By Diane Euston
In 1932, a nationwide manhunt was underway when the 20-month-old son of famous aviator, Charles Lindbergh was abducted from his home. Several ransom notes demanded money for the safe return of the child, but unfortunately, the child was found murdered just a few months later.
Prior to this case, there was no national law protecting children from being abducted, and each state handled kidnappings in different ways. It’s hard to imagine that the abduction of a child was sometimes never reported, and the whereabouts of these lost children remain a mystery.
One such case in Kansas City opens Pandora’s box. In October 1903, 12-year-old Ella Cates was abducted on her way home from her aunt’s house at 3rd and Gillis St. Surprisingly, there was no mention of her kidnapping in the newspapers at the time.
The couple who abducted Ella, William and Irene Birmingham, went unpunished for this crime. But, their story reveals a criminal past that spanned across several states and unveils a dark history with various connections to Kansas City.
William Birmingham- The Husband
William Birmingham was born in 1879 in Wayne Co., Mo. By the time he was a young teenager, William moved to Topeka, Kan. There, his life of petty crime and white lies began.
When he was just 15 years old, William married Elva Jones, and just one month after their union, he was arrested for picking a man’s pocket. In 1895, he was charged with burglary and larceny after he stole a double harness. He pled guilty and was sentenced to two years at Lansing. When asked why he got into trouble, he simply stated, “By mistake.”
After two years of marriage, Elva Jones Birmingham filed for divorce from her husband, and William left Topeka and roamed the countryside. He journeyed for a time to Nebraska where he bought and sold horses before returning to Kansas.
With him was a new wife – a 14-year-old “pretty gypsy girl.” He was 22 years old. Gypsies, or those who were nomadic and traveled place-to-place in groups, would have fit well with William Birmingham’s lifestyle of moving around a lot.
In 1901, William landed himself back in jail in Kansas City, Kan. when he stole a harness from a man in Merriam. “While not a gypsy, he leads a nomadic life,” the newspaper wrote. “And his wife, 14 years old, is of the genuine gypsy stock.”
William was sentenced to 20 months in Lansing Prison but was released after only a few months. Around the summer of 1901, he headed to Kansas City. His young bride was nowhere to be found.
Irene Alzina Taylor – The Wife
Irene Taylor was born in 1882 in Bates Co., Mo. After her father passed away, her mother, Aurelia remarried and the family moved to Kansas City, Mo.
In 1894, Irene’s maternal grandmother, Jane married Gaylord Fish in Kansas City while working for the Salvation Army– a man younger than her daughter, Aurelia. Gaylord was the 32-year-old son of a prominent banker in Colorado, and Jane was 51 years old. When Jane went with her new husband, Gaylord, to Georgetown, Colo., she took her 12-year-old granddaughter, Irene with her.
Two days before their third wedding anniversary, Gaylord Fish was found dead in his bedroom with a bottle of chloroform next to him. He was 35 years old, and his 54-year-old widow was set to inherit a large sum of money.
Six months after his death in July 1898, Jane Fish was arrested for the murder of her husband. While in jail awaiting trial, her 15-year-old granddaughter, Irene married 21-year-old Ray Kircher in Colorado.
In September 1898, just two months after her marriage, Irene called for a little two-year-old neighbor boy named Tim Sullivan to come to her house for a piece of bread and butter sprinkled with sugar. The little boy took one bite of it and threw it away.
As Tim Sullivan ran away, he fell down on the street and began violently throwing up. He was carried home by his mother, and when she asked what he had eaten, he told her. The vomiting continued, and the little boy’s mouth began to swell.
A doctor was called and announced that he had been poisoned. The police went to Irene, and when she handed over the bread with sugar on it, they found that the “sugar” was corrosive. The newspaper reported, “Mrs. Kircher is only about 15 years old, and she still finds amusement in her dolls, which she sometimes carries with her about the streets.”
Irene was locked up in the same jail as her grandmother. The cases against Jane Fish and Irene were dropped and the child recovered. In December 1899, Irene’s husband tried to commit suicide “because his wife, Jane Fish’s granddaughter, is in the east and he hasn’t heard from her in a long time.”
Irene had left Colorado for Evanston, Ill. where she was trained to work for Volunteers of America, an organization dedicated to “teaching and uplifting people.” The organization sent her to Kansas City in 1901 “to join the slum corps.” That same year, she divorced her husband.
Ray Kircher successfully committed suicide by drinking carbolic acid in January 1904.
The Two Unfortunates Unite
The paths of William Birmingham and Irene Kircher unfortunately crossed in Kansas City. Irene worked for both the Salvation Army and Volunteers of America. William caught Irene’s eye at the Salvation Army Hall at 12 E. Missouri Ave.
William was working as a motorman on the streetcar and had promised that his life of crime was behind him and Irene’s influence “determined him to reform and lead a new life.”
Irene made no mention of her checkered past in Colorado.
The two were married in December 1901. For a few years, the couple stayed out of trouble. They made friends with Richard Cates, a single father of three young children. Mrs. Irene Birmingham was allegedly desperate to be a mother, so William asked Mr. Cates if they could take his daughter, Ella, only 12 years old, and raise her as their own. Although poverty-stricken, Mr. Cates declined the offer.
When Ella Cates disappeared in October 1903, he didn’t think the Birminghams had taken her. And, shockingly, there were no newspaper stories written about her disappearance. She just vanished.
The truth was that the man who loved to travel the countryside had convinced his wife to join him. “The wanderlust was in his veins, and one spring day [William] bade [Irene] to go with him in a covered wagon he had purchased,” the newspaper reported, “and they commenced a life of travel over the prairies in a prairie schooner.”
It didn’t take long for William’s old ways to surface. He began using the alias “William Jones,” taking his first wife’s last name. Irene didn’t seem to mind the change of surname, as she adapted to using it as well.
In August 1904, he was charged with stealing a saddle and fly nets in Nebraska. A month later, he was charged with breaking open a schoolhouse in Nebraska City and stealing items. For that, he was sentenced to 20 months in jail.
While he was locked up in Nebraska, Irene moved in with her mother in Atchison, Kan. and filed for divorce from William, citing “neglect of duty.”
Even though the divorce was finalized, Irene just couldn’t get William out of her mind. The two reconciled and set out on the road headed north to Chicago. “My husband has a strange power over me,” Irene would later say.
The Kidnapping of Lillian Wulff
On Dec. 7, 1907 in the early afternoon, William and Irene Birmingham rolled into Chicago in their covered wagon. The couple was on the lookout for a young girl to kidnap and raise as their own. William would claim later that it was his wife’s idea because she was desperate for a child of her own; Irene would claim that William found it easier to panhandle with a young child in tow.
Regardless, the couple spotted eight-year-old Lillian Wulff outside with friends as they built a snowman. William parked down the block and Irene slowly approached the children. Twenty-five-year-old Irene caught the eye of Lillian and offered her free candy and new shoes. The little girl took Irene’s hand and walked down the street with her.
When they got to the covered wagon, William instructed, “Throw the kid in.”
Little Lillian would later testify that they covered her up in blankets and wouldn’t let her poke her head out. The Birminghams cut her hair and burned the clothes she had on so she wouldn’t be recognized.
Children playing with Lillian Wulff watched this all unfold, and when her mother inquired where her daughter was, they told her she went off with a stranger. The mother immediately alerted police, and the search was on.
For just over a week, the little girl was forced to call the couple “mama” and “papa” and was used to beg for milk and food at farm houses as they traveled south through Illinois.
While held captive, Lillian was whipped once by William when she tried to run away. Otherwise, Lillian said that Irene was especially nice to her, covering her in kisses and doting on her.
After one week on the run, the couple was caught near Momence, Ill. and little Lillian was found unharmed. The Birminghams were brought back to Chicago, and the couple gave their names as William and Irene Alzina Jones.
While being questioned in different rooms, the “Joneses” couldn’t keep their story straight. Irene claimed that she had lost two children, and her little girl was named Lillian. “My dear girl baby Lillian!” she sobbed to her audience. She said that Lillian Wulff looked like her dead daughter and had the same name.
In another room, William claimed that they had lost a daughter and he wanted to ensure his wife was a mother again, so they arranged to take a child. “My dear dead Mabel!” William cried to the police detectives.
The white lies were catching up to them, and just past midnight, William admitted his last name was Birmingham and that they had no deceased children. “My wife thought it would sound better for her and the jury would be easier on her if she told about two dead babies,” he claimed.
It also came out through interrogation that this wasn’t the first kidnapping the Birminghams were a part of. Both readily admitted they took 12-year-old Ella Cates from Kansas City four years earlier.
The girl had been found on the streets begging and abandoned in Dubuque, Iowa. Authorities there put Ella in the care of the Convent of the Good Shepherd. The girl gave a fictitious last name and didn’t admit who she was. For at least two years, she was taken care of by the nuns where the girl “was inclined to be wild.”
Ella Cates was safely returned to her father in Kansas City after being gone for four years.
The Conviction and Aftermath
It didn’t take long for the Birminghams to turn on each other when their trial began. William had written his estranged wife in prison threatening her, and those letters were presented as evidence. Irene claimed that William wanted a girl “for improper purposes” while he claimed she was desperate for a child.
William was an epileptic, and while being questioned, he had “an epileptic fit in full view of the jury.” A doctor was called and claimed that he was faking it; Irene laughed at him and said, “He can do whatever he wants to. He used [fake seizures] to create sympathy when we were begging.”
What is clear is that the Birminghams were unaware of the stiff penalty for kidnapping in Illinois. The penalty was death if a child was kept for ransom; it was up to a life sentence if ransom wasn’t demanded.
The jury convicted William to a 30-year prison sentence, and Irene received 25 years. It was the first time in the United States that there was a conviction for kidnapping.
Lillian Wulff’s mother thought that William Birmingham forced Irene to go along with the kidnapping, and Lillian felt the same. “I felt sorry for Mrs. Birmingham,” Lillian told reporters. “I kind of wish they’d let her go.”
It’s likely that the Wulff’s were unaware of Irene’s checkered past.
In the end, Irene served only two years of her 20-year sentence. She moved back to Missouri and married for a third time. In 1919, she welcomed a daughter she named Mary. Irene passed away in Los Angeles, Calif. in 1955.
William Birmingham served 10 years of his 30-year sentence. After he was released from prison, he disappeared from the records.
Perhaps he turned his life around? Or, perhaps he used a new alias and continued his nomadic lifestyle?
Kidnapping a child and taking the child across state lines has been a federal crime since the Lindbergh kidnapping in 1932. And, technology allows for abducted children to be quickly broadcast through the AMBER Alert System.
Regardless, the curious case of the Birminghams started in Kansas City and ended with sensational headlines across the nation. Little girls like Ella Cates and Lillian Wulff weren’t as lucky to have federal protection or an alert system, but in the end, both girls were returned home safely.
Diane writes a blog about the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com