Sunday, 3 September 2017

Charlie Birger

Note to self: the next time you're feeling a bit glum on a Sunday, whatever you do, do not spend the day formatting orchestral parts whilst sitting on the same spot on your sofa from 10am till 11pm. Just don't do it! You'll end the day with a terrible backache, and instead of a massive sense of achievement, you'll be climbing the walls in a dreadful panic and pacing about like a polar bear in a concrete cage. And next time, if you decide it might be fun not to eat anything all day, remember how shaky you feel right now... and learn.

The only interesting piece of news I learned today is that Carbondale, from where we watched the eclipse, is but a stone's throw away from where family on my father's side lived. My Great Grandmother went to stay with said relatives in Harrisburg, Illinois, in 1928. We know this because she witnessed the public hanging of Charlie Birger, a rather famous bootlegger and gangster, who was hanged in a placed called Benton, just north of Carbondale. Birger was quite an interesting character - a sort of anti-hero who waged war on the Ku Klux Clan. I'd like to say this was due to his proud Jewish heritage and his support of black people, but suspect it was more likely due to the organisation's support for prohibition. His hatred of the Clan meant he was hanged wearing a black hood, despite tradition dictating he be hanged wearing a white one. His last words are said to have been "it's a beautiful world."

I believe my Grandmother had a souvenir programme from the event which my father found in one of  her draws after she'd died. He said, rather wistfully, on the phone to me today that he couldn't quite believe that his grandmother had witnessed a public execution. It does seem strange.

I believe his grandparents used to play an old 78 record featuring a song about the hanging, which did the rounds after his death. A quick bit of research reveals that the words to the song are:

I heard of Charlie Birger way back when I was young
My daddy told me all about the day that Charlie hung.

I've heard so many stories, some of his ghastly deeds
Another tells how Charlie helped poor folks in their needs.

One said he was a kindly man who never told a lie
But when somebody crossed him, that man was sure to die

That Charlie had no Master you can tell from all the tales
He fought the system all the way, and stayed out of their jails

I've seen so many pictures, they're hanging on the walls
The pictures tell the story of Birger's rise and fall

And when they finally caught him he was sentenced to be hung
But they hadn't broke his spirit the day the trap was sprung

When the State had had its vengeance—When Charlie's life was done
It made one stop to wonder, Who had lost, and who had won.


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