Whether he actually called it "a beautiful day" or commented it was "a beautiful world" (accounts vary), April 19, 1928 would mark the last day that local legend Charlie Birger would live to see.
It's been 90 years since Shachna Itzak "Charlie" Birger became the next-to-the-last man to be publicly hanged in Illinois, but his life remains the stuff of local legend. His is still the face that most people associate with the gang wars of southern Illinois in the 1920s.
The area's events during Prohibition are considered to be a microcosm of those happening on the national level.
While Birger was convicted of ordering the murder of West City Mayor Joe Adams, his arrest was not the first rodeo for the former soldier and cowboy who emigrated to the U.S. from Russia as a young boy.
A resident of Harrisburg, Birger saw a business opportunity with the passage of the 18th Amendment, and initially joined forces with the Shelton Gang, in neighboring Williamson County, running a bootleg operation and fighting against the local Ku Klux Klan and its leader, S. Glenn Young.
Young was shot dead by Deputy Sheriff Ora Thomas in a Herrin cigar store in 1925. Thomas and two of Young's companions were also fatally wounded.
In April 1926, the Birger and Shelton gangs again joined forces to attack the remaining KKK leaders in Herrin. Although the police were called repeatedly, they did not respond. The coroner ruled the deaths homicides "by parties unknown."
By October of that year, the Birger and Shelton gangs were in open conflict, fighting from "tanks," makeshift armored vehicles. The Sheltons even tried to bomb Birger's Marion area speak-easy, Shady Rest, from the air, the only aerial bombing in the continental U.S. -- but the dynamite missed the mark.
Birger learned that the Sheltons' tank was in Joe Adams' garage for repairs and demanded Adams turn it over to him. When he refused, Birger's men orchestrated a drive-by bombing, destroying Adams' front porch.
In December 1926, Harry and Elmo Thomasson went to Adams' house claiming to have a letter from Carl Shelton. As Adams started to read it, they drew pistols and shot him dead.
The following month, Shady Rest was destroyed.
While Birger was free with his activities in other parts of southern Illinois, he did not tolerate crime in his adopted hometown of Harrisburg. There, he had a reputation as a family man and solid citizen.
In fact, Birger covered the losses incurred during the robbery of a small shop there and the suspected thief was found shot dead a few days later. This incident marked the beginning of the Birger-Shelton gang wars for control of bootlegging operations in southern Illinois.
When Birger was arrested on charges of his role in Adams' murder, he put up no fight. He had been arrested several times and was always quickly released. However, he probably did not realize that his trial would be held in Franklin County, an area he did not control.
While all three men were convicted, only Birger was sentenced to hang. On that April day, the 47-year-old Birger walked from the Franklin County Jail cell that had been his home for the past 10 months to the gallows about 100 feet away. Reports said he stopped to shake hands with some of the crowd of 500 gathered to witness his hanging.
Standing on the scaffold, he said, "I've forgiven everybody," before a black hood -- he refused a white hood as he did not want to be mistaken for a Klansman -- was slipped over his head.
Franklin County is home to a collection of Birger artifacts. His car is on display at the Franklin County Garage 1910 Museum. The historical Franklin County Jail Museum has a collection of Birger artifacts and offers an escape room challenge from Birger's final residence.