Crime & Corruption: The 1927 Price Murders
In 1927, the murders of highway cop Lory ‘Slim’ Price and his pregnant schoolteacher wife Ethel shocked the people of southern Illinois. The same features that put the Price murders on the front page of newspapers across the Midwest still make the crime compelling today. It’s gruesome. It’s complicated. It features an interconnected network of shady characters. And it’s great inspiration for the gaming table.
By January of 1927, Little Egypt – southern Illinois – was already scarred by a year of war between two powerful bootlegger gangs. The one most relevant to the Price story was the Birger Gang, led by charming psychopath Charlie Birger, who styled himself a Prohibition-era Robin Hood, even as he left a trail of dead bystanders across three counties.
Slim Price rode a motorcycle for the highway patrol. He was a WWI vet, the president of the local chapter of the American Legion, and a likable guy with friends everywhere. A lot of those friends were gangsters, especially along his beat, which passed by an out-of-the-way cabin where Charlie Birger ran an illegal bar. Less is known about Slim’s wife, Ethel Price. She was a schoolteacher, six years younger than her husband, and pregnant.
Slim and Ethel were abducted from their home in Marion, IL in the middle of the night between January 16th and 17th, 1927. When they were discovered missing, the state police did a cursory search, but found nothing. They were impeded by bad weather – rain that turned into several days of snow, some of the worst in years. Public opinion was inflamed. Everyone suspected the Birger Gang. But without witnesses, there wasn’t much the police could do. Slim’s body was found in a field on February 5th, after the snow had melted enough to reveal it. Scavenging animals had gotten to the corpse first.
Meanwhile, things were going badly for the Birger Gang. Charlie Birger was arrested on the day of Slim’s funeral for a different murder. Gangsters were ratting each other out to the law to save their own skins. In June, police made a major breakthrough in the Price case. They’d arrested Arthur ‘Art’ Newman, once Birger’s second-in-command, in – of all places – California. He’d fled there to avoid retaliation after testifying at the trial of a rival gang for mail robbery. On June 11th, he told the police what happened to ‘Slim’ and Ethel.
According to Newman, Slim sent a letter to the president of a bank the Birger Gang had robbed. Slim promised to name the robbers in exchange for a cash reward. The county prosecuting attorney, Arlie O. Boswell, heard about the letter. According to Newman, the letter worried Boswell, because the prosecuting attorney was colluding with the Birger Gang and Slim knew about it. Slim, Boswell, and Birger were splitting profits from a stolen car racket. The Birger Gang would steal the cars. Boswell would find out which ones carried a reward if returned to their owners. And Slim would ‘find’ those cars abandoned by the side of the road. So, with Slim threatening to name names, Boswell asked Birger to have Slim killed.
So it happened that two cars full of Birger gangsters pulled up outside the Price home in the middle of a cold, rainy night. They bundled Slim into one car and Ethel into the other.
The gangsters drove Slim to Birger’s bar. Birger monologued at Price for several minutes, then shot him twice, non-fatally. Then the second car pulled up – without Ethel. The gangsters bundled Slim back into a car, drove him out into a field, shot him dead, and drove off. The rain turned to snow and covered his body.
(Arlie O. Boswell, the corrupt prosecuting attorney, told a different story. Boswell claimed that Birger didn’t intend to kill Slim, but was forced into it by Newman. Boswell also denied having anything to do with the crime. Certainly, both details paint Boswell in a better light, but he was a well-connected man. He may have been telling the truth, at least partially.)
But what of Ethel? The gangsters feared she might know as much as her husband. They took no chances. The second car drove her out to an abandoned mineshaft. After several minutes’ agonizing delay, the gangsters shot her and dropped her body down the mineshaft. Then they filled the pit with debris to hide their crime.
Within hours of Newman’s confession, locals had organized a bucket brigade at the mineshaft. After a full day and night of work, they brought in heavy equipment. Shortly thereafter, on June 13th, they found the well-preserved body of Ethel Price.
Two years after the murders, the case finally went to trial. Ten men were indicted, but only four were tried. The rest were still at large or dead. Indeed, Charlie Birger, the ringleader, had been hanged for a different murder nine months before the Price trial began. In exchange for unspecified promises of leniency, the defendents agreed to plead guilty and help clear up 27 other unsolved murders. Nonetheless, they still received a trial, as the judge refused to pass a sentence before he’d heard the prosecution’s evidence. All four defendants testified. Their stories differed in the details, but agreed in the broad strokes – though Newman’s testimony was far more damning of Boswell, while the other three claimed ignorance of the extent of the prosecutor’s involvement. Boswell did not prosecute the Price trial, as he’d been voted out of office a few months prior. The gangsters were sentenced to life in prison.
The Price murders are crazy easy to insert into your campaign. They work in any setting with organized crime. If Slim can’t be a cop at your table, maybe he’s an excise tax collector or code enforcement weenie – any sort of petty authority will do. Boswell needs to be senior enough in the justice system to make arrests go away if he likes. If he can’t be the county’s prosecuting attorney, maybe he’s a judge or an inquisitor. Birger, Newman, and the rest work just fine as-is; it’s a rare setting that doesn’t have gangsters. Ditto Ethel as a schoolteacher. If you’re feeling lazy, you don’t even have to change anybody’s name.
The PCs may get called in to investigate a crime based on the Price murders after outsiders are suspicious that Boswell is dragging his feet. While it’s clear there isn’t much evidence (and only one body), the PCs get a lead that your Art Newman NPC knows what happened. So they have to go on a trip to somewhere fun and far-off to catch him. Interrogating Art Newman reveals who did it, why, and where the body of the Ethel character is. But he’s also heavily implicated the Boswell character, a powerful local figure. What are the PCs going to do about that? Along the way, the PCs will likely be opposed by the tattered remnants of the Birger Gang. Dedicated PCs will also track down the other killers and may even investigate other NPCs in the justice system for possible connections to the gangsters.