BENTON, Ill. – Folks in this hardscrabble town still cling to the legend of Charlie Birger, the bootlegging gangster who moments before meeting his maker on the gallows flippantly remarked how lovely the world was.
Nearly eight decades later, the noose used in Illinois' last public hanging has taken on an ugly life of its own.
Rebecca Cocke, granddaughter of the sheriff who supervised the 1928 execution, says the rope is a family heirloom her mother lent to the downtown jail museum 10 years ago. With her mother now suffering from Alzheimer's disease, Cocke — her legal guardian — is suing to get the rope back.
Not so fast, says the local preservation society chief.
Robert Rea wants a judge to determine whether Cocke, granddaughter of former Sheriff Jim Pritchard, is the rightful heir to the prized piece of rope, or whether it belongs to the county because Pritchard was on its payroll.
"We do not know who owns the rope," Rea said. "I'm just thankful I'm not a judge. It's an interesting case, to say the least."
Credit the enigmatic Birger with that.
Eclipsed on the national stage by legendary Chicago gangster Al Capone, Birger's Prohibition-era exploits nevertheless drew quite a following, with some likening him to a Robin Hood who bootlegged to fight a government bent on legislating morality.
He battled a rival gang led by the Shelton brothers using homemade armored vehicles. He even weathered the bombing of the Shady Rest, his log hideout stocked with rifles, submachine guns, ammunition and cases of canned goods.
"He was quite a character in a number of regards," said Lane Harvey, a history buff and lawyer who represents Cocke in the custody flap.
The law caught up to Birger in 1927, when he was condemned for arranging the killing of Joe Adams, the mayor of nearby West City.
On April 19, 1928, more than 5,000 spectators packed the jail courtyard to see Birger die. Children skipped school to watch him walk to the gallows and up the steps to the trap door, where he shook hands with executioner Phil Hanna.
"They've accused me of a lot of things I was never guilty of, but I was guilty of a lot of things of which they never accused me," media accounts quoted the former cowhand and Army veteran as saying. "So I guess we're about even."
Before his head was covered by a black hood — he declined a white one, saying he didn't want to be confused with the Ku Klux Klan — Birger grinned and said, "It's a beautiful world."
So went a colorful character.
At the jail museum, exhibits include the gavel the judge used to sentence Birger to death and a series of black-and-white photos showing the dead man walking, escorted by a rabbi up the gallows' 13 steps.
"Charlie Birger dies smiling," bellows a headline in a yellow, tattered edition of the Benton Evening News.
In an upstairs room where Birger gave an interview on the eve of his execution, there's a life-size cutout of the condemned man. Across the hall is the cell where he watched the gallows being built and, according to Rea, barked out to kids he saw climbing it: "Get off of it, that's mine."
In the cell are two of Birger's Thompson machine guns — dating to 1921 and, by Rea's account, valued at $135,000 — and a wicker basket similar to one used to carry away his corpse.
And there's that noose, lent in 1996 to the then-fledgling museum by the last surviving child of Sheriff Pritchard.
In a written agreement included with her daughter's pending lawsuit, Mary Louise Glover asked the museum to return the noose if the museum ever folded or if she requested it back.
Cocke said her mother once told her, "This will always be part of the family and always be part of your heritage."
But when Cocke requested in September that the noose be returned, Rea refused, the lawsuit says, and Cocke filed suit in Franklin County Circuit Court.
Cocke and her attorney consider the noose priceless.
"In a very odd sort of way, as you might understand, it's unique," Harvey said. "It's the only one of its kind and the only one of its kind there will ever be."
To Cocke, the noose's monetary value means nothing. "It's part of my family's heritage," she said. "If I let it go now, I'll never see it again."
For now, Rea isn't budging.
Like Birger's legend itself, he said, "We know the story of the noose will go on."