Little Bohemia Lodge – Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin - Atlas Obscura
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Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin

Little Bohemia Lodge

A restaurant and lodge in northern Wisconsin which served as a clandestine hideout for John Dillinger and featured one of the most famous botched FBI raids in history. 

Little Bohemia is a restaurant that was the setting for an FBI shootout with Dillinger’s gang during the heyday of their criminal escapades.

Little Bohemia is a lodge built in 1927 located in the small northern Wisconsin town of Manitowish Waters. The lodge caught fire in 1928 but was reconstructed in 1930; it now stands preserved as it was during the time of the 1934 FBI siege.

On April 20, 1934 John Dillinger and members of his gang descended upon the lodge for a stay in which they assured the owner, Emil Wanatka, that there would be no trouble. Wanatka was allegedly paid an enormous sum of money to turn a blind eye to the criminal background of his tenants; however, his wife began feeling threatened—enough so to secretly contact the FBI office in Chicago although she was unknowingly tailed by a suspicious member of Dillinger’s crew. After confirming with Washington headquarters the legitimacy of the lead, the FBI flew in agents from Chicago and St. Paul to the nearby Rhinelander Airport.

The agents, led by Special Agent Melvin Purvis, had little time to plan the logistics of the raid, fearing that the criminals were to leave the outpost the night of April 23, 1934. They sped into the lodge’s territory with their car lights dimmed during a snowy night. However, a car containing three innocent civilians was leaving the lodge and was mistaken for members of Dillinger’s crew, resulting in rounds of gunfire from the FBI agents. This initial attack had the unfortunate dual consequences of taking the life of an innocent civilian and alerting Dillinger and his men of the impending G-men.

Dillinger and two others gathered money and weapons and after exchanging brief gunfire with the agents, escaped out of the second floor of the lodge and ran a mile along Little Star Lake before arriving at another small resort. There, the gangsters coerced the owners into providing an escape vehicle. The infamously pugnacious ‘Baby Face’ Nelson was also able to leave safely, albeit with a bloodier trail after killing one FBI agent, critically injuring another, and stealing an FBI vehicle for his escape.

In total, one FBI agent and one civilian were killed during the shootout, while all of Dillinger’s gang members lived. The FBI admits on their website that “in the aftermath of the failed raid on Little Bohemia we received a lot of criticism from press and the politicians and even other law enforcement” and they continue that “for the Bureau it really was a learning lesson.”

Today, Little Bohemia operates as a restaurant and miniature museum of the famous shootout. The restaurant is open seven days a week and has various rooms dedicated to the events of April 1934. The room in which Dillinger stayed is preserved with some of the articles he left there, and the adjacent bathroom remains riddled with peepholes created by the bullets. Another room in the lodge serves as an informal Dillinger museum, covered with newspaper articles detailing his escapades along with various personal items of his. A chair in the room is allegedly the chair Dillinger occupied when shot and killed by the FBI in the Biograph Theater in Chicago in 1934. Bullet holes are also visible in a variety of other locations throughout the lodge, including windows and chimneys.

The 2009 film Public Enemies, based on the life of John Dillinger and starring Johnny Depp, filmed the Little Bohemia shootout on site, although it exaggerated the details of the battle. 

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