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Charlie Birger: Scourge of Egypt

 

Another shady character whose life occasionally mingled with the East St. Louis area was Charlie Birger. Charlie's heyday was the 1920s - a time of booming coal mining activity in southern Illinois and occasional economic relapse. Charliewas one of those bigger than life characters- who grabbed headlines in the downstate area while Al Capone was rubbing people out in Chicago. Charlie Birger was no ordinary bootlegger. Charlie had a penchant for telling tall tales about serving in the Spanish American War and, true to the dime novel traditions of the Old West, spent a month in a hospital as a result of having a horse fall on him while he served with the U. S. Cavalry at Fort Assinnibone, Montana, in 1901. The press gave him the Robin Hood label due to his habit of tossing coins to children in the school yard in Harrisburg, Ill. To those down-and-outers who occasionally were on the receiving end of a bag of free groceries, he won admiration despite the fact that he was a modem-day Jesse James who substituted a machine gun and armored car for a horse and Colt 45 caliber gun.

The "Scourge of Egypt" (southern Illinois) was born in Russia probably around 1880. He was married twice, once to Beatrice Bainbridge (1918-25) and then to Edna May Hastey who died of the flu in 1915. Charlie spent his early years with his mother and father and three siblings in places like St. Louis and Glen Carbon. His was one of those unusual lives enshrouded with folklore. He had a deep and abiding hatred for manual labor and gravitated to the likes of others who cut comers and tried to make a fast buck in gambling and bootlegging. He shielded his wife and two daughters as best as he could from his shady activities.

Art Newman, a gambler and hotel operator from East St. Louis, became his number two man. Birger and his men sometimes stayed at the Arnold Hotel when they came to town. He later owned a couple of houses in the colored section where gambling, bootlegging and prostitution were the chief sources of income. No one knows for sure how many men were killed by Charlie Birger; some estimates go as high as ten. Charlie ran into Carl Shelton while recuperating from a gunshot wound in a Herrin hospital. They had much in common. He was caught in a Williamson County Dry Raid and sentenced to a year in the Danville prison in 1924. While being "salted away" in prison he hatched a scheme to form an alliance with the Sheltons. Hauling uncut booze from Florida and other points south, their boys would lay over in Harrisburg before making the final run to St. Louis and East St. Louis where the big markets were. Birger and the Sheltons got into it over an argument about profits from from slot machines - those money-eating metal monsters. On April 19, 1928, Charlie Birger became the last man to be legally hanged in the State of Illinois.

 

From:   Gary DeNeal's  A Knight of Another Sort (Interstate Publishers.  Danville, IL: 1981)
              Paul M. Angle's Bloody Williamson (Alfred Knopf.  New York, NY: 1974)
             

 

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