By TESA CULLI
MT. VERNON —
Sometimes, a common-place item becomes an infamous part of history.
Take a rope, for example. Rope has been used for centuries as a tool, common to most households until just a few years ago. Take that same rope, tie a noose on the end, and use it during the last hanging in Illinois of a famous outlaw, and it becomes a priceless part of history.
Local attorney Lane Harvey also became a part of history, helping his client, Rebecca XXX win a court battle for custody of the noose that hung Charlie Birger.
“The story is so fascinating, I couldn’t not do it,” Harvey said of taking the case. “This is incredible. ... The things that went on between the Birger gang and the Sheltons was as colorful as anything going on at the time with Al Capone and his gang in Chicago.”
Birger, who was from Harrisburg, became a bootlegger during Prohibition. He built a fortified speakeasy in Williamson County, known as the Shady Rest, between Harrisburg and Marion. His biggest rivals for control of the bootleg business was the Shelton Brothers Gang, which was formed by Wayne County brothers Carl, Earl and Bernie Shelton. The battle began in 1926, when Birger tried to take over the Shelton’s operations, which resulted in a gang war. Both sides began making armored trucks from which they would conduct drive-by shootings. The Shady Rest was bombed from the air by the Sheltons, who used dynamite and missed. A subsequent raid on the speakeasy burned it to the ground.
Birger was finally brought to justice for ordering the death of the mayor of West City — Joseph Adams. Birger heard the Shelton’s armored truck was in Adams’ garage for repairs, and when Adams refused to give it to Birger, he ordered his men to perform a drive-by bombing on the Adams’ home. In December 1926, two men entered Adams home under the guise of messengers from Carl Shelton and shot Adams.
“When Sheriff Pritchard went to arrest him, he was able to talk Charlie into coming along without a fight,” Harvey said. “He supposedly told Charlie that the only way to do this is to go through the process. The first night in jail, Charlie was sitting on his bed and had his Tommy gun in his lap.”
Birger was convicted for ordering the death of Adams, and was hanged on April 19, 1928. He allegedly wore a suit made by Al Capone’s tailor, and his last words are reported as “It’s a beautiful world.”
Many people who have grown up in Southern Illinois have heard of Birger and seen the pictures taken of him while standing on the gallows prior to his hanging. Harvey said the bald man standing behind Birger holding the noose in the famous photos of the event is Phil Hanna, who oversaw 70 hangings in Illinois, Kentucky and Indiana.
“He also did the last public hanging in the U.S. at Owensboro, Ky., in 1938,” Harvey said. “He never took money for conducting a hanging.”
Harvey said Hana saw a botched hanging when a youth in Carmi, and the impact of the event made him decide to make sure the execution was conducted in a way to make the condemned die quickly.
“He would supervise the building of the gallows, and even designed a special trap door,” Harvey said. “He would never trip the door. He would work with the condemned man, make sure about the weight and height, but the legal authority would have to do the hanging.”
Hana supplied the materials, including the rope, for the hanging, and after Birger’s body was lowered, cut the rope and gave it to Pritchard, Harvey said. Pritchard, as he got older, decided to give the noose to his daughter, Mary Glover.
“My client, Mary’s daughter, Rebecca (Cocke), said one day her grandfather came over with the rope in a bag,” Harvey said. “My client was young at the time. He gave the rope to Mary because there had been some kind of plot during the time Birger was alive for the Birger gang to kidnap Mary when she was 2-years-old. So, he wanted her to have the rope.”
Glover, in 1996, allowed the rope and noose to be loaned to the Society for the Historic Preservation of Franklin County to be displayed at its museum. According to the agreement, the item would be housed at the museum until it no longer operated, or upon formal request for its return by members of the Pritchard family.
“Rebecca formally asked for the rope to be returned, but was denied,” Harvey said. “That’s when she came to me. I’m a history buff, I’ve been interested in this stuff forever. I’ve been told I had an uncle from Kentucky that sold bootleg that he made, to the Sheltons. This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”
The lawsuit was filed in 2006 for custody of the rope, a it was determined in 2008 the museum had no valid ownership claims.
“The rope was surrendered to the circuit clerk to be held until the courts decided ownership,” Harvey said. “Another grandchild intervened, but the court decided they had no basis for the claim either, and we got custody of the rope (Thursday). This is part of her heritage. She wants it to stay in her family.”