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Jake Bird is hanged for the murder of two Tacoma women on July 15, 1949.
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On July 15, 1949 at 12:20 a.m., Jake Bird (1901-1949) is hanged at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla for the ax murders of Bertha Kludt, age 52, and her daughter Beverly June, age 17, in Tacoma on October 30, 1947. While on death row, Bird, a transient for most of his adult life, confesses to committing or being involved in at least 44 murders during his travels across the country. Although the newspapers label Bird, the "Tacoma Ax-Killer," his case fails to capture the attention of the national press. But history marks Bird as one of the country's most prolific serial killers.
Early on the morning of October 30, 1947, two Tacoma Police Officers were dispatched to 1007 S. 21st Street to investigate reports of screams emanating from inside the residence. As they approached, a man ran out of the back door into the back yard and crashed through a picket fence. The police officers gave chase. The fugitive scaled several more backyard fences, but was finally stopped by a high wire fence and cornered in some nearby bushes. He pulled out a switchblade knife and then attacked the officers, cutting the hand of one and stabbing the other in the back. One of the officers, a former prizefighter, subdued the assailant with a left hook to the jaw and a kick in the groin.
When police officers entered the residence, they found Mrs. Bertha Kludt, age 53, and her daughter, Beverly June Kludt, age 17, dead. Both women had been dealt several blows to the head with an ax. The murder weapon was found on the kitchen floor.
The man captured by the Tacoma Police Officers was identified as Jake Bird, a black, 45-year-old, transient, who had a lengthy criminal record including burglaries, assaults, and attempted murder. At the city jail, Bird confessed to the murders, but claimed that burglary was his sole motive for entering the Kludt residence. He was caught in the act by Bertha Kludt and tried to escape from the house. When she tried to stop him, Bird panicked and hit her in the head with an ax. Beverly June, awakened by the screaming and noise, was hacked to death when she came to her mother's defense. But homicide detectives determined that an attempt had been made to sexually assault Bertha Kludt in her bedroom before she was intentionally slain. Beverly June's murder was likely incidental to Bird's escape.
On October 31, 1947, Bird was charged in Pierce County Superior Court with first-degree murder, but only in the death of Bertha Kludt. The prosecuting attorney needed to prove that her death was premeditated in order to qualify the defendant for the death penalty. Bird pleaded not guilty at his arraignment and was held in the Tacoma City Jail without bail.
The trial began on November 24, 1947 in Pierce County Superior Court and lasted two and a half days. Weighing heavily in the trial was the wanton murder of Beverly June Kludt, who was bludgeoned to death when she came to her mother's defense. Blood and brain tissue from both victims were found on Bird's clothing, and his bloody fingerprints were found in the house and on the ax. Bird's attorney, James W. Selden, maintained that his signed confession had been obtained under duress and therefore inadmissible. But Judge Edward D. Hodge disagreed, admitting the confession into evidence. On November 26, 1947, after deliberating for only 35 minutes, the jury found Jake Bird guilty of first degree-murder and recommended the death penalty. Judge Hodge sentenced him to be hanged at the Washington State Penitentiary on January 16, 1948.
Bird won a 60-day reprieve from Governor Monrad C. Wallgren (1891-1961) by claiming that he could clear up at least 44 other murders that he either committed or participated in during his travels across the country. His confession brought a throng of investigators from across the nation to interview him at the state penitentiary. Of these 44 murders, only 11 were substantiated, but he had enough knowledge about the others to be the prime suspect. Police in several states took the opportunity to close the books on many of their unsolved murders. In his travels, Bird murdered people, mostly women, in Illinois, Kentucky, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, South Dakota, Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, and Washington.
Meantime, Bird appealed his conviction to the Washington State Supreme Court, but his petition for a retrial was denied. The U.S. Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court also rejected his petitions for a new trial. After the appeal process had run its course, Bird was scheduled for execution on July 15, 1949.
On July 14, 1947, the U.S. Supreme declined to review Bird's conviction for the third time and Governor Arthur B. Langlie (1900-1966) chose not to interfere with the execution. Finally, early Friday morning, July 15, 1949, Bird was taken from his gallows-level cell to the noose. At 12:20 a.m., witnessed by 125 spectators, the gallows' trapdoor was released and Jake Bird dropped five feet to his death. After 14 minutes, his body was taken down and prison physician Dr. Elmer Hill pronounced him dead. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the prison cemetery, identified only as convict No. 21520. Bird willed his "personal fortune" of $6.15 to Murray Taggart, the Walla Walla attorney who filed his appeals.
Jake Bird was the 63rd prisoner and the seventh African American to be executed in Washington State since the death penalty was established in 1904.
"Man Confesses Killing Two Tacoma Women," The Seattle Times, October 30, 1947, p. 1; "Tacoma Death Suspect Beaten," Ibid., November 25, 1947, p. 3; "Man Guilty in Slaying of 2 in Tacoma," Ibid., November 26, 1947. P. 2; "Lawyer's Death Is Fifth Since Tacoma Killer's Hex," Ibid., November 27, 1948, p. 3; "Jan. 14 Set for Jake Bird to Die," Ibid., December 3, 1948; "Jake Bird Denied Stay of Execution," Ibid., July 14, 1949, p. 1; "Final Appeal Failing, Jake Bird Is Hanged," Ibid., July 15, 1949, p. 11; "Man Confesses Killing Tacoma Mother, Girl, 17," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 31, 1947, p. 5; "Murder Charges filed in Tacoma ax Slayings," Ibid., November 1, 1947, p. 11; "Ax Slaying Jury Chosen," Ibid., November 25, 1947, p. 3; "Beating Given Slayer Told," Ibid., November 26, 1947, p. 19; "Tacoma Ax-Slayer Guilty, Must Hang," Ibid., November 27, 1947, p. 8; "Jake Bird to Be Executed January 14," Ibid., December 4, 1948; "Jake Bird Dies on Prison Gallows," Ibid., July 15, 1949, p. 1; "Ax Murderer Dies in State Prison Noose," Ibid., July 15, 1949, p. 1; "Ax Slayer Pleads in Vain," The Tacoma News Tribune, January 17, 1948, p. 1; "London Hears of Bird Hex," Ibid., November 27, 1948, p. 11; Larry Harper, "Fifth Man In Bird's 'Hex' Dies," November 29, 1948, p. 1;" Amundsen Is Scornful of Bird's Hexes," Ibid., November 30, 1948, p. 1; "Ax Slayer Meets End Calmly," Ibid., July 16, 1948. P. 1; Jim Farber, "Bird's Execution Cost over $10,000," Ibid., July 16, 1948, p. 1.
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Headline upon Jake Bird execution, July 15, 1949
Courtesy Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Jake Bird (1901-1949), Washington State Penitentiary mug shot, December 7, 1947
Courtesy Washington State Archives
Composite image of headlines on Jake Bird, day after execution, Tacoma, July 16, 1949
Courtesy The Tacoma News Tribune