When Prohibition became law in the United States in 1920, a crime wave of unprecedented proportions was unleashed across the country. Thugs, murderers, and syndicates all took advantage of the new law to create criminal enterprises from coast to coast. Bootlegging of now-illegal liquor left bodies in the streets of America’s big cities, as rival gangs fought for control of the booze trade. Bank robbers and thieves also flourished in what seemed to many to be a lawless society.
Many men thrived and many men died during this era, and the term “public enemy” was first introduced into the American lexicon. Newspapers covered the exploits of these gangsters and made many of them household names. Most people are familiar with the famous criminals of this period such as Al Capone and Lucky Luciano. Below are the stories of 5 gangsters, bootleggers, and public enemies who you might not be familiar with.
Not all Prohibition-era gangsters operated in large cities like New York, Boston, or Chicago. Small towns and rural parts of the country were flush with criminals, bootleggers, and murderers as well. Charlie Birger may have run his criminal empire in rural Southern Illinois, but he was born a world away as Shachna Itzik Birger in Russia around 1880. Birger’s family emigrated to the St. Louis area when he was a youngster.
The man who now called himself “Charlie” served in the military in the early 1900s, stayed out west for a while and worked as a cowboy, and then eventually settled in Harrisburg, Illinois, in the southern part of the state. Here, Birger first worked as a coal miner and eventually opened up his own saloon. When Prohibition became national law in 1920, Birger teamed up with the Shelton Brother Gang and built a heavily-guarded speakeasy in Williamson County.
Birger and the Shelton Brothers fought a common enemy in the early 1920s: the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan supported national Prohibition, and the two factions went to war. In 1925 and 1926, the groups took up arms against each other. Several KKK members were shot and killed, and for all intents and purposes, any stronghold the Klan had on Williamson County was effectively over. After the Klan was gone, Birger went to war with a new adversary; the Shelton Brothers.
The two gangs engaged in a bloody battle for control over bootlegging throughout Southern Illinois. Birger targeted Joe Adams, the mayor of nearby West City, for assassination because he was a member of the Shelton Gang. Adams was gunned down in December 1926. The Sheltons responded to Adams’s death by killing members of Birger’s crew and burning down his speakeasy, the Shady Rest.
Birger was arrested in June 1927 for ordering the death of Mayor Joe Adams. Birger had been arrested many times throughout his criminal career, and had always been released quickly because he was connected with local police and prosecutors. However, West City was in neighboring Franklin County, and Birger did not hold as much, if any, power there. Birger and two of his associates were found guilty of Adams’ murder, and Birger was hanged publicly on April 19, 1928.