If someone mentions the East Side today, most St. Louisans think of night clubs, strip joints, urban decay, and gang violence. About a hundred years ago the East Side was not that much different than today. Also, most people forget that people from Southern Illinois, also known as 'Little Egypt' by the locals, identify closer with St. Louis than big cities like Chicago. During Prohibition, two rival gangs (The Shelton Gang & The Birger Gang) battled for control of East St. Louis liquor and gambling rackets, along with other rackets across the rest of the Metro East and Southern Illinois. It was only until the Ku Klux Klan began to threaten their territories that these two gangs formed an unlikely alliance and started a war with the white supremacists.
The Shelton Gang
The first major gang in Southern Illinois was The Shelton Gang. The Shelton brothers, Carl, Earl, and Bernie were coal miners who moved from Wayne County, IL during Prohibition to East St. Louis and opened up a tavern. They began bootlegging liquor throughout the Metro East, ran slot machines, and committed a number of robberies. Majority of the gang's 50+ members were of Irish decent. In 1950, the Saturday Evening Post described the Sheltons as "America's Bloodiest Gang".
The Birger Gang
Their rival was the gang ran by Charles Birger. Birger was an infamous figure across 'Little Egypt'. A Russian-Jew, he immigrated with his parents to the United States when he was very young and spent much of his youth in St. Louis, even working as a paper boy for the Post-Dispatch. He later joined the U.S. Army, afterwards became a cowboy, and then began working as a miner in Harrisburg, IL. When Prohibition hit in 1920 Birger, like the Sheltons, treated it as a business opportunity. Charlie converted an old country tourist spot into his hideout, named Shady Rest, and began bootlegging and running various gambling houses around the area. Many of the gang's 15+ members were of Jewish and other various ethnicities.
The KKK in Southern Illinois
At this time the Ku Klux Klan was flourishing under Prohibition. The Klan supported National Prohibition. They would take the stance of "cleaning up communities" to recruit new members and supporters but also use it to target groups that did not vibe with their white Anglo-Saxon Protestant views. The KKK’s support of Prohibition gave the organization a way to promote its views and a way to use state-sanctioned violence against Catholics, Jews, and Blacks.
According to Kelefa Sanneh of The New Yorker, "In 1923, in Williamson County, Southern Illinois, hundreds of enforcers, many of them Klansmen, began a series of violent raids on distilleries, bars, and private homes, in which several hundred people were arrested and more than a dozen were killed." Federal authorities had allegedly deputized Klansmen in Southern Illinois to go door to door, forcibly searching homes and businesses trying to find alcohol. If it was found, the people in possession were unlawfully imprisoned in "Klan Jails". Any public official in Williamson County, that was under suspicion of being loyal to bootleggers, were removed from public office and replaced with Klansmen. All of this was done under Klan leader S. Glenn Young, and his next stop was East St. Louis.
Young had tons of charges against him in Herrin, Williamson County, IL, including intent to murder, conspiracy, kidnapping, and false imprisonment. However, this did not stop him from "cleaning up" the communities of Southern Illinois. In April of 1924 it was announced that Young was going to change his headquarters from Williamson County to the infamous East Side. The KKK had actually just revoked the charter of the East St. Louis Ku Klux Klan Chapter, probably due to their failure of ridding the area of local bootleggers, and appointed S. Glenn Young to be the new Kleagle (an officer of the Ku Klux Klan whose main role is to recruit new members and maintain control) of that chapter who could whip the East Side into shape. Charlie Birger and the Shelton Brothers had other ideas though.
Gangsters vs Ku Klux Klan
These two gangs strongly disliked the Ku Klux Klan (more than they disliked each other). First, because the Klan was trying to shutdown their illegal operations of bootlegging, second because of their Jewish and Irish-Catholic roots (which the KKK hated) and third because the gangs' leaders were extremely close to the mining culture of 'Little Egypt' which embraced the consumption of alcohol and hated Klan influence. Charlie Birger and the Sheltons made a brief alliance and decided to go after Young. On May 23, 1924, Shelton men ambushed S. Glenn Young and his wife near the Kaskaskia river on his way to "clean up" East St. Louis, critically injuring them.
Young gave an account of the shooting in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat: "My wife and I were driving to St. Louis on the A-P Highway when I observed a Dodge sedan following my machine. When I arrived at the embankment near the Okaw River bottoms the driver of the Dodge speeded up his car and passed my machine on the left. Just as the two automobiles were abreast, three of the men in the Dodge poured a volley of shot at us. My wife and I both ducked and escaped being killed, several of the bullets passing through the coachwork of the automobile right above our heads. I had no chance to get to my .45-caliber automatics or my submachine gun, which I had in the automobile. After emptying their pistols, the gunmen sped east on the road. I would be able to identify at least two of them."
Young was hit in the right leg and his wife was hit in the face and side of the head. Their car was riddled with 15 .45-caliber shots. Ironically they were both treated at a Catholic hospital. After laying up in the hospital for months Young returned to Williamson County, IL. In January of 1925 he and two of his companions were involved in a shootout with a deputy sheriff that involved in all four men being fatally wounded. The Klan held a public funeral for Young in which more than 15,000 people were in attendance.
Even though S. Glenn Young was out of the picture, the Klan was still a threat to the two Metro East gangs. In 1926 Charlie Birger and the Shelton brothers allied their forces once again to bring down the KKK in 'Little Egypt'. On April 13, 1926 a faction of gunmen descended upon a polling place in Herrin, IL raining down gunfire upon a faction of Klansmen that had been responsible for the liquor raids of Williamson County. After the smoke cleared, six men lay dead.
Among the departed were three Klansmen:
Mack Sizemore, 54, Klansman, Fourth Ward Alderman, and coal miner.
Ben Sizemore, 52, Klansman, miner.
Harland Ford, 40, brother of former Chief of Police John Ford, Klan leader.
The other three slain men were suspected to be members of the Shelton & Birger Gangs. One of them, Charles "Brown" Briggs, was from East St. Louis and was reported to have been present at the assassination attempt of Klan Kleagle, S. Glenn Young, two years prior. The other two were rumored to be members of Charlie Birger's outfit. The Herrin police force were criticized for lack of effort to respond quickly, if at all, to the shooting. This was probably in-part because the Ku Klux Klan started to lose its grip on law enforcement in Williamson County. The coroner eventually ruled the three Klansmen's deaths homicide "by parties unknown".
The attack in Herrin, IL broke the back of the Ku Klux Klan across 'Little Egypt'. The Klan's presence was completely eliminated from East St. Louis. The KKK's liquor raids in Williamson County and the rest of Southern Illinois stopped and lawfully elected officials returned to their positions.. So what happened to the anti-Klan crusaders?
Well, the Shelton Brothers and Charlie Birger returned to their criminal operations and would continue to war with one another years after. Both gangs would end up making national history, with some gangsters giving rise to how the East Side operates today, and one gangster becoming immortalized as an urban legend...but those are tales for another time.
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