Ben and Stella Mae, Part Two

Since Ben and Stella had a head start they were able to get away, but the authorities had more to go on after the second robbery than the first. This time they also got a bigger take – over $47,000. Law enforcement was eventually able to track them to a campground in Topeka, Kansas and closed in on them, resulting in their separation and a shootout. Ben was able to get away, steal a new car, and return to pick up Stella who he left behind at the campground.

They then continued to allude capture by crisscrossing the country and stealing cars. In one close call with the law they took three men hostage in an attempt to get away (resulting in kidnapping charges). The couple also got in a shootout with a patrol car as it gave chase. Stella was the one doing the shooting this time and, even though she was given the name “Sure Shot Stella” as a result, it’s unlikely she was even really aiming or trying to kill the officers – she just wanted them to stop following. It was also during this gunfight that a bullet grazed Stella’s forehead leaving a scar.

The couple also managed to set up house in an apartment in New Orleans, but the FBI was turning up the heat so it must have been a stressful time for the couple even though they tried to find some semblance of normalcy. After the two bank robberies and the kidnapping, the FBI named them Public Enemies No.1 and No. 2. Less than 5 months later, the couple was lured into a meeting with an informant in St. Louis. Ben went alone to a hamburger stand for the meeting and realized too late that it was a set up. He tried to walk away, but several FBI agents were closing in. As he turned to run a young FBI agent shot him in the back – at least four times.

Stella was in the couple’s car down the street and may have witnessed the shooting, or at least saw the aftermath as she drove by. The FBI agents weren’t paying close enough attention so she was able to just keep driving. Stella must have been devastated by the loss of her husband. She started driving to her mother’s house. She ended up having to take rides from strangers who got her closer and closer home. But at least one of them found the petite blonde’s behavior suspicious. He realized she might be the woman the FBI was looking for and arranged to turn her in. The book “Outlaw Tales” notes that when agents took her into custody “she was unarmed, carried $70, and was wearing three rings, including the wedding set with seven diamonds… she also possessed a key to a New Orleans apartment and a poem Ben had penned. It read, ‘In the eyes of men I am not just/ But in your eyes, O life, I see justification/ You have taught me that my path is right if I am true to you’” (96).

Stella was sent to South Dakota to stand trial for bank robbery, holding a doll throughout the proceedings. This may have been a ploy to try to make her more sympathetic to the jury, or she was holding it for comfort (she was only 16 and a widow after all).  Many of those involved in the prosecution of the case felt sorry for the young woman and some even suggested that coverture be applied to the case (coverture laws, according to, meant that a married women was “considered as under the protection and authority of her husband,” meaning that a woman couldn’t really make decisions for herself, that her husband’s authority was supreme. So a women might not be culpable for a crime if she was committing it at her husband’s direction – women weren’t supposed to defy their husbands. However, by the 1930s coverture laws held less sway). J. Edgar Hoover seems to have had a big influence on the outcome of the trial. While some wanted to show mercy to Stella because of her youth and gender, Hoover wanted to make an example of her and demonstrate the power and usefulness of the FBI. He put pressure on the judge and others involved in the case to do just that. Judge Lee A. Wyman determined Stella’s guilt and sentenced her to two concurrent ten-year sentences. On her seventeenth birthday she entered a federal prison for women in West Virginia.

“Crime Fighter,” Salt Lake Telegram, August 22, 1934, 12.

Stella Mae was paroled in 1946. She was twenty-four years old. For a short time she was a flight attendant, but eventually settled into a career as a clerk at Kmart. She also took care of her disabled brother and made a quiet life for herself in Kansas. She did marry two more times, but both marriages were fairly short; neither men lived up to the memory of her first husband. Over time, she became more and more reclusive and President Nixon eventually pardoned her in recognition of the quiet life she had led since prison. She died September 10, 1995.

In his book, “The Ballad of Ben and Stella Mae: Great Plains Outlaws Who Became FBI Public Enemies Nos. 1 and 2,” Matthew Cecil argues that the FBI was having such a hard time fighting organized crime that they sought out cases with flashy criminals like Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger, who were much easier to capture. In this way the FBI could make a name for themselves. Once they had caught those notorious criminals they needed new and similar targets. So they turned the relatively small time criminals, Ben and Stella Dickson, into media sensations and blew their crimes out of proportion to make them seem much more dangerous than they actually were. Their manhunt also pushed Ben and Stella into a corner where they made increasingly desperate moves and eventually led to Ben’s death. And while the two most certainly were criminals who deserved to pay for their crimes, they were hardly enough of a threat to justify the outcome.

If you are interested in this story you can read it in much greater detail in Matthew Cecil’s new book.

Entry contributed by Dr. Michaele Smith,  Archivist,  Salt Lake County Archives.


Tom Griffith, Outlaw Tales of South Dakota: True Stories of the Mount Rushmore State’s Most Infamous Crooks, Culprits, and Cutthroats, (TwoDot, 2008).

Matthew Cecil, The Ballad of Ben and Stella Mae: Great Plains Outlaws Who Became FBI Public Enemies Nos. 1 and 2, (University Press of Kansas, 2016).

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Wanted: Bennie and Stella Mae

As we mentioned in an earlier post, we came across a folder of FBI wanted posters in the correspondence of the County Attorney and were especially interested in the posters featuring wanted couples. We wrote about the Birds; now we turn to Bennie and Stella Mae Dickson.

Salt Lake County Attorney’s Correspondence, series AD-006. Salt Lake County Archives.

According to their poster they were wanted for “the kidnapping of Henry Metty and Claude Minnis” and for transporting them across state lines from Michigan to Indiana in November 1938. They were also wanted for the “robbery of the Northwest security National Bank” in Sioux Falls, South Dakota in August 1938. And lastly “for violations of the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act” in November 1938.

Bennie and Stella had promising beginnings, but seemed ill-fated by their teenage years. Bennie committed a teenage prank and the Judge decided to make a statement with a very harsh sentence. While he did commit a crime he always felt this conviction was unfair which fueled his future criminal endeavors. His time in prison also contributed to the escalation of his crimes as he became friends with much more hardened criminals.

Stella’s story is much sadder and more out of her control. At 15 years old she was brutally raped by a stranger, acquiring gonorrhea from this attack which required painful medical treatment.  The social workers also did not maintain confidentiality, and news of her STD spread through their small town. With unfair rumors of her promiscuity swirling around her, unsympathetic social workers, and only painful medical procedures to look forward to, Stella fled to California. That is where she had the further misfortune of meeting and falling for a man from her home town, Bennie Dickson.

Shortly after meeting, the couple married and traveled to his family’s cabin in Lake Preston, South Dakota to honeymoon. Stella’s 16th birthday approached and the couple was very cash poor (this was during the Great Depression, after all). Benny had a solution: rob a bank. The couple’s criminal career started with a heist in Elkton, South Dakota.

As Outlaw Tales of South Dakota notes, “For her sixteenth birthday Stella Dickson robbed a bank. For her seventeenth birthday she was sent to federal prison” (92).

On August 25, 1938, Bennie walked into the Elkton Corn Exchange Bank, approached the two employees, pulled out a revolver and said, “This is a holdup. Do exactly as I say and there will be no trouble and nobody hurt” (92).   He then spent the next 35 minutes waiting for the bank’s time lock safe to open. While he waited around 20 people came into the bank, including L. C. Foreman, the president of the bank. Bennie checked out each person, going as far as having the cashier look up the balances of their accounts. If they seemed able to afford the loss he would take their money, otherwise he did not take money from individuals, just the bank. He even went as far as returning a $20 bill one of the patrons had dropped.

After the time lock finally allowed him access to the vault, Bennie took the money and locked all 20-something people in the vault and left the bank. The captives flipped an emergency switch in the vault which set off a warning light in the nearby Dressel Store and they were soon released.

Bennie had enough money to buy his new wife a birthday gift and to get out of town. They were able to live on the proceeds of the robbery for 2 months before they felt the need to hit another bank.

This time their target was the Northwestern Security National Bank in Brookings, South Dakota. Brookings was a small college town which was recovering from its annual Hobo Day Celebration when Bennie and Stella strolled into the bank at 8:30am Monday October 31st. The “handsome young couple” carried a machine gun and a sawed-off shotgun.

Again they waited patiently for the time lock safe to open – this time they had to wait two and a half hours!

More than 100 people entered the bank while they were there, thanks to the busy weekend. This time instead of holding the customers hostage they tried to blend in while keeping the two bank employees compliant. At 11 o’clock, the time lock finally opened and they retrieved the money and went out to their car with the two bank employees. They made the two men stand on the running boards of the car and then drove several blocks. They ordered the men to jump off and then continued out of town. The bank employees quickly raised the alarm and a chase ensued.

Come back next week for the conclusion….

Entry contributed by Dr. Michaele Smith,  Archivist,  Salt Lake County Archives.


Tom Griffith, Outlaw Tales of South Dakota: True Stories of the Mount Rushmore State’s Most Infamous Crooks, Culprits, and Cutthroats, (TwoDot, 2008).

Matthew Cecil, The Ballad of Ben and Stella Mae: Great Plains Outlaws Who Became FBI Public Enemies Nos. 1 and 2, (University Press of Kansas, 2016)

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Days Gone By: Salt Lake Pioneer Village

Recently, we have been researching some original Sugar House businesses and found the Salt Lake County Tax Appraisal records for the Salt Lake Pioneer Village, which was originally located in Salt Lake City on 3000 South 2150 East (2998 Connor Street).

If you don’t know the story of the Salt Lake Pioneer Village, here is a little recap.

It all started with an industrious Salt Lake City business man named Horace Sorensen who was born at the turn of the century (1899). He and his father had a very successful furniture shop called “South East Furniture,” which was located at 2144 South 1100 East. Horace enjoyed not only the family furniture business; he also enjoyed his horse business. He bred, sold, and showed horses on his east side property.

Horace and his wife Ethel also had a deep passion to preserve historical items. They spent about 50 years purchasing and collecting priceless heirlooms from the late 19th and early 20th century. But they didn’t stop at just furniture and dishes. They also collected buildings. In the 1930s they remodeled one of his horse barns into a pioneer museum.

Plot plan drawing of some of the buildings in the Pioneer Village, 1973.

Horace and Ethel had collected many pioneer homes and buildings, including the historic Brigham Young home and grist mill.  They had furniture, wagons, carts, farm machinery, railroad equipment, statues, and all types of pioneer vehicles.  1948 was a pivotal year for Mr. Sorensen’s collection, as Horace expanded and dedicated the building as a Pioneer Museum.  Much of the 3 acres on Connor Street housed part of his collection. He knew it would only be a “temporary home” for this item, until he found a property that was more suited for the job.

Buildings in Pioneer Village, image taken in 1973.

Pioneer Village, image taken in 1973.

Children surrounding ox and wagon in Pioneer Village, 1973.

More buildings in Pioneer Village, 1973.

The Salt Lake Pioneer Village had stage coaches, white top buggies, covered wagons, handcarts, pioneer guns, pioneer furniture, much of Susana Emery’s (known as the Silver Queen) furniture and antiques. It portrayed all aspects of pioneer life.  Sometimes there was an old time barber giving a shave and a haircut. In the drugstore you could buy sarsaparillas from old soda fountains, enjoy a pioneer craft, browse through the old country store, sit in turn-of-the-century school desks or pews from the old meeting house, admire Horace’s gun collection, or watch the print maker painstakingly produce a newspaper.

In 1956 he deeded the entire collection and property to the National Society Sons of the Utah Pioneers. This included the museum building, all of the houses, thousands of antiques, historical objects, and 3 acres.  It was called the “Pioneer Village’s temporary home.”

In the late 1940s, it was decided that the Utah State Penitentiary, known as the  Sugar House Federal Prison, needed to be moved.  Upon hearing the news Horace Sorensen knew exactly what he wanted to do with the large acreages of land at 2100 South.  He rallied the community and leaders and they all planned the “Pioneer Memorial State Park,” also called “Pioneer Memorial Center,”  to be placed on the land.

Mr. Sorensen spent almost 15 years drawing plans, attending community meetings and meeting with city leaders to plan. The plans included his entire collection of homes, schools, churches, railroads, as well as a large house to hold community meetings, an amphitheater for concerts, seagull sanctuary, and scenic wonders building, and a garden wonderland. He planned the landscape to include native shrubs, flowers, plants and trees. He also envisioned a veterans memorial and tourist information building containing furniture, pioneer papers, books, currency,  books, clothing, guns and household items. All would be on display at the new location of Sugar House Park.

After 15 years of attending meetings and rallying the community, it was decided that Sugar House Park would not house the Pioneer Village. It would be a strictly recreational place for the community.

Due to ill health in 1975, Horace Sorensen withdrew from his civic activities. Pioneer Village was moved from Connor Street to the Lagoon Amusement Park.  Horace Sorensen died May 3, 1977.  We owe much to Horace and Ethel Sorensen. Because of their willingness to dedicate the majority of their lives to preserving the past, we can walk from our modern world into a Pioneer Village filled with yesterday.

And because of the Salt Lake County Archives, we can fill in the gaps of where and what a building in the Salt Lake County was used for.  It helps us piece together yesterday.

See you at the Archives!

Guest blog written and contributed by Sheri Kimball Biesinger.  

All images from Salt Lake County Tax Appraisal Cards and Photographs, serial 17-2110.

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Learn To Fly

Salt Lake County Tax Appraisal Photographs, serial 44A-351.

This image was taken in 1947. Skyway Flying Service was located northwest of 4000 West and 7800 South at the Salt Lake Municipal Airport 2. Owned and operated by William M. Baughman in the 1940s, Skyway offered flying instruction to the public, charter flights, and passenger hops. In 1946, they were also an approved G.I. flight training school.

This building, including a number of airplanes, burned down in 1949.

Murray Eagle, 1946-11-28.

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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.

Salt Lake County Attorney's Correspondence, Salt Lake County Archives.

Salt Lake County Attorney’s Correspondence, series AD-006. Salt Lake County Archives.

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.


“Desperado and Wife Captured,” The New York Sun, August 9, 1938, 9.

“Midwest Gang Leader Nabbed,” Salt Lake Telegram, August 9, 1938, 4. 

“Wife Sentenced for Helping Two in Jailbreak,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 21, 1938, 9.

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Days Gone By: Remembering Scott’s Drive-In

If you ever went to Granger, Utah, you would definitely have tales of the famous Scott’s Drive-In. It was a landmark for over four decades. The building was unique and the food was wonderful. People from all over would drive to 3325 West 3500 South to Scott’s.

Image courtesy of Sheri Kimball Biesinger.

Image courtesy of Sheri Kimball Biesinger.

My favorite was the Chicken Cordon Bleu sandwich with a Mushroom Thing and an Orange Freeze, and they had the best red sauce!

Scott’s breaded their own fish and chips and dipped fresh onions for their famous onion rings daily. Their “Mushroom Thing” was famous.  The “KaySaDeA” was a rectangle hamburger with special red sauce on a tortilla, and it was legendary. A perfect burger would be the “Great Scott” which had 2 meat patties, bacon, cheese, onion and Scott’s famous spices.

The owners of Scott’s, Buzz & Carolyn Burt, were longtime Granger residents and community activists. Carolynn was on the West Valley City Council & elected & re-elected District 1 councilwoman in West Valley City, serving for 13 years.

Image courtesy of Sheri Kimball Biesinger.

Scott’s Drive-In.  Image courtesy of Sheri Kimball Biesinger.

The poem in Scott’s window says:
“All us who cook, and do the dishes
Should be granted these three wishes:
1. A grateful mate 2. Well kissed cheeks
3. Dinner at Scott’s at least once a week!”

Happy Valentine’s! Entry contributed by guest blogger Sheri Kimball Biesinger.  

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Days Gone By: Hygeia Ice Company

Hygeia Ice Company, circa 1937. Salt Lake County Tax Appraisal Photographs, serial 13-3035.

Hygeia Ice Company, circa 1937. Salt Lake County Tax Appraisal Photographs, serial 13-3035.

When I say “Hygeia,” what memories come to mind?

Did you buy ice, or maybe even dry ice to make root beer, there?

Did you have a rented meat locker at Hygeia?

Did you swim in the Olympic-sized heated pool?

Did you ice skate or played hockey on what most said was the “best ice in Utah?”

Maybe some of you were fortunate enough to get to use Hygeia’s  roller-skate cement pad, or play on the miniature golf course while those were available at Hygeia.

Hygeia Ice plot plan drawing, 1977. Salt Lake County Tax Appraisal Cards, parcel 16-20-229-002.

Hygeia Ice Company plot plan drawing, 1977. Salt Lake County Tax Appraisal Cards, parcel 16-20-229-002.

Hygeia Iceland/ Swimland/ Skate rink was located at 1208 East 2100 South in the heart of Sugarhouse.  Hygeia’s sister company, the Carbo Chemical Plant, was located at 1246 East 2100 South and supplied carbonation for soda pop as well as other products.

Carbo Chemical Plant, circa 1948. Salt Lake County Tax Appraisal Photographs, parcel 16-20-229-006.

Carbo Chemical Plant, circa 1948. Salt Lake County Tax Appraisal Photographs, parcel 16-20-229-006.

If there is a place that you loved in “days gone by,” make an appointment to come see what information the Salt Lake County Archives  has about it.

For more about Hygeia, check out this article.

Entry contributed by guest blogger Sheri Kimball Biesinger

Posted in Guest blog, History from the ground up, Salt Lake history | 2 Comments