The Sheltons were once described as Americas bloodiest gang and for good reason, they were locked in a war with their main rival who was once an ally, Charlie Birger.
The Agnes & Ben Shelton raised 10 children on a farm near Fairfield, in Wayne County, Illinois. Three of those children would help turn southern Illinois into a war zone, Carl, Earl & Bernie Shelton. As teens, they they were involved in small-time criminality: theft and robbery, getting short prison stays for as their reward. But in the 1920s, just after Prohibition was enacted, they decided to step into bootlegging liquor.
At first the Sheltons ventured to East St. Louis, where the Volstead Act & Prohibition Laws did nothing to slow locals and visitors from drinking and having a good time. The Sheltons became involved in the speakeasy trade and eventually formed a gang of at least 50 minions. They became friendly with Charlie Birger, a bootlegger who had interests in East St. Louis and also in southern Illinois, not far from the Shelton family farm.
Charlie Bergir had been born Schachna Itzik in Russia to Jewish parents, who then emigrated to the US and settled in St. Louis. Bergir joined the military in 1901 and given an honorable discharge in 1904, he worked a number of jobs, cowboy, coal miner and saloon keeper. Birger initially based his operation in Harrisburg, Southern Illinois but the authorities there persuaded him to leave, and he built a fortified speakeasy called Shady Rest just across the line in Williamson County.
The Birger Gang at Shady Rest
As their bootlegging operations expanded the Sheltons made a move into southern Illinois, Bergirs territory. Naturally, the two gangs engaged in a protracted war that involved homemade armored trucks from which they could shoot and at least one aerial bombing. The bloody gang war left both sides with a triple-digit body count, this resulted in rare indictments and even rarer convictions.
In one of the more bizarre incidents throughout the bloody gang war happened in Williamson County or Bloody Williamson in November 1926. “Bloody Williamson” had already earned national notoriety during the 1920s due to unrest among coal mine unions, one of the bloodiest Ku Klux Klan wars in history, in which both the Sheltons and Birgers gangs were briefly allies in taking on the Klan, and gang warfare between two rival groups of liquor bootleggers.
The gang war turned particularly violent in November 1926 as a series of shootings, bombings, and destruction of property caused terror throughout the county.
The Sheltons came up with a plan to destroy Shady Rest, the Birger Gang hideout. They approached a pilot on a barnstorming tour and coerced him into taking a member of the gang on an overflight of the Birger roadhouse. On 12 November 1926, gang member Blackie Armes climbed aboard the old Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane carrying several bombs, made out of dynamite sticks bound around a bottle of nitroglycerine. While passing over Shady Rest, Armes lighted and dropped three of the devices. Only one exploded, missing its intended target and instead killing Birger’s favorite bulldog and pet bird. Though initially stunned, members of the Birger gang fired back but did no damage. The shocked pilot flew back to the airfield, let the gangster off, and then immediately took off again.
Having missed their target, the Sheltons tried again a few nights later, this time sneaking up on Shady Rest with a “shitload” of dynamite, piled it up, lit the fuse and ran away. It was enough to “blow the crap” out of the Shady Rest. However, the only people in Shady Rest at the time was a guard, a bartender and a couple of waitress, whose bodies were all found in the rubble.
Charlie Birger however would meet his end not by a bullet but by hanging and becoming the last person to by hung in Illinois. Birger would be found guilty of the murder of Joe Adams, Mayor of West City, Illinois. Birger had learned that the Sheltons’ armored truck was in Joe Adams’ garage for repairs, and demanded the it, Adams refused to give it him, Birger then set up a drive-by bombing, destroying Adams’ front porch. In December 1926, two men, Harry and Elmo Thomasson, went to Joe Adams’ house, saying they had a letter from Carl Shelton. They handed a letter to Adams, and as he started to read it, they drew their pistols and shot him dead.
In June 1927, Birger was arrested on a charge of ordering the murder of Joe Adams. Birger allowed himself to be taken into custody without a fight. He had been arrested many times, and had always been released a few days later, this time it wasnt the case, he was brought to Franklin County a place where he had no influence. Birger and the two men who shot Adams were convicted; however, only Birger was sentenced to hang. Birger objected that it was unfair he should hang while the confessed trigger man was sentenced only to prison. Nevertheless, Birger was hanged for the murder of Adams on April 19, 1928, at the Franklin County Jail. Bergir went to the gallows with a smile on his face, shook hands with the hangman, Philip Hanna, and his final words were, “It’s a beautiful world.”
The Sheltons ruled Preoria and southern Illinois right up to the late 1940’s until a former gang member, Frank Wortman, ordered the deaths of Carl and Bernie Shelton, there were multiple attempts on Earl Sheltons life over the years but he too packed his bags and left for Florida where he died in 1986 at the age of 96.
On the morning of Oct. 23, 1947, Carl Shelton was driving his Jeep near the family farm with a friend. At a rise in the road, they spotted a car hidden in the brush. Gunfire screamed, and Carl Shelton fell out of the Jeep. He died minutes later. His funeral was said to be the biggest ever in Fairfield.
On July 26, 1948, at the Parkway. Bernie Shelton walked outside toward his car, which he planned to take to a mechanic. There was one rifle crack and Bernie fell to the ground. The lone bullet had ripped through his body, right under his heart.