Illinois Gangs

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Prohibition was the opportunity of a lifetime for Illinois criminals, and not just in Chicago.

With headquarters in Williamson and Franklin counties in Southern Illinois, and close ties to East St. Louis, Charlie Birger and the Shelton brothers did a thriving business in bootleg liquor, roadhouses, and stolen cars until a feud turned into a full-scale gang war, leaving at least 10 persons dead.

Williamson County was the natural locale for the Birger-Shelton War. The county had a history of violence dating back to the 1860s, and an acceptance of murder that resulted in a failure to convict any defendant for that crime for 100 years. Twenty-one people, 19 of them strikebreakers, had been killed in Herrin during a mine strike in 1922, and another 18 were killed in 1924-25 as the Ku Klux Klan battled "sinners" in the county.

Birger and the Sheltons presented a united front to the Klan, but when that threat dissolved they turned on each other. Fitting out trucks like armored tanks, the two gangs cruised country roads, firing at enemies. Birger's fortress, Shady Rest, a cabin with foot-thick log walls located outside of Harrisburg, was a special target. On Nov. 12, 1926, an airplane dropped three homemade bombs on the site. The bombs fizzled, but on Jan. 9, 1927, Shady Rest exploded possibly bombed by Birger himself. Four persons were found dead in the ruins.

The gangs then took their war into open court. Birger accused the Sheltons of a Collinsville mail robbery, sending the three brothers briefly to prison, until their release due to perjury at the trial. Underlings in the Birger gang, arrested for lesser crimes, began testifying against their former boss. On July 27, 1927, Birger was sentenced to death for ordering the murder of West City mayor Joe Adams. He appealed the sentence, then pleaded insanity, but to no avail. On April 19, 1928, Charlie Birger was hanged. By May of 1930, the entire leadership of the Birger gang was behind bars for crimes ranging from murder to violation of the prohibition laws.

The Shelton brothers moved their operations to Peoria where they flourished until 1947 when, one by one, Carl, Bernie, Earl, and Roy were all shot in unsolved crimes. Earl survived; but after a series of firebombings of other Shelton property, the old Shelton homestead itself was destroyed by fire. The roaring twenties thus ended as violently as they began in Williamson County.



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