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Charlie Birger Banner

Charlie Birger: Southern Illinois gangster and last man
publicly hanged in Illinois, follow his time on the run to his fall from the gallows.

Featured Locations on this tour:

Old Franklin County Jail (Benton)
Franklin County Garage 1910 Museum (Benton)
Franklin County Couthouse (Benton)
Williamson County Jail Museum (Marion)
 

Charlie Birger
Charlie Birger was born Shachna Itzik Birger in Russia around 1881. His family immigrated to the US and eventually settled around St. Louis. In 1901 he joined the 13th U.S. Cavalry and served until 1904. After his tour of duty, he returned to the East St. Louis area and then moved to Harrisburg. Here he began a successful string of bootlegging, gambling, and prostitution operations in the Harrisburg area. (None of which are standing today.) At one of these establishments he killed two men in three days and in the process injuring himself.

In 1924 he started building a roadhouse that would later function as a layover spot for Florida bootleggers heading up to St. Louis. The bootleggers would check in during the day, and then by the dark of night take to the road. This establishment was called Shady Rest, and located halfway between Marion and Harrisburg. The Shady Rest became a central location in Birger's operations and was well known in the local community and the police departments. There was no major confrontations at Shady Rest because of it's construction to withhold a siege and Shady Rest and the gangthe ammunition and supplies to hold off any attack.


During this time Birger joined with the Shelton Brothers to help spread his operations and to enforce his bootlegging investments. In 1926, the brothers and Birger had a falling out that resulting in Birger arranging for the Sheltons to be arrested and sent to prison.

 

Birger was careful to keep his hands clean of blame for various shootouts and murders that his gang was responsible for. However, his loyalties were running out. His name was connected to the death of Lory Price and his wife. Lory Price was a state policeman connected to Birger and seen around the Shady Rest when it mysteriously exploded. Soon after, when he arranged for the mayor of West City, Joe Adams, to be murdered, his luck ran out. After the cold-blooded murder took place, one of the murders confessed that Birger was behind the plot, and so he was arrested on April 29, 1927.

While Birger stood trial in the Benton courthouse (still standing) for his part in the murder, other members of his gang were being tried in Williamson County court. One was even hung on the square of Marion that year. Birger tried to escape that fate, but was found guilty for the murder of Adams. While the actual murders got life imprisonment, Birger was sentenced to death. He avoided his fate for a year by appeals, where he stayed at the Franklin Co. Jail. But in late February of 1928, his appeal was rejected, and he was scheduled to die on April 13th. Another appeal was denied on April 12th. Even Birger's lawyer posed as Birger's nephew to demand (and succeeded) in granting a petition for a sanity hearing. The hearing took place on April 16th, and regardless of Birger's attempts to convince the jury that he was insane it took the jury just 12 minutes to find him sane enough to die.

Birger's HangingOn April 19th, a crowd of thousands surrounded the jail to see Charlie Birger die. Birger remained calm, charming, and confident to the end, even making the comment "'It's a beautiful world." before he was bound and prepared to be hanged.

With his death, Birger was the last man executed by hanging in Illinois. Regarded as a Robin Hood of sorts by many in the region, he will always be remembered as one of the most famous characters of the Prohibition era in Southern Illinois history.

 

Birger Location Map
The story doesn't end with Charlie Birger's death. The Shelton brothers were eventually freed from prison. They continued their lives, but their past followed them. The last Shelton brother was shot while driving his tractor down the road in Wayne County.

Check out a map of the locations mentioned in this story here.

 

Birger Artifacts and Memorabilia

Old Franklin Co Jail

  • Birger's jail cell
  • Replica gallows
  • the noose he was hung with
  • Photos from the time period and much more!

 

Franklin County Garage 1910 Museum

  • One of Birger's automobiles
  • The handcuffs he wore at his execution
  • A bulletproof vest he owned.
  • Much more!

Willamson Co. Jail Museum

 

Franklin County Courthouse*

*Since Birger's trial, the room in which he was tried has been remodeled.

 

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