For years, every time we so much as touch a toe out of state, I’ve put cemeteries on our travel itinerary. From garden-like expanses to overgrown boot hills, whether they’re the final resting places of the well-known but not that important or the important but not that well-known, I love them all. After realizing that there are a lot of taphophiles (cemetery and/or tombstone enthusiasts) out there, I’m finally putting my archive of interesting tombstones to good use.
Unless you’re particularly studied in the gangster era of American history, the name “Herman Hollis” probably doesn’t ring a bell. But you definitely know the gangsters he spent his career tracking: John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Baby Face Nelson, among others. Nelson is the reason you’re looking at Hollis’ gravestone.
Young special agent Herman “Ed” Hollis started his career with the FBI right after he graduated from Georgetown in 1927. He quickly rose through the ranks, earning a spot on an exclusive list of just 11 agents “particularly qualified ... for work of a dangerous character.” And that’s exactly what he ended up doing.
On July 22, 1934, Hollis was part of the FBI detail that ambushed Dillinger outside of the Biograph Theater in Chicago. He was one of three agents who fired a total of five shots at the gangster; three shots struck Dillinger, who was pronounced dead before he reached the hospital.
A few months later, on October 22, Hollis may have been part of the shootout that resulted in the death of Pretty Boy Floyd as he fled on foot across a cornfield in East Liverpool, Ohio. Some accounts, including Time, have Agent Purvis telling Hollis to “fire into” an already-fallen Floyd. Other accounts say Hollis was nowhere near the scene and had nothing to do with the controversial death.
One thing’s for sure: Hollis was definitely at the Battle of Barrington on November 27, when members of Baby Face Nelson’s gang and a car carrying FBI agents simultaneously spotted each other driving on State Highway 14 in Illinois. Backup agents were called, including Hollis, and the whole group of agents and gangsters ended up in a bloody shootout at a park in Barrington.
By the end of it, Agent Samuel Cowley was mortally wounded and Hollis was dead after one of Nelson’s bullets found his forehead. He was just 31. Nelson didn’t walk away from the shootout, either—multiple shots had perforated his stomach and intestines; he was dead at 7:35 that evening.
Hollis’ widow was given $5000 from the Department of Justice for the loss of her husband. She would outlive him by 34 years.