While processing the Salt Lake County Attorney’s correspondence, 1933-1982, we came across a file folder full of FBI wanted posters. The County Attorney was on the FBI’s mailing list and received and saved wanted posters during the 1930s. While all of the posters contained compelling information, those that caught our eye featured wanted couples. We looked into the stories behind a few of these aspiring Bonnie and Clydes, and the first story we’ll share is that of Charles and Barbara Bird.
Charles and Barbara Bird were wanted for bank robbery and for violating the Federal Escape Act. The Federal Grand Jury at Cleveland indicted Charles Bird, James Widmer, and Frank Bird with three charges of bank robbery; they allegedly robbed three banks in Cleveland, Ohio in 1937. Charles’ wife, Barbara Seiber Bird, was charged with aiding their escape from the Cuyahoga County Jail and with being an accessory after the fact to the bank robberies.
After escaping from jail, Bird and his wife fled Ohio and traveled around the country until they were apprehended in August 1938. Their trek took them from Ohio to the west coast, then cross country to the eastern seaboard where they were finally caught. The New York Sun described the capture: “(the) last of his gang to be caught, the dark-haired twenty-six-year-old robber and his twenty-four-year-old blond wife, Barbara Seiber Bird, were trapped by detectives last night… they had arranged so that the couple had to park between two planted cars. A third squad car hemmed in the green sedan and three detectives with drawn revolvers approached it. They said that although both Bird and his wife carried pistols they surrendered without a struggle. They quoted Bird as saying to his wife: ‘What’s the use? It looks like it’s all over, babe.’”
According to newspapers, the “Bird Gang” was responsible for more robberies than the FBI’s wanted poster mentioned. He confessed to seven robberies and had planned six more. Bird also tried to protect his wife. He told police that even though she was the getaway driver, she didn’t know what he was doing inside the banks and businesses. He tried (and failed) to shield her from a prison sentence because they had a young son he hoped she’d be able to care for while he was in prison.
While they were on the run other members of the gang were caught, tried, and sent to prison. James Widmer was captured in Philadelphia in October 1937. And Frank Bird, Charles Bird’s brother, and his wife Sylvia were taken in Cleveland also in October 1937. Both Widmer and Frank Bird were serving life terms in Alcatraz Federal prison for murder. They too had successfully escaped from a prison, the Missouri State prison, before being sent to Alcatraz. They were also with Charles when he escaped from the county jail in Cleveland (which could be why they were sent to the supposedly “escape-proof” Alcatraz). That escape in Ohio was aided by Barbara Bird, who smuggled in pistols to the men. The murder charges seemed to stem from this escape as a woman was killed in the automobile chase through downtown Cleveland.
After their capture Barbara Bird’s parents, who were caring for the Bird baby who had been abandoned with them when Barbara fled with her fugitive husband, expressed relief when they were caught. Mr. Sieber said “I’m glad there won’t be any more anxious nights.”
While Frank Bird served his sentence on the West Coast, Charles did his on the East Coast, in Maryland. Barbara Bird was sentenced to four years in a federal reformatory in Milan, Michigan where she joined Frank’s wife Sylvia, already serving time for the same offense. Barbara Bird was pregnant when she started her sentence.
Entry contributed by Dr. Michaele Smith, Archivist, Salt Lake County Archives.
“Wife Sentenced for Helping Two in Jailbreak,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 21, 1938, 9.