original owner of what is now Point Beach Guesthouse kept a still and speakeasy running in the woods out back and as a sort of thank you, Mr. Capone built him a nicer place.
Plenty of people flock to Door County in the summer to get away. Shipwrecked Brewpub in Egg Harbor has a story of someone not getting away. According to the locals, Capone’s illegitimate son hanged himself in one of the boarding rooms upstairs – he had help. (Shipwrecked is allegedly haunted by a few ghosts the locals know by name.) Tunnels are said to be under the road and were once used as potential escape routes if the Feds showed up. Shipwrecked makes its own beer; however it’s all legal.
Baby Face Nelson was a rather testy and brutal gangster (He used to keep the license plate numbers he knew to be of federal agents and then actually go after them.) In Lake Geneva, Wisconsin Nelson stayed at The French Country Inn and was spotted by unprepared federal agents near there. Nelson escaped yet again.
Another place where Nelson slept – albeit, probably uneasily – is Cabin #5 which is now part of Dillman’s Bay Resort near Lac du Flambeau. On the lam and running almost blindly through the woods on a wintery night (April, yes, winter reaches well into so-called spring in the northwoods sometimes). He held a couple in a cabin hostage until the heat was off.
And what heat was that? Probably the most famous of the public enemies stories occurred that month in 1934. Famous enough to be a central scene in Michael Mann’s latest movie Public Enemies (starring Johnny Depp and based on the book Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34
by Bryan Burrough)
Hiding out after a St. Paul shootout, Dillinger and his associates (including Nelson at this time) took rooms at Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin. The owner Emil Wanatka recognized Dillinger from the newspapers and leaked word to relations down the street. The FBI flew into Rhinelander and raced to the site to try to catch the public enemies. Barking dogs and a long driveway to the lodge proved enough to botch the plan. The gangsters were suddenly in action when agents fired upon three patrons far down the driveway leaving the lodge in their car. One died. Tipped off, everyone split. Dillinger went one way, Nelson the other. Both were gunned down in separate incidents in Chicago later that year.
The lodge, however, was catapulted to fame by the bullet holes agents put into a building that no longer even had gangsters in it. Since 1934 tourists have stopped to ogle and see some Dillinger memorabilia in what is now a supper club. Bullet holes are still in the walls and windows.
So the legends live on fueled by our fascination for these historical characters. The movie Public Enemies will undoubtedly stir the imaginations of another generation, and inspire travelers to once again Escape to Wisconsin.