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New Book Details How Cleveland Gangster Shondor Birns Lived And Died

[Rick Porello]
book jacket photo of "Bombs, Bullets and Bribes" about Cleveland gangster Shondor Birns by Rick Porrello

Shondor Birns was once described as the “city’s public enemy number one,” and it appears he wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Birns never shied from being the center of attention, something that most of his fellow gangsters avoided at all costs. Birns was one of Cleveland’s most notorious racketeers from the 1920s until his death in a gruesome car bombing in 1975.

“His type of personality was really the antithesis of what organized crime figures are supposed to be. They're supposed to be quiet. It's supposed to be a secret organization and they stay off the radar. But Shondor wasn't like that. He liked to sit with reporters and he became popular because he was open with them,” said organized crime writer Rick Porrello, a former police chief.

Porrello has written extensively about the history of crime in Northeast Ohio. In his new book, “Bombs, Bullets and Bribes: The True Story of Notorious Jewish Mobster Alex Shondor Birns,” (Next Hat Press) Porrello explores the colorful gangster’s life.

1957 mugshot of Shondor Birns [Cleveland Police/Rick Porrello]

Born Sandor Birn in 1906 in the kingdom of Austria-Hungary, Birns came to the United States the next year with his parents, brother and sister. After a month in New York, the family moved to Cleveland settling near Woodland Avenue and East 55 th Street. The working class area was a mix of ethnicities, including Italian, Hungarian and Jewish families.

As Birns grew older, he established a reputation for being a neighborhood tough who wasn’t afraid to settle matters with his fists. Birns spent his days in pool halls and bars, eventually becoming involved with the Maxie Diamond gang, which operated in his neighborhood. Birns became a Diamond protégé and took over the gang when the elder gangster was released from prison and started focusing his attention on restaurants.

Birns’ stature as a valued enforcer and loyal gang figure grew quickly. He attracted the attention of Cleveland’s most powerful underworld members, including Tony Milano and other racketeers associated with the Cleveland Mafia.

Birns wasn’t Italian so he couldn’t become an official or “made” member of the Mafia, but that didn’t stop him from working closely with that organization or any other group with whom he felt he could make money.

“Shondor didn't care what color or what your ethnic background was. He worked closely with black gambling operators, with the Italian mob. Shondor’s thing was loyalty, that's what was more important to him than anything else. If you were loyal, you could be part of his organization and be a good earner and make money, that was more important than anything , Porrello said.

During his long career as a criminal, Birns was involved in a variety of illicit activities ranging from bootlegging and bookmaking to prostitution. One of his most lucrative rackets was his longtime involvement with the illegal lottery or “numbers game.” Porrello described Birns’ role as a “league commissioner. 

Porrello said numbers operators would determine the odds, and, on occasion, an operator would increase the odds to try to gain a competitive advantage. Birns and his enforcers would then pay a visit to those numbers operators to warn them to return to the previously agreed upon odds or risk the consequences of violence. Birns also provided loans to operators who were short of cash to pay bettors, especially if a large group of them selected the winning number on the same day.

Birns became a fixture at restaurants like the Theatrical, where politicians, entertainers and gangsters rubbed shoulders. Birns often  picked up tabs, in particular for members of the media. Porrello said reporters took full advantage of the gangster’s need to be seen as a powerful man.

Shondor Birns in 1967 [Cleveland State University Press Collection/Rick Porrello

“A lot of reporters made their career writing about Shondor Birns. He was always involved in something whether the IRS was after him or the FBI. He had quite a need to be Shondor Birns. I think he spent much of his life living up to the reputation that he had created in that the newspapers,” Porrello said.

Often described as the “most arrested, least convicted” criminal in Cleveland organized crime, Porrello said Birns used his numerous connections with corrupt officials to fix cases and bribe jurors to often escape jail time. However, when he was sent to prison in the late 1960s, Birns’ fortunes began to wane. Birns had become close with up-and-coming gangster Danny Greene, using the younger man as an enforcer and later having Greene run his numbers operation while Birns was in jail. When Birns was released in the early 1970s, his relationship with Greene began to sour.

“When Shondor got out of prison, he really didn't have a need for Danny Greene anymore.  Danny also asked for a loan of about $75,000 or $80,000, which Shondor arranged from mobsters in New York City, but there was some problem with the money being delivered. The money was lost actually in a drug deal by the courier. Danny blamed Shondor and Shondor blamed Danny. Pretty soon they started going after each other. In the end, that led to the demise of both of them, really,” Porrello said.

Birns’ death came first, across the street from Saint Malachi’s Catholic Church on Cleveland’s Near West Side in 1975.

“Shondor was hanging out at a place called Jack and Jill's, shortly thereafter to be named Christie's, on the northeast corner of West 25th and Detroit. It was a little go-go joint with dancers. Shondor left with an acquaintance from inside the bar, who walked him to his car. Shondor got in his car. The acquaintance turned the corner to go back in the bar, and then the bomb went off. Shondor was killed instantly. Of course, it was big headlines, a huge investigation by the Cleveland police and their law enforcement partners. But ultimately, there was never an indictment, let alone a conviction. It seems that everybody who was in the know figured Danny Greene for the murder of Shondor Birns,” Porrello said.

Cleveland Police Detective inspects Birns' demolished Lincoln [Cleveland State University Cleveland Press Collection/Rick Porrello]

Two years later, Greene would meet a similar fate, when an automobile parked next to his exploded, killing Greene instantly.

The deaths of Birns and Greene marked the beginning of the end of the world of organized crime in Cleveland that the two had come to represent. The Cleveland Mafia diminished in power and with an aging membership soon turned on itself. Several key members accepted deals from the government to testify against their fellow Mafia members, leaving the organization a shell of itself.

Author Rick Porrello, ideastream's Dan Polletta [Dave DeOreo/ideastream]

Rick Porrello will discuss “Bombs, Bullets and Bribes” at Mac’s Backs-Books in Cleveland Heights on November 16 from 1:00-2:30 p.m.  He will also be at the Bookshop in Lakewood on November 20 from 6:30-8:00 p.m and Fireside Bookshop in Chagrin Falls on November 30 from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.