Finding a Gangster's Tommy Gun
I've had the opportunity to handle - and even sometimes shoot - some remarkably historic Thompsons in my career. The four that come to mind most vividly are the two used in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, one that was part of the armament aboard an 8th Air Force B-17 in World War II and smuggled home after the war, and one that showed up in a collector display at the 2018 Ohio Gun Collector Association's annual display awards show.
The one on display at the OGCA show was a Colt Model 1921AC Thompson submachine gun in great shape except for two spots on the side and bottom of the gun where someone had taken a grinder and removed the serial number. In its place on the side is a crudely stamped new serial number assigned to the gun during the amnesty period created by the Gun Control Act of 1968.
The current owner purchased it in 2016 as a shooter rather than a collector piece because of its condition. On a whim, however, he took the barrel off to check for a serial number in the 3rd place where they’re marked, which is not as readily accessible.
There, he found the original serial number: 5487.
The gun was originally sold in May 1929 to the Momsen-Dunnegan-Ryan Company located in El Paso, Texas. It was then one of 14 guns that they sold to Hyman Saul Lebman of San Antonio, Texas. Lebman is best known as the "gunsmith to the gangsters," as his Colt 1911 pistols modified into machine guns were favorites of Pretty Boy Floyd, John Dillinger, and more.
Discovery of the serial number began a long, multi-year search involving original shipping records, newspapers from the 1930s, copies of police interviews, and a FOIA request.
What emerged was nothing short of remarkable. While the full story is far too long and nuanced to cover in its entirety here, the important part is that it proved the current owner was now in possession of no mere “shooter grade” gun. Instead, he had documented proof that the gun had been part of a shipment that ended up in the hands of notorious gangster Lester Gillis, better known as "George 'Baby Face' Nelson."
Nelson was an exceptionally ruthless gangster, known for killing more FBI agents than any of his peers. It is highly likely that this gun was in his possession during a bank robbery in Brainerd, Minnesota, in October 1933, and at the shootout at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, in April 1934.
While the brutal history of the gangster connection to this firearm cannot be denied, it is still remarkable that all these years later, new research is still turning up fresh information about connections to our country's storied past from almost a century ago.
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