Chicago Tribune - Chicago, Ill. Copyright
Fred Dickey: Fred Dickey was born in southern Illinois, raised in DeKalb and now is a writer in Cardiff by the Sea, Calif.
Oct 7, 2001
The small boy gripped his father's hand and remained quiet, carefully emulating the 100 men who spoke hushed, short words all around him. Outside the fence behind him, 5,000 other men, women and children waited in the same churchlike solemnity. A few intrepid boys had climbed high into trees to watch. It was the largest public gathering in anyone's memory in the southern Illinois community of Benton. About 29 feet away, just beyond the broad shoulders rising all around him, Gene Powell, age 9, could see the scaffold and the slack noose that dangled from a thick cross beam, swaying softly in the breeze.
Suddenly, the heavy door to the jail right behind the scaffold swung open, creaking in the silence, and a small group of grim men filed out. The boy's eyes were first drawn to a man reading from a book, slow and sorrowful, but they quickly shifted to a dapper man in his mid-40s whose hands were cuffed in front of him. Charlie Birger was handsome in a youngish, open-faced way. Although of medium height, he loomed large here, as he would have in any crowd. He was dressed in a new gray suit, and he nodded and smiled to acquaintances as he started to walk. "Hey, Bill, how you doin'?" It was obvious that he liked people, and many liked him.
Underneath the open scaffold, Birger passed the wicker casket that would soon hold his body. He spat into it just before he started up the 13 stairs to the platform. He took them steadily, appearing more relaxed than those who watched.
On the platform, Birger stood erect and patient as he waited. He chatted with lawmen while the rabbi intoned divine reassurance. The hangman asked if he wanted a black hood or a white one. The condemned man, an enemy of the Ku Klux Klan, laughed and said black. "I've never liked Klux colors."
Just before the hood was put in place, he was asked if he wanted to say any last words. He looked at the faces below him, many of which were sad, even tearful. He looked beyond to the blue sky latticed by the spring buds of a giant oak tree and felt the breeze for the last time. "It's a beautiful world," he said in a clear voice. Reporters from Chicago, St. Louis and the wire services strained to hear his words and scribbled them down.
There were about 10 minutes remaining of his life before the appointed hour of 10 a.m., but he stepped directly onto the trapdoor. "Let's get on with it. I forgive everybody." The hangman made a last check of the thick noose pulled snug just under the left ear, then solemnly nodded to Sheriff Jim Pritchard, who stood at the back of the platform with his hand on the lever. The lawman tightened his jaw and his grip, hesitated, then yanked. The trap clattered open and Birger plunged through.
Gene Powell blinked as the hooded man suddenly disappeared amid the jarring noise of the trap door. Outside the barrier, another boy, Johnnie Warren, 6, was looking through a crack in the thrown- together fence. All he could see was the open area beneath the scaffold. Suddenly, he was startled as his view was filled by a hooded body falling into the space.
It was the morning of April 19, 1928, and the most celebrated bootlegger-gangster in southern Illinois, whose colorful exploits had fascinated the nation, became the last man publicly hanged in the state. "Birger Dies Smiling," blared the local newspaper. Birger was dead, but his legend took on new life.
They're called the "Roaring '20s," but the meaning of the phrase varied widely, from the roar of the crowd cheering Red Grange and Charles Lindbergh to the roar of machine guns as gangsters fought for the spoils of Prohibition. It was a period of wealth for a few, and the illusion of wealth for many as inflated stock certificates papered over reality. However, in rural America the Depression came a decade early, as farmers confronted a postwar grain glut.
In southern Illinois it was worse, because the land there lacked the fertility of the glacial soil deposited in the northern part of the state. So, as much of the country enjoyed the economic boom, the miners and dirt farmers in Little Egypt read their Sears catalogs and nursed grudges against the merchants and bankers. They were themselves rigidly conventional, but many secretly admired anyone bold enough to challenge authority.
Shachna Itzik Birger, born in 1880 in Russia according to his military record, came to America in the wave of Eastern European Jews that stepped off the boat at the end of the 19th Century. According to Birger biographer Gary DeNeal, author of "Knight of Another Sort," Birger's family moved to St. Louis. Later, he joined the U.S. Cavalry and served in the Far West, where he also became a cowboy skilled at breaking wild horses.
After the Army, Birger returned to the rough area of East St. Louis and for about eight years knocked about in obscure jobs. He was 5 feet 8 and wiry, handsome and pleasant enough if he was getting his way. But "if you pushed Charlie, you had somebody to fight," says Benton businessman and historian Bob Rea.
In 1913, Birger and the first of his four wives moved to the coal- mining town of Ledford in Saline County, where opportunity beckoned. The community was "dry" by local option, and Birger set himself up as a small-time bootlegger and pimp.
Saline was one of three adjoining counties--Franklin and Williamson were the others--that were unique in having a booming mining industry and a multi-ethnic population. The counties shared a history of criminal violence, both before and after the Charlie Birger era, earning the region the title "Bloody Williamson."
Birger forged an informal business alliance between the hill people who manufactured much of his booze in deep-woods stills and the miners who consumed most of it. Local police were not especially eager to enforce the law and arrest the bootleggers, who often were neighbors and boys they had gone to school with. Chances were, the cops also drank the stuff themselves. They let the lawbreakers slide, then took the inevitable step into complicity by accepting small bribes.
While the mine owners enjoyed the lake breezes along the Gold Coast in Chicago, their workers lived in a landscape of poverty, sickness and a black dust that coated everything--clothes, skin and lungs. Into this wide prairie of poverty came a golden opportunity for the enterprising Birger as the calendar turned into 1920. The anti-liquor forces in America had finally won their century-long social and political battle with the enactment of Prohibition. The celebrations of the "drys" were matched by those of the bootleggers, who knew that the taste for their product could not be legislated away and that boom times were ahead.
Birger's rise to prominence in Bloody Williamson was due to both his winning personality and his ruthlessness with rivals. He was a showman who loved acclaim perhaps more than a dollar. He resembled cowboy movie star Tom Mix, and he played on that, dressing in Western clothes and bragging about his background as a cavalryman and breaker of wild horses.
He played community benefactor by giving small amounts of money to the needy and making his autos and telephone available to people who could never afford such luxuries themselves. Such small acts of generosity made a big impression in a poor community in the '20s and contributed to Birger's legend as a kind of Robin Hood. Kids flocked to him as he gave them the Pied Piper treatment with liberal bribes of ice cream and watermelon. A favorite flourish was to go to a schoolyard and toss dimes to the children, many of whom could otherwise go a year without seeing a 10-cent piece.
Birger's darker side also emerged: He killed at least two men in those early years, both small-time thugs, and in each case successfully pleaded self-defense. "Charlie was a one-trick dog," Rea says. "Whenever he wanted to kill someone, he would antagonize him until the fellow publicly threatened Charlie. Then he could claim self-defense when it came time to do the killing."
As Birger himself blandly explained, "I never killed anyone who didn't deserve killing."
DeNeal, the man who has studied Birger the most, can offer no explanation for a man who could kill one day and buy ice cream for children the next. "His charities were extensive, and it wasn't just PR. He really liked people and wanted to be liked. He really did kill people, and he really did help the poor." However contradictory it seemed, Birger's behavior gave him the useful reputation of being a good man to know, but a bad man to cross.
As Birger thrived in his bootlegging business, a growing number of the established community seethed. They were the people who had fostered Prohibition in the first place, mainly churchgoers and their preachers. Aghast at the unchecked crime and violence in their midst, and not knowing which policemen they could trust, they turned elsewhere for help--to the Ku Klux Klan and a man eager to lead them named S. Glenn Young.
The Klan in those days was especially strong in southern Illinois, where many sought its help because they distrusted the authorities. In the Bloody Williamson area, the issue was not racism or nativism-- Klan staples--but law and order. By advertising itself as the champion of decency, the Klan was able to recruit hundreds of followers and make itself acceptable to thousands more who otherwise would have spurned them as "white trash."
Young often appeared in public in riding pants and boots, pearl- handled six-shooters strapped to his thighs and a submachine gun cradled in his arms. He was a former Prohibition agent who was fired and prosecuted for various abuses, including killing a man. In 1923 Young was looking for a cause, and the respectables of the Bloody Williamson counties were looking for a crusader. They hired Young, and in December the night rides began.
Klan raiders led by Young smashed in front doors all over the area and ripped up floorboards looking for illegal hooch. Using phony warrants, the Klansmen arrested dozens of minor offenders.
Birger was Young's main target, and the bootlegger and his allies fought back, supported by the people who were abused by the raids. While driving to East St. Louis in 1924, Young was ambushed by gunfire in Washington County. His wife was left blind by the attack, but Young was only slightly wounded.
His luck ran out on the night of Jan. 24, 1925, when he and some of his cronies gathered in the European Hotel in Herrin, and Ora Thomas, a lawman with connections to Birger, walked in. A fusillade of gunshots followed, and in seconds two of Young's bodyguards were dead and archenemies Young and Thomas lay dying.
Despite Young's long list of enemies, his funeral was one of the largest public events ever held in any small town. An estimated 75,000 filed by as he lay in state and up to 40,000 thronged around the Baptist church where his funeral took place. For years afterward, his foes used his tombstone in a Herrin cemetery for target practice, and to this day it sits pocked with bullet holes.
Reeling from the death of its leader, the Klan tried to use the event to rally more support, but then came the bloody showdown of April 13, 1926, Election Day in Herrin. Polling places were packed with contentious poll watchers for both sides--the Klan and their church allies and the bootleggers and other anti-Klan citizens.
In one place, John Smith, a Klan leader, challenged several Catholic voters, including a nun of 20 years' residence. Word of the dispute spread through the town, outraging residents, and Smith went into hiding in a local garage. A carload of anti-Klan gangsters soon found him and opened fire on the building, setting off a gunfight that ended only after 20 National Guardsmen arrived from Carbondale and deployed around the garage with fixed bayonets. Another gunfight that day resulted in three dead from each side. Even though the battle seems to have been a standoff, the bloodshed further demoralized Klan members and the organization was finished in the area. Hundreds of charges against the victims of their raids were dismissed.
Birger, the Klan's main target, had won, aided by the great number of local people in the three counties who--for a mix of motives, some of them noble--sided with the gangsters to rid themselves of hoods, raids and burning crosses.
As Birger prospered, he set his sights on expansion. He cut a deal with another bootlegger gang in the area, led by Carl Shelton and his two brothers. In 1925 the two gangs shook hands on joint operations, including driving imported liquor up from Florida, much of which would end up in Chicago. They also agreed to split illegal slot machine proceeds. Perhaps predictably, the partnership soon fell apart, most likely because of cheating in the collecting, counting and divvying-up of the gambling loot. "One thing gangsters know is each other. Enough said," says history professor John Simon of Southern Illinois University.
Whatever the cause, the two gangs opened another chapter in the Bloody Williamson saga by going to war in the summer of 1926, complete with armored vehicles and an air force. DeNeal describes the Shelton gang's "tank" in one incident that targeted Birger gangster Art Newman and his wife: "A 2 1/2-ton truck came rumbling toward them. Protruding from the circular steel tank on the back was an assembly of weapons, all of them aimed at the couple. In the ensuing gunfire, 25 bullets tore through the car, but only Bessie was wounded, and she only slightly."
A month later, Shelton hired a plane to fly over a Birger hideout called Shady Rest and drop sticks of dynamite on the sturdy log structure. No damage was done, but it made history by becoming the first known aerial bombing in the U.S.
The war lasted six months and left as many as two dozen dead, by DeNeal's estimate. Bodies were found lying in culverts, floating in streams and sitting in cars alongside the road.
Birger was remarkably open about his criminal exploits. During the gang war, he reportedly asked that a message be read over local radio that the public was safe because only other gangsters would be killed. He publicly boasted of his intent to kill a Shelton ally named Joe Adams, who also happened to be the mayor of West City, near Benton.
In December 1926, Birger paid $50 each to two teenage orphans who were gang hangers-on, Harry and Elmo Thomasson, and sent them to kill Adams--which they did, on the front porch of his home in daylight. Two weeks later, Birger was arrested in connection with the slaying.
Had he been accused only of the Adams murder, he might have gotten off or at worst been given a long sentence. However, three days before Birger was jailed for the Adams killing, his gangsters abducted and killed a state policeman and his wife. The policeman was alleged to have been involved in the local rackets, but his wife, a well-liked schoolteacher who was rumored to be pregnant, was viewed by the public as innocent of anything her husband might have been involved in.
Birger had finally exceeded the limits of public tolerance, and suddenly Robin Hood didn't seem so romantic. Public opinion turned against him and officials, fearing a lynching, transferred him to another jail.
When Birger's trial opened on July 6, reporters for big-city newspapers showed up and focused the nation's attention on the gangster and the goings-on in Bloody Williamson. Birger's lawyers played for sympathy by having his two elementary-school daughters in attendance. But when Harry Thomasson dramatically appeared and testified that he and his brother killed Joe Adams on orders of Birger, the gangster knew what was about to happen.
"I'm done," he predicted to reporters. Eighteen days later, Birger, Newman and a third man were convicted, but only Birger was given the death penalty.
His lawyers tried various appeals, but nothing worked. Finally, in desperation, they requested a sanity hearing. Birger, however, hurt his own faint hopes by joking during the hearing that he should be buried in a Catholic cemetery because the devil would never look for a Jew there.
After that, Birger could only watch and listen to the hammering as the scaffold that would hang him was finished in the jail yard just beneath his window.
Three-quarters of a century later, Charlie Birger's death is an image that the young witnesses, Gene Powell and Johnnie Warren, now struggle as old men to retain in their memories, like the flickerings of an old movie. But his mystique endures in the region's lore.
Birger was buried in a Jewish cemetery in University City outside St. Louis. The faith he abandoned had reclaimed him in the end. His legacy, with fact and myth intermingled, has been claimed by the promoters of Benton, who have turned the old jail into a museum dedicated to his story. It includes his Tommy guns, the rope that hanged him, and a scratchy phonograph record that salutes him. They've even built a replica scaffold on the spot where Birger climbed his last 13 steps.
The town can claim to be the childhood home of such notables as actor John Malkovich and basketball star Doug Collins, but it is the bootlegger-gangster they want to immortalize.
Charlie Birger would love it.
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