ST. LOUIS – More than eight decades since bootlegging gangster Charlie Birger became Illinois' last person publicly hanged, the southern Illinois city that has clung to his legend finally has the case's biggest and most-elusive relic: the gallows from which he swung for his role in the killing of a nearby mayor.
The Franklin County Jail Museum in Benton, where Birger dropped to his death through the gallows' trapdoor in 1928, took possession of the 18-foot-tall wooden device this month after it was found in pieces, stashed in a barn loft 60 miles away near the tiny Mississippi River hamlet of Grand Tower, Ill. So ended the mystery of what happened to the structure last seen in 1973.
Colorful to the end, Birger's Prohibition-era exploits were eclipsed on the national stage by iconic Chicago gangster Al Capone but still drew quite a following, with some likening him to a Robin Hood who bootlegged to fight a government bent on legislating morality. Some 5,000 people attended his execution, punctuated by his flippant signoff: "It's a beautiful world."
As the decades ticked by, the county's preservationists had good reason to believe that finding the gallows was a pipe dream, only to be stunned when they turned up during a recent estate sale of late farmer Russell Elliott's property near Grand Tower. Artfully stashed in Elliott's barn's loft, the disassembled gallows avoided detection by the bargain hunters before being uncovered by Elliott's survivors, who eventually got word of the find to Robert Rea, chief of Franklin County's preservation society.
"We're surprised the barn didn't burn down or get blow down" over the years, or that the gallows' wood wasn't repurposed or chucked by someone who didn't appreciate the historical significance, Rea said Wednesday. "We're just happy they're preserved. It's the kind of story you live for."
The gallows instantly became the centerpiece of the Benton museum's collection of all things Birger, including his machine guns, bulletproof vest and articles chronicling the gangster's hanging for his role in the murder of the Joe Adams, the mayor of nearby West City. Exhibits also include the gavel the judge used to condemn Birger and a series of black-and-white photos showing Birger, escorted by a rabbi, up the gallows' 13 steps before his hanging.
The draw of thousands of spectators, some scaling trees, who packed the jail courtyard to watch him die illustrated the notoriety of the hoodlum, whose battles against a rival gang included his use of homemade armored vehicles. He even weathered the bombing of the Shady Rest, his hideout crafted of foot-thick logs and stocked with rifles, submachine guns, ammunition and cases of canned goods.
That was all before the law caught up to him in 1927, when he was condemned for arranging Adams' killing.
On April 19, 1928, even children skipped school to turn out for the execution of 47-year-old Birger, nattily dressed in a three-piece suit as he walked to the gallows and up to the trap door, where he shook hands with executioner Phil Hanna.
"They've accused me of a lot of things I was never guilty of, but I was guilty of a lot of things of which they never accused me," media accounts quoted the former cowhand and Army veteran as saying. "So I guess we're about even."
Before his head was covered by a black hood — he declined a white one, saying he didn't want to be confused with the Ku Klux Klan he loathed — Birger grinned and said, "It's a beautiful world."
"Charlie Birger dies smiling," bellows a headline in a yellow, tattered edition of the Benton Evening News.
And away went the gallows, back to Illinois' Jackson County that had loaned them for use on Birger. They stayed in Jackson County's courthouse basement before they were released in 1973 to clear space, Rea said.
To Rea, "there's no mistake" the gallows found in the barn are the same that did in Birger, based on historical photographs of the hanging that show the structure's distinctive wooden notches and the metal rods that reinforce it.
The Benton museum has no plans to reassemble the gallows, instead choosing to keep the pieces stacked inside a second-floor cellblock, near where where Birger, generations ago, watched through a window as they were erected for him and once famously barked out to kids he saw climbing onto it:
"Get off of it, that's mine."