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Wednesday December 17 2014

Charlie Birger
Charlie Birger

Share Your Stories about Charlie Birger
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Stories about Charlie Birger continue to fascinate us even today. If you or someone you know has a Birger story to share, we invite you to post your comments to our online bulletin board. You can also talk about what you liked or didn't like about this documentary. It's all things Charlie Birger, the Sheltons, gangsters in general or maybe a family member or a relation you are reseaching. Who were the heroes and who were the villains? Seventy five years later people still want to know about these folks, and this is the place to swap tales.

About "The Legend of Charlie Birger"...

"Iíve killed men, but never a good one." Thatís how the outlaw Charlie Birger once tried to justify his life of crime and violence in Prohibition-era Southern Illinois, a life cut short by the hangmanís noose on a sunny spring morning over 75 years ago. The Legend of Charlie Birger, a two-hour historical documentary produced by WSIU Public Television, tries to separate the myths from the facts about this enigmatic, yet ultimately villainous character. The program also attempts to explain why residents of the area known as Egypt still canít stop talking about him even today.

VHS: The Legend of Charlie Birger$24.95
DVD: The Legend of Charlie Birger$24.95
Companion book: A Knight of Another Sort:
Prohibition Days and Charlie Birger,
by Gary DeNeal
VHS or DVD/book combo (save $5!)$39.95
VHS: Behind the Legend of Charlie Birger$19.95
Please allow approximately 8 weeks
for delivery. Thank you!

Birgerís life story reads like a popular dimestore novel of the day with its blazing machine gun battles, an aerial bombing, and famous "last stand" as the final person to be publicly hanged in Illinois. On April 19, 1928 in Benton, Illinois, Birger went to the gallows with a smile and proclaimed to the crowd of more than 5,000 in attendance, "Itís a beautiful world."

Yet the legend of Charlie Birger is more than a true crime story... itís a window into early twentieth century life in rural Southern Illinois. The social undercurrents spawned by Prohibition created a unique interplay between religion, the Ku Klux Klan, law enforcement and gangsters. At one end of the spectrum was Charlie Birger, a man who yearned for respectability in the community, yet who profited from murder and vice. At the other end of the spectrum was S. Glenn Young, a former Prohibition agent who deputized hundreds of Klansmen to dry up the areaís illegal liquor trade while terrorizing immigrant workers and their families. Youngís death in a shootout set the stage for a bloody war between the rival Birger and Shelton gangs for control of the regionís bootlegging, gambling and prostitution trades. The feud left a trail of bodies along the areaís backroads as the gangs shot it out with Tommy guns, built armored cars, and even resorted to aerial bombing to try to gain the upper hand. Read moreÖ

Portrait of Charlie Birger. Photo: Special Collections, SIUC Morris Library. Charlie Birger with wife, Bernice, and daughters Minnie (top) and Charlene. Photo:  Special Collections, SIUC Morris Library Birger (on porch holding gun, far right) and his gang at their Williamson County hangout, the Shady Rest, in 1927. Photo: Special Collections, SIUC Morris Library. Birger (center, sitting on hood of car) and his gang in another photo from their hangout, the Shady Rest. Photo: courtesy of Gordon Pruett.
A casualty of the gang wars. Mitchell Photography, Harrisburg, circa 1927. SIUC Morris Library, Special Collections. Bullet-ridden car. Photo: Mitchell Photography, Harrisburg, 1927. SIUC Morris Library, Special Collections Headline of Marion Evening Post (Marion, Illinois) on October 22, 1927. On display in the Williamson County Historical Society in Marion. Photo by Matthew Kras. Birger's last stand, photo #3. Photo: Mitchell Photography, Harrisburg, 1928. SIUC Morris Library, Special Collections.

click to enlarge and to read photo caption and credit

The Legend of Charlie Birger includes interviews with many regional historians and authors, including Gary DeNeal, author of A Knight of Another Sort: Prohibition Days and Charlie Birger; John Y. Simon of the Ulysses S. Grant Association at SIUCís Morris Library; and Taylor Pensoneau, author of Brothers Notorious: The Sheltonís. DeNeal talked with hundreds of people about the appeal of Charlie Birgerís legendÖ"Birgerís story is as ancient as anyóyou have a handsome figure, murder and destruction. There may be automobiles and planes involved, but itís a medieval, gothic tale that takes place almost the day before yesterday."

To bring the 1920s to life, the WSIU documentary team staged a large number of historical reenactments and found actors to portray everyone from Charlie Birger to his arch nemesis S. Glenn Young. Countless hours were spent scouting locations, finding accurate period automobiles and clothing, and locating working examples of Birger's trademark Thompson submachine guns. Crucial events like the killing of West City Mayor Joe Adams and the hanging of Charlie Birger were painstakingly researched before the first frame of video was shot.

Producer David Kidd worked for the past two years to bring this piece of history to life, and often found himself in the uncomfortable role of devilís advocate. "Weíre trying to be responsive to what our audience wants, but I wonder sometimes if we are perpetuating Charlie Birgerís legend even more by doing this program." Still, Kidd believes Birgerís story makes for compelling television and serves as a cautionary tale about what can happen when public order breaks down and common criminals rise to the status of folk heroes.

In the programís epilogue, Kidd addresses the issue of heroes and how we choose themÖ "Today, everywhere we look, the image of the gangster is being transformed into a likable characterÖa friendly sort who only gave the public what it wantedógood times and harmless fun in a dry and colorless era. The past looks great through these rose-colored glasses, until you examine the life and times of a gangster like Charlie Birger. In doing so you soon discover that the rose-colored glasses have been tinted with blood. And so it is with the legend of Charlie Birger. No matter how itís dressed up and presented, our system of justice hangs in the balance. This is the legacy, not the legend, of Charlie Birger."

The above article includes excerpts from the October/November 2003 WSIU Public Television Previews Guide. The original Previews article was written by Grant Morrow, Senior in Radio-Television, with contributions by Jak Tichenor, WSIU.

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