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Every Wednesday at 6:45 a.m., 8:45 a.m., and 5:45 p.m., we turn back the clock on WXPR with local historian Gary Entz to find out what life in the Northwoods used to be like. This is part of a new initiative by WXPR to tell the history and culture of northern Wisconsin.You can keep track of A Northwoods Moment in History and all of WXPR's local features on the WXPR Local Features podcast, wherever you get your podcasts.

Ole Catfish and Baby Face Nelson

Wikipedia Public Domain

Ole Catfish and his family led quiet, unassuming lives in their home at Lac du Flambeau.  They were not remarkable in any way and not the type of people whose names one would expect to find splashed across national newspapers.  Yet that is exactly what happened in 1934 when Catfish’s life intersected with that of one of America’s most notorious gangsters.  Historian Gary Entz has more:

There are several possible birthdates for Ole Catfish, but he likely was born around 1867, which would have made him about 65 years old in 1934.  He was a member of the Lac du Flambeau band of Lake Superior Chippewa and lived on a secluded allotment on the Reservation.  Catfish made a living as a guide and by hunting, fishing, and trapping.  He gained a small bit of local fame in 1898 when he successfully bagged a 254-pound albino stag, which he sold to the local Indian Agent.  Catfish also found himself in a bit of difficulty in 1917-1918 when he got caught bringing liquor onto the Reservation.

Catfish was not the sort who actively looked for trouble, but danger showed up on his doorstep in April 1934 when the notorious gangster Baby Face Nelson showed up in need of a hideout.

Credit Wikimedia Commons
Ole Catfish's cabin

On April 20, 1934, the Dillinger Gang arrived at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters.  Early on Sunday, April 22, the FBI received a tip that Dillinger was hiding out at the lodge.  Three agents led by Melvin Purvis arrived as the Sunday evening dinner crowd was leaving.  In the famous shootout at the lodge, George “Baby Face” Nelson exchanged gunfire with the agents before fleeing in the opposite direction of Dillinger and his men.

Nelson’s flight from Little Bohemia, his kidnapping of the Lange couple, and his second exchange of gunfire with FBI agents outside of Alvin Koerner’s house is well known.  He killed Agent W. Carter Baum then stole the FBI vehicle to make his getaway.  This is where the story always gets glossed over.  The usual narrative goes that after driving about 15 miles the stolen FBI car got a flat and became mired in mud.  Nelson then wandered through the woods and went into hiding with a Chippewa family for about three days.

The Chippewa family was that of Ole Catfish.  When Nelson came out of the woods carrying three firearms, one of which was a machine gun, this is what Catfish had to say about it.  Catfish noted that Nelson was a small man and that he spoke more like a child than an adult.  Nelson remained on high alert, watched the Catfish family carefully, and made them put out fires when they tried to do daily chores.  Nelson did not shave for the three days he stayed with the Catfish family and constantly cleaned or picked at his fingernails.

When the food was gone, Nelson dressed up in Catfish’s coat, cap, and gray trousers.  He made Catfish walk with him about seven miles till they found Adolph Goetze.  Nelson stole Goetze’s Plymouth and drove west with Catfish on Highway 70.  Once west of Minocqua, Nelson felt he was in the clear.  He kicked Catfish out of the car and said, “If you say anything about this, I will kill you.”  Catfish shrugged it off, walked back into town, and told the authorities.  Catfish boasted, “I wasn’t afraid of the man all the time he was at my house.”

Nelson went on to become Public Enemy No. 1, and Catfish walked back home.

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