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by Richard Lartz II
Racine Heritage Museum has benefited from the able services of intern Richard C. Lartz since January of this year. A candidate for a Masters degree from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, Richard has tackled archives and research projects. Richard was asked to research the story of Racine native Carl Christensen who encountered Baby Face Nelson in Wisconsin’s north woods. His discoveries follow.
History happens unexpectedly. Over time and retelling details of well-known events may become muddled or skewed. Memory is fallible, and a traumatic event, which occurs in a matter of moments, won’t be remembered precisely. For these reasons and more, it is the historian’s task to sift through stories to establish facts and context and to ensure that the story remains both interesting and true.
Racine-native Carl Christensen encountered gangster Baby Face Nelson in 1934, while Christensen was serving as constable in Spider Lake, near Manitowish Waters in northern Wisconsin. Below is the story of the meeting, and a follow-up trying to pull fact out of various narrations of the encounter.
The Dramatic Story
On Sunday April 22, 1934, in Spider Lake near Manitowish Waters, town constable and Racine-native Carl Christensen was closing up his tavern for the night when history walked through his door. 32-years-old and a constable for only a month, Carl Christensen had a date with destiny, which included a brush with the infamous Baby Face Nelson and his tommy gun. The event would leave one FBI agent dead, another wounded and Carl, riddled with bullets, lying in the spring snow of northern Wisconsin.
It had been a quiet night at his tavern, when FBI agents came looking for Carl to assist them in setting up roadblocks for their impending ambush of Dillinger and his gang at nearby Little Bohemia. Carl, with agents Baum and Newman, set off by car to do so. As their car crept along muddy roads in the North woods darkness, the FBI ambush at Little Bohemia was becoming a fiasco.
The dogs of Little Bohemia’s owner, Emil Wanatka, started to bark as FBI agents approached, signaling the beginning of trouble. Three Civilian Conservation Corps workers were exiting the resort and turned to run when agents called out for them to halt. The FBI then opened fire, killing one and seriously wounding the others. The infamous firefight then erupted between the FBI and Dillinger’s gang, filling the night with the sounds of machine gun fire and Little Bohemia full of bullets.
Dillinger’s gang escaped during the confusion and dispersed into the night. The FBI then broke into groups to try and round them up. Christensen, Baum and Newman became part of this and soon came upon a car off to the side of the road. Carl recognized the car as belonging to local resort owner Alvin Koerner. Unknown to them was the fact that Baby Face Nelson was trying to start this car after the one he had taken, with hostages, had run out of gas. As their car slowly approached, and just as Carl cautioned Newman, the driver, to move on… Nelson struck. Shots were fired; confusion and chaos reigned for a few moments as the silence of the night was shattered with the deadly blasts of Nelson’s Tommy gun. Just as quickly as it began, it was over. Nelson drove off with the agents car, agent Baum was dead, Newman was slightly wounded and Carl, who had the most shots fired at him, laid in the snow near Baum clutching to life.
Despite these dire circumstances, Carl Christensen lived to tell the tale. He spent hours in the snow until an FBI agent arrived and took him to the hospital. That particular agent would later become Senator Thomas J. Dodd of Connecticut. Christensen had been hit eight times: two wounds to the chest anterior, one to the left chest posterior, one to the ride side of his chest, one to the lower left hip, one to the lower left leg, one to the middle of his right arm and one to the foot. His sheepskin jacket, with 15 holes in it, attested to the ferocity of Nelson’s attack. A 2 . hour ride along muddied roads to Ironwood, Michigan for treatment ended with Carl getting no care, or even pain killers, until the next day because the doctor was certain of Christensen’s demise. 16 weeks later he exited the hospital as a hero for this amazing story of survival and brush with mortality.
Finding Facts Amid Stories About Baby Face Nelson Shooting
As mentioned before, the tricky bit of history is the re-telling of famous events. Newspaper articles about this incident in the Racine Heritage Museum archives include interviews with Carl Christensen that recount this event with variations. In an article from 1967, Carl remarks that he was not carrying a gun. A 1974 interview mentions his pistol falling out of his pocket as he got out of the car.
Only one article spells agent Newman’s name correctly; otherwise his name is misprinted as Nelson or Neuman. The time that passed between the incident and the duration of the trip to the hospital, as well as the distance, are also inconsistent. Furthermore, in two articles there is a dramatic moment when Nelson gets onto the sideboard of the agents
Ford and says something before firing into the vehicle, but both quotes are different. How the event unfolds is different as well; one has Nelson firing right away, another has him firing as Newman and Christensen open their doors, and in another the shooting starts after the doors are opened.
Regardless of all this, some facts remain: Special Agent Jay Newman was wounded to the brow by a bullet. W. Carter Baum, the other agent, was mortally wounded in the jugular and died shortly thereafter and, finally, Carl Christensen was shot multiple times and lived to tell the tale. So the question might be, “so what if there are inconsistencies?” They are important because if what we seek in history is to provide accurate and truthful information about events then we must pay attention to the details. The official site of the FBI states that Nelson’s “machine gun” was actually an automatic pistol, and that he tried to steal their car first before opening fire on Christensen and the agents.
Considering all the accounts, this is what probably happened:
Special Agent Newman was driving, W. Carter Baum was in the middle and Carl Christensen was against the passenger door. Nelson probably saw the coming headlights and moved into a position to ambush and steal the car, potentially not knowing there were federal agents inside.
When they stopped, Nelson saw his opening and moved up wielding a gun. He then stepped onto the Ford’s running board and stuck the barrel of the gun inside, perhaps having enough time to make a threat.
The nature of Newman’s injury would suggest that he forced the door into Nelson who, surprised, probably started firing. This would account for the wound Newman received and the killing shots to Baum’s throat, meaning Baum was hit first and a stray hit Newman.
Christensen, most likely unarmed, opted to flee or at least find cover. Considering the number of holes in his jacket, and where he was wounded, his account of trying to dodge out of the way and roll to the cover of the woodpile near the road also seems to be accurate.
Newman was wounded but found help for Christensen. Christensen was badly wounded and survived. Baum was mortally wounded, dying slumped over a fence and Baby Face Nelson escaped with their car only to be mortally wounded in a later shoot out with federal agents.
Regardless of inaccuracies or inconsistencies, it’s an entertaining and engrossing story to tell.
© 2012 Racine Heritage Museum