On April 19, 1928, Charles “Charlie” Birger was hanged in Benton. He was a notorious bootlegger and gang leader, who profited from gambling operations and alcohol sales. During his time in Southern Illinois, he feuded with the Ku Klux Klan and the rival Shelton Brothers Gang, bringing violence to the streets of Williamson and Franklin counties.
Birger was responsible for a lot of violence, but the crime that ultimately led to his death sentence was his involvement in the murder of then-West City Mayor Joe Adams, who had been a part of the Shelton Brothers Gang.
According to the news report, 500 people were present to watch Birger’s hanging. “Erect and nonchalant, almost debonair, Birger walked to his death,” the story reads. “The procession emerged from the jail at 9:50 a.m., headed by Sheriff James Pritchard … (Birger) moved at an easy pace, stopping to shake hands with several persons on the way through the stockade to the gallows a distance of 100 feet. The condemned man mounted the steps. Smiling, he pointed a finger at some man in the crowd and waved his hand … Birger nodded and closed his eyes an instant. Quickly the black cap was slipped over his head … True to the code of gangland, Birger died without ‘squealing.’ ‘Beautiful world,’ he said which standing on the scaffold. ‘I’ve forgiven everybody.’”
A sort of social bandit for the Prohibition era, Birger was born Shachna Itzik Birger on February 5, 1881 to a Russian Jewish family that immigrated to the U.S. Birger was a young saloon-keeper on the make when the U.S. decided to make a go of its first foolish drug war, Prohibition. And in the immortal tradition of drug wars, it made the enterprising purveyor a whole lot richer, and a whole lot violent-er.
While Al Capone’s Tommy Guns were tearing up Chicago, Birger set up shop in southern Illinois. A literal shop: from his famous speakeasy Shady Rest, he did three-way battle with the (pro-Prohibition) Ku Klux Klan and the rival Shelton Brothers Gang.
This cinematic affair of armored car shootouts, aerial bombings, and gangland assassinations comes off with verve in A Knight of Another Sort: Prohibition Days and Charlie Birger. The bon vivant Birger, bursting with charisma, entertains at his gin joint, aids the misfortunate, corrupts the police, and merrily mobs up Williamson County.
That story reached its conclusion when Birger was arrested for ordering the murder of Joe Adams, mayor of a nearby town who had taken the Shelton Brothers Gang’s armored “tank” car in for repairs.
Birger said he hadn’t actually done that, but he went to the gallows grinning, and humorously chatted up reporters before the big show — cementing his myth with that legend-quality indifference to death.
“I’ve played the game and lost, but I’ll lose like a man,” Birger philosophized. “I’m convicted of a crime I didn’t commit, but I’ve committed a lot of crimes. So I guess things are even. We got too strong against the law, and the law broke it all up.” (From the Chicago Tribune, April 20, 1928.)