I finally finished the book I’d been reading, a biography of Charlie Birger. It was great, except that, unlike in the movies, just when it gets really good–the Sheltons crossed, Birger double-crossed, Newman gambling with his life–Birger is caught and hung. The climax comes too soon and too abruptly and then everyone who isn’t executed goes to jail.
Ah, but what can you do? Life doesn’t always have the same aesthetic sense good fiction does. And this book, for being “true” is pretty fantastic. You know it’s going to be interesting when the author chooses to summarize the Klan wars so that we can skip ahead to the good stuff. Birger is a Russian Jewish immigrant who settles in Southern Illinois–Little Egypt–and proceeds to make a name for himself as a gangster. He corrupts various officials, befriends and then wars with the Shelton boys, who launch the only aerial bombing ever to take place on the U.S. mainland (knock on wood) against his barbecue stand. His downfall comes indirectly from his killing of police officer Lory Price and his wife.
The indirect result of all of this is that, once the Birger and Shelton gangs were destroyed, it opened up all of the illegal activities in downstate Illinois for the Mob out of Chicago. For those of you aware of the ties between the riverboat casinos and organized crime now, it’s interesting to see that the seeds were planted back in the teens and twenties.
But what’s really interesting, at least for me, is that Birger and the Sheltons ran roughshod, not just over Little Egypt, but from Bloomington south. There were bootleggers galor, brothels, shootings–all this stuff that old Republican farmers love to claim is a corrupting force coming out of the City (and by the City, I mean, of course, Chicago. Bad things happen in St. Louis, but Illinois is protected from them by the magical power of the river. East St. Louis is just a terrible mirage, a curse the evil citizens of St. Louis placed on our pristine state to make it seem as if we have poverty and crime and problems just like everyone else. Don’t even bother to go there, you’ll find it recedes into the distance the closer you get, like a vision in the desert). But here it is, all along, in among the cornfields and the small towns.
One thing I love about living in the South is that you cannot escape history. The whole culture is set up to have a long memory. That seems to me to be in almost direct opposition to the Midwest, where we rose out of the corn and beans related to one another, but devoid of history any farther back than our great-grandparents.
I think the reason Birger fascinates DeNeal is that he was something of a modern day Robin Hood. As much of a murderous criminal as he was, he charmed the ladies and made the men want to be his buddy. But the reason Birger fascinates me is that, though he was a legend in his own time, he’s now forgotten. Deliberately forgotten, I’d assume.
One wonders what kind of a line the Ohio River makes. On the one hand, if you look at the last names of people living in near it Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee, you’d see that it’s not much of a barrier at all. Families crossed back and forth, settling on either side.
On the other hand, it seems to mark a change in philosophy. On one side, you have the folks who will pay any price to remember. And on the other side, you have the folks who want to forget at any cost.
Hmm. Must everything turn into some existential musing with me? I guess so. Still, if you’re looking for something to read and a way to support university press publishing (could there be a more noble goal?), I’d recommend A Knight of Another Sort.