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Shachnai Itzik Birger
February 5, 1881
|Died||April 19, 1928 (aged 47)|
|Other names||Charlie Birger|
|Occupation||soldier, cowboy, miner, saloon keeper, businessman, bootlegger, criminal gang leader|
|Known for||Bootlegging and leading the Birger Gang, who fought a bloody war with the Ku Klux Klan and the Shelton Brothers Gang over the domination of Southern Illinois. Birger was the last person to be publicly hanged in Illinois.|
|Founder||Charles "Charlie" Birger|
|Founding location||Crab Orchard, Williamson County, Illinois|
|Criminal activities||bootlegging, murder|
|Rivals||Shelton Brothers Gang|
Charles Birger was born to a Jewish family in the Russian Empire, and emigrated to the United States as a child with his parents. Birger and his family settled in St. Louis, where, aged eight, Charlie got a job as a news boy at the Post-Dispatch newspaper. Later, Birger moved to the O'Fallon, Missouri area, where he started work in a pool room.
On July 5, 1901, Birger enlisted in the United States Army and was assigned to Company G of the newly formed 13th Cavalry Regiment, then stationed in South Dakota. Birger was described as a good soldier and was honorably discharged on July 4, 1904, at Fort Meade, South Dakota. When he left the army, he became a cowboy. However, he eventually returned to Illinois, where he met his wife, Edna, and became a miner in the quickly expanding coal mining community of Harrisburg, later to become a keeper at one of the local saloons.
Bootlegger and gang leader
Following World War I, in 1919, the United States adopted national prohibition, which banned the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. Birger recognized this as a business opportunity, and in 1920 he joined forces with the Shelton Brothers.
Birger initially based his operation in Harrisburg, Southern Illinois. The law authorities in Saline County eventually persuaded him to leave, and he built a fortified speakeasy called Shady Rest just across the line in Williamson County. Shady Rest stood next to old Highway 13, halfway between Harrisburg and Marion. A small barbecue stand just off the highway served as the guard shack.
War with the Ku Klux Klan
Charlie Birger and the Shelton Brothers Gang fought for control of the coal fields of southern Illinois, but their attention was diverted by a common enemy. In the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan supported national prohibition. Alcohol was regarded as an "un-American" vice practiced by immigrants, many of whom were Roman Catholics and other religions. Many immigrants worked in the coal mines of southern Illinois, living mainly in very small towns with a strong ethnic identity. Alcohol was a part of their life, and bootlegging came naturally to them.
In the spring of 1923, the Klan began organizing in Williamson County, holding meetings attended by more than 5000 people. The Klan drew its support from both the farming community and people in the larger towns, the latter mainly of southern origin and belonging to the Baptist and other traditional Protestant churches.
The Klan soon found a charismatic leader in S. Glenn Young, a 58-year-old former federal law enforcement officer. Large mobs began going door to door, forcibly searching houses for alcohol. If alcohol was found, the occupants were taken to Klan "prisons". Federal authorities apparently had deputized the Klansmen to aid in the enforcement of Prohibition.
Many elected public officials of Williamson County were viewed[who?] as being allies of the bootleggers, perhaps correctly. These elected public officials were driven from office and replaced by Klan members. The state government was either unable or unwilling to reestablish lawful authority.
On January 24, 1925, a shot was fired in the street in Herrin, Illinois. Deputy Sheriff Ora Thomas responded and walked into a cigar store, where he saw Klan leader Young. Thomas drew his pistol and shot Young twice. Young was able to shoot Thomas once before falling to the floor. Two of Young's companions joined in the melee, and all four men were fatally wounded. The Klan held a public funeral for Young that was attended by more than 15,000 people.
In April 1926, Charlie Birger and the Shelton Brothers joined forces to attack the remaining Klan leaders in Herrin, using Tommy guns and shotguns. The police were called repeatedly, but did not respond. The Klan buried its dead and the coroner ruled that the deaths were homicides "by parties unknown."
Although the Klan's losses were not large, the Herrin attack broke the back of the local KKK. Lawfully elected officials returned to their offices, and Birger and the Shelton Brothers went back into business.
War with the Shelton Brothers Gang
Charlie Birger regarded Harrisburg as his hometown, and refused to tolerate crime there. When a small shop was robbed, Birger publicly made good the owner's losses and the suspected thief was found shot dead a few days later. This incident coincided with the beginning of his war with the Shelton Brothers Gang, fought over control of bootlegging in the area.
By October 1926, the Birger and Shelton Gangs were in open conflict. Both gangs built "tanks"—trucks converted into makeshift armored vehicles from which they could shoot. The Shelton Gang even tried to bomb Shady Rest from the air. The dynamite they dropped missed. Many were killed during the war, and sometimes it was not clear which side they were on. Three deaths became important in ending Birger's own life.
Joseph Adams was the mayor of West City, Illinois, a village near Benton. Birger learned that the Sheltons' tank was in Joe Adams' garage for repairs, and demanded the tank. When Adams failed to surrender it, Birger's men orchestrated a drive-by bombing, destroying Adams' front porch.
In December 1926, two men, Harry and Elmo Thomasson, appeared at Joe Adams' house, announcing that they "had a letter from Carl [Shelton]". They handed a letter to Adams, and as he started to read it, they drew their pistols and shot him dead.
The following month, the Shady Rest was destroyed by a series of large explosions and an ensuing fire. Four bodies (one a woman's) were found in the ruins, charred beyond recognition. This was widely seen as a decisive blow struck by the Sheltons.
At about the same time, Illinois state trooper Lory Price and his wife went missing. Price was widely believed[who?] to be associated with the Birger gang. He had been running a scam in which Birger stole cars and hid them until a reward was offered. Then the trooper pretended to find the cars and split the reward with Birger.
Hanging of Charlie Birger
In June 1927, Birger was arrested on a charge of ordering the murder of Joe Adams. Birger allowed himself to be taken into custody without a fight. He had been arrested many times, and had always been released a few days later. He may not have realized that the trial was to take place in Franklin County, one that he did not control.
Birger and the two men who did the killing were convicted; however, only Birger was sentenced to hang. Birger objected that it was unfair he should hang while the confessed trigger man was sentenced only to prison. Nevertheless, Birger was hanged for the murder of Adams on April 19, 1928, at the Franklin County Jail in Benton. At Birger's request, he was accompanied to the gallows by a rabbi and wore a black hood rather than a white one, since he did not want to be mistaken for a Klansman. Charlie Birger was next to last man to be executed in a public hanging in Illinois (Charles Shader was hanged October 10 of that year). He shook hands with the hangman, the "humane hangman" Philip Hanna, and his final words were, "It's a beautiful world." (Local southern Illinois legend attests that Birger said "It's a beautiful day", in defiance, while the newspapers reported the remorseful "It's a beautiful world.")
Birger's place as a southern Illinois folk legend is recorded in John L. "Ox" Gwaltney's "Charlie Birger":
I heard of Charlie Birger way back when I was young
My daddy told me all about the day that Charlie hung.
I've heard so many stories, some of his ghastly deeds
Another tells how Charlie helped poor folks in their needs.
One said he was a kindly man who never told a lie
But when somebody crossed him, that man was sure to die
That Charlie had no Master you can tell from all the tales
He fought the system all the way, and stayed out of their jails
I've seen so many pictures, they're hanging on the walls
The pictures tell the story of Birger's rise and fall
And when they finally caught him he was sentenced to be hung
But they hadn't broke his spirit the day the trap was sprung
When the State had had its vengeance—When Charlie's life was done
It made one stop to wonder, Who had lost, and who had won.
- John Lastle Gwaltney Southern Illinois Poetry (1985)
Charlie Birger is buried in Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. His marker bears his birth name of Shachna Birger. His sister (Mrs. Rachel Shamsky) and one of his two daughters are buried nearby.
Birger's name entered the news again in 2006 when the granddaughter of the county sheriff who had supervised the execution sued the local historical museum in an attempt to regain possession of the noose used in the hanging.
- Bad Charleston Charlie, a highly fictionalized version of Birger's life story as a 1973 film comedy
- Angle, Paul M. 1952, Rep. 1993. Bloody Williamson - A Chapter in American Lawlessness. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-06233-7.
- DeNeal, Gary. 1981, 2nd Ed. 1993. A Knight of Another Sort. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press. 304 pages. ISBN 0-8093-2216-1 (hardcover), ISBN 0-8093-2217-X (paperback).
- Galligan, George and Jack Wilkinson. 1927, Reprinted 1985. In Bloody Williamson. Marion, Ill.: Williamson County Historical Society.
- Hill, E. Bishop. 1927, Rep. 2006. Complete History of Southern Illinois Gang War: The True Story of Southern Illinois Gang Warfare. Marion, Ill.: Williamson County Historical Society.
- Johnson, Ralph, and Jon Musgrave. 2010. Secrets of the Herrin Gangs. Marion, Ill.: IllinoisHistory.com. 96 pages.
- Small, Curtis G. 1970. Mean Old Jail. Harrisburg, Ill.: Register Publishing Co.
- Taylor, Merlin Moore "The Smashing of Little Egypt's Gangster King (Part I),"True Detective Mysteries,(July 1930) pp. 48ff.
- Taylor, Merlin Moore "The Smashing of Little Egypt's Gangster King (Part II),"True Detective Mysteries,(August 1930) pp. 48ff.
- "Dodging Dynamiters". Time Magazine. February 21, 1927. Retrieved December 1, 2010.
- The Legend of Charlie Birger - WSIU-TV documentary (2003)
- Crime in Southern Illinois: Birger & his Boys by Rich Davis
- DeNeal, Gary (1998). A Knight of Another Sort: Prohibition Days and Charlie Birger (2nd ed.). Danville, Illinois: The Interstate Printers & Publishers. ISBN 0-8093-2216-1.
- Charlie Birger - Southern Illinois Poetry, John L. Gwaltney
- Charles Birger at Find a Grave
- Works by or about Charles Birger at Internet Archive