John Dillinger and his gang gather outside Little Bohemia in 1933.
By Allison Joy, Features Writer
The historic lakeside resort Little Bohemia Lodge likes to tell its patrons that John Dillinger, perhaps the most infamous bank robber in U.S. history, “only left because he had to.”
‘Little Bo’, as it’s affectionately known, was the site of a bungled shoot-out during which FBI agents attempted to nab the gangster and his friends. Legend has it staff tipped off authorities that Dillinger and his mobster pals, on the run following jail breaks and subsequent bank heists, were hiding out at the remote establishment located between Hwy 51 and Little Star Lake in Manitowish Waters.
According to Little Bohemia’s website, its original owner Emil Wanatka shared legal counsel with Dillinger – which is how Dillinger ended up choosing Little Bo as a hideout.
Unfortunately, the FBI operation did not go as the agency had intended. An innocent man ended up dead when FBI agents hiding outside the lodge mistook a trio of Civil Conservation Corps members exiting the establishment for Dillinger and his crew and opened fire on the group, killing one.
As local legend has it, Dillinger’s gang was alerted to the operation upon hearing the FBI’s misplaced gunfire outside. The crew of mobsters escaped out back windows, free to continue on the lam.
Bullet holes from the incident are still visible in the walls of Little Bo.
The lodge’s ties to Dillinger lore are so strong that Josh Gates of the Discovery series “Expedition Unknown” made a trip out to Little Bo, searching the grounds as well as Little Star Lake for buried Dillinger loot.
While Dillinger’s crime spree lasted only a little over one year, in that span of time he was accused of 24 robberies and known to be involved in 12, with an estimated haul of over $600,000 – over $10 million by today’s standards. (Gates found none of it.)
So, how did Dillinger end up in Manitowish Waters? Answering that question requires a bit of a historical context.
Dillinger grew up in a single-parent household, his mother having died when he was just three years old, in a middle-class neighborhood of Indiana. His father, a grocer, had difficulty keeping Dillinger out of trouble, going so far as to relocate the family to a more rural area in hopes his son may change his ways. Dillinger did not.
Dillinger’s first robbery attempt, at a Mooresville, Indiana grocer, didn’t pan out. In his early 20s at the time, he was convicted of assault and battery with intent to rob and conspiracy to commit a felony. Dillinger ultimately spent over eight years at the Indiana State Prison before being paroled on May 10, 1933.
Dillinger quickly returned to the robbery circuit, and by the end of September he was back in jail, this time in Ohio – though not for long. After eight of his buddies escaped the Indiana State Prison, three of them headed to where Dillinger was incarcerated, shot and killed the sheriff, and broke Dillinger free on October 12, 1933.
This is when Dillinger’s short but infamous crime spree really picked up speed. In addition to pulling several more bank robberies, Dillinger and his crew also went after police arsenals, stealing arms, ammunition and bullet-proof vests. Several law enforcement officers were killed by the gang during this time. Yet many in the public still saw Dillinger as more of a charismatic, debonaire ‘Robin Hood’ figure – with all the bank-robbing and anti-establishment sentiment.
Dillinger was once again apprehended, this time in Arizona, on January 23, 1934. He was locked up in a county jail in Crown Point, Indiana, where he awaited trial for the murder of a Chicago police officer.
According to the FBI, “Authorities boasted that the jail was ‘escape proof’.” Spoiler alert: It was not.
With the help of a wooden gun and one hapless janitor, Dillinger not only escaped – he locked up several guards and managed to snag a couple of machine guns for himself on the way out. Dillinger then stole Sheriff Lillian Holley’s car to make his getaway, committing his first federal offense by taking the vehicle across state lines.
While the car was recovered in Chicago, Dillinger and his crew were not. Instead, they continued their crime spree throughout the Midwest. It’s around this time that Dillinger teamed up with another famed gangster, Lewis ‘Baby-Face Nelson’ Gillis. The robbing of banks and plundering of police arsenals continued.
There were some close calls for Dillinger and his crew, with police making several arrests of gang members during the spring of 1934. Dillinger, however, always managed to slip away.
The FBI’s website describes how authorities caught wind of Dillinger’s Wisconsin hideout:
“Then the FBI received a tip that there had been a sudden influx of rather suspicious guests at the summer resort of Little Bohemia Lodge, about 50 miles north of Rhinelander, Wisconsin. One of them sounded like John Dillinger and another like Baby Face Nelson.
“From Rhinelander, an FBI task force set out by car for Little Bohemia. Two of the rented cars broke down enroute, and, in the uncommonly cold April weather, some of the agents had to make the trip standing on the running boards of the other cars.”
From there, the FBI’s account differs from other historic recountings of the incident. Most notably, it makes no mention of agents misfiring upon three Civil Conservation Corps members nor that CCC member Eugene Boisneau was fatally shot.
Boisneau’s death is depicted in the 2009 film “Public Enemies”, a chronicle of Dillinger’s life starring Johnny Depp as Dillinger and Christian Bale as FBI agent Melvin Purvis.
The scene depicting the infamous shootout was filmed at Little Bohemia (and much of the movie was filmed throughout Wisconsin). As the camera pans out across the front of Little Bo, Bale opens fire on a vehicle leaving the establishment. Then we see Depp as Dillinger awake with a start in his cabin to the sound of gunshots, quickly getting up to return fire.
The viewer is then brought back to Bale, who crawls toward the vehicle and peers into the passenger-side window. A man lies dead in the seat. He opens the back door where another man can be heard pleading with the agent, “Don’t shoot!”
“Get on the floor!” Bale responds before directing his fire to the upstairs lodge.
In the chaos, Depp breaks through an upstairs window and scales down the side of the lodge to his escape.
“Someone got out!” a fellow agent yells to Bale.
“Was it Dillinger?” Bale calls back.
“I think so.”
In real life, the FBI did finally get their man when a woman named Anna Sage, a brothel-owner and Romanian immigrant, tipped the FBI off to Dillinger’s whereabouts. She participated in his capture, attending a film with Dillinger and a girlfriend, in exchange for the FBI’s help preventing her deportation.
Dillinger was shot and killed by agents outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago on July 24, 1934. (Sage was later deported as an “undesirable alien” due to her line of work.)
Back at Little Bo, the spirit of the shootout still lingers – in more ways than one.
In the book “Haunted Wisconsin: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Badger State,” Linda S. Godfrey writes: “Some claim that a cabin on the lodge grounds is haunted by the only person who died that day, Civil Conservation Corps worker Eugene Boisneau. Unexplained noises and spectral figures are the usual phenomena reported here.”
According to “The Wisconsin Road Guide for Haunted Locations,” the cabin in question has since been turned into a game room but prior to the remodel, it was “still believed that the ghost of the man killed by authorities haunted a main sleeping cabin.”
Chad Lewis and Terry Fisk go on: “Before it was turned into a game room, many guests reported seeing apparitions and hearing strange voices and noises while spending the evening in this cabin. Many of the younger staff still report seeing ghosts and apparitions while hanging out in the game room.”
For more information on the Little Bohemia Lodge, visit their website.
Allison Joy is a writer, editor, producer and journalist based out of the greater Northwoods of northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Allison been a working journalist for the last decade and is passionate about the role journalism plays in fostering healthy, vibrant and informed communities.