The Murder of Mayor Joe Adams

Charlie Birger was a bootlegger in Southern Illinois during Prohibition in the 1920s. He and his gang also demanded that rival operations and roadside taverns buy their illegal booze from his gang. Several gangster style attacks occurred in 1926 between Birger and the Shelton gang including bombings of Birger's hideout and the house of Joe Adams, an associate of the Sheltons.

In December 1926, Birger ordered the murder of Joe Adams, who was also the mayor of West City. Two young boys, Elmo and Harry Thomasson, were chosen to do the job. Young Jesse Cremer and his then girlfriend, Jennie, witnessed the shooting. Jesse and Jennie were later married and she survives today to tell what happened.

Jesse said, Ill take you to where they bombed Joe Adams house, said Jennie. A few blocks from the Adams house, they saw a man walking down the street. He was a regular customer at the store where Jesse worked, so the two waved at each other. Then the young couple were within view of the Adams house where a few days earlier a bomb had exploded.

The timing was perfect, Jennie said. Jesse pointed right to the place (where the bomb had exploded and now) where two fellows stood on a porch. About that time, it was bang, bang, bang- there were so many shots. The screen door opened up and Joe Adams fell. I saw him fall.

Jennie CremerAfter shooting Joe Adams, the gunmen jumped off the porch and began to run. Elmo Thomasson stumbled, then ran behind Jesses car. His brother, Harry, ran past the man Jesse had waved at and shot at his feet. Then he ran in front of a Ford coupe, and stopped in the middle of the street.

He aimed his gun right at us, Jennie said. When the boy raised the gun, Jesse raised his hand and waved. That's what saved us. Jesse had recognized both of the brothers and they knew him. Amazingly, Harry waved back, then jumped into the getaway car that sped away.

We drove off, said Jennie. I said, go faster, go faster. But Jesse was afraid they would think we were chasing them. Jesse said, Don't ever tell anyone, except maybe your parents. I didn't say anything to anyone.

Jennie didn't tell her parents as she was afraid they'd be angry if they knew where she was at the time of the shooting. She finally told a neighbor. He said not to tell anyone also, she said.

But Jesse had been seen and recognized. When he was questioned by Franklin County States Attorney Roy Martin, Jesse lied because he feared for his and Jennies lives.

Eventually, Jesse told the truth and identified the gunman. In return, States Attorney Martin promised that if it could be avoided, he would not be called to testify. At Jesses urging, Jennie took a job in Chicago, where she lived with her sister. Jesse wanted me to get out of town, she said. He said they would use any method to get me.

Jesse was afraid, too. He said several men hung around the store that he didn't recognize as customers. I didn't know anything about Charlie Birger at the time, Jennie said. I lived a sheltered life.

Harry Thomasson eventually confessed to his part in the murder and implicated Charlie Birger as the mastermind behind the plot. The Thomasson brothers received leniency for their cooperation at the trial but Birger was sentenced to be hanged. On a Friday the 13th in April 1928 in the public square in Benton, he became the last person to be executed by hanging in the state of Illinois.

Even though it was an interesting and exciting time, Jennie said it was also a frightening experience. At one time, I was scared to death, she said. I never got afraid until I realized how serious it was. I thought, They wont shoot me. I don't know them and they don't know me. Then I realized they could come back and finish us off at any time.

Betty Adams is the niece of Joe Adams, the West City mayor who was shot by the Thomasson brothers on the orders of gangster Charlie Birger. Born after her uncle was murdered, she grew up hearing the stories of Birger and his gang.

My dad didn't talk about it, but my mother did, Betty said. In fact, my dad, Gus Adams, and his brother Joe weren't speaking to each other at that time. When dad saw what was happening, he went over to talk to his brother and asked him to stop his association with the gangsters.

Betty remembers her mother talking about a time when the men were making rifle shells on the kitchen table. That was the way people solved their problems then, she said. My dad was such a quiet, gentle man. He didn't live that kind of life at all. It was really unbelievable for me.

Robert S. Rea, current president of the Society for the Historic Preservation of Franklin County describes the gangster, Charlie Birger this way, To many, Birger was a Robin Hood who annihilated the Ku Klux Klan. He was able to dupe a lot of people into believing he was not a hardened criminal, which he actually was.

Sources: The Southern Illinoisan newspaper, December 28, 1998. Paul M. Angle, Bloody Williamson: A Chapter in American Lawlessness, University of Illinois Press, 1952.

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