The stories and myths of Charlie Birger live on almost a century after his death.
BENTON — Ninety years ago today, bootlegger and gang-leader Charlie Birger was the last man to be publicly hanged in the state of Illinois.
Birger’s myth looms large in Southern Illinois where nearly 100 years ago he and his men brought horrific violence to Franklin and Williamson counties, filling many graves in the process.
Birger was born in about 1880 in Russia and came to the U.S. at the age of 8 with his family — they settled near the St. Louis area. He was a lot of things in his life — immigrant turned soldier, turned cowboy, turned coal miner, turned gangster.
Bill Owens, a board member for the Franklin County Historic Preservation Society, said it was likely the allure of the booming coal industry that brought one of the region's biggest characters to Southern Illinois.
Owens volunteers time at the Franklin County Jail Museum in Benton, which houses a large Birger display, including the noose used to hang Birger and the gallows he hung from in Benton on April 19, 1928.
Owens said he has heard a lot of stories about how Birger got his foot in the door with bootlegging alcohol — he said folklore can get in the way of facts sometimes. But, he felt confident in one thing: Charlie Birger likely didn’t come to power peacefully. Owens said Birger “strong-armed” his way into the booming business.
His rise to power didn’t go unnoticed.
Owens said that, eventually, Birger’s gang butt heads with the other local bootlegging outfit run by Carl Shelton. According to previous reporting by The Southern, the beef centered around distribution and disputes over turf.
Owens said the shootouts between the two gangs were the stuff of legends.
Tommy guns rang out from the inside of armored trucks and Owens said even the first aerial bombing recorded in the U.S. was between the Birger and Shelton Gangs — the Sheltons were trying to destroy Birger's hideout, the Shady Rest food stand on Route 13 between Marion and Harrisburg.
The stories weren’t all bad, though.
Owens said while Birger was a known thug, he had a softer appearance to his Saline County neighbors. He said many that come in to the Jail Museum have had stories passed down through generations about the other Charlie Berger, the one that would lend a helping hand. However, Owens said when these people come through the exhibit, often they realize the man Birger actually was.
In a previous interview with The Southern, Franklin County Historic Preservation Society President Bob Rea said Birger had everyone fooled — even those who thought they knew him best.
“Over in Harrisburg, he had a family," Rea said. “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.”
In a 1926 attack in Herrin, the Birger Gang and Shelton Gang, who were temporary allies at the time, killed several local Ku Klux Klan leaders, dethroning the organization from local power.
With S. Glenn Young as its leader, the Klan had been working to disrupt the flow of alcohol in Southern Illinois during Prohibition and, in the process, taken over several local offices.
The good will did not last for long between Shelton and Birger, and the war is ultimately what led to Birger’s arrest, Rea previously told The Southern. According to archives in The Southern, Birger ordered the firebombing of West City Mayor Joe Adams’ house in 1926 — he had been associated with the Sheltons. The bombing destroyed his porch, but didn’t kill Adams.
A month later, Birger sent two hit men to finish the job.
And, two years later, Birger was at the gallows.
Owens said court proceedings took the better part of the year in Birger’s murder case. He said Birger’s defense tried to plead insanity.
"The judge just wouldn’t buy it,” Owens said.
Owens said Birger had been arrested many times before and said he believes Birger thought the case would be thrown out.
Perhaps the most famous element of Birger’s story is that of his death. Statistics aside about his being the last public hanging in the state — incidentally, Owens said the gallows used for Birger’s death was also used in the last public hanging in the U.S. in 1936 — his last words have become famous on their own.
“It's a beautiful world.”
Owens said there is some debate over whether this or the variant “It's a beautiful day” were Birger’s last, but he feels confident in the former.
The words read like poetry and Owens said he thinks there is a sense of regret in them. He said the day of the hanging was sunny, and in mid-April the world was in bloom.
“I’m losing what’s really important. It’s a beautiful world and I’ve thrown it all away,” Owens said of what he imagines was going through Birger’s mind just before the end.
Then again, Owens admits he was also high on morphine — though Owens said he suspects this was a habit he had established before his conviction, so the dose he got before being walked out to his death may have been commonplace for him.
Birger’s tale is one of intrigue and curiosity, but Owens said it’s more than that for Southern Illinois.
Volunteering at the museum, Owens said he hears all kinds of stories from visitors about their family connection to the Birger story. Keeping that history alive means keeping part of their family history alive, too.
"Everybody feels connected,” Owens said. “It brings Birger back to life for them.”
On the day Birger was hanged, the Carbondale Free Press proclaimed: "Nerve Unshaken, Dies As He Lived; Smiles and Does Not 'Squeal.'"
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.'"