Did the priest who would serve in Ellinwood, Liebenthal, and Great Bend, also act as a spiritual advisor to hoodlums? It’s apparent that Father Phillip Coughlan lent aid to notorious outlaws such as Baby Face Nelson and John Dillinger — and at least knew personally, if not helped, others such as Ma Barker and Legs Diamond. He even was asked by the lesser known, but highly successful bank robber Eddie Bentz to help him and his wife adopt a child. But whether or not the aid that Father Coughlan offered was outside his purview as a priest — and perhaps even outside the law at times — has not been determined.
Little did SW Kansas Catholics know that their pastor was known as a
‘Spiritual advisor to hoodlums’
The following is reprinted with permission from babyfacenelsonjournal.com.
The website from which the following came presents this story in chapters. The following chapter contains information on Father Phillip Coughlan, who served in SW Kansas. The story took place in November, 1934. The chapter begins just after a special agent and an investigator are killed in a chase. “Helen” is Baby Face Nelson’s wife, and “Chase” is his good friend:
NELSON MANAGED TO GET BACK TO THE AGENT’S CAR and drive it around to the rear of his disabled Ford. Chase, little more than a spectator in the final minutes of the battle, began gathering their weapons when he saw Nelson driving toward him and calling for Helen.
As Chase approached the Hudson, Nelson looked at him and said, “Drop everything and get me to the priest.” Chase said he’d get their personal belongings from the disabled car, but Nelson said “Forget that stuff. You’ll have to drive. I’ve been hit pretty bad.” He then called for Helen again.
Chase leaned in and helped Nelson move to the passenger side. He testified that Nelson’s left pant leg was soaked in blood from mid-thigh to his ankle. As Chase got behind the wheel, he asked, “Where is she?” referring to Helen. Nelson shook his head, “We’ll have to catch her later,” and then again asked to be taken to the priest.
Just as Chase began to pull away, however, he saw Helen in the rearview mirror running toward them. She jumped into the rear seat, and Chase headed west toward Fox River Grove. As Helen cradled her husband’s head, he looked at her and said, “I’m done for.”
As the early evening wind whistled through the Hudson’s bullet-pierced windshield, fear and confusion reigned inside the vehicle. Chase testified he was speeding along unfamiliar roads, at times hitting 85 mph, trying to figure out where he was. A weeping Helen continued to hold Nelson’s head as he took long, deep breaths and attempted to direct Chase down one road after another, through one small town after another.
They finally entered Wilmette and made their way to 1155 Mohawk Road, the home of Father Phillip Coughlan’s sister. Both Nelson and his wife were raised Catholic, and Father Coughlan was an old family friend. It would eventually come out that Father Coughlan had met with Nelson, bankrobber Tommy Carroll and others many times over the years, but he always denied any knowledge of their actions.
It was just before 5 p.m. when the family maid notified Father Coughlan, who was in the house, that a woman was at the back door and needed to see him immediately. The priest went to the door said saw Helen.
“Jimmie’s been shot. You have to help us. He’s in the car,” she said.
Meanwhile, Chase had pulled the car. When Helen and the priest went into the garage, Chase was holding Nelson up, and they were at the back of the vehicle. When Nelson saw the priest, he muttered “Hello” and then slumped back against Chase.
Helen pleaded with the priest to give her husband refuge, but the priest refused, noting it was his sister’s house; her 8-year-old son was inside, and she was expecting several guests that evening. Chase later testified Helen began to cry. “But he’s dying. He’s got to get someplace where he can lay down.”
The priest said he knew of a safe location he could bring them to, but later told police he didn’t know of any place. He just wanted to get them away from his sister’s house.
Helen suggested they all go in the priest’s car, but Father Coughlan said it would be better if they followed him since they couldn’t leave the agent’s bullet-ridden and blood-stained car there. “Follow me in your car,” he said. “We won’t go far.” When Chase became suspicious and questioned the priest, he was assured by Father Coughlan that he meant to help them.
The priest helped Chase put Nelson back into the front passenger seat and Helen into the back. They then followed Father Coughlan for several blocks until the priest saw Chase make a sudden U-turn and speed away. The priest said he attempted to follow them but soon lost them in traffic. He would later admit he was relieved, but also saddened because they might have feared “I was leading them into a trap.”
And that’s exactly what both Chase and Helen would later tell police that Nelson feared. He told Chase, “I don’t like the way he’s acting. He seems wrong. Lose him.”
Nelson, it seemed, knew of a safe place, and began directing Chase down one road after another, eventually leading them out of Wilmette and into Winnetka and finally down a back alley and into a red two-stall garage in the rear of a gray stucco cottage facing Walnut Street. Chase would later testify he had never been to the house and didn’t know where he was, but that Nelson assured him “friends” were inside.
Chase knocked on the front door and “a tall dark-complexioned man in his late 30s answered.” Chase said “There’s someone out here who needs you,” and led the man to the garage. Chase said once he looked into the car “he instantly recognized Jimmie.”
The two men and Helen then carried Nelson into the house. Chase said they entered by a side door and walked through a kitchen and down a hallway and turned left into a small bedroom where Nelson was placed on a large white iron bed. Chase said there was a young woman and an old man in his 60s in the house but neither said anything or tried to help. Once on the bed, the younger man left.
“All three of us knew Les [Baby Face Nelson’s real name was Lester Joseph Gillis] was dying, but there was nothing we could do,” Helen told officials several days later. Given scissors and other supplies, Helen cut off all of Nelson’s clothing, later telling authorizes that his white shirt was mostly crimson. She stuffed cotton into the bullet hole in his stomach and into the large exit wound in his back. She then covered both wounds by wrapping his waist with a long strip of cloth torn from the bed sheet. Finally, she cleaned the buckshot wounds on his legs and then wrapped him in a blanket when he complained of being cold.
“That’s better,” he said to her and then told them the pain was gone but there was a spreading numbness. Helen simply held his hand and waited for the end.