Birger: Southern Illinois gangster and last man
hanged in Illinois, follow his time on the run
to his fall from the gallows.
Locations on this tour:
Franklin County Jail (Benton)
Franklin County Garage 1910 Museum
Franklin County Couthouse
Williamson County Jail Museum
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.
1924 he started building a roadhouse that
later function as a layover spot for Florida
bootleggers heading up to St. Louis. The bootleggers
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
to withhold a siege and the
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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
out a map of the locations mentioned in this story
Artifacts and Memorabilia
Franklin Co Jail
noose he was hung with
from the time period and much more!
County Garage 1910 Museum
of Birger's automobiles
handcuffs he wore at his execution
bulletproof vest he owned.
Co. Jail Museum
*Since Birger's trial, the room in which
he was tried has been remodeled.