Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Wild Times with Charlie Birger

Wild Times with Charlie Birger

“They’ve accused me of a lot of things I was never guilty of, but I was guilty of a lot of things which they never accused me of, so I guess we’re about even.” – Charlie Birger

On this date, January 9, 1927, the heavily fortified hideout (and BBQ stand) of gangster Charlie Birger was blown up outside of the Southern Illinois town of Harrisburg. During the Roaring 20s, when mobsters in Chicago were grabbing headlines with shootouts and machine-gunnings, there was an all-out war taking place among the bootleggers of Southern Illinois. Death tolls were just as high as those among their Windy City counterparts – and some of the characters involved were just as colorful as anyone you might find on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Charlie Birger and his men --- posing with their weapons (they were using Thompson machine-guns before mobsters in Chicago) outside of Shady Rest, his hideout, speakeasy and BBQ stand. 

Violence was common among the coal fields and small towns of Southern Illinois. It had been that way for years. In fact, in the early 1920s, bootleggers like Charlie Birger and the Shelton brothers teamed up to battle the Ku Klux Klan, which was intent on getting rid of liquor dealers and Catholics. Gunfights, assassinations and pitched battles followed, including a siege of the city hospital in Herrin, which dared to treat a bootlegger who was suffering from bullet wounds.

Much of the violence centered around a Harrisburg gangster named Charlie Birger, one of the region’s most entertaining and unusual men. Those who met him for the first time were always impressed by his handsome appearance and his pleasant manner. His handshake was hearty and his smile was quick and the riding breeches and leather jacket that he customarily wore were always neat and clean. Just under six feet tall, he carried himself with erect military bearing and looked younger than his mid-forties, which was his actual age. He usually wore two guns in holsters and could often be seen sporting a well-oiled Thompson sub-machinegun.

Birger’s dark skin and hair indicated his immigrant heritage. He had been born to Russian immigrant parents in New York and, while still a child, his family moved to St. Louis. He was raised in the city and then in Glen Carbon, a coal town near East St. Louis. In 1901, he joined the 13th U.S. Cavalry and served in the Spanish-American War. Afterward, he worked as a cowboy in South Dakota and then drifted back to East St. Louis. He became involved in saloons and gambling and, after prohibition, became a bootlegger.

Charlie Birger – one of Southern Illinois’ most colorful characters – was an outlaw and bootlegger but many in Harrisburg considered him a local hero. 

In East St. Louis, he would become friends with the men who would go on to become his deadly enemies just a few years later. These friends were the Shelton brothers, Carl, Earl and Bernie, and with Birger, they would battle the powerful Ku Klux Klan. The Sheltons were an integral part of the violence in the region. The brothers grew up in Southern Illinois and had a number of early brushes with the law. Eventually, they took over a large portion of the bootlegging in the region. After becoming friends with Birger, he allowed them to use Harrisburg as a layover and shipping point for liquor coming in from Florida.

In the early 1920s, Charlie Birger moved to Harrisburg and by this time, was married to his second wife, had two children and was a successful “businessman.” He had started a number of profitable speakeasies and brothels that offered not only liquor and prostitutes, but gambling, as well.

In the fall of 1923, Birger achieved sudden notoriety when he killed two men in three days. The first was a young man named Cecil Knighton who worked for him as a bartender. The police, who were called as soon as shots were heard, found Knighton dead and Birger standing over him with a shotgun in his hands. The next day, a coroner’s jury returned a verdict of self-defense. His second victim was a St. Louis gangster named “Whitey” Doering, who was under sentence on a federal robbery charge, but was out on bail pending appeal. According to Birger’s version of events, Doering called him out from his roadhouse, and then opened fire at him when he walked out the door. Birger fired back. Doering was mortally wounded but Birger, hit in the arm and the lung, recovered. He was exonerated again when he pleaded self-defense. These were the only two murders ever legally linked to Birger during his career. Before his death, he readily admitted to others and stated that he had killed men, “but never a good one.”

In spite of this, many chose to see Birger as a public benefactor rather than as a killer and bootlegger. In Harrisburg, he helped many people in need. One severe winter, he canvassed the town and sent coal to all of the poor families he could find. On another occasion, he purchased schoolbooks for children whose families could not afford to buy them. He let it be known that he would not permit Harrisburg residents to patronize his gambling tables because “you can’t win in a professional game.” He also claimed that he had prevented several robberies in town and after the outbreak of gang violence, he took on the role of public protector. He kept gun battles out of Harrisburg and on the surrounding highways. Bullets, he assured everyone, would only be fired at “enemy gangsters.”

In 1924, Birger began building what would become his most prominent establishment, Shady Rest. Located about halfway between Marion and Harrisburg on Route 13, the roadhouse drew disreputable characters and customers from all over the region. It would become the base of Birger’s illegal operations. Shady Rest opened for business later that year and offered bootleg liquor, gambling, cockfights and dog fights. During the day, business was light and so the place was often used as a layover by liquor runners traveling from Florida. They could then make the last leg of their trip into St. Louis after dark. Although notorious all over southern Illinois, no police officials ever raided or bothered the place. It was no secret what it was being used for or that it had been built to withstand a siege if necessary. The building had been constructed with foot-thick log walls and a deep basement. Rifles, sub-machine guns and boxes of ammunition lined the walls, alongside canned food and water. Floodlights, supplied with electricity that was generated on the grounds, prevented anyone from sneaking up on Shady Rest in the night.The place was very popular with the locals until the relationship between Birger and the Sheltons fell apart. After that, the bloody climate of the location kept many customers away.

Why the bloody rift developed between Birger and the Sheltons is unclear. Most likely, it was simply business that became personal. The two groups had originally united to fight back the Klan’s encroachment on their business. Once the Klan was wiped out, there was no one left to fight but each other. Regardless of why the war started, it plunged all of southern Illinois into chaos. 

Murders began occurring across the area – first a Shelton gunmen, then a Birger man would be killed. The Sheltons built an armored truck, equipped with machine guns, that they began using to carry out raids on Birger operations. On the day before two Birger men were killed, Birger and a handful of gunmen called on Joe Adams, a slow, overweight man who worked as a roadhouse operator, a Stutz motor car dealer, and as mayor of West City, a small town on the edge of Benton. Birger heard that the Sheltons had left their steel-tank truck at Adams’ garage for repairs. Birger demanded that Adams give it to him and in fact warned him that if he did not, he would “drill you so full holes people won’t know your corpse.”

Adams refused and an argument ensued. Before he left, he told Adams to deliver the truck to Shady Rest. If he did so, he could save himself “a lot of trouble with undertakers and caskets, if you know what I mean.”

Instead of complying, Adams called on the county authorities for protection. They refused and so he asked the Sheltons for help. They sent a number of armed men to Adams’ garage and waited for Birger to return. When the state’s attorney learned of their presence, he ordered them to leave the county. But they did not leave quietly.

Early the next morning, a farmer who lived next to a Birger roadhouse near Johnston City saw 15 or 20 men sneak out of the nearby woods and open fire on the place. In a few minutes, it caught on fire. The men laughed and shouted as they watched the flames and while passing motorists slowed down as they saw the fire, none of them dared to stop. As the sun was rising, the men slipped back into the woods, climbed into their cars, and drove away.

On a Saturday night in early November 1926, a Birger associate named John Milroy was machine-gunned as he left a roadhouse in the town of Colp. The mayor and the chief of police, called from another roadhouse nearby, were shot at from the darkness as they got out of their car. The mayor was fatally wounded but the police chief, who ran at the sound of the first shot, escaped with a shattered hand. Both men, it was said, were enemies of the Sheltons’.

A few days later, a homemade bomb was tossed from a speeding car toward Shady Rest. The bomb had been intended for the building, but it missed and Birger’s hideout was unharmed. Two days later, machine gunners (allegedly sent by Birger) shot up the home of Joe Adams, the mayor of West City.

Then, hours later, the only bombs ever dropped during aerial warfare in America fell on Shady Rest. In full daylight, an airplane flew low over Birger’s hideout as his men watched. Three bundles were thrown from the cockpit. They turned out to be dynamite bound around bottles of nitroglycerine. One fell apart in the air, but two fell to the ground near the barbeque stand. The “bombs” were so poorly constructed that they never exploded. The attack was attributed to the Sheltons, repaying Birger for shooting up Joe Adams’ home.

The following week, a more effective bomb was thrown in response, this time by the Birger gang. It exploded in front of Joe Adams’ house, damaging the front porch, blowing the door off its hinges, and shattering the windows. Had the bomb landed just 10 feet closer to the house, everyone in the house, which included Adams, his wife, and his brother, would have been killed. As it was, no one was injured – but it wouldn’t stay that way for long.

On Sunday afternoon, December 12, two men came to the door of Adams’ house and told his wife they had a letter from Carl Shelton. When he answered his wife’s call, one of the men handed Adams a note. While he read it, both of them pulled guns from their coats and shot him in the stomach and chest. He lived just long enough to tell his wife that he hadn’t recognized the killers. The next day, at the coroner’s inquest, Mrs. Adams blamed the killing on Charlie Birger. Birger told reporters that he didn’t know who killed Adams – but he was certainly glad that he was dead.

The gang war soon reached its climax. Just after midnight on January 9, 1927, a farmer who lived a short distance from Shady Rest was awakened by five or six gunshots that seemed to come from the vicinity of the roadhouse. He went back to sleep and a few moments later, was shocked awake by a massive explosion. Rushing to his window, he saw that Shady Rest had been blown apart and a few second later, another explosion rocked the structure and was so strong that he felt his own house tremble on its foundation. The fire at Shady Rest burned so hot that no one dared approach the ruins until morning. By then, it was merely ashes and burned embers. However, among the remains were four bodies, charred beyond recognition.

The ruins of Shady Rest after the final explosion. The Sheltons tried to destroy the roadhouse several times, including by dropping bombs on the place from an airplane. This is the ONLY time that an aerial bombing has ever occurred on American soil. 

Everyone said that the war was now over. The destruction of Shady Rest was sure to make Charlie Birger realize that he was finished and that if he attempted to continue the hostilities he would lose his life, just as he had lost his headquarters. That’s what everyone thought and what observers predicted would mark the end of the war – but they were wrong.

One of the most frequent visitors at Shady Rest was a state highway patrolman named Lory Price. Rumors claimed that he worked with Birger in a stolen car racket. Birger’s men would steal a car, hold it until a reward was posted, then park it in some remote spot and tip off Price as to its whereabouts. Price would then “find” the car and split the reward with Birger. Whether this rumor was true, it is certain that Price was on close terms with Birger and his gunmen. In addition, he was known to have stopped at Shady Rest just a few minutes before it was destroyed. He was also one of the first people to visit the ruins the next morning. At the inquest into the deaths of the four bombing victims, he gave important testimony. He stated that, on the night of January 8, he had stopped at Shady Rest after attending a motion-picture show in Marion. Steve George, the resort’s caretaker, greeted him at the door and asked him to come in and meet his wife. While there, Price noticed a man he had never seen before sitting, apparently half-intoxicated, near the fireplace. He also saw a young man, whom George called “Clarence,” passed out drunk on a cot in an adjoining room. George told Price that when the stranger left, he was going to bed. Price testified that he stayed just a few minutes and then returned to Marion. He was having breakfast early the next morning when he heard that two explosions had leveled Shady Rest.

One week after Price appeared before the coroner’s jury, his stepfather, who lived nearby on the edge of Marion, became concerned over the fact that he had not seen Price, or his wife, Ethel, for two days. When his knocks at the door of Price’s house brought no response, he called the sheriff’s office. Deputies forced the door open. Price’s highway patrolman uniform was folded over a chair and his pistol and gun belt were lying on the dining room table. Although the bed was rumpled, no one had slept in it. Ethel’s nightgown, neatly folded, lay on the coverlet. Her hat and coat were missing and the telephone wires to the house had been cut. Price and his wife had both vanished. Had they been kidnapped – or worse?

From all appearances, Charlie Birger was finished. Shady Rest had been destroyed, his men were scattered and his rivals had taken over his bootlegging business. No matter how bad things looked, though, he still managed to beat the Sheltons in the end. Although he failed to best them with machine guns and dynamite, he dealt the fatal blow against by using the might of the U.S. government.

Almost two years earlier, in January 1925, a post office messenger in Collinsville had been robbed of a mine payroll adding up to around $21,000. The crime had remained unsolved. Birger contacted the postal inspector and managed to convince him that the Sheltons had pulled the job. In November 1926, a federal grand jury returned secret indictments against the three Shelton brothers and one by one, they were arrested and released on bond. The brothers were put on trial and the star witness turned out to be none other than Charlie Birger. He claimed that the Sheltons had pulled the job and, while they were friends, told him all about it. The jury returned a guilty verdict and the next day, the Shelton brothers were sentenced to 25 years in the federal penitentiary. Charlie had gotten the last laugh in the battle with the Sheltons – or so he thought at the time.

The verdict in the Shelton trial caused a sensation in southern Illinois, but not so great a sensation as the discovery of Lory Price’s body on February 5. On that morning, a farmer was walking across a field near Dubois, about 35 miles north of Herrin, and stumbled across a partially clothed corpse. Bullet holes were stitched across the body and it was streaked with blood. It had apparently been there for several days since animals had been at work on the remains, chewing away the hands and other extremities. County officials, who were summoned at once, identified the dead man as the missing state policeman.

Nearly everyone in the region speculated about the murder of Price and the fate of his wife and while all of this was going on, two criminal trials occurred that few paid attention to --- but both would have dire consequences for Charlie Birger, naming him as part of several crimes in the region.

Birger was oblivious to this, however. Technically, he had won the gang war for southern Illinois and had put his rivals out of business in the region, but he soon realized that his victory would not last. On April 29, he had been picked up and charged at the Franklin County Jail in Benton for the murder of Joe Adams. The second blow landed when the Shelton brothers were released from jail and given a new trial for their mail robbery. Another turn of events came a few days later, when a Williamson County grand jury indicted four members of Birger’s gang with the murder of “Casey” Jones. Word spread that the grand jury acted on evidence that showed that Jones was killed at Shady Rest in Birger’s absence, that his body was allowed to lie outside the barbeque stand all night, and that early the next morning, the body was dumped in the creek where it was found. These setbacks and bad turns of luck would prove to be nothing compared to the stunning blow that Birger received in June 1927.

Since the day that Lory Price’s body had been found, investigators for the Illinois State Police had been quietly working on the case. They had started on the presumption that Price had been kidnapped by the Sheltons but soon changed their minds. Thanks to information received from an informant, a former Birger gunman hiding out in Ohio, they came to believe that Price had been killed by members of the Birger organization because he simply knew too much.

Doomed highway patrolman Lory Price and his wife, Ethel.

One of Charlie’s men, Art Newman, was arrested and started talking. He claimed that Birger himself had been present when Lory Price and his wife had been kidnapped and murdered. Ethel Price’s body, according to Newman, had been tossed into an abandoned mine shaft. One of the men who killed her told Newman that her body had been dropped into the shaft and the men had covered her with timbers, stones, and debris --no one, he claimed, would ever find her. But this turned out to be wrong…

As soon as the gruesome story of Ethel Price’s fate was made public, workers began removing the debris that Newman said the men had used to clog the shaft of the old Carterville District Mine. A crowd of onlookers began to gather as the opening deepened and miners with picks and shovels worked relentlessly to clear the way. Lines formed and buckets filled with dirt, rocks, and other debris began to be passed upward from hand to hand, dumped, and then passed back down again. County officials and Sheriff Oren Coleman labored alongside the outraged citizens who came to volunteer their help. Ethel Price, they said, was the perfect example of an innocent victim who was murdered because she was a potential witness. Tempers flared hotter when rumors spread that the pretty young schoolteacher may have been pregnant when she was murdered. Her death defied all explanation to the people of southern Illinois.

As darkness fell, lights were strung up over the pit, illuminating the ghastly scene. Work continued throughout the night and into the next morning, only stopping briefly during a rainstorm that came during the early hours. By Sunday afternoon, June 12, the men had achieved a depth of nearly 30 feet. Planks were nailed on telephone poles that had been laid across the opening earlier in the day. From this platform, it was easy to lower buckets down into the shaft in order to haul the debris up even faster. 

At about 3:00 a.m. on Monday morning, following another break caused by a storm, a large scoop shovel was put into operation. Using this piece of equipment, workers were able to move large chunks of concrete and other heavy impediments out of the way. Then, after a piece of sheet iron was hoisted up, workers caught a glimpse of color in the muck. As they peered closer, they saw that it was the body of Ethel Price.

Later on that day, the streets near the Ozment Funeral Home in Marion were cordoned off to prevent curiosity-seekers from keeping away the friends and family who wished to view Ethel’s body. Her funeral was held on the afternoon of June 14 at the First Baptist Church in Marion.

The search for Ethel Price’s body had caused the authorities in Franklin County to move Charlie Birger from the jail in Benton to the Sangamon County Jail in Springfield. His attorneys had already appeared before a judge and requested a change of venue but the charged atmosphere surrounding the search for Ethel Price made it clear to Sheriff Pritchard that a lynching might occur if Birger remained in Benton.

Birger arrived in Springfield on the very day that Ethel’s body was removed from the bottom of the Carterville mineshaft. Reporters were waiting for him when he stepped out of the automobile that had been used to transport him. He shook his head at them as they shouted out questions. He had only one statement to make, “I’m done.”

Charlie Birger never got a change of venue. He was tried in Franklin County for the murder of Joe Adams. The trail went on for weeks and became quite an attraction for the people of Southern Illinois. Dressed in their Sunday clothes, they crowded into the courtroom every day to hear the testimony in the trial of a man who had once been considered a hero to many – and a killer to others.

The jury reached a guilty verdict and Charlie Birger was sentenced to death. His attorneys immediately filed an appeal for a new trial. When he denied the motion, the judge actually condemned Birger with a lecture in which he pleaded with him, for the sake of his children and in atonement for the evil he had done, to help the authorities clear up any crimes that remained on the books as “unsolved”. Then, he sentenced him to die on the gallows on October 15, 1927, adding, “May God have mercy on your soul.”

Birger gasped and then asked to say a few words. Rambling almost incoherently, he denied that he had ever aspired to be a gang leader and that he never wanted to kill anyone. His attorneys announced that they would appeal his case to the Supreme Court and months of legal maneuvering began that would prolong, although not save, Birger’s life. Early in October, it became apparent that Birger would not die on the date that had been set by the judge in his case. His attorneys had filed a petition for a writ of error with the state’s Supreme Court at the beginning of the month, alleging that the verdict was contrary to the law and the evidence. The court granted a stay of execution until it could review the case.

In late February 1928, Birger got bad news about his pending appeal. The Illinois Supreme Court had denied the appeal and had sentenced him to die on Friday, April 13. Birger claimed to be relieved and said that he would “rather die than spend another ten months in jail.”

A month later, R.E. Smith filed another appeal and the Supreme Court also denied it. But the lawyer was far from finished. On April 12, the day before his client was supposed to hang, Smith presented a plea for a stay of execution to the Board of Pardons and Paroles, supporting it by an argument concerning the fact that Birger, accused only of plotting the murder of Joe Adams, had received a death sentence, while the active killers got off with life in prison. The board considered the argument and then announced its decision – no clemency and no stay of execution.

After this failure, Smith rushed to Benton and filed another petition. This one was in the name of Charlie’s nephew, Nathan Birger, and it asked for a sanity hearing. The execution was postponed again and on April 16, the hearing began. Birger made a desperate attempt to escape death, making a fool of himself by cursing at reporters, cowering and rolling his head from side to side. Several times, he tried to rise from his chair and had to be restrained by the guards who sat on either side of him. Smith offered only one witness during the hearing, the operator of a barbeque stand who had known Birger for years. The man testified that he had visited Charlie in jail two months earlier and had believed him to be insane at the time. His story convinced no one and spectators actually laughed at him.

The jury took just 12 minutes to find Birger sane. He was now scheduled to die on April 19. He would be the last man to die on the gallows in the state of Illinois. By the time that he left the courtroom, Birger’s crazy act was over. He walked out with a quick step, his body erect, and his eyes staring straight ahead. However, his hands trembled so badly that those nearby could hear the handcuffs rattling.

All through the night of April 18, people crowded into Benton in the hope that they might see the execution. Thanks to Charlie’s notoriety, a county fair atmosphere prevaded the town. Thousands of people jammed the streets, although only a few hundred of them actually had tickets to the execution. As the night passed, Birger talked to his jailers, to newspapermen, to his rabbi, and to his attorneys. He talked about his life, his crimes, his years in the army, his boyhood growing up, and even about his first wife, who was, he said, the best of the four women he married, even though he didn’t have enough sense to know it when he married her. He prayed with his rabbi and wished his lawyer well.  When Smith finally left the cell for the last time, Birger gripped his hand as he spoke, “Good-bye, Bob, old boy. I know you done all you can, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

To the very end, Birger denied that he had planned the murder for which he was about to die. In spite of this, he did not resent anyone for it. He admitted, “They’ve accused me of a lot of things I was never guilty of, but I was guilty of a lot of things which they never accused me of, so I guess we’re about even.”

Early on the morning of April 19, Birger ate a hearty breakfast. When the barber entered his cell to shave him, his hand shook so badly that he could not continue. Birger gently took the razor and went over his face himself. He dressed in a gray suit, a tan shirt and dark striped tie. When the doctor offered him a sedative to calm him down, Birger refused it.

Charlie Birger on the gallows outside of the Franklin County Jail in Benton, Illinois. Before he died, he looked at the hangman and said, “It’s a beautiful world.” They became his final words. 

At 9:30 a.m., surrounded by guards, he left his cell. As he passed other guards in the corridors, he wished them well in a voice that held no hint of nervousness. With a smile, he walked briskly to the gallows and mounted the steps. He laughed and joked with the officials on the platform and when the sun came out from behind some clouds, he turned his face to it. He grinned as he spoke, “It’s a beautiful world.”

And these became the last words of a man who had become, in his lifetime, a larger-than-life Illinois character. Those near the scaffold said that he was still smiling when the black hood was placed over his head. The hangman fastened the noose and the sheriff sprang the trap. A few minutes later, Charlie Birger was dead.

Another chapter in the history of Illinois crime had come to an end. 

This short entry can’t begin to chronicle the history of Charlie Birger and the story of the bootlegger wars in Southern Illinois. For all of the tales of guns and ghosts, see Troy Taylor’s book BLOODY ILLINOIS. You can get an autographedcopy by clicking here! It’s also available as a Kindle edition from

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