Kane County History: Baby Face Nelson And 100 Years of St. Charles Boys School 'Good, Bad & Ugly'

Kane County History: Baby Face Nelson And 100 Years of St. Charles Boys School ‘Good, Bad & Ugly’

Founded in 1902, the St. Charles School for Delinquent Boys exists today as the Illinois Youth Center — St. Charles, a Level 2 youth detention facility.

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was written by Tim Kirsininkas, marketing manager for the St. Charles History Museum. Images are courtesy of the St. Charles History Museum.

Standing on the western edge of St. Charles for more than a century, the Illinois Youth Center-St. Charles has seen its fair share of interesting stories and characters.

School co-founder John “Bet-a-million” Gates.

Established in 1902 by John “Bet-a-million” Gates, Samuel Allenton and Henry Weaver, the school opened as the Illinois State Home for Delinquent Boys following the 1899 Juvenile Court Act, which required new facilities to be constructed for delinquent youth that were separate from the state’s main prison system.

These school founders believed that delinquent young men could be trained and rehabilitated through hard work, schooling and drills. The early days of the school saw a heavy emphasis on trade and farm work and military drills.

During summer Sunday evenings, boys at the school would hold parades down the main streets of local communities to demonstrate their discipline and skills that they were learning at the school.

The school was rooted in the philosophy of rehabilitation and the teaching of life skills that boys could use to become productive members of society when they returned to “the outside.”

Residents from the St. Charles Boys School put on a Sunday evening military march in the 1920s.

In fact, an incentive program was implemented that allowed boys who maintained good behavior to go on trips to watch the Chicago baseball clubs play downtown, and to visit family off-site on holidays.

While the school staff and superintendents over the years made it their utmost priority to make a positive impact on the lives of boys to send them down “the right path” later on in life, others refused such an idea, opting instead to continue a life of crime.

Famous Inmates

One of the school’s most notorious residents, Lester Gillis, aka “Baby Face Nelson.”

One such example was the famous Midwest gangster and former partner of John Dillinger, Lester Gillis, aka “Baby Face Nelson,” who resided at the school during his teen years from 1922 through 1926.

Originally sent to the St. Charles facility for robbery, Gillis was granted parole three times, but each time made another decision that would land him back in detention. Gillis went on to become associated with the Chicago gang outfits of Myles O’Donnell and Al Capone during the prohibition era.

Gillis would later go on to become designated as the FBI’s Public Enemy No. 1, and federal officials pursued him on a manhunt that extended across nearly the entire country. The hunt for Gillis came to a dramatic conclusion in nearby Barrington, IL, where a gunfight ensued that resulted in the death of two federal agents and Gillis himself.

Although the tale of “Baby Face Nelson” is one of the more standout stories of the “ugly” individuals who spent time at the school, the majority of boys sent to the school come out as better men as when they first arrived.

Superintendents over the years have taught the value of hard work as they each implemented their own programs to cater to the unique needs of each boy. In the 1990s, a partnership with Habitat for Humanity was formed, where boys at the school would construct homes on-site to coincide with their shop classes. When the homes were completed, they would be picked up and shipped to their destinations.

While most of the original facilities that existed when the school opened in 1902 have been demolished or renovated, some still exist to this day as the school maintains its legacy and original mission of instilling life lessons in delinquent boys to turn them into productive, responsible and caring men.

The St. Charles History Museum will be telling the stories of these young men and the impact the facility has had on them in our fall exhibit, “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly: The Boys School of St. Charles”.

The exhibit will feature never-before-displayed artifacts and photographs on loan from the archives of the Illinois Youth Center that will provide a unique look into the lives of the facility’s residents over the years.

The exhibit opens today (Friday, Oct. 25) and will be on display through the end of the year.

Read The Kane County History Series!