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The Bootlegger Who Took Down the KKK

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On display in one of the front rooms of the Franklin County Jail Museum is the wicker coroner's basket in which Joe Adams' body was placed the day he died. It was reported that, as Charlie Birger was being led to the scaffold, he spat into a similar basket intended to carry his own body back to St. Louis for burial.

Charlie was still a free man when, a month after the Adams murder in January 1927, a series of explosions hit the Shady Rest. It burned to the ground with four people inside, presumably associates of Charlie's, though positive identifications were never made.

Another Birger associate, a crooked Illinois motorcycle cop named Lory Price who patrolled the patch of Route 13 that passed by the Shady Rest, became concerned that Charlie had turned against him. Price then made an ill-advised attempt to collect a $2,500 reward offered for information regarding a recent bank robbery in the area, and Charlie got wind of it.

On January 17, Price and his wife Ethel vanished. Ethel Price had been a young, pretty schoolteacher on maternity leave, and her disappearance caused a local uproar. The activities of the gangs had grown increasingly violent, and for a well-known and well-liked member of the community to fall victim to the bloodletting was a shock.

Lory's corpse was found on February 5, but his wife's body was not found until June 13. She had been shot and dumped into a mine shaft shortly before her husband's execution.

When the shooter confessed that June, he explicitly named Charlie Birger as the man who ordered the hit. By that time Charlie was in custody, and public opinion, which had long cut him considerable slack for his charm and the good will he'd built up since he'd opened the Near Bar all those years past, had turned resolutely against him.

He had been arrested shortly after the Adams murder and released on bond. He was arrested again a day before one of the triggermen in the Lory killing confessed and fingered him. He was kept separately from the other prisoners, in a larger cell where he was allowed certain luxuries, such as a gramophone and a collection of records (the gramophone is in the cell today.)

In July 1927 he stood trial for the murder of Joe Adams alongside the two men he'd ordered to commit the crime. The other two received prison sentences, but Charlie was sentenced to hang. He spent the next nine months in the Benton jailhouse, pending appeals and waiting.

When the day came, it was noted by many in the crowd that Charlie was smiling as he climbed the steps to the scaffold. This may have been bravado, or it may have been the effect of the morphine shot administered shortly before leaving his cell. Accompanied by a rabbi, Charlie had a black hood placed over his head (he had requested it, rather than a white one, so as not to be taken for a Klansman) and the executioner prepared the noose. Known as "the sympathetic hangman," as a boy Phil Hanna had been witness to a bungled hanging that resulted in a prisoner's agonizing, fifteen-minute death by strangulation, and he had taken up the trade determined to prevent such atrocities.

"It's a beautiful world" were Charlie Birger's last words.

I don't know if Charlie haunts the jail, or somebody else's ghost, or anything at all. But it's a scary, lonely place at night. If there is an afterlife, maybe this is an appropriate place for him to remain, stuck alone in the same miserable spot he spent the last year of his existence.

Two weeks after Paranormal 618's investigation, I call Seth Clark. Yes, he, tells me, they did get "a few last words" out of Charlie.

The actual gallows, along with the thick rope used to hang Charlie, was found in a barn in 2013 and purchased by the museum. It lies unassembled, with the rope coiled on the stacked beams, in the old women's cellblock on the second floor, its cell walls long ago painted pink, paint now curling away in strips from the bars and walls. Next to the noose Seth and Mike placed several cameras and what they call a spirit box. The notion behind this device is that by rapidly scanning radio waves, certain sounds will pop up through the white noise as intelligible words.

Late in the night of the investigation, several members of the team gathered in the women's cellblock and were startled by the squawking of the spirit box, which began making intelligible sounds. The resulting scene was captured on video, which can be watched on the group's YouTube channel.

When the group starts discussing who should remain up there alone, the box says quite plainly "MIRANDA." One of the group present at that moment is a young woman named Miranda Stewart.

"Charlie, do you want me to stay?" she asks. The box replies in the affirmative. When she asks if someone else can stay with her, the box says "THEY HAVE TO GO."

But the voices stop, and after a few minutes it's decided that Mike and Seth will stay and Miranda will go. Over her shoulder as she leaves the cellblock, Miranda calls out "Bye, Charlie."

The box replies: "RECONSIDER."

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Scott Phillips is a novelist and screenwriter. His novel The Ice Harvest was made into a movie directed by Harold Ramis and starring John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton and Connie Nielsen. He is also the editor of St. Louis Noir, an anthology due out in August from Akashic Books.

Author's Note: Southern Illinois poet and publisher Gary DeNeal’s superb biography of Charlie Birger, A Knight of Another Sort: Prohibition Days and Charlie Birger, is still in print and well worth your time. Most of the biographical facts above come from that book, though some of it I gleaned from visits to Franklin County Jail Museum and other relevant southern Illinois locales. For more on Birger, please see www.heritech.com/soil/birger/birger.htm and www.carolyar.com/Illinois/Govern/Birger.htm

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