You've heard of John Dillinger and the famous shootout at Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, but have you ever heard of Evelyn Frechette?
That's the topic of this week's A Northwoods Moment in History with Gary Entz.
Evelyn Frechette grew up in the Northwoods of Wisconsin and gained a measure of fame in the 1930s. Her celebrity did not come from being a film actress or anything of that sort. Rather, Evelyn Frechette became famous and drew crowds for national speaking tours because of her association with gangsters.
Frechette was born in September 1907, on the Menominee Reservation. She was a member of the Menominee Tribe and had a mixed French and Menominee heritage. As a young girl, she attended St. Anthony's Catholic Mission School in Neopit, Wisconsin, and in her early teens she was taken from her family and culture and placed in boarding school at Flandreau, South Dakota. The goal of both mission and boarding schools was to use education as a tool to “assimilate” the First Nations. The reformers believed that it was necessary to erode Native American language and culture by forcing Indigenous people to accept the dominant society’s beliefs and value systems. Unfortunately, American society at the time was still deeply racist and unwilling to accept Native Americans into the majority culture.
At the age of 18 Frechette moved to Chicago and found work where she could, but the only jobs available to her were menial. In early 1928 she gave birth to a baby boy, but as an unwed mother felt she was compelled to give the child up. The boy died within three months. Frechette was heartbroken and took her son’s name of “Billie” as a nickname for herself. With few recourses, Evelyn, now Billie, Frechette began to run around with the lowest elements of society. In 1932 she married Welton Spark, a career criminal who was sent to Leavenworth Penitentiary immediately after the wedding. Frechette remained in the city with her friend Pat Cherrington, and together they frequented the many Speakeasies in the Chicago area. This brought them into contact with more than a few gangsters, one of which was John Dillinger.
Dillinger found Frechette fascinating, and as part of a marginalized and often discriminated part of society, Frechette found Dillinger’s attentions captivating. The two became inseparable. Frechette moved in with Dillinger and was with him when his gang went on their famous bank-robbing spree. She never actively participated in any of the robberies, but on at least one occasion drove his getaway car.
Frechette became a target of the FBI and was arrested on April 9, 1934, on charges of harboring a known criminal. Because of this, she was not with Dillinger during his famous shootout with FBI agents at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters.
Evelyn Frechette was released from prison in 1936 and for five years earned a living on the “Crime Did Not Pay” speaking tour. In the 1940s she returned to the Menominee Reservation and lived a quiet life. She passed away in Shawano in 1969.
This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear.