This article was last modified on June 1, 2014.


Wisconsin Gangland: Lake Geneva’s Hobart Hermansen

Who was Hobart Hermansen? He has been described as a friend to gangsters, a “slot machine king”, a bootlegger… he has been mentioned in passing numerous times, but never has he been focused on directly. Until now.

Hobart was the son of Danish immigrants Christian “Christ” and Martha Hermansen. Christ had been a carpenter and allegedly helped build the Danish Village at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. He purchased what would become the Lake Como Inn (at W4190 West End Road in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin). He ran it with his three sons (Hobart, Inar, Harry).

Hobart was born in Chicago on October 18, 1896 and was raised in the 13th and 27th wards, with the family heading north to Lake Geneva before 1930.

Allegedly, Jimmy Murray, the bootlegger who delivered liquor to the famed Dillinger hangout Little Bohemia (run by the questionable Emil Wanatka), also supplied the Lake Como Hotel with beer during Prohibition from his brewery in New Glarus. Author William Helmer suggests there was a nexus of businessmen who knew each other and helped harbor fugitives. Along with Wanatka, Hermansen and Murray (who also operated the Rainbo Barbecue, another Dillinger hideout, and once organized a train robbery), these men also knew Doc Stacci (owner of the O. P. Inn in Melrose Park, connected to Pretty Boy Floyd) and Louis Cernocky, who operated the Crystal Palace and Louie’s Place in Fox River Grove. Allegedly, it was Cernocky who recommended Little Bohemia to Dillinger’s gang. How well Hermansen knew these men is hard to say, but it makes sense that they would recommend each others’ establishments. But it is important to keep in mind this is more likely a case of six degrees of separation than some grand conspiracy.

Hobart’s home, adjacent to the Lake Como Hotel, featured a basement vault, a hidden underground garage, a counting room with 15-inch concrete walls and barred windows that were accessed through a secret passageway.

But Hobart’s closest relationship was with Capone rival George Clarence “Bugs” Moran, who visited the Hermansen property numerous times — even after the Morans divorced following the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929. Hobart married Moran’s ex-wife, Lucille B. Bilezikdijan, in 1932 and helped raised her son John. Bilezikdijan had been born on October 26, 1899 in either Constantinople, Turkey or France (sources differ).

“Baby Face” Nelson spent the spring of 1934 living at a cottage at the Lake Como Inn. He returned on Sunday, September 2, in the middle of a storm. With him was his wife Helen, bank robber John Paul Chase, and Chase’s girlfriend Sally Bachman. While Chase is not well-known today, at various times he was a member of the Karpis-Barker Gang, the Dillinger gang, and was a partner of Nelson. They went to Hermansen’s home, found handyman Eddie Duffy, and sat down to a chicken dinner.

In October 1934, FBI agents in San Francisco caught up with Sally Bachman, the girlfriend of John Chase. Bachman told agents she knew where Nelson was planning to stay over the winter, having been there with Nelson and Chase in the past. However, she had forgotten the town’s name. Agent Charles B. Winstead drove her through McHenry County, Illinois and Southeast Wisconsin until she found the place: Hobart Hermansen’s Lake Como Inn. As it happened, agents had been there once before after finding a Lake Como pillow case in bank robber Tommy Caroll’s luggage. (Carroll had joined up with Nelson and Chase by October 1933, but it is possible he knew Hermansen even before they did.)

By November 2, Bachman was sent by plane back to San Francisco and Agent Winstead approached Eddie Duffy at his residence, the Gargoyle Hotel. Duffy was “very nervous” and denied knowing Nelson, though acknowledged he knew Chase. He insisted the agents talk to his boss.

At the Chicago office on November 4, after threatening him with a charge of harboring a fugitive, Hermansen conceded to Agent Samuel P. Cowley that he had hosted Nelson in the past, and from there the FBI decided to set up a stakeout with Agents Winstead and Jim J. Metcalfe on the premises.

After a couple weeks, the stakeout payed off: Chase, Nelson, and Nelson’s wife Helen Gillis arrived at the Lake Como Inn on the afternoon of November 27 looking for “Eddie”. When Metcalfe said he wasn’t there, the gang got spooked and drove off. Agents followed, more men in Chicago were called, and before long they were in a shootout in Barrington, Illinois (about forty miles southeast). Two agents died, as did Nelson, in what is now called the Battle of Barrington.

On the evening of August 26, 1935, Hobart and employee Mike Mince went next door to a tavern operated by Emil Johnnyjack, 50. When Mince took Hobart’s change from the bar, a fight broke out between the men, resulting in Hobart punching Mince in the nose, possibly breaking it. Johnnyjack closed the bar down at 11:40pm, asking everyone to leave. Hermansen continued drinking at his own business with his friend and handyman Eddie Duffy, 32. Around 1:00am, Mince was found by Leslie Gauger of Lyons, shot to death in his car on Sheridan Springs Road, with the bullets tracing to an Army service pistol found a mile up the road. The gun had no prints and the serial number was filed off. Duffy was charged with the murder.

In September 1940, a series of bomb blasts threatened Lake Geneva, with three on or near Hobart Hermansen’s property. Police and media speculated that someone was trying to intimidate him. But blasts also hit the Geneva theater and Fred Taggart’s lumber yard, making any motive unclear.

Around August 1948, Hermansen’s Annex Bar was raided for operating a horse gambling operation. It was quickly moved to the basement of the Hotel Geneva (called the Cavern Bar). While reports came in and were mentioned in the Milwaukee Journal, DA Erwin C. Zastrow and Sheriff John W. Cusack said no formal complaints had been made so they did not actively investigate. When Cusack did stop in, all he found was an orchestra warming up for the night’s audience. On August 14, the Cavern Bar was again visited by Cusack, who this time found fifty patrons gambling on horses — many of the gamblers were women. The police were lead by Otis G. Gomillion of Milwaukee, who had taken notes on the gamblers he had seen there — none of whom were arrested in the raid. Already by the afternoon, Hermansen pleaded guilty to the charge of keeping a gambling house and was fined $500 by Judge Roscoe Rudolph Luce. (Gomillion, interestingly, later worked as a bodyguard for Senator Joseph McCarthy.)

Hobart, along with his brothers and nephew Allen, managed the Lake Como Hotel until 1971 when it was sold to Fay and Gene Leichtey who changed the name to The Red Chimney Inn. Hobert Hermansen passed away in 1984. Today, the place is named the French Country Inn.

Further Reading

Burrough, Bryan. Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 Penguin Books, 2009.

Helmer, William J. Al Capone and His American Boys: Memoirs of a Mobster’s Wife Indiana University Press, 2011.

Purvis, Alston. The Vendetta: Special Agent Melvin Purvis, John Dillinger, and Hoover’s FBI in the Age of Gangsters Public Affairs, 2009.

Also try another article under Organized Crime
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

2 Responses to “Wisconsin Gangland: Lake Geneva’s Hobart Hermansen”

  1. F Wm Johonnott Says:

    I don’t live in LG any more but always wondered if slot machines had been legal in Wis. Reason? One holiday afternoon my father,and a few uncles, one who had worked his way thru UW in 1930’s for Hermansen in a hotel or restaurant he owned, escaped from the family and went out for a few beers at a bar Hermansen still owned taking me along. At 4 or 5 I did Orange Crush. This was around ’48 or’49.
    Apparently looking somewhat bored I was shown me into a back room, given a handful of nickels and had a ball playing a slot machine. Before we left he gave me the machine and I still have it. It still works and is in pretty good shape. My mother told me this story before she died a few years ago.
    I still wonder, when I look at it if it was legal, or had I stepped in to a world of crime.
    FWJ

  2. gavin Says:

    I don’t think slot machines were ever legal in Wisconsin, other than for private amusement. Between the 1930s and 1960s, even pinball machines were illegal because it was considered “gambling” if you could win a free replay.

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