Did Policeman Kill World War I Veteran?

On Tuesday, July 2, 1919, at 10:20 p.m., Officer Fred Wildberger of the Deer Street Station shot and killed Peter Birmingham, a 19 year-old chauffeur.  Wildberger stated that Birmingham was a member of a local gang, who had targeted Wildberger over the past several years.

On the night in question, Birmingham was alleged to have struck Wildberger in the face and took off running.  Wildberger was chasing Birmingham with his weapon out, when a pedestrian struck his arm causing the gun to fire.  The bullet struck Birmingham in the back.

Birmingham died at city hospital from a gunshot wound to the back.  A lieutenant at Deer Street Station exonerated Wildberger as did a coroner’s jury during the morning of Friday, July 5, 1919.  However, sometime between July of 1919 and March of 1920, the coroner changed the verdict.  In March 1920, Wildberger was charged with homicide and suspended from the police force.  Birmingham’s death certificate was ruled a homicide by the coroner’s jury.

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Article about Birmingham Shooting from Thursday, July 4, 1919 edition of St. Louis Post-Dispatch

I only found out about this case because Wildberger took part in a running gun battle with Fred Charles Smith, The Red Headed Bandit”, on April 5, 1920 in an incident that killed Patrolman Terence McFarland.  Wildberger was visiting with friends at Deer Street Station, when Smith held up the Easton-Taylor Trust Company.  He took the gun from McFarland after he was shot down and joined in the gun battle with Smith.  Smith was eventually killed by the responding officers.

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4063 Easton Avenue (Dr. Martin Luther King Drive), Where The Incident Occurred – Courtesy of Google Earth

The Birmingham case was troubling because Wildberger shot him in the back.  In those days, you could shoot a fleeing felon although being punched in the face is normally a misdemeanor.  Birmingham could not have posed much of a threat at the time he was shot.

The police stated that Birmingham was arrested for the first time at 12 years old and that he had been in reform school as a juvenile.  He was also allegedly arrested for a sexual assault, when he was 17 but the case was dropped after he married the girl.  However, he was not married two years later.

Birmingham was also a World War I veteran, who joined the 138th Infantry Division, which fought in Argonne.  He was shocked, gassed and wounded, which led to him being invalided out of the service.  He came home to be shot on the street of his hometown.

I don’t know what happened to Fred Wildberger at this point.  I cannot find any death certificates or other references to him.  I don’t know if he went to prison or if he was acquired.  Based on the newspaper account, he would probably be convicted of manslaughter today.  Policing has significantly professionalized since this case.

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