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The mysterious death of Peter Biagiarelli

  • Peter Biagiarelli poses with his wife, Antoinetta, on the day of their wedding.

    Peter Biagiarelli poses with his wife, Antoinetta, on the day of their wedding.
    Photo provided

By Jon Sternberg, Contributing Writer
Posted on 3/31/2014, 2:15 PM

About 10 p.m. on a Saturday a car containing three men pulled up on Poplar Street in West Harrisburg. Exiting the car, two of the men walked west on Poplar Street while the third man walked north towards Elm Street.

Suddenly, five or six gunshots "fired fast" broke the stillness of the night. Running back to their car, Charles Serazio and Nick Charles fled the scene. When they returned in about 20 minutes they found that the third man, Peter Biagiarelli had been shot. Thus began an interesting mystery that involves Charlie Birger, a woman named Gizzalla Bardos and liquor smuggling in Southern Illinois.

This shooting occurred in February of 1924, a period of intense social unrest in Southern Illinois. Our nation was in the midst of Prohibition and in Southern Illinois, gangsters and the Ku Klux Klan vied for control of many area towns. Pro- and anti-union supporters were active in area mines and an inflow of immigrants were spreading through the workforce and communities. The notorious criminal, Charlie Birger was running liquor, prostitution and gambling in the local counties.

On the night of Saturday, Feb. 9, 1924, Biagiarelli was having dinner in the restaurant of rooming house in Harrisburg run by Charles Serazio, according to The Daily Register. Biagiarelli received a phone call there telling him a woman whom occasionally dated named Gizzalla Bardos wanted to see him. Biagiarelli called a taxi and went outside to await it. When the taxi did not arrive, Serazio and a Nick Charles offered to take Biagiarelli to his destination. In a dark alley, Biagiarelli was shot in the back and mortally wounded. Upon being found by neighbors who had come to investigate the shots, Biagiarelli spoke once saying, "Get a doctor, I'm shot to pieces."

Peter Biagiarelli was not far wrong, at the coroners inquest held on Feb. 12, Ed Hensley — an embalmer who handled the body — testified that Biagiarelli had been struck in the back three times, one bullet hitting him at chest level slightly to the right of his spine. This bullet pierced his aorta and was fatal. Another bullet penetrated his right kidney and again was a fatal wound. A third bullet struck Biagiarelli in the left hip and traveled down his leg. This wound was not a life threatening injury.

In a transcript of the coroners inquest provided by the Saline County Coroners Office, several witnesses stated that Charlie Birger, accompanied by a woman named Hazel Hatfield had been seen in the area shortly before the shooting, Birger saying that he was "Looking for a party."

Gizzalla Bardos testified that she had not called Biagiarelli that night and in fact, "Had never spoken to Biagiarelli on the telephone in my life."

Biagiarelli was known to be a "rum-runner" from St. Louis, Mo., who had for some time been encroaching on Birger's territory. Local historian and author John Musgrave points out that this was the same weekend that saw the Ku Klux Klan literally take over Herrin for several days in an attempt to rout out United Mine Workers of America activists and put down liquor smuggling. Birger knew himself to be the target of a federal investigation and indeed was served on federal charges several weeks later.

Information from The Daily Register archives sheds some light on Birger"s activities in the previous year. On Nov. 13, 1923, Birger plead guilty to violation of prohibition laws, was fined $1,000 and sentenced to six months in jail. The verdict was appealed. On Nov. 16, 1923, Birger shot and killed Cecil Knighton, who was the bartender at Birger"s saloon the Half Way Place in Williamson County. Birger claimed Knighton had fired at him and he used his shotgun, twice, in self-defense. Birger was acquitted by a coroners jury of the crime. On Nov. 18, 1923, Birger was seriously wounded in a "gun riot" in which Birger shot and killed William F. "Whitey" Shaw, leader of "Eagan's Rats," a powerful St. Louis gang. Birger and his accomplices were acquitted of this crime by a coroners jury. On July 9, 1923, Birger was arrested by Williamson County officers and charged with possession of intoxicating liquor. Birger was placed under a $10,000 bond. Given Birger's propensity to violence and solving "business problems" with gun play, it is not hard to see him taking advantage of the weekend to tidy up a loose end by killing Biagiarelli.

The coroners inquest into Biagiarelli's death did not result in any charges for Birger or, for that matter anyone else. The inquest could only rule that Biagiarelli had been killed by person or persons unknown. And this is where the incident ended and lay forgotten in dusty records in the basement of the Saline County Courthouse for 90 years.

Last summer, Peter Biagiarelli's great-grandson, Ronald Biagiarelli began doing research into Peter's death.

"I wanted to try and solve the mystery of my great-grandfather"s death, to close a hole in the family history," Ronald said in a telephone interview.

While Ronald's research did not provide further clues to the identity of his great-grandfather"s murder, some interesting facts about Peter's life turned up. Ronald states that his great-grandfather had signed up for the draft in the first World War, in Michigan.The family knew that Biagiarelli had divorced his wife, Antoinetta and retained custody of the two older boys of the families four children. One of these two boys was Ronald's grandfather. Ronald found that Peter traveled back and forth from Pittsburgh, Pa., and St. Louis, with the boys staying in a boys home in the Pittsburgh, Pa., area while Peter was away.

Another interesting connection was that of an Augusto Gori with Ronald's great-grandfather. Ronald learned that Gori and Peter had known each other in Pittsburgh and later in St. Louis had continued their friendship. It was Gori who claimed Peter's body and paid for the funeral and for a quite substantial monument for Peter in a St. Louis cemetery. While the Biagiarelli's had known that Peter was involved in liquor smuggling, it is unclear if Biagiarelli and Gori had a business relationship or merely a friendship.

"It's been an interesting journey," Ronald said, "All that is left is to clear up the mystery of the Gori connection and I think we will know all that we can know, though I'm curious why my great-grandfather signed up for the draft in Michigan. People at the Saline County Coroners Office and Harrisburg library have been very helpful in this research and I am very grateful for their assistance."

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