Williamson County was a dangerous place in the 1920s

Tales of gangsters abound throughout Illinois history. The stories of Al Capone, Bugs Moran, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and Chicago’s Beer Wars grabbed headlines during the Prohibition era, and have remained well known via movies and television shows for almost a century.

While Capone is by far the most famous of Illinois’ 20th-century gangsters, another Prohibition-era outlaw at the opposite end of the state named Charlie Birger made plenty of headlines himself until justice finally caught up with him and made him the last man to be convicted and publicly hanged in Illinois.

Born Shachna Itzik Birger in Russia in 1880, his family fled to America to escape the pogroms then terrorizing Jewish families in the Russian Empire. They settled first in New York and then St. Louis, before moving across the Mississippi to Glen Carbon, Illinois. Charlie, as he came to be called in America, joined the Army in 1901 and served for three years. He returned to Illinois where he found work in a coal mine and later, fatefully, as a saloonkeeper. A series of brushes with the law followed.

With the coming of prohibition, Birger saw an opportunity to continue the saloon business in violation of the law. He allied with a local gang of bootleggers, led by a trio of brothers, Carl, Earl and Red Shelton. Their partnership eventually included not just alcohol but also car thefts, slot machines and other gambling. Birger based his operation out of a hideout called Shady Rest in eastern Williamson County.

Shady Rest became a well-known headquarters for bootlegging in the region. Tucked behind a barbecue stand just off the highway, Shady Rest offered plenty of opportunities to have a drink or place a wager on a dog fight. It was also a stopover where out-of-state bootleggers could lay low during daylight hours before continuing their deliveries elsewhere in the Midwest.

Williamson County was a dangerous place in the 1920s. Torn by violence between miners and strikebreakers, as well as between a briefly-resurgent Ku Klux Klan against Catholics and immigrants, the county was the setting for Paul Angle’s 1952 book Bloody Williamson, which tells the tale in all its sordid detail. A wild gunfight in Herrin on primary Election Day 1926 brought a climax to this violent chapter, but not the end of the story. Governor Len Small had to mobilize the National Guard to keep order in the county throughout the decade.

Violence also seemed to follow Charlie Birger. “Trouble clung to him like a virus,” wrote author Gary DeNeal. Twice he had been arrested on suspicion of murder (once while standing over the body of a victim holding a shotgun) only to have a jury rule the acts as self-defense. He wore two holstered pistols beneath his customary leather jacket, and was frequently seen casually carrying a submachine gun. He also wore suede gloves to conceal a missing finger amputated after a 1923 fistfight.

By 1926, the region was teeming with roadhouses and gambling establishments. Soon they were the scene of another outbreak of violence. A series of mysterious shootings occurred that summer: a carload of gunshot victims pulled up to the hospital in Herrin, a violent robbery of a gambling den in West Frankfort, a double homicide outside a roadhouse, ambushes along rural highways.

In October, all doubt about what was happening was removed. A roadhouse operated by the Sheltons outside Herrin was shot up, and shortly thereafter a group of gunmen walked into the town’s Jefferson Hotel dining room and announced, “If anyone wants to know who did the shooting, tell them Charlie Birger did it.”

The bootlegging alliance between Birger and the Sheltons was over, and now Birger was trying to violently take control of the operation. It was the beginning of a gang war which would terrorize the southern part of Illinois for the next several months.

Now the bodies of members of Birger’s gang began to turn up on roadsides in Williamson and surrounding counties. The Sheltons used a large armored water tank mounted on the back of a truck to ambush one of Birger’s men on a highway east of Marion. After the shooting, they left the tank at a garage in West City, in nearby Franklin County, owned by Joe Adams, himself a speakeasy operator and friend of the Sheltons, who also happened to be the town’s mayor.

When the news reached Birger he angrily confronted Adams, demanding the mayor turn over the tank, “or I’ll drill you so full of holes people won’t know your corpse.”

Still seething, Birger told an associate that if Adams didn’t deliver he would kill the mayor and that the “Franklin County law isn’t big enough to stop us!”

He returned to Shady Rest, by now a heavily-fortified bunker with stores of rifles and ammunition, to consider his next move.

Meanwhile, newspapers were full of stories about the fighting, and conflicting accounts gleaned from interviews with Birger and the Sheltons as to who had started the latest clash and why.

“What is Charlie Birger going to do?” a writer in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wondered in late October. “Will he stand for the killing of his men?”

“I’m out to get Shelton or any of his men, because if I don’t get them they’ll get me,” Birger told the St. Louis Star.

“I can prove enough on Birger to make him Uncle Sam’s boarder for a long, long time, and I’m going to do it,” Shelton countered in the same paper.

The violence escalated. In November it reached a level even Chicago mobsters never attempted. The Sheltons hired a pilot to fly over Shady Rest and drop three homemade bombs – the first aerial bombing in American history. Two bombs failed to explode and the third missed. Retaliatory bombings followed, though no one was killed.

A month later, two men knocked on Adams’ door claiming to be delivering a letter from Carl Shelton. When the mayor came to the door both men drew pistols and shot him dead.

Birger was immediately a suspect, but he denied involvement.

“I don’t know who killed Adams,” he said. “But I’m certainly glad he was killed.”

Adams’ widow told of Birger’s constant threats against the mayor and a series of phone calls the gangster made to the mayor’s home, including one in which he asked Mrs. Adams if she had much life insurance on her husband.

A month later, a tremendous explosion leveled the Shady Rest bunker and killed at least four people inside. Subsequent investigation strongly suggested that Birger himself might have been behind the explosion as a way to eliminate turncoats in his organization while blaming his rivals.

Meanwhile, Birger’s conflict with the Sheltons took on a different form. Weeks earlier he had provided information to detectives which connected the Sheltons to the robbery of a U.S. Mail clerk in Collinsville in 1925. Just days after the explosion at Shady Rest, the brothers were to stand trial in federal court in Quincy. Birger was among the witnesses called to testify by the prosecution. Angle wrote that Birger sat on the witness stand with a “faint but confident smile,” as he worked to persuade the jury to send his enemies to prison.

Birger succeeded. The Sheltons were found guilty and sentenced to 25 years in federal prison.

But any sense of joy he might have felt over the Sheltons’ fate was to be short-lived. One of Joe Adams’ killers, Harry Thomasson, was identified by eyewitnesses, and under interrogation by Franklin County authorities he confessed to the murder and pointed to Birger as the instigator. The other killer, Harry’s brother Elmo, was among those killed in the Shady Rest explosion, which provided Harry with a reason to turn on Birger.

Things unraveled quickly for Birger after that. He was promptly arrested (by the same “Franklin County law” he had derided earlier) and charged in the murder. Then the Sheltons’ attorney produced a sworn affidavit from a prosecution witness in the mail clerk robbery trial claiming that he had lied on the witness stand under threat of death from Birger. It was good enough to get the brothers a new trial and be released on bond. They left Southern Illinois behind and eventually settled on Peoria as the center of their criminal enterprises in the 1930s and 40s. Two of the brothers were killed in the late 1940s.

In May 1927, Illinois State Police, investigating the murder of a state trooper and his wife shortly after the Shady Rest blast, got one of Birger’s closest associates, Art Newman, to confess to his role in the murder and offer graphic testimony about the shooting of Trooper Lory Price by Birger. (In 2011, a section of highway east of Marion was named in Price’s honor). At almost the same time, other members of Birger’s gang were on trial for yet another murder. They were found guilty just hours after Birger’s trial for the Adams murder began on July 6, 1927.

Spectators filled the Franklin County courtroom for the trial. If someone left the room, others struggled to get inside to take the empty seat. Hundreds of others waited outside. Back inside, Birger’s former associates were taking the witness stand one by one and offering testimony against the gang leader, sealing his fate.

“What are we to do with men like this,” prosecutor Nealy Glenn asked the jury in his closing argument. “Hang the conspirators by their necks until they are dead!”

After 24 hours of deliberations, the jury agreed. They found Birger, Newman and another defendant guilty, but sentenced only Birger to death. Illinois law had recently been changed to require electrocution for all death sentences, but only for crimes committed after July 1, 1927. So Birger would go to the gallows. Months of appeals, which went all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court, were unsuccessful, and Birger was sentenced to hang on April 19, 1928.

Fearing more violence, authorities had surrounded the courthouse grounds and the nearby gallows with heavily armed police. Walking from the jail, Birger quipped to one of the deputies, “it looks like the western front here.” DeNeal describes it as a “circuslike atmosphere.”

Mounting the steps to the gallows, Birger looked out at the crowd of about 500 spectators and said, “It is a beautiful world.” Fifteen minutes later, he was dead. His was the last public execution by hanging in Illinois (an October execution in Joliet was the last execution by hanging in Illinois, but it did not occur in public). Birger was executed before he could stand trial for the many other crimes to which he was believed to be connected.

The other killers of Trooper Price were rounded up and tried in 1929. Convictions and guilty pleas produced more witnesses and evidence in the many remaining unsolved murders from the gang war and the earlier violence. These in turn begat more convictions. In 1930, the last of Birger’s lieutenants was convicted of murder and sent to prison.

A local newspaper described the close of the trial as, “The final chapter of the bloody book which records the gang warfare which once ravaged Southern Illinois.”


Further reading: Bloody Williamson: A Chapter in American Lawlessness, by Paul M. Angle (Alfred A. Knopf, 1952); Knight of Another Sort: Prohibition Days and Charlie Birger by Gary DeNeal (Southern Illinois University Press, 1981)