1949: Jake Bird

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

Contrary to what all the slasher films would have you believe, an ax does not make a very good murder weapon. Axes are big. They are heavy. They are difficult to conceal. When used they create a big mess. And if you are caught with one, it’s hard to come up with a suitably innocuous explanation for it.

Nevertheless, this was Jake Bird’s weapon of choice on October 30, 1947, when he broke into Bertha Kludt’s home and killed her and her seventeen-year-old daughter, Beverly June.

Perhaps if he had used a different weapon, things would have turned out differently. As it was, the two women’s screams — and that’s another problem with the ax: unless you can wield it like Gimli, the victim is going to survive the first blow and start hollering — attracted two police officers, who apprehended Bird after a foot chase.

This excellent History Link article provides a thorough account of Bird’s life and crimes. 45 years old at the time of his arrest, he was a drifter and a ne’er-do-well with an extensive criminal record. He’d spent a third of his life in prison for various offenses. Bird openly confessed to the Kludt killings, saying the murders were the result of a botched burglary.

One of the police officers who testified at the trial admitted he beat the daylights out of Bird after his arrest. Naturally, the defense moved to throw out the murder confession on the grounds that it was obtained under force, but the judge ruled that the police brutality and Bird’s statements were “unrelated” and so the confession was admitted into evidence.

This was the attorney’s only attempt to defend his client; he called no witnesses and presented no evidence at the trial.

In all fairness, it must be said that Bird was spattered with gore when he was arrested, they found his fingerprints in blood at the crime scene and on the ax, and he’d left his shoes at the Kludt house. So the confession didn’t figure to be exactly decisive.

This would be a fairly unremarkable murder case, but shortly after his arrival on Death Row, Bird suddenly discovered he had an excellent singing voice. For the next several months he detailed 44 murders from all across the country which he claimed he’d committed during his wanderings. Most of his victims were women.

Bird’s claims, if true, would make him one of America’s most deadly serial killers, right up there with the much more famous Ted Bundy and the Green River Killer, Gary Leon Ridgway. One inevitably wonders if all of his statements were genuine. Henry Lee Lucas, another violent drifter much like Bird, admitted to hundreds of homicides and captivated police from all over the nation before it was discovered that many of his confessions were lies.

Police in several states did find Bird credible, though. Bird was calm and ready for his hanging, which went off without a hitch. He willed his estate, valued at $6.15, to his appeals attorney.

On this day..

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