Notorious gangster Charlie Birger hanged 80 years ago
This copy of a historic photo shows Charlie Birger on the gallows April 26, 1928, in Benton. This was the state's last public hanging. (Steve Jahnke)

BENTON - A large photograph of Charlie Birger hangs on the wall of an old jail cell exactly where the photo was taken 80 years ago in what is now the Old Jail Museum in Benton.

Today marks the 80th anniversary of Birger's death by hanging.

On April 19, 1928, Birger was hanged by the neck until he was "dead, dead, dead" as a displayed jail registry book reads. Bob Rea, president of the Franklin County Historic Preservation Society, said the triple death declaration was because before an executed person could be officially be declared dead three doctors had to check the deceased.

Birger's death, which was documented at 9:48 a.m., marked the last public hanging in the state of Illinois and put an end to an era of bootlegging, gang rivalry and civil disobedience.

"It is a centralized point of our history in Southern Illinois," Rea said about the Roaring '20s, a tumultuous time in history when the Birger Gang drove the streets of Saline, Franklin and Williamson counties.

"He actually profited from gambling and the sale of alcohol," Rea said. "At the date of his hanging, we ended an era."

Birger was born Shachna Itzik Birger in Russia around 1880. His family immigrated to the United States when he was about 8-years-old and set up their home in the St. Louis area.

Rea said Birger became a "news boy" with The Post-Dispatch newspaper and later moved to the O'Fallon area where he started work in a pool room. In 1901, he joined the 13th Calvary, according to Rea.

"He went out west," Rea said. "He was an expert horseman."

Birger committed a number of crimes throughout his career as a gangster, but Rea said he wasn't convicted of most of them because he claimed self-defense.

"He would allow them (his rivals) to publicly threaten him so he could claim it was self-defense," he said.

Because of his criminal history, Birger brought national attention to Southern Illinois.

"He gave us national attention that we didn't necessarily want," said Jon Musgrave, Director of the Williamson County Tourism Bureau, local author and historian. "The exploits and the massacre and the Klan wars and gang wars between Birger's faction and the Shelton Gang got as much play as Al Capone.

"He was a criminal, but unlike the Shelton Gang, Charlie had aspirations of respectability," Musgrave said. "He wanted to hobnob with the top people. He wanted to have that class that he just couldn't get as a coal miner. He would portray himself as American born when he wasn't. He wouldn't portray himself as Jewish when he was."

Birger was married several times and had two children, Minnie and Charline. Neighbors said he lived the life of a respectable man in Saline County despite leading his gang of criminals throughout Franklin and Williamson Counties.

Rea said Birger had everyone fooled, even those who thought they knew him best.

"Over in Harrisburg, he had a family," Rea explained. "His neighbors said he was a family man and a solid citizen. He got on the radio and said he was going to protect the people of Saline County from the outrageous acts of the Shelton Gang. These people couldn't believe this guy was running around Franklin County with guns."

The rivalry between Birger, the Ku Klux Klan and the Shelton Gang is where much of the violence stemmed in Southern Illinois during that time.

Birger started building a roadhouse in 1924, which was meant to function as a layover spot for Florida bootleggers heading to St. Louis. Birger worked with the bootleggers to move Jamaican Rum. The roadhouse, called Shady Rest, was between Marion and Harrisburg.

In a video shown at the museum, it was reported that the first aerial attack in the U.S. occurred at Shady Rest when a rival gang dropped a bomb on the roadhouse.

Birger's hatred for the KKK came along with his big-brother type of sincerity for the rights of immigrants. The conflict with the Shelton Gang was based on business and the fight over territory to bootleg alcohol.

As the gang rivalries continued, the unwritten rule was that Birger's Gang ran Benton and the Shelton Gang took control of West City.

Among those alleged members of the Shelton Gang was the mayor of West City, Joe Adams.

On Nov. 12, 1926, Birger allegedly arranged for the attack of Adams at his home. At the jail museum a bullet-ridden dresser hit in that attack is on display.

Adams was not killed.

One month later, Birger hired Harry and Elmo Thomasson of West Frankfort to go to Adams' home and murder him. In 1928, Birger was convicted of involvement in the murder and sentenced to death by hanging.

Several pictures from the hanging show people climbing trees to get a clear view over the crowd of nearly 5,000 that turned out to watch him die.

Birger was hanged by hangman Phil Hanna. Birger shook Hanna's hand just before a black bag was placed over Birger's head. And just before Birger was dropped through the trap door, witnesses saye he proclaimed: "It's a wonderful world."

tara.fasol@thesouthern.com/ 351-5824

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