On the eve of retirement, after bombing and shooting his way into the headlines for half a century, Cleveland's leading racketeer was murdered in a style he would have admired. Where do you begin to look for the killer of a man feared and hated by so many?
Michael D. Roberts email@example.com
Duster Mooney was late. The candlelight procession that preceded Holy Saturday Mass at St. Malachi's had already begun as Mooney, his fiancee, Eileen, and his parents hurried south on West 25th Street toward the church.
The evening was still faint with light and a gusty wind swept off the lake, but the temperature was surprisingly mild for late March. In a little more than two minutes the 8 o'clock mass would begin, and the only concern Mooney had was whether there would be room to sit in the crowded church.
Mooney felt the shock wave first. It was as if some unseen hand had reached out and had given him a terrific push. The impact of the force was breathtaking and it forced him to stagger back a step or two.
The sound followed. It was more like a loud W-O-M-P than anything else, the kind of sound you imagine a coal mine would make when it collapsed. Mooney, still stunned, looked to his right across the street, and saw a piece of sheet metal spinning high in the air. Christ, it was part of a car door!
The explosion was followed by a split second of silence, and then the tinkling sound of falling glass filled the air, as dozens of windows in a nearby building broke with the same soothing clink-clink that breeze-rustled chimes make swaying on a porch.
A black mushroom cloud, as greasy and as dark a thing as Mooney had ever seen, rose up from a parking lot across the street through the trees, staining the sky. As it climbed he realized for the first time that an automobile had exploded, a silver-blue Continental.
Mooney's father, a doctor, was already crossing the street, hurrying towards the now burning car, the lake winds fanning the flames which were licking at a gold Eldorado parked next to the demolished vehicle. The Eldorado was emitting an eerie honk-honk-honk. Its lights flashed on and off. The impact of the blast had set off its burglar alarm.
The parking lot was a scene of devastation and hysteria. Pieces of the Continental were strewn everywhere and broken glass covered the area. A blonde woman, her voice high-pitched in panic, was screaming: "Get him out, get him out!" A crowd began to form.
A priest dressed in an Army fatigue jacket rushed onto the lot. "Here, Father, here is part of him," cried an onlooker, pointing to a scorched chunk of flesh on the ground. The doctor immediately identified it as the upper leg and pelvis bone. The priest knelt and performed the last rites.
The flames continued to threaten the Eldorado. One man made an attempt to move the car, but was warned away by the crowd, which had recognized the explosion for what it was: a bomb. Some feared the Eldorado might be rigged, too.
"I found his wallet," called one of the milling onlookers. "He looks like he was from out of town. Some place called Orange, Ohio."
Mooney dropped back with the crowd to a cyclone fence that boarded the parking lot. It was only then that he noticed what appeared to be chicken fat enmeshed in the fence. He turned away, sickened at the sight, and walked to the church where the Mass was being said — the Eldorado's horn sounding a death knell throughout.
Fifteen minutes later homicide detectives John McKibben and Thomas Del Regno arrived on the scene. A uniformed officer briefed them. "Well, I guess we won't see Shondor Birns walking the streets anymore," the officer said. "It's him on the ground there."
The upper torso of Shondor Birns, still clothed in a white T-shirt, lay battered on the ground. There was what appeared to be a mocking smile on his burned face.
So ended the life of a man who had been variously described over the years as public enemy number one, rackets kingpin, enforcer, tough guy, fixer, killer — or nice guy. depending upon your perspective.
He had died, at 69, the victim of his favorite weapon, the bomb, and with him had passed away an era of crime in Cleveland that stretched back to Prohibition. Birns could be genial, humorous and generous with his money and had often been willing to help some downtrodden soul, but at the same time had amassed in his lifetime a personal body count estimated to have included a dozen or so men who had crossed him in one way or another.
A few days after Birns was murdered a newspaper columnist cautioned that it would not be proper to eulogize such a man in print. Ironically, however, it was a generation of newspaper reporters, more than anyone else, who had given Shondor Birns one of the things he had sought the most: notoriety.
Few who arrived in that place of confusion and hope called Ellis Island in the winter of 1907 thought about or cared much for newspapers. Thousands of European immigrants awaited processing on the island in New York harbor, a way station in a journey that many thought would lead them to riches. Among those awaiting clearance and the opportunity to pay a nominal head tax to legitimize their entrance into the United States was a young Jewish couple from a town called Lemes in the state of Zepleny in what was then the Austria-Hungary Empire.
Mr. and Mrs. Hermann Bim — years later those who knew the couple would say they shortened the name from Birnstein on arrival (Bims added the "s" later) — had made the Atlantic crossing in the S.S. Chemnitz, a vessel owned by the German North Lloyd Line, which was one of the prime carriers of immigrants to this country. Hermann and Illone Birn had brought with them three children, two boys and a girl. The youngest, only 10 months, went by the name Sandor or Alexander, as their native tongue translated Birn into English. Later, in Cleveland, their Jewish and Italian neighbors would call the Bim child, Shondor.
As far back as anyone can remember Shondor Birns was a tough kid. The toughest, most competitive kid on the block. By the time he was 13, his reputation had spread among the city's settlement houses where he often competed in sports. Other youngsters whispered that here was someone not to be fooled with, here was someone with a special ominousness about him. But they followed him, for he was one of those gifted individuals who are born leaders.
Shondor grew up on Woodland Avenue in the stretch between East 45th Street and East 59th. It was a poor neighborhood, with some middle-class residents mixed in — an area where immigrants settled. Shondor's presence in the neighborhood was first felt at Outhwaite School on East 49th Street, which he attended through the sixth grade.
One former schoolmate, who has a vivid memory of Shondor Bims, recalls a particular marble-shooting tournament in which a friend had emerged victorious. To the victor went a medal. Shondor had been absent from school the day of the tournament, and when he returned, the first thing he did was to seek out the marble champ. He wanted the winner's medal and proceeded to take it by force.
"See, I would have won it anyway if I was here," Shondor explained to the luckless youth.
Birns probably would have won it, too. He was a marvelous athlete able to swim well out into Lake Erie — some say he could swim to the five-mile crib — and hit a baseball further than any of the older kids in the neighborhood. An ace at basketball, he was stocky and quick, especially with his fists, and possessed of a volatile temper. One trait that especially awed those with whom he came in contact was his absolute fearlessness.
Around 1919 Shondor began to hang out at the Council Educational Alliance, which was a settlement house located at 3711 Woodland Avenue where the poor kids came to pass their time in various types of athletics and recreation.
"It was evident to all of us that this 13-year-old was an extraordinary fellow," recalls a man associated with the council in those years. "He was the leader. If there was trouble, he'd protect the other boys. The boy was reliable and smart."
Once after the council basketball team had traveled to Alta House on Murray Hill and had whipped the home team, the losers had threatened the winners. Nobody as much as looked at Shondor Birns. He was the only youth to refuse an escort after the game.
Besides his fearlessness, those around him noticed another strong trait. A basic need for prestige, a demand for respect and admiration welled deep within Shondor Bims. As a youth he satisfied this craving by his fierce competitiveness. Above all he wanted to be the man among men. These qualities would never desert him during his lifetime, and in a sense the depth of the desires was a flaw that ultimately grew into a burden.
Those who knew him while he attended Kennard Junior High School from the fall of 1919 through the spring of 1921 say that his home life may have had an adverse impact on his life, for it was during this period that tragedy befell the Birn family.
In 1919, a zealous and rather naive nation had voted itself dry and set the stage for the establishment of the largest network of organized crime that the world has ever known. The manufacture and sale of illegal alcohol created an era of crime from which the nation would never recover. Cleveland would become a key link in the criminal network that spanned the nation, and Prohibition was to be its foundation.
All of this would ultimately touch Shondor Bims' later life, but Prohibition had a greater effect on his youth—it helped kill his mother.
Illone Birn, 36, was boiling mash in a 10-gallon still in the family apartment at 2447 East 59th Street when the apparatus exploded, pouring the burning alcohol upon her. With her clothes on fire, she ran from the apartment onto the street, where a passing motorist found her and rushed her to the old East 55th Street Hospital. Her clothing was still on fire when she arrived at the hospital.
She died the next morning, November 10, 1920, of burns across her entire body. The police conducted a raid on the Birn apartment and found four barrels of mash and three gallons of "raisin' jack." Hermann, who was 38, was arrested.
At Kennard, the legend of Shondor Bims grew. He was in the process of achieving his sought-after reputation and when he saw something that he coveted, he took it. One former neighbor recalls how Shondor decided he wanted a pair of binoculars that belonged to him. "He pestered my brother and I until finally he just took them," says the man. "After that everything was fine. Shondor would even give us rides on his bike."
In September 1921, Birns transferred to East Tech. He remained there until January when he again transferred, this time to the old Longwood High School of Commerce, where he stayed only a year. He finished the 10th grade at Longwood and on June 16, 1922 bid farewell to his formal education. Another kind of education lay ahead, but there would be a brief interlude of a few odd jobs and one last attempt to find himself. (It was Shondor who added the "s" to his last name later in life. One acquaintance says that this was done to spare the Birn family embarrassment once the newspapers began to record his exploits.)
Many of the impoverished youths who had grown up along Woodland Avenue had a kind of craving for discipline, a desire to be needed, and the one place that many of them turned toward was the U.S. Navy. Late in 1923 Shondor Birns joined others like himself and enlisted in the Navy. No records of his naval service can be located today, but old neighbors recall that he was discharged from the Navy after serving only six months because he was underage. They remember him coming home with plenty of stories and a tattoo.
Years later his stepmother would tell how he then sold newspapers for a while and at times slept in an alley on a bed of old paper bundles. Bims himself once testified that during this period he sold bootleg whisky and would later confide to an inmate at the Warrensville Workhouse that he had helped to support the family by stealing things.
An old acquaintance recalls that after Shondor came home from the Navy he began to hang around with some of the toughest people in the neighborhood. From here on in, Shondor Bims was to live by wit and violence alone. Society would never again look upon him as an asset to the community. He would be branded an enemy of the public.
The criminal record of Alexander S. Bims is several typewritten pages long. It runs the gamut of charges, from vagrancy to murder, starting innocently enough with an arrest for auto theft on October 14, 1925. Bims was found guilty of the charge one month later and sentenced to the Mansfield Reformatory for one to 20 years. Justice was quick and harsh in those days.
The news of his conviction saddened a group of Birns' friends at Camp Wise, a facility (located on the site of what is now the Euclid Municipal Park) run by the Jewish Welfare Agency. Birns had helped out around the camp, and several camp counselors and members of the agency made attempts to have him released on parole, which did take place after he had served a little more than a year.
Shortly afterwards, old neighbors recall, Birns began to get involved with prostitution and later was reputed to control every "vice resort," as the papers dubbed them, on East 55th Street between Woodland and St. Clair. Many of his clients were prominent figures in town — politicians, judges, police — and in this way Shon made some important contacts. At the age of 23, he was well on his way to making his mark in the world.
Already Birns had a flair for sharp clothes and a taste for big cigars. The blacks in the area were terrified of him and pronounced his name "Shin-do." He rose to every challenge and took on every comer. Police arrested him in July 1929, charging him with cutting to kill. The case was quietly nolled. For those who did not already know it, here was one tough hombre with a knife or with his fists. Most feared, however, was his temper; with provocation, it could glow white-hot.
One reason that Bims was able to move so quickly into crime was his links to the old neighborhood. He grew up with many of the Italian and Jewish families that would later become rich as bootleggers and members of what criminal historians like to call "The Cleveland Syndicate." While he would never become part of the inner circle of local organized crime, Birns was useful to its members in many ways and they, in turn, bestowed favors on him.
His flamboyance and desire for prominence along with his mercurial temper made him an undesirable executive for what was to become the corporate organization of crime. Besides, Shon was too much of a freelancer, too spirited and reckless for the low-profile constraints of the mob. But if his "business" did not infringe upon theirs, he had their blessings, for there was one thing certain about the man: He would never talk. His word was his honor and his silence was that of the Sphinx.
It was his social security, too.
As the bleakness of Depression descended over Cleveland, Shondor Bims began what was to be his most violent decade, but most of the killing and maiming had more to do with his hair-trigger temper than with any rackets shootouts.
Early one morning in 1931, for instance, Birns walked into a speakeasy a block away from Central Police Station and made a comment about another man's woman which resulted in an argument. Birns is said to have pulled a pistol and shot the man, wounding him. (An embarrassed police chief raged publicly that he had no idea that such a nightspot had been operating so close to his office.) Oddly enough, no witness could be found to corroborate the wounded man's allegation that it was Birns who had shot him, and the case died.
During the next year the police charged that Birns had been involved in several armed robberies including the stickup of a poker game that had netted $1,300. Although there had been 30 witnesses on hand, no one seemed able to remember the gunmen.
In May 1932, Birns broke the jaw of an architecture student who was working as a cabbie on the corner of East 6th Street and Euclid Avenue. The fellow had dallied as he was making a turn, incurring Birns' wrath. During the trial, a young prosecutor named John Butler, who was to develop in time into one of the city's ablest criminal lawyers, made one of the first of countless similar observations about Shondor Bims: "It is time the courts put away this man whose reputation is one of rampant criminality." Shondor was then 26.
Apparently the judge only half-listened to the plea of the prosecution. He found Birns guilty, sentencing him to 30 days in the Workhouse and fining him $25. As the guard was leading Birns from the courtroom, the judge casually suggested that if a certain motion were filed Birns would not have to serve his time. No sense cluttering up the Workhouse and causing the city more expense, the judge reasoned. Shondor had friends everywhere.
There was another side to Birns, a paradoxical perspective. With the Great Depression in full swing there were plenty of families on the very edge of existence, and some of these poor folk were the recipients of help from Birns. A prominent and wealthy businessman who prefers to remain anonymous recalls how Birns helped his family when the businessman was a youngster. "He simply gave my parents money so we could eat. I worked a little bit around the pool room that Shon ran and we pulled through." More than 30 years later Bims would ask that the favor be repaid with a letter to the parole board recommending his release. Helping others (and so amassing chits to use when he needed help) was one of the ways that Birns collected insurance along the way.
But he never took advantage of his contacts with old friends and families that had grown to prominence. Some say that he went to great lengths in later life not to embarrass them. "When I was growing up, Shondor was a great friend of the family," says another prominent Clevelander. "Later, I would see him around town—say, I would be having lunch with someone at the Theatrical. Shon would pass the table and quietly nod to me. I know he did not want to offend me with a profusive greeting."
Conversely, it was not a healthy thing to offend Shondor Birns.
One spring night in 1934 Birns stopped by a place called the Keystone Club at East 24th and Euclid. During the evening, Bims got up from his drink and went to the checkroom to get a cigar from the pocket of his coat. Apparently, he had misplaced his check, and so the hat check girl refused to allow him to enter.
Shoving her aside, Bims reached into the cloak room, prompting Rudy Duncan, the bouncer and boyfriend of the hat check girl, to come at him. There was an exchange of gunfire and both Birns and a friend were wounded. When the police arrived they found several guns, one of which had been dipped in perfume to kill the smell of gunpowder. Shondor, wounded in the right side, was booked for carrying a concealed weapon. He told police he did not know who had shot him.
Early in June a jury acquitted Birns of the concealed weapon charge, and on the 25th of the month Rudy Duncan, the chivalrous and quick-shooting bouncer, was found dead in his car on East 105th Street. It took the police 10 days to find Birns, who told them he had been just about to give himself up. He had been out of town recovering from the bullet wound, he said.
A few months later, while serving a sentence in the Workhouse for attempting to bribe a witness in a shooting case, Birns gave his first lengthy newspaper interview, which portrayed him as happily serving his time and enjoying the hard work. He also enjoyed being quoted in the newspapers; it helped to satisfy his desire to be someone. As time passed he would become close friends with many of the city's editors and reporters, in particular those from The Cleveland Press.
There are those who say he was too close to reporters and editors. No matter that editorials proclaimed him "Public Enemy Number 1," he would gladly buy drinks for reporters, who gloried in his presence. Dims would keep various gambling competitors in line by feeding the reporters tips on the locations of the operations, according to one former law enforcement official.
His newspaper friends helped to increase both his ego and his reputation. But others with equal ambition, such as politicians and career-minded police officers, used the myth that Birns had created around himself for their own advancement, and at his expense. Speaking out publicly against Shondor Birns was a sure way to build a crime-busting image.
In the mid-1930s the newspapers were carrying on about Birns as if he were another Al Capone. (Meanwhile, the top rackets figures were making off with the big money.) With his reputation fully established, Birns could not even go on vacation without shortly thereafter finding himself in jail. While in Miami in 1937, Shondor was thrown in jail for failing to register as a felon and was banned from Florida forever.
Returning from this ill-fated holiday on a Sunday, Birns sat down to a cup of coffee in a local restaurant and was immediately arrested on a general police order to pick him up whenever he appeared in public. Along with two prostitutes and a Hindu conman who had predicted for a fee that a tall, dark man would soon come into the life of a policewoman, he was paraded through a police lineup. Birns bit his lip as a gravelly voiced police sergeant introduced him in the lineup: "This is Shondor Birns. He is 29 and lives at 3605 East 149th Street. He is known as a plain racketeer."
Shortly thereafter Birns held another of his interviews with the press, during which he said of his Florida trip:
Them cops . . . funny thing, ain't it? 1 was associating down there with some of the best business people in Cleveland. They thought my company was OK. Funny, ain't it?
He told a reporter:
It's the cops themselves that won't let you go straight. Didn't I have a nice little pool room and restaurant out at East 55th and Woodland seven or eight years ago? But the cops used to come in and shake down—I mean search—my patrons and just drove me out of business. All I gotta say is it's a pretty rotten setup.
Birns would often claim that the police harassed him simply to make a name for themselves, and in 1937 it indeed seemed as if all Shondor had to do was twitch or sneeze and he was in jail. Literally.
Shortly after his return from Florida, the police raided one of Birns' alleged vice resorts after a customer had complained that he had been rolled in the place. When the raiders hit they could find no one, but as they were poking around they heard what sounded like a sneeze from a woodshed in the back.
Forcing their way into the shed, the police stumbled onto a highly amusing scene. There was an embarrassed Shondor Bims, along with three lovelies who occupied the house, hiding under a huge overcoat. Birns, who had forgotten his handkerchief, had tried to pull his shirttail out to cover the sneeze.
"It was the quick change in climates that caused the sneeze," Birns said, referring to his Miami trip.
During this period Birns was pursued by a special rackets squad formed by Safety Director Eliot Ness, who years later would win posthumous fame through a television characterization in The Untouchables. Once Ness' squad hoisted a fire ladder three stories to peer through a hotel window in an attempt to catch Bims and his cohorts booking bets. Another time the squad tried to book him for vagrancy when they caught him standing on East Ninth Street, but they dropped the case when he pulled a thick bankroll from his pocket. The list of these minor arrests goes on endlessly.
In between his tangles with the police Shondor would occasionally drive to Canada for what he told friends were vacations. These jaunts across the international border would come back to haunt him in the next few years.
Cleveland in the late 1930s and early 1940s was an open, exciting city with a spicy reputation that attracted people. The exodus to the suburbs that would follow World War II, clearing downtown of nightlife, had not yet begun. After-hours joints stayed open until dawn in the heart of the city, prostitutes were available at some of the major hotels and gambling flourished —there was something for everyone. While the police spent their time badgering Shondor Birns, the city went right on enjoying its vices.
T.N. Krug, who is better known as "Jaboo," came to Cleveland from New York in 1939 for a two-week vacation and stayed on to become maitre d' for Birns in the two restaurants that he would run. Cleveland, in those days, "was a fun place," he recalls. "People came from New York just to have a good time here."
Among the most thriving places in town was Shondor Birns' Ten-Eleven Club, located at 1011 Chester Avenue about where Jim Carney's Investment Plaza now stands. It was the city's best after-hours spot during the early war years. Virtually every personality of note who passed through town dined and drank at the Ten-Eleven. Police frequented it after duty hours and drank and ate on the house. Newspapermen rarely, if ever, were presented with a tab. The food was good and the fix was in.
Friends recall that Birns was always amused by the hypocrisy of the whole thing. While known as a generous host, he privately burned at the sight of police officers returning night after night to eat lavishly and drink their fill. "Shondor would like it when one of the cops or reporters would occasionally pay for something," says a friend. "He thought it showed class in a man. He would never insist that any of those guys pay, though."
There was never much trouble at the Ten-Eleven, mainly because Shondor's reputation was so well established that only a drunk or a fool would cause a problem. When that happened, you just never were allowed in again. Once a member of the Green Bay Packers, in town for a game, became somewhat obnoxious and Shondor stepped in for a brief scrimmage.
When the tragic East Ohio gas explosion occurred in 1944, killing 135 persons and causing vast devastation, the kitchen of the Ten-Eleven worked overtime feeding tired police and firemen. For Shondor Birns, life was full of these ironies. He would pick up a newspaper and find himself labeled Public Enemy Number 1, and then he would turn around and give free drink and food to his accusers.
There were those, however, who neither cared for Birns nor took from him. The publicity that Birns had enjoyed over the years brought no wry smiles to many in law enforcement, particularly those engaged by the federal government. Whereas some local authorities could be bribed and pressured, federal agents were unyielding when it came to Shondor Birns.
The first concerted effort by the U.S. government to rid the streets of "this public menace" came early in the war. Even though he had lived all but 10 months of his life in this country, Birns had never become a U.S. citizen. When war broke out the government began to seek out all aliens from countries with which the U.S. was at war. Since Hungary was listed as a belligerent, Birns had to register as an enemy alien. In the process of checking his background, federal investigators hit upon an interesting fact concerning Shondor's Canadian vacations: Since he was not a citizen, he needed permission both to leave and reenter the country, and he had never bothered to obtain it. This, coupled with his criminal record and the discovery that he was part-owner of an East Side hotel which was a known prostitution center, made him vulnerable for deportation.
Meanwhile, Bims began announcing to the newspapers his intention of going to war, this time legitimately. He attempted to rejoin the Navy, but was rejected because he was under indictment in connection with policy rackets. (Years later Bims refused to carry a certain line of beer in his restaurant because one of the salesmen for the brewery had been the naval recruiting officer who had turned down his enlistment.) Undaunted, Birns underwent a hernia operation so that he might pass the physical for the Army. He was rejected again, on the grounds that he was an enemy alien.
U.S. immigration officials, having decided that Shondor's attempts to join the service were a ruse, finally ordered his arrest as an enemy alien in the fall of 1942. While awaiting the final disposition of his case, Bims was jailed at the Jones Road-Broadway police station, where he stoked the furnace and had cooking privileges — but even groceries turned out to be a problem for him.
With coffee at a rationed premium of one pound per person every five weeks, the Office of Price Administration discovered that Birns had a 15-pound bag in his cell. Shondor's stepmother, Sadie Birn, told friends that that was a dirty lie, that everything that she took to her son had been inspected by immigration officials. Still, her stepson did know some important people.
Later, in a letter sent to a friend, Birns expressed concern for his stepmother's welfare. Hermann Birn had died in 1940 after an illness of seven years. Shondor used to have to carry the old man around the house and supported both him and his stepmother through what the second Mrs. Birn told friends simply was "his business."
"How could this be," a friend recalls Mrs. Birn saying. "My son is a good Jewish boy. They call him an enemy alien. How could he want Hitler to win the war?"
In January 1943, unable to defend himself under the strict rules of the Enemy Alien Hearing Board, Birns was ordered interned for the duration of the war to await deportation once hostilities had ceased in Hungary. The FBI secretly hustled him out of Cleveland one night on a train headed for Camp McAlester in Oklahoma.
Because it was needed not only to house aliens, but Italian prisoners of war as well, the camp was undergoing expansion. Birns was selected as boss of a pick and shovel gang, for which he received 80 cents a day. (Later he became an expert in tree planting.) The camp was not an altogether unpleasant place—there was recreation available and the canteen served beer. Birns got along well, as he did in every jail that held him. He was quite moved when he learned that The Cleveland Press had published the first and last editorial it would ever print in his defense, attacking the secrecy surrounding the arrests of enemy aliens. Bims wrote the paper to ask for extra copies to pass around the camp.
Two months later U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle surprised local officials by ordering the release of Shondor Birns and his return to Cleveland. Not only was Birns freed, but he returned with a letter of recommendation from the camp commander for his outstanding service. U.S. Attorney Don Miller called the release "a complete surprise to me, it came out of the clear sky." It was not always easy to trace Birns' influential contacts, but years later he would brag that an editor on The Press had been instrumental in securing his release.
Although he had been able to beat the enemy alien rap, the deportation order still stood. A few years later both Hungary and Czechoslovakia refused to take him in, and he had to continue reporting to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service at regular intervals for the rest of his life.
The end of the war, which brought an end to an era for the city, marked the beginning of its decline as many families moved to the growing suburbs where better housing and relative solitude could be found.
Lured by the wartime expansion of industry, more blacks had come north, moving into the squalor of a growing slum on the city's near East Side. The police began to crack down on crime, knocking out cheat spots and gambling rooms. One focus of police pressure on Chester Avenue and Short Vincent was the Ten-Eleven Club.
Between his bouts with the Immigration authorities, Birns had found time to run the club and maintain, through one of his sisters, an interest in the Theatrical Grill. For police records, however, he officially listed his employment as a salesman for the Union Supply & Towel Company. In the midst of these trying times, Birns offered to sell the Ten-Eleven to the Cleveland Newspaper Guild, which wanted to open a press club. Although that deal was never concluded, he eventually sold the club and his holdings in the Theatrical in order to finance another restaurant, this one located at East 105th and Euclid in the Alhambra Bowling Center.
At the same time, Bims became more active in a much less publicized business on the East Side, one in which he could take advantage of the increasing black population and its interest in two gambling games that had become popular in Cleveland in the early 1920s.
Numbers and policy were almost exclusively played by blacks, who could bet as little as a few cents daily on the outcome of these games.
As the great profits afforded by Prohibition dried up with repeal in the 1930s, the notorious Mayfield Road Mob, with which Birns was closely associated, began to operate an extortion racket against black policy houses, bursting in with guns drawn and demanding 40 per cent of the cut. The mob would carry away a few hundred a week from the policy operation and split it among themselves.
Bims had grown up with blacks and over the years had been friendly with many, helping them in a multiplicity of ways.
To the black rackets figures, Shondor Birns was a fearsome man, one who was tough and smart and above all could come by money and contacts. These were all necessary attributes when it came to muscling in on an organization like the East Side numbers game.
Bims once told an inmate at the Workhouse of his interest in numbers, saying:
"The niggers have the idea since they organized clearing house and policy, it should belong to them. If you don't keep the niggers in line, the first thing you know they will be running the city."
The tool that Birns used to coerce the numbers operators was their own rivalry. They would try to steal players from one another by increasing the odds on the theory that gamblers would be attracted to the highest paying game. This practice caused trouble and generally led to such indignities as stabbings, shootings and bombings.
There were always a half-dozen or so blacks who ran individual numbers operations on the East Side, and from time to time they would face problems such as newcomers trying to cut themselves in or an overly ambitious neighbor jumping the odds.
What Shondor wanted to do for these operators — whether they wanted it or not — was function as sort of league commissioner, the fellow who would settle the odds disputes, keep the police at bay and provide some insurance in the event that someone hit it big on a number and the operator needed some working capital. He would also offer to lay off (distribute) big bets in other cities like Pittsburgh to make sure no single operator was hit too hard if a number came up.
If you wanted to operate on the East Side, you went along with Shondor and his various services or you paid the consequences. For a 25 per cent cut of all business he could provide insurance that nothing would interfere with each operator's franchise. In effect, Shondor Birns became sort of a one-man Chamber of Commerce for the numbers people.
The trait he had exhibited as a youth — the need to be someone — also propelled him into the Alhambra, which in its day was one of the best, if not the best, restaurants in town. You could often find him there, playing the role of host much as Toots Shor or Jack Dempsey did in their places. At 40, he was still seeking respectability in the eyes of society. Later, he would tell friends he had tried to go straight with the Alhambra, but had not been able to do it because everyone was after him. Shondor viewed himself as being victimized by the community.
Yet, judges and politicians continued their practice of frequenting his establishments. He became friends with Bill Veeck, the new owner of the Cleveland Indians. Indians Manager Lou Boudreau would stop by, Bob Feller received a motorcycle one night at the Alhambra, and food for the late shift over at the Fifth District police headquarters came from its kitchen.
Veeck used to order his food from the Alhambra, having it delivered to his apartment in a cab. The waiter who brought the dinner could expect a $50 tip for the trip and $25 more when he returned for the dirty dishes.
"It was a great place," says Jaboo. "Everybody knew of Shon so everybody came to see what he looked like. People liked to introduce friends to him as if they were old pals. A lot of important people came around."
It was always surprising to learn how far Birns' influence penetrated into the community. For instance, when President Harry S Truman made a campaign stopover here in 1948, he toured the town in a Cadillac owned by Shondor Birns. The mayor of Cleveland, who had proclaimed war on crime in general and on Birns in particular, sat next to the President along with the governor of Ohio. When Shondor offered the use of the car to the Republicans for candidate Thomas Dewey, he was curtly rejected.
Things went well for Birns and the Alhambra for about a year and a half, until a fall night in 1948. An argument between two men over a parked car in the lot behind the Doan Tavern, a few doors from the Alhambra, festered on and off during the evening. Finally, Birns was summoned to mediate the matter and before it was over found himself embroiled in a fist fight with an off-duty policeman.
Some say that it was this incident that ultimately led to a chain of events that would turn his fortunes downward for the rest of his life.
There was some dispute over who had started the fight, Birns or the policeman, Edward J. Kirk, but Shondor was ultimately found guilty of assault and battery (much to the glee of editorial writers) and sentenced to six months in the Warrensville Workhouse, where still more trouble awaited.
While the verdict was being appealed, state liquor agents pressed an investigation into the ownership of the Alhambra. It was not the first time that the liquor agents had been interested in Birns. It was alleged that he had blown up an agent's car during the Ten-Eleven days when the club had run into liquor license trouble. Birns could not legally hold a liquor permit in his name because he was an alien and a convicted felon, and he told authorities that he was simply a public relations consultant for the restaurant, which was actually owned by a real estate company. It was a thin cover, but it was good enough.
The city's newspapers began to apply heat again with a barrage of urgent editorials calling upon law enforcement authorities to rid Cleveland of Bims. Said The Cleveland Press:
It is time that we have somebody at Police headquarters who knew what the score was, and somebody, also, honest and courageous enough to walk in and demonstrate to these tin-horn palookas with their bulging wallets and bursting egos that Cleveland, O., is no place for them. For most of them a small room, with no silk monogrammed pajamas, and no fancy automobiles and no fancy trimmings — just a small room with a key that doesn't belong to them — is in order. Address: Ohio Penitentiary, Columbus, Ohio.
In the midst of his season of discontent, Birns, as jaunty and whimsical as ever, continued to flirt with disaster as he awaited his assault appeal. He seemed addicted to 60-cent cigars and trouble.
When he was stopped for speeding by a young patrolman named Carl Delau, who was destined to become Birns' chief nemesis, the following account appeared in the next day's paper:
"Do you know who I can?" (Birns asked.)
"Yes, I've heard tell of you," Patrolman Delau smiled.
Shondor pulled out his billfold, saying:
"Let's not be silly. Let's make a deal."
"Put that billfold back. With your reputation you're the last guy in the world I'd take anything from even if I was on the take, which I'm not."
"Listen," Shondor said, brought up short by the turn of events, "I'm one guy you can take it from and trust I wouldn't jam you up."
Delau arrested Birns, who denied that the incident had taken place, and for the next 26 years the two snarled at each other at every chance meeting. As a result of the arrest, Delau was promoted to the intelligence squad, where he pursued racketeers as a livelihood and Shondor Birns as a pastime. Bims always told friends that Delau had used him to further his career in the police department. Over the years the two would have many encounters.
As part of the crackdown, Alvin Sutton, a former FBI agent who had joined in the effort to rid the city of racketeers, ordered Bims followed by police at all times. Sutton, who later became safety director, also personally pursued Bims with vigor, and one can imagine his wrath the day, leaving the Stadium following a ball game, he saw the two officers who had been detailed to follow Birns acting as his chauffeurs. Sutton flagged the police car off the road, ordered Birns out and reprimanded the detectives.
Birns explained that he had simply been trying to help the two policemen so that they would not lose him in the crowd. "I knew it was near their shift change and I wanted to give the fellas a hand," he told friends. "That way it would be easier for the next shift to pick me up."
With all appeals in the Kirk case exhausted, Birns was finally sent to the Workhouse. He served time in his usual high style and succeeded in making a mockery out of the penal colony. A truck from the Alhambra delivered food and drink to him, he bathed in a house belonging to the Workhouse commissary chief, and later it was discovered that a woman or two had slipped in for private visits.
More important, Birns was still conducting his numbers business from within the Workhouse walls, and his business associates were visiting him weekly. Newspaper people stopped by, some bringing him El Premo cigars that retailed at $10.95 a box, and even a friendly police captain, "Honest John" Flemming stopped out with his two daughters to see Shon. Birns had dated one of the Flemming girls, Patricia, who was a teenager, an association "Honest John" had apparently encouraged.
Those were halcyon times at the Workhouse. (The Workhouse has always been noted for having its own kind of social revelry, but the gaiety was unsurpassed with Shondor about.) There was even a clambake at which Workhouse officials got to meet Mr. Birns, and when the prison baseball team ran short on balls and bats, Shondor called Bill Veeck for help and Veeck personally drove out with the equipment.
And then Joe Allen's car blew up. The early morning drinkers at the Alhambra could hear the explosion, which took place near Cedar and East 100th Street. Luckily, Allen had been sleeping in his house when two sticks of dynamite went off beneath his 1947 Cadillac, which was parked in the driveway.
Allen, 46, was a known numbers or clearing house operator who had ignored several suggestions that he hire Birns as an insurance agent. Shondor, through intermediaries, had suggested that Allen buy insurance as protection against violent explosions in his neighborhood.
Immediately following the bombing, Allen fingered Birns, who, police charged, had organized the bombing through a Workhouse guard, Kingfish Billingslea. Others implicated in the bombing were several of Shondor's oldest and dearest friends: Chuck Amata, Joe Artwell, Big Angelo Lonardo and Nick Satulla. Here they were, the old guard from the Mayfield Road Mob and, going back even further, from the old Woodland Avenue neighborhood, in their early 40s still running together.
Police suspected Amata of being the bomber since he had experience in the construction business and liked to list his occupation on police blotters as "engineer." Birns used so many bombs over the years that police credited him with turning explosives into a new criminal art form.
A week after the bombing the police had the former mobsters under arrest at Central Station. This followed Kingfish Billingslea's intimate talk with the police. Meanwhile, a red-faced Workhouse superintendent had resigned on the heels of disclosures that Birns had been given preferential treatment. The inmates, chagrined over the superintendent's resignation, went on a hunger strike that lasted 30 minutes into the lunch hour. Birns cried frame-up, but the county prosecutor told the newspapers that the case was so clear-cut that this time Shondor would be put away for years. Even so, it took three days to pick a jury to try the five rackets figures as several prospective jurors begged off the panel, one woman citing fright as the reason she could not serve.
Kingfish Billingslea, a former Bible student who had turned to sin, was the star prosecution witness. His testimony, printed verbatim daily in the newspapers under screaming headlines, was a singing sensation. Bims and the others wiggled uncomfortably as the story of the bombing was laid out to the jury.
A surprise witness for the defense appeared to support Chuck Amata's alibi. Former Indians owner Bill Veeck told the court that he had been at the Alhambra Tavern at the time of the bombing and that he had seen Amata working there. It was key testimony.
The defense was getting to Billingslea, too, catching him in several lies and establishing that he had been selling drugs at the Workhouse. The former guard's testimony was at the crux of the state's case and it had been seriously jeopardized.
Finally, after a record-setting eight weeks of trial, the case went to the jury, which deliberated for 20 hours, with eight jurors holding out for conviction and four voting for acquittal. Several jurors admitted it was hard to believe Billingslea after the defense had probed his past. The judge ruled a hung jury and Safety Director Sutton, livid at the turn of events, vowed the case would be retried. The five defendants, pals from the old days, cheered in the courtroom.
Three days after the trial, there were more problems for Shondor Birns. Sutton was now investigating the possibility that the rackets figure had attempted to bribe two jurors. One of the jurors, a postal employe, had been approached over the phone by his superior and offered $500 if he would cooperate in shaping the verdict. The juror immediately hung up and called the judge. Bims, who blamed Amata for attempting the fix, was furious.
"I don't want to tell you how to run your jail," an angry Birns shouted to a sheriff's deputy, "but don't put that dumb Dago in here with me. You'll have some trouble if you do."
The bombing retrial began the last week in March 1950, with Birns finally free on bond for the first time since he had entered the Workhouse the previous June. His freedom was short-lived, however, as two days into the retrial a sensational disclosure rocked the courtroom and stopped the trial.
A vivacious 18-year-old blonde, a waitress at the Alhambra, confessed to police that Birns had put her up to making contact with one of the jurors, a 48-year-old bachelor. Birns was thrown back in county jail. What had started out as a simple fist fight in the parking lot behind his restaurant the year before was turning into a twisted maze of trouble for Birns.
The details of the fix attempt had a bizarre twist, the kind that could only be found in a proceeding involving Shondor Birns. Bims had sent the blonde, Vicky Kanezic, to the courthouse to watch the jury selection so that she could identify the bachelor juror.
As fortune would have it, the morning the girl arrived at the courthouse, a flirtatious reporter from The Cleveland Press encountered her. Taking her under his wing, he introduced her to judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, courthouse hangers-on — and even Shondor Birns, who was inwardly raging. The reporter introduced her to Safety Director Sutton as a writer who was working on a book about the courts.
That night, when he saw Vicky, Birns was beside himself with anger. He had not sent the waitress to the courthouse to dally around with a reporter, he had sent her to make contact with the juror and she better get on with it.
Vicky called the juror and asked whether he could give Shondor Birns a fair trial. The man slammed the phone down and Vicky went to visit him at home, but he refused to see her. The man later suffered a heart attack, attributing it to the excitement and fear the incident had caused.
When the story broke in the newspaper, Birns was furious, calling the incident a plot by newspapermen to frame him by "smearing me with this filthy mess." He offered an interesting defense, however, admitting contacts with several prospective jurors and noting that he was particularly interested in the bachelor because he had heard the man was a Communist. There was nothing he hated more than Communists, he said, because they never held fair trials.
The trial resumed with daily revelations, including more charges by witnesses that Birns had offered them money to amend testimony. While other witnesses testified about how Birns bragged about his connections in the police department, the grand jury met to hear evidence on the jury tampering charges. Shondor seemed a desperate man. In April, facing astronomical legal fees (for in addition to the retrial, he was still fighting deportation), Birns put the Alhambra up for sale. The neighborhood, he said, was beginning to go bad.
When the trial, another seven-and-a-half-week marathon, came to a close, the jury, despite all the fury over the alleged fixes, took only two and a half hours to acquit Birns. The Press marked the occasion by bannering a front-page editorial: "Who Runs this Town— Birns or the Law?"
The Law finally did win a round, on the tampering charge. Birns was found guilty, sentenced to six months in the county jail and fined $1,000. The week of the bombing acquittal, the relentless U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service announced that it could find no country in the world that would accept Birns, an immigration official charging that the U.S. was getting a runaround. Birns later told friends that the immigration case had cost him more than $60,000 in legal fees.
The government continued to push for deportation throughout the summer of 1951, while Birns turned to other matters, including the bankruptcy of the Alhambra (he lost $70,000) and his marriage to a model who also worked as a department store buyer. The marriage produced one son before it ended in divorce 12 years later.
As for the Alhambra, the state liquor department did its best to prove on paper that Birns was the owner, but was unable to do so. Following the bankruptcy, the club reopened under new ownership. Birns was retained as public relations consultant.
For years the Internal Revenue Service had watched Birns from afar and as time passed began to take an inordinate interest in the books from the Ten-Eleven Club, the Theatrical Grill and the Alhambra. Finally in 1952, after a lengthy investigation, IRS agents called on Birns and presented him with a tax bill for $114,972. He shrugged and told them that he had never made that much money, adding: "I'm too old to worry. Before I was too young to worry."
The IRS was not about to worry, either. The first thing it did was seize Birns' new Cadillac convertible and offer it up for auction with the intention of applying the proceeds of the sale toward its tax claim. Birns, ever resourceful, arrived at the auction with his lawyer, who promptly bid $50 for the vehicle and bought it, as others in attendance called out to let Shon have it back.
In July of the following year, Birns went on trial for the income tax charge, and it was evident from the outset that a quiet IRS agent named F. Leo Baumgardner, who patiently rolled his own cigarettes, had finally succeeded in trapping him.
For four years Baumgardner had painstakingly assembled evidence, which showed conclusively that Birns had skimmed $45,000 from receipts at the Alhambra and had also received money through his interest in a racing wire service in El Paso, Texas. Ironically, a key witness who testified against Birns was the wife of Chuck Amata, his former colleague from the Mayfield Road bunch, who said she had kept the books at the Alhambra. Shondor, she told the jury, had instructed her not to record all of the daily receipts, but to set some cash aside each day for his personal use.
He had no chance. The jury convicted him on three of four counts, and the judge sentenced him to three years in the pen. At 47, Shondor Birns appeared to be a man whose best years were behind him.
He served his time at the federal prison in Atlanta, and a friend remembers that Birns had not been there very long before he had witnessed a stabbing involving a prisoner. When the guards came around to search for witnesses, they began to hassle Birns. He had seen the whole thing, but refused to say anything. Shondor took many a secret to his grave.
As time passed Birns became known as a model prisoner who faithfully worked at his job of issuing clothing to inmates. In Cleveland, meanwhile, police kept a wary eye on the rackets, which they believed were being run during Shondor's absence by his surrogates. Then, in the fall of 1956, after serving a little more than two years in Atlanta, Birns was paroled. The first thing he did upon returning to Cleveland was to buy a white Cadillac. Big cars, cigars and monogrammed silk pajamas had become his trademarks over the years. He was 50 now, but appeared as fit as a man 20 years his junior.
With Birns back on the street, rumors began flying that he was out to recoup quickly his former dominance of the numbers trade, and police girded themselves for unrest in racket circles. Shondor's homecoming celebration was not long in coming: Over the next eight months the area saw two murders and seven bombings involving numbers figures.
One of the bombings involved a 25-year-old numbers operator named Donald King, who is now better known for his fight promotions — which have included the Ali-Wepner fight earlier this year.
Early one spring morning King was abruptly awakened by a tremendous blast which blew away the better part of his front porch. Furious, King called Carl Delau and insisted that Birns had just hit his house. Although claiming he had totally retired from the numbers, King told police that, prior to the bombing, Birns and several other "pistols" had visited him after he cut his protection payments to them from $200 to $100.
According to King, there had been a great deal of fluctuation in the daily numbers odds until Birns had guaranteed a stable game in return for a payment of $1,000 weekly from the five leading operators on the East Side. Based on King's testimony, Birns and four others were indicted.
The typical Shondor Birns trial scenario played itself out again. More headlines and more editorials that warned of possible witness tampering. This time, however, the tampering had been done to the back of Donald King's head—with a shotgun blast that had only wounded him. King popped pellets from the back of his neck for a year.
Meanwhile, Shondor publicly lamented the IRS's seizure of another of his seemingly endless supply of Cadillacs.
The trial began late in October with King cast as the star witness. The newspapers immediately dubbed him "The Talker" because he spoke so rapidly on the witness stand that it was hard to understand him. The judge had to ask him to keep his hand away from his mouth so the jury could hear what he was saying. But despite King's best efforts at elocution, the jury became deadlocked on the verdict, and ultimately the indictments were dropped. Birns had prevailed once more, and the Press published an editorial entitled, "Another Break for a Bum."
Life went on.
The threat of violence and death lingered in the numbers community, however, as it continued to be troubled with unrest. In the spring of 1959, Birns himself became a target. While he was standing near his garage in the back of his Judson Drive home, someone fired a rifle shot that struck the garage wall. When the danger reached these proportions, Shondor Birns was never one to bother the authorities. He just turned the East Side into a blazing re-creation of the Old West.
The man who police believe shot at Birns was Clarence (Sunny) Coleman, a former Army rifle expert who had a history in the numbers and fancied himself a mean dude. Police thought Coleman wanted to show Birns that he was a tough guy who deserved to be cut into the extortion business, too. He had fired at Shondor simply to frighten him, since hitting his mark would have been just as easy for a crack shot. Coleman's big mistake, however, was to brag all over the East Side that he had squeezed one off at Shon. Sources in the police department think Coleman may have told Birns to his face that he could have killed him. Either way, Coleman's bragging was about as healthy as putting your finger in a light socket.
By the time police arrived at Lakeside Hospital the night of April 13, 1959, doctors were trying to get three slugs out of Sunny Coleman. He had been hit in both legs and in the left arm with a .357 Magnum and would have been a dead man had he not dived through the picture window of a house on East 124th Place. After surgery Coleman told police that Birns had driven the car from which the gunman had alighted and opened up on him at nearly point-blank range.
Birns patiently explained to police that he had been home watching the Jack Paar show at the time of the shooting, but witnesses were able to place him near the scene. Charged with shooting to kill, Birns awaited still another trial while anxious prosecutors, well acquainted with past courtroom dramas, watched to see how the plot would develop. This time it was a simple case of mistaken identity. Although Coleman had told a grand jury that it definitely was Birns who had driven the car, when he got on the witness stand he said he could not be certain. It had all happened so fast. Again, Shondor walked away a free man while the cops wrung their hands in frustration.
Birns' interest in crime was not restricted to the rackets. He was a man who was willing to listen to any deal so long as it meant a buck. Because of his vast network of contacts, both legitimate and illegitimate, he could function as a broker of sorts. For lesser underworld characters, Birns was the contact man in Cleveland if some special job had to be done.
For instance, shortly before his death, it is known that Birns was approached to work a fix in a criminal case in common pleas court. A discreet warning made him back off.
It was probably in his role as a broker or contact man that he became involved with a financial promoter named Mervin L. Gold. Gold had foolishly used some stolen Canadian securities to secure a bank loan here and had found himself in the midst of a federal criminal investigation. Gold had fled to Israel, but had been forced to return to face jail.
Then on July 8, 1963, Mervin Gold was found murdered, stuffed in the trunk of his car, which was parked on a remote road in Solon. It appeared as if Gold had first been beaten about the head. His hands were so battered that his wedding band had been squashed to an oval shape, causing police to speculate that Gold had tried to fend off the blows with his hands. He had then been strangled with a piece of thin plastic clothesline and shot in the chest. A blanket had been thrown over his head and three more shots had been fired into his skull.
If the murder had been meant to silence Gold, it had only been partially successful, for the dead man had left behind affidavits with his wife in the event that anything should happen to him. In them he swore that Shondor Birns had given him the stolen securities. In addition, Mrs. Gold told investigators that her husband had said he was on his way to meet Birns the night he was murdered.
The police immediately set out to find Birns, They searched his home on Judson Drive while his estranged wife watched, finding several pistols and an M-1 rifle with 780 rounds of ammunition, but no clue to Shondor's whereabouts.
Two days later, amid the usual flurry of publicity, Birns gave himself up to the county sheriff's department, explaining that he had been in Toledo visiting friends. He surrendered to the sheriff rather than to his old archenemy, Carl Delau, then the head of the police homicide department, who was assisting in the investigation.
A few hours after he gave himself up, police and sheriff's deputies began to question him about his activities on the night of the murder, and during the questioning Delau and Birns became embroiled in an argument.
"We know you strangled, beat and shot your best friend," Delau said.
"I resent that," Birns roared. "I have no comment to anything you ask me. I don't want to talk to you. I'm not going to talk to you. You're not going to throw dirt on me. I'm no stool pigeon. I'd like to talk to you alone sometime when there are no witnesses around. I know what you're trying to do to me."
"What did I try to do to you?" Delau retorted.
"What did you try to do? Brother! I don't want any witnesses when I talk to you. You've been trying to send me to jail for 13 years."
"You're crazy. . . . Anytime you get jammed up you blame everyone else."
"You picked me up to cover up your own dirty stuff. You've got nobody on Short Vincent fooled."
Delau so riled Birns that it was useless to try to get any more information out of him. He continued to insist that he was innocent and could provide an airtight alibi.
His alibi caught everyone off guard. Birns produced a demure, 24-year-old second grade teacher by the name of Allene Leonards and said he had been with her the night of the murder. Friends who had grown up with Miss Leonards in Garfield Heights were startled when she was linked to Birns. She has been reputed to be an excellent, albeit painfully shy student, a girl who was the very antithesis of Shondor Birns.
Birns claimed that he had been dining on frog's legs with Miss Leonards in an Oakwood restaurant the night of the murder. He had frequented the restaurant for only about a month before the killing, introducing himself to the owners the first time he stopped in. Generally he had ordered veal cutlet or lobster tails and never, with the exception of the night of the murder, had he ordered frog's legs. The police speculated that Birns had spent considerable time and effort setting the stage for his alibi.
Nonetheless, Delau insisted that the alibi was worthless because the couple had left the restaurant at about 10:30 p.m., one hour before the time of death established by the coroner. Miss Leonards in turn countered that Birns had remained with her throughout the evening, and the police could not prove otherwise. Gold's killer was never found.
Delau and others associated with the case remain convinced that Birns murdered Gold. Years later a one-time associate of Shondor's told police that he had been involved in the killing along with Birns, but there was no way his allegation could ever be proved.
Meanwhile, the IRS seized another Cadillac from Birns and sold it at an auction. And the next year, 1964, the government helped itself to still another of Shon's new Cadillacs, the seizure coming after Cleveland and Parma police broke into an office on Brookpark Road and caught Birns in the midst of a clearing house operation for numbers.
Shon would ultimately beat the rap on a legal technicality involving the search warrant — the second time he had avoided a sure conviction on such grounds. However, another case relating to the Parma raid would end in a conviction.
Not long after his arrest in the clearing house case, Birns by chance met one of the Parma policemen who had participated in the raid in a Parma bar. The patrolman struck up a conversation about gambling. Birns said that everyone placed a bet occasionally, adding that nothing could be done to stop it. People liked to gamble. He told the policeman that even the newspapers encouraged gambling and promised to return soon to explain how the numbers game worked in conjunction with the newspapers.
Several days later Birns called the policeman, one Clarence Bennett, and they met in a bar where Shondor produced a stack of papers to show Bennett how the numbers players get the winning digits.
What Shondor did not know was that Bennett was wired for sound: Their conversation was being monitored and taped by a Parma detective stationed outside in a car. During the course of the conversation, Birns pushed $200 across the table to Bennett, who claimed later in court that Shondor had offered the money in payment for information regarding his upcoming clearing house case.
Birns screamed that he had been framed, claiming that he had given Bennett the money because the patrolman had been complaining about his low salary. Besides, Christmas was approaching and Shondor had wanted to help out the cop's family. He wanted nothing in return.
The tape recording was too garbled to be clearly understood, but the detective who had monitored the conversation convinced the jury that Birns was guilty.
In the midst of the Parma case, Birns found the relentless IRS in pursuit once more. Of all the law enforcement agencies that Birns had sparred with, the IRS was the least vulnerable to defeat. Its agents worked quietly, without fuss or publicity, and when it sprung its case there was no escape. Only once did Shon get a laugh over the IRS, and that was the day that two of its agents were following him too closely in a car and hit his Cadillac when he came to a quick stop.
Now the IRS had a new case against him, a tax case that involved perjury. Birns had sworn in 1961 that his total assets were $850, but the government contended that he owned a Cadillac and had $17,000 in money orders. IRS agents had found out that Birns was using an Akron check company to handle his finances. Money owed to Birns would be sent to the check company, and in turn either he would receive money orders made out to various aliases or it would be paid out to friends. Part of Birns' new woes developed as a result of his arrest by Carl Delau in 1961 just as Shondor was stepping off of an airplane at Cleveland-Hopkins Airport. The police had found $7,300 in money orders on him and promptly turned it over to the IRS.
The Parma bribe case and the new IRS action were the last two major legal problems that Birns would face, but he would have to serve time on both of them, even though he eventually managed to have one case overturned. Rather than surrender to local authorities and serve his time for the bribe case first, Birns turned himself in to U.S. marshals and once again was sent to Atlanta. At 61, he faced a three-year federal term and up to 10 years in a state penitentiary for the bribery charge.
Most men would not have had the constitution to endure such endless years of trouble and violence. But Birns had never lost the truculent spirit of his youth, steadfastly refusing to back off from anybody or anything. While most men his age were looking forward to the rewards of retirement and reflecting upon their lives, Birns faced the possibility of dying in jail. He told a friend that he had lived "a life of looking over my shoulder." He was always bitter that his attempts to go straight had gone awry, but blamed others — the police, the newspapers, the public at large — for his troubles.
In the spring of 1968, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Birns' conviction on the tax case, ruling that there had been an error in the trial and ordering Birns' release pending new proceedings. The decision did not bring one moment of freedom for Birns for he was immediately dispatched to the Ohio Penitentiary to begin serving his sentence in connection with the bribery charge. The next year the federal government dropped its tax perjury case.
Later transferred to the Marion Correctional Institute, Elms was put in charge of the commissary, which he ran with his usual efficiency. "There was never even a stick of gum missing when Shondor ran it," recalls Father Frederick Furey, the prison's Catholic chaplain. Later Birns became Furey's assistant. "Shon was held in great respect by everyone," says Furey. "He never got in fights, but served as an arbiter. If an enforcer was after a guy, Shon would try to help the poor fellow. He would walk through the prison yard and command respect. He would have been top dog anywhere. Had he gone into industry, he would have been a millionaire."
All Birns was after, naturally, was a good record to speed his parole. When Allene brought him food on her frequent visits, he would share it with fellow inmates. The softball team he organized won the prison championship. He was no trouble to anyone. Once during a rare reflective mood, he told Father Furey about his life, claiming that he had tried to go straight during the Alhambra days, but "When they get you down," he complained, "they don't let you go straight."
By the time his parole hearing came up in July 1971, he was telling friends that he wanted to be left alone to enjoy the few remaining years he had. "I don't want to die in any rocking chair, though," he would add. Shondor still dreamed of running a suburban restaurant, but because he owed the IRS upwards of $200,000, any real chance he might have had to run a legitimate business — even if he wanted to go straight — seemed pretty remote. The instant any property became listed in his name, the IRS would seize it.
At 64, at the urging of several prominent Clevelanders, Birns was paroled — a free man again. He returned to his home in Orange where Allene was still living as his common law wife, somewhat angered that he had been placed on five years' parole. He blamed this on the politicians, who, he said, wanted to look good publicly at his expense.
However, Birns was cooperative with his parole officer, Harry See, often restating his pledge to follow all of See's directives in order to keep himself square with the law. He feared the thought of returning to and probably dying in jail.
Shondor had come back to Cleveland still officially unemployed, although the parole authority had received numerous letters from Cleveland businessmen promising Birns a job. He actually considered getting into union-organizing for the garbage haulers but quickly abandoned the thought, realizing that it might place him in public contact with certain undesirable characters and, thus, endanger his parole.
Strangely enough, however, he reportedly did have a moderate income of a legitimate nature in his last few years as a result of a legacy left him by the late Arthur (Mickey) McBride, a successful Cleveland businessman who, in later years, had founded the Cleveland Browns and bought into the Yellow Cab Company. McBride had known Birns for years, their friendship going back to the days when Shondor had delivered the old Cleveland News, for which McBride had once served as a circulation manager. Birns had worked as a street-corner enforcer for McBride during the era of the great newspaper circulation wars.
McBride reportedly sold some stone and slag docks on the old Cuyahoga River channel in the Flats to a storage company with the stipulation that Birns receive a middleman's fee from leasing the land to the stoneworks. Although company officials deny any connection with Birns, he often told investigators he had an association with the Ontario Stone Corporation. The parole authority still has a letter from that firm stating that Birns could have a job there, if he so desired, upon his parole.
But since any payroll checks that Birns might receive could be taken by the IRS, after his release, he could be found almost daily at the Theatrical, where he was frequently seen on the phone or sitting at a table conducting "business." He never really said what his "business" might be, and, of course, his associates never asked.
For a man in the twilight of life, Birns continued to work hard at physical conditioning, playing paddle ball at the Downtown Businessman's Health Club on weekday afternoons. He could beat most younger men and on those rare occasions when he lost, he would get angry with himself. The years had not dulled his fierce competitiveness nor diminished his tolerance for pain. Paddle ball opponents can recount numerous times when Birns would be stung by a stray ball or slapped accidentally with a racket—and not flinch.
With many of his old friends dead or gone, Shondor began to hang out with a younger crowd at the Theatrical with increasing regularity. He took to digressing on the old days, complaining that the current crop of hoods, lawyers and even cops was not like what it once had been. His younger associates, many of them flashy criminal lawyers, jokingly nicknamed him the "Old-timer," gently ribbing him about the modish leisure suits that he had lately adopted.
Birns gave up smoking, contenting himself with just chewing on expensive cigars. His drinking — he had taken to sipping a light wine — was moderate, and he enjoyed betting on sports with friends, who chided him for rooting for his team during televised events.
"We used to tell Old-timer that he could watch the game only if he didn't cheer," says Fred Jurek, a criminal lawyer who spent a lot of time with Birns in recent years.
Birns was a creature of habit, arriving at the Theatrical shortly before noon, having a light lunch and conducting his "business," and then playing paddleball during the mid-afternoon. Rarely did a single day pass that some investigator — a member of the Cleveland police intelligence unit or an IRS, Immigration or FBI agent — did not show up at the Theatrical on Birns' tail. Catching Public Enemy Number 1 in some kind of legal indiscretion would have won a lot of stripes for the diligent lawman. Birns always managed to stay one step ahead of his shadows.
Birns' evenings never varied much, either. Sometimes he would take his wife, Allene, out to dinner; other times he would dine and drink with cronies at nightspots throughout the city; and on still other occasions, fancying himself a gourmet cook, he would invite a few friends to his house for a barbecue.
Still, there was plenty of the old spirit left in him, right up until the end. Just a few months ago he was approached in the Theatrical by a man who allegedly was delivering a message from Danny Greene, the former longshoreman boss, who had taken up the headline slack as Birns' pace slowed down. Greene and Birns, once pals, had had their differences and apparently the emissary failed to get his message across in a diplomatic fashion, for Shondor ended up taking the fellow outside and working him over. At 69, the Old-timer could still duke it out with the toughest.
But no matter how young the old man felt or acted, there was no way he could stem the tide of change. The blacks were no longer the same compliant lot who had knuckled under first to the Mayfield Road Mob and then to Shondor. The younger blacks were stronger, smarter and more independent. The social changes of the last decade had made them more aware of their blackness and had given them a new pride.
All over the country, blacks in rackets and other criminal endeavors began to organize, much like the founders of organized crime back in the 1920s. Now they did not need someone like Shondor Birns. He was a symbol of their captive past.
One night about two months before his death a warning was delivered to Shondor Birns: Get out of the rackets and stay out! It was passed through a friend at the Lancer Steak House, a restaurant on Carnegie Avenue frequented by black politicians and businessmen. Birns' reaction to the threat is not known, but it would be a fair assumption, based on past experience, that he was not prepared to yield easily—if at all.
Friends are in disagreement about Shondor's mood in the weeks preceding his death. Some say he appeared upset after taking a telephone call at the Theatrical, during which he reportedly shouted into the phone: "Come on out. If you want to get me, come after me. Let's stop playing hide-and-seek."
Other friends say there was no noticeable change in his demeanor.
"He told me he had only a month to go in the rackets," says one friend. "I wasn't sure what he meant by it. I know he was getting ready to go to Florida on a vacation." (Birns had made peace with Florida authorities and was allowed to vacation in Miami. He had to carry a card identifying him as a convicted felon. Federal investigators suspected that he traveled to Florida to meet with underworld figures from other cities.)
The last day of his life Shondor Birns put in his usual appearance at the Theatrical shortly before noon. As was his custom, he was turned out neatly, in a maroon sport coat, white turtleneck sweater and plaid trousers. He drank some Blue Nun, a white wine, and complained to friends about a cold that he had unsuccessfully tried to shake. The warm weather in Miami would help, he said.
Each Saturday his routine was the same: first, a visit to the Theatrical and then a dash on the Shoreway to Lakewood's Carlyle Apartments for a mid-afternoon drink at the Silver Quill. This day he got a ride to the Quill, leaving his Continental Mark IV for a friend who would join him later.
The Continental was protected by an elaborate alarm system, specially designed so that certain electrical circuits could not be tampered with. The system had been installed by a suburban policeman who specialized in such work. Birns had once made inquiries about the possible construction of a device that would enable him to start his rented car electronically by remote control from 25 feet away. He was told it would not be foolproof and would be difficult to make.
At the Quill, Shon had several drinks, which was somewhat unusual. A friend thought that Birns was a little high, although later the coroner's report noted only a moderate trace of alcohol in his blood.
Late in the afternoon Birns received a telephone call, and his friend could hear Shondor shout into the phone: "Stay off my back!"
Striking up a conversation with a stranger a little later, Birns turned to the man and said: "You know, tonight is my last night in the rackets." The stranger was puzzled and shrugged at the comment.
At about a quarter after six, Birns got up to leave, passing by another friend, Ralph Sperli, a criminal lawyer, who called to him, "Where are you headed. Old-timer?"
"I'm heading east," Birns called over his shoulder.
Shondor got into his Continental, which was parked in the lot behind the Quill and was quite visible from the bar, and drove to Christy's Lounge, a go-go spot on the northwest corner of Detroit Avenue and West 25th Street. He often frequented the place and police speculated that he might have an interest in it.
Taking his usual place in the darkened lounge, on a stool in the left-hand corner next to Christy Shuler, a blonde in her mid-30s who ran the place, Shon ordered a round for the bar. Christy and Shondor were good friends and had seen each other almost daily for the past two years.
While above him on a stage the go-go dancers paraded through their routines, Birns had a Hennessy with Coke on the side. He complained about his cold and said he looked forward to the warmth of Florida. Then he announced, to no one in particular, that this was his last night in the rackets. He seemed relaxed, happy.
It must have been sometime during the hour and a half that Birns was in Christy's that the bomb was rigged in the Continental. The car door was probably opened with a duplicate of the Continental's key. There was an interval of 30 seconds between the time the car door was opened and the key inserted into the ignition, before the alarm would sound.
The killer used C-4, a grayish, putty-like explosive that is utilized mainly by the military. A handful of this plastic explosive can split a car in half. Police theorize that the C-4, loaded with a blasting cap, was attached to some disconnected wires beneath the seat which were part of the seat belt warning buzzer. An expert, familiar with the car, could have accomplished the job in less than 30 seconds.
A few minutes before eight, Birns rose to leave. Despite his fearlessness, Birns was not foolhardy about protecting himself. He had spent so much of his life looking over his shoulder that it had become second nature. Normally, he was escorted from the bar to the parking lot by Del Hudson, Christy's brother and a part-owner of the bar. However this night, with Hudson absent, Ed Kester, a friend and a patron of the bar, volunteered to walk Shondor down the narrow sidewalk, flanked on one side by the bar and on the other by a wire fence, to where his car was parked. Shon spoke of his vacation.
"I'll see you before I go," he called to Kester as he slipped into the Continental.
Kester began to retrace his steps toward the bar, turning the corner to the narrow sidewalk.
Across the street, Buster Mooney was fretting about a place in church.
Inside the Continental, Shondor Birns turned the key in the ignition. ...
In death, the influence that Shondor Birns had so carefully cultivated during his lifetime failed him. Certain officers within the police department, fearful of annoying prominent persons in town, let the investigation proceed with only a minimum of routine. Danny Greene was questioned as was Donald King. For a while, police centered on Christy's Lounge as a key to the murder.
The Internal Revenue Service, remorseless to the end, confiscated the $843 found in the remains of one of Birns' trouser pockets that had been blown into the trunk of the car.
And a few days after the bombing, the offices of the Cleveland Browns received calls inquiring about the availability of the season 50-yard line seats that Shondor had possessed for so many years. But, like everything else, they were not in his name.