200 Years of Illinois: Sorry, Charlie

On April 19, 1928, Illinois held its last public hanging as bootlegger Charlie Birger went up the rope in Benton on a spring morning. (We’ve published a book that tells his story.) For years, he had fought it out with his violent rivals the Shelton Gang and with local Ku Klux Klan members determined to enforce Prohibition in the area. The struggle included an outrageous highlight in American history. Birger became the first target of an aerial assault in the continental United States when the Sheltons used a plane to drop dynamite on the Shady Rest, the combination speakeasy-way station Birger used in his bootlegging operation. (The bomb missed. More successful explosions did away with the Shady Rest in 1927.)

Born Shachna Itzik Birger in Lithuania, Birger accompanied his Jewish family to the St. Louis area in the 1880s. He spent his young manhood in the 13th Calvary, where he earned an honorable discharge and praise for both his courage and horsemanship. Mining back in southern Illinois failed to agree with him. Saloon-keeping fit better, and soon Birger pursued bootlegging and leading a criminal gang as the fastest route to riches and social respectability. Like many immigrant gangsters, Birger craved acceptance from the local bluebloods. And like many immigrant gangsters he put forth a respectable image, downplayed his ethnic origins, and kept his own town of Harrisburg free of crime. His felonious activities were part of a general pattern of lawlessness that afflicted southern Illinois at the time. Birger’s execution marked the end of an era. With the dry-obsessed KKK already out of business, thanks to the murder of its leader, and with Prohibition doomed, the local citizens soon returned to law-abiding ways.