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Charlie Birger’s Gallows: Lost and Finally Found

History, Mystery, and Hauntings of Southern IllinoisFrom History, Mystery, and Hauntings of Southern Illinois by Bruce Cline.

On April 19, 1928, Charlie Birger was the last man to be publicly hanged in Illinois. His execution was presided over by George Phillip Hanna who was a southern Illinois banker, farmer, and volunteer hangman. The hoods used to cover the head of the person to be hung were sewn by Hanna’s wife. The prisoner was given their choice colors: black or white.

Hanna would visit each prisoner before the execution and tell them, “I am here to help you.” He told them that he would try to spare them any misery and assured them that their death would be painless. Charlie Birger was offered the customary choice of either a white or black hood by hangman Hanna. Birger’s reply was “I’m not a kluker” (referring to the Ku Klux Klan, which was fighting bootleggers in Southern Illinois during the 1920s). Birger was hung wearing a black hood.

The gallows used for the hanging of Charlie Birger was loaned to Franklin County by Jackson County. Shortly after the hanging of Birger, Illinois state law on executions changed. The prisoners sentenced to death were now to be executed by electrocution in the electric chair. Since the gallows would no longer be used (and sadly for Phil Hanna the ever-eager hangman) it was returned to Murphysboro in Jackson County and placed into storage in the courthouse basement.

The gallows was forgotten for several decades. Sometime in the 1970s, The courthouse basement was cleaned and the gallows was moved to the Jackson County Highway Department. The gallows was last seen during a reenactment of a historical event in Grand Tower. For the next 40 years, its whereabouts was a mystery.

In 1995, the Franklin County Historic Preservation Society built a reproduction of the gallows used to hang Charlie Birger. The replica gallows was set up next to the old Franklin County Jail in the exact spot as the original. Many Birger fans traveled to the Franklin County Historical Jail Museum to view the gallows and other Charlie Birger Memorabilia on display. Still, many people wanted to see the real gallows. Where was it? No one seemed to know. It was a mystery that would not be solved until recently.

In early 2013, the long lost gallows was discovered in a rural Grand Tower barn. Now after 85 years the Charlie Birger gallows has been returned to the place that made it famous. The macabre historical artifact is now on display in the old Franklin County Jail for all to enjoy.

Copyright Bruce L. Cline, 2014. You do not have permission to copy this post.

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