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In 1913 Charlie Birger began his career as a bootlegger, supplying southern Illinois with whiskey and beer. He was charismatic, with an easygoing manner and a cavalier generosity that made him popular. The stuff of legend, he was part monster, part Robin Hood. In the early days, he would emerge from his restaurant/saloon in tiny Ledford in Saline County with a cigar box full of coins and throw handfuls in the air for the children. Echoing the consensus on Birger, an anonymous gang member called him enigmatic, noting that he had a wonderful quality, a heart of gold. There in Harrisburg sometimes he'd support twelve or fifteen families, buy coal, groceries. . . . [But] he had cold eyes, a killer's eyes. He would kill you for something somebody else would punch you in the nose for.
Drawing from the colorful cast of the living, the dead, and the soon-to-be-dead?a state shared by many associated with Birger and his enemies, the Shelton gang?DeNeal re-creates Prohibition-era southern Illinois. He depicts the fatal shootout between S. Glenn Young and Ora Thomas, the battle on the Herrin Masonic Temple lawn in which six were slain and the Ku Klux Klan crushed, and the wounding of Williamson County state's attorney Arlie O. Boswell. As the gang wars escalated and the roster of corpses lengthened, the gangsters embraced technology. The Sheltons bombed Birger's roadhouse, Shady Rest, from a single-engine airplane. Both Birger and the Sheltons used armored vehicles to intimidate their enemies, and the chatter of machine gun fire grew common.
The gang wars ended with massive arrests, trials, and convictions of gangsters who once had seemed invincible. Charlie Birger was convicted of the murder of West City mayor Joe Adams and sentenced to death. On April 19, 1928, he stood on the gallows looking down on the large crowd that had come to see him die. It's a beautiful world, Birger said softly as he prepared to leave it.
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