Shachna Itzik Birger (aka Charlie Birger) was born on February 5, 1881 in Lithuania. His family arrived in Glen Carbon, IL (near East St. Louis) when he was about 8 years old. After a stint in the army from 1901-1904, he returned to Illinois and became a miner and a saloon keeper. When Prohibition happened, he became a bootlegger in Southern Illinois.
As a bootlegger, one of his largest rivals was the local branch of the KKK, which actively supported prohibition, viewing alcohol as an evil allegedly introduced to the US by immigrants. Birger’s gang, and a rival gang, The Shelton Brothers, managed to run the KKK out of town. After this success, though, the two gangs fought over who would control the bootlegging in the area.
In June of 1927, Birger was arrested for ordering the murder of a small town mayor named Joe Adams, in connection with his feud with The Shelton Brothers. April 19, 1928, Birger was the last man to be executed by a public hanging in the state of Illinois. Birger asked to be accompanied to the gallows by a Rabbi, and he asked to wear a black hood rather than a white one, so no one would mistake him for a Klansmnan. His final words were, “It’s a beautiful world.”
Shachna Itzik Birger is buried at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery, in Section 28, 5th row, 3rd grave.
"The Hanging of Charles Birger"
by Carson Robison, recorded by Vernon Dalhart
I will tell you of a bandit in a great Midwestern state
Who never learned his lesson until it was too late;
This man was bold and careless and the leader of his gang
His boldness did not save him when the law said, "You must hang."
This bandit's name was Birger, he lived at Shady Rest
The people learned to fear him throughout the middle west;
It was out in old West City, Joe Adams was shot down
Then the cry of justice said, "The murderers must be found!"
On the nineteenth day of April in nineteen twenty-eight
Way out west in Benton, Charlie Birger met his fate.
Another life has ended; another chapter done
Another man has gambled in the game that can't be won.
Sources and Further Reading
Find a Grave
Standerfer Researcher Site
WSIU Public Broadcasting
Franklin County, IL - Genealogy Trails
Southern Illinois History, Genealogy, and Folklore