From Russia to the gallows’ noose


Though Ku Klux Klan leader S. Glenn Young was killed on Jan. 24, 1925, the Klan’s hold on Williamson County remained tight.

Bootleggers Charlie Birger and his gang along with the rival Shelton Brothers were fed up. The time had come to deal the Klan a death blow. That came in April 1926 when the two gangs joined forces to kill the remaining Klan leaders. Though the coroner ruled the dead were victims of homicide, he held the deaths were “by parties unknown.” The Klan’s grip on Williamson County was broken. The county’s duly elected officials regained their offices while Birger and the Sheltons resumed their bootlegging operations.

For his part, Birger lived a model life in Harrisburg and even did his part to prevent crime. At one point, a small store in town was victimized by a robber. Not only did Birger make good the store owner’s losses, the man suspected of the crime was found shot dead a few days later.

As the summer of 1926 transitioned to autumn, the rivalry between Birger and the Sheltons had turned violent. Their implements of warfare included trucks converted into armored vehicles. That December, Birger learned one of the Shelton’s armored vehicles was being repaired. It was parked in a garage owned by Joseph Adams, mayor of the Franklin County town of West City. Later that month, Harry and Elmo Thomasson came to Adams home, handed him a letter purportedly from Carl Shelton and as he began to read it, proceeded to give him a fatal case of lead poisoning.

A month later, explosions and fire destroyed Birger’s Shady Rest headquarters. The charred beyond recognition bodies of three men and a woman were discovered in the ashes. Shortly thereafter, Illinois State Trooper Lory Price as well as his wife, went missing. It was believed Price and Birger were running a stolen vehicle scam. Much to Birger’s surprise, he was arrested in June of 1927 and charged with ordering the murder of Mayor Adams. He was found guilty in a Franklin County Court and sentenced to death despite the fact the trigger man in Adams’ murder was given a prison sentence.

According to an account in the Carbondale Free Press, 500 men, women and children witnessed Birger’s public hanging on Thursday, April 19, 1928. The article was headlined “Nerve Unshaken, Dies As He Lived; Smiles and Does Not ‘Squeal’” and in part, read:

“Erect and nonchalant, almost debonair, Birger walked to his death. The procession emerged from the jail at 9:50 a.m., headed by Sheriff James Pritchard…(Birger) moved at an easy pace, stopping to shake hands with several persons on the way through the stockade to the gallows a distance of 100 feet. The condemned man mounted the steps. Smiling, he pointed a finger at some man in the crowd and waved his hand. Birger nodded and closed his eyes an instant. Quickly the black cap was slipped over his head... True to the code of gangland, Birger died without ‘squealing.’ ‘Beautiful world,’ he said while standing on the scaffold. “I’ve forgiven everybody.’”

Birger would be the second to the last man executed by hanging in Illinois. Convicted killer Charles Shader was hung on Wednesday, Oct. 10th, 1928, at Joliet Prison, making him the last man hanged in Illinois. Illinois then changed the method of execution to the electric chair.