Irish bomber, bomb victim
Peak of notoriety: 1961-1977
Danny Greene planted the bomb that killed Shondor Birns and mocked on television “these maggots in the so-called Mafia” who kept trying to kill him. In 1977, they got “the Irishman” in a fiery explosion, but the getaway car was spotted. It was the beginning of the end for the Mob. Mafioso after mafioso joined the federal Witness Protection Program, and their testimony toppled crime families across the country.
The Line: A larger-than-life character — the luck may be with the Irishman (this time).
William “Rarin’ Bill” Potter
Peak of notoriety: 1920s-1931
The charming, voluble Collinwood Councilman William “Rarin’ Bill” Potter improbably beat a succession of corruption charges. But in 1931, the night before Potter was to testify before a grand jury — probably planning to implicate prominent Clevelanders — he disappeared. He turned up slain in an apartment several days later. Gangster “Pittsburgh Hymie” Martin was convicted of the murder, but exonerated at a second trial. Cleveland’s most explicitly political murder was never solved.
The Line: A murder of the star witness on the eve of testimony will get this one to round two.
John Leonard Whitfield
Peak of notoriety: 1923
When Cleveland policemen came to arrest John Leonard Whitfield for masterminding a spark-plug-theft ring, he stashed a revolver in his pocket. Policeman Dennis Griffin, gun drawn, told Whitfield to drive him to the station in Whitfield’s blue Jordan roadster. On the ride to the station, Whitfield somehow outdrew Griffin and shot him to death. Later that day, Whitfield’s car was seen near Geauga Lake, just before he disappeared with his pregnant, 15-year-old mistress.
Sheriff’s deputies searched the Geauga Lake area with legendary Plain Dealer reporter Roelif Loveland, a cub reporter then, tagging along. One man examined the ground near a felled tree and found a soft spot.
“A few spades full of dirt were turned up,” Loveland’s story read. “Out of the wet clay protruded a man’s hand, white and ghastly.”
They’d found Griffin.
Whitfield was arrested in Madison, Wis., but got away. He started working at a Detroit lumberyard, where a co-worker recognized him from the papers. He was arrested for good, convicted and sentenced to life behind bars. Five years later, he was fatally shot after a prison break. — Erick Trickey
The Line: Horror-movie visual could lift Whitfield from obscurity.
Peak of notoriety: 1989-1996
by: Tony Tomsic, as told to Jeannie Roberts
There’s no end to those who were genuinely afraid of Albert Belle, the Cleveland Indians slugger of the ’90s: pitchers, umpires, fans, sports reporters, clubhouse thermostats, the woman he was arrested for stalking, trick-or-treaters. Veteran sports photographer Tony Tomsic recalls the incident on April 6, 1996, when an angry Belle pelted him with baseballs.
I’m like the man who shot Liberty Valance. That’s the only way I know how to describe it. Nobody ever forgets this incident. It always comes up.
I was working on a Sports Illustrated cover story, shooting Albert Belle. It was a very cold day. I was standing to the left of the third-base dugout, and Albert was mad that I was taking his picture.
The first ball he threw at me from the outfield missed and hit the seats. It sounded like a gunshot crack, and that was my wake-up call. So when he threw the second ball, the one that hit me, I saw it coming. He yelled really loudly, “I told you not to take my picture, asshole!”
I yelled back at him to repeat that, which he did. Then [Indians official] Bart Swain came over and said, “We’ve got to get you in the dressing room to get that bandaged.”
I said, “What the hell are you talking about?” And he said, “Turn your hand over.” It was very bloody; the ball had broken the skin by my knuckles. Under certain light, I can still see the marks on my [right] hand today.
I guess I should have picked up the ball and made some money on it, but I didn’t think about it. This wasn’t a big deal to me. But the media got hold of it and it got bigger and bigger. The Indians apologized but Albert never did.
The next day Jose Mesa said, “How could anyone throw a baseball at Santa Claus?” Then Spike Lee called me and said he was doing an HBO special on Albert and he wanted to interview me. I thought it was one of my friends playing a joke, and I really abused the guy. I ended up doing it just because I wanted to meet him.
I filed suit in December 1996, and it eventually got settled out of court. I wasn’t going to sue, but in the Spike Lee film, Albert almost bragged about hitting me.
I continued to shoot baseball after that, but I made it my business to stay out of Albert’s way. I thought the whole thing was funny, but I suppose the guy could have really hurt me. I’m not that brave a guy. After that, I was the guy with the apple on my head.
The Line: We expect Cleveland’s most notorious athlete to make at least the Elite Eight.
“Moondog Coronation Ball”
March 21, 1952
When promoters with dollar signs in their eyes freely printed and sold tickets to Alan Freed’s “Moondog Coronation Ball,” they somehow failed to anticipate 20,000 people might actually show up at the Cleveland Arena, which held a little more than half that. As people shoved their way in the door, worries grew that a riot might break out. Fists flew and safety officials shut the concert down as soon as Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams — the night’s first performer — finished his first song
The Line: A rock ’n’ roll ending to what many consider the first rock ’n’ roll concert.
Peak of notoriety: 1927-28
Everyone was shocked when flamboyant, party-loving, smart-mouthed Velma Von Woert eloped in 1925 with amiable Eddie West, the scion of a Lake County nursery dynasty. Velma, a hell-raising ’20s flapper, scandalized her new neighbors: She had no wifely housekeeping skills, affected masculine attire and smoked cigarettes in public! Shunned, Velma aptly described her problem as being a “twelve o’clock girl in a nine o’clock town.”
Still, no one was prepared for the denouement of the West marriage, Dec. 6, 1927, when Velma had the last word — with a claw hammer — during an argument with Eddie. Velma arranged the scene to make it look like a burglary gone awry, then promptly motored to a bridge party in Cleveland, where she won every hand and dazzled her chums with her soulful singing of contemporary ditties.
Arrested the next morning, Velma spent four months in jail staging public fainting fits, modeling stylish outfits brought to her by her doting mother and toying with the notion of a timely religious conversion.
Before trial, Velma’s friend Mabel Young informed lawmen that Velma was a lesbian and that her orientation might have triggered her homicidal rage.
Prosecutors, who knew a Lake County jury would accept lesbianism as proof of insanity, accepted a deal that gave Velma life in prison instead of the electric chair. Velma ruined her chances for parole by temporarily escaping from the Marysville Reformatory in 1939. But she eventually accepted her fate, converted sincerely to Catholicism, and spent her next 20 years, until her death in 1959, counseling fellow prisoners to “go straight” and entertaining them with her self-composed gospel songs. — John Stark Bellamy II
The Line: A partying flapper with a mean streak and a tabloid eye for the sensational makes her a strong prospect.
Charles “Blinky” Morgan
Robber, safecracker, killer
Peak of notoriety: 1870s-1880s
Charles “Blinky” Morgan cut a lawless swath through the Western Reserve. Known for safecracking and holdups, his gang inspired dime novels chronicling its exploits. In February 1887, while rescuing a henchman from police custody on a train car, Blinky beat Detective William H. Hulligan to death with a railcar-coupling pin. A posse of lawmen captured Blinky, who later died on an Ohio Penitentiary scaffold.
The Line: Savage brutality and a great nickname could take him far.
The “Thinker” Bombing
Attack on sculpture
March 24, 1970
A dynamite bomb exploded outside the Cleveland Museum of Art late one night in 1970, badly damaging a casting of Auguste Rodin’s famous bronze sculpture, “The Thinker.” Investigators suspected members of the radical terrorist group the Weathermen planted the bomb. Museum officials shrewdly decided not to repair the sculpture, leaving the now-legless “Thinker” as an eye-catching memorial of mindless violence.
The Line: Great visual, but strictly art-house appeal.
Fiery hair and bowling night
Oct. 16 and Dec. 13, 1972
Ceremony-loving Mayor Ralph Perk raised an acetylene torch high to cut a metal ribbon at a downtown convention — and officials jumped in to beat out the fire in his hair. The photo appeared around the world. Two months later, Ralph Perk appeared alone at a White House dinner for mayors. His wife couldn’t come, he said: “It was her bowling night.” The real story, which he feared would embarrass her, is that she only learned of the trip at the last minute. “I’m not going looking like this!” she exclaimed. The incidents became Cleveland jokes, symbolic of the city’s ’70s doldrums, infamous blows to our self-image.
The Line: Our most lamented, most beloved blunders.
Justice was swift in frontier Cleveland, but it sure wasn’t pretty. O’Mic, an Ojibwa who was tried and convicted of killing two white traders, taking their furs and burning their cabin near Sandusky, was to be hanged in front of a crowd on Public Square just two months after the crime. However, O’Mic clung to the gallows not once but twice before finally being coaxed to accept his fate by Lorenzo Carter and two half pints of Old Monongahela whiskey. The grisly scene got worse when O’Mic’s body tumbled to the ground while being removed from the noose — and was later disinterred by the area’s doctors for dissection. The public hanging occurred days before word arrived that the War of 1812 had begun and is cited as a reason many Indians sided with the British.
The Line: Still gruesome almost 200 years later.
Peak of notoriety: 1980-1983
Ted Stepien bought the Cavs in 1980 and quickly put his stamp on the team, trading first-round draft choices for mediocre players. Losses and a questionable team future followed. The Gund brothers ultimately came to the rescue, buying the team and rebuilding the franchise. The NBA even passed a rule stating first-round draft choices could not be traded in consecutive years, thereafter known as the “Stepien Rule.”
The Line: Management moves outlawed by the league equals high-level sports shame.
Terminal Tower Ball Drop
June 25, 1980
In addition to the NBA’s Cavaliers, Ted Stepien owned a local professional softball team called the Competitors. So to celebrate the Terminal Tower’s 50th birthday and generate publicity, he dropped several softballs from atop the 700-foot-high tower, stationing players to catch them on the streets below. One ball smashed the windshield of a parked car and two others hit spectators, breaking one woman’s wrist and costing Stepien nearly $36,000 in an insurance settlement.
The Line: We can think of about 36,000 reasons why Stepien would like this one to fade fast.
Peak of notoriety: 1930s-1980s
Angelo Lonardo was born into the Mob. The Lonardos ran the Mayfield Road Mob and dominated the Cleveland rackets in the 1920s. He became head of the Cleveland Mafia in 1983, just as mafiosi began joining the Witness Protection Program and implicating their “brothers.” So when “Big Ange” agreed to cooperate, Mob leaders trembled. He knew where the bodies were buried — literally. He made the round of courtrooms nationwide, sending crime leaders to prison.
The Line: Being the rat in this pack of Mafia legends won’t get you far.
White Oaks Restaurant
Peak of notoriety: 1928-1933
When Cuyahoga County was dry, many Clevelanders drove down a dirt road in Dover Village (now Westlake), rang a buzzer and were sized up through a peephole. Only then could the chosen enter The White Oaks to sip forbidden spirits and partake in banned games of chance. The historic bar is still in the restaurant (relocated to provide a view of Cahoon Creek — a handy bootlegging connection to the lake), while the original door now guards the men’s room.
The Line: A deliciously scintillating past with temptingly tasty food. We’ll bite.
Peak of Notoriety: 1966
Before the cartoonish hairstyle and the cat-that-ate-the-canary smile, before he charmed his way into the careers of Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson, Don King was a heavy hitter in the Cleveland numbers racket. In the mid-1960s, he was convicted of manslaughter for beating a man to death and spent more than three years in prison. In 1972, he persuaded Ali to come to Cleveland to fight in a benefit for a local hospital charity, a move that led to King’s stranglehold on professional boxing for the past 30 years.
The Line: Numbers, murder, prison and boxing pack a serious punch.
Peak of notoriety: 1904
Following two careers as a forger and a four-year prison stint, Canadian Elizabeth Bingley reinvented herself in the late 1890s as “Cassie Hoover,” married Dr. Leroy Chadwick, then borrowed more than $1 million from Ohio banks by putting up bogus securities she claimed were from Andrew Carnegie as collateral. After spending her way through Cleveland society, Cassie was exposed as a fraud in 1904, convicted on seven counts of conspiracy, fined $70,000 and sent to prison, where she died in 1907.
The Line: An impressive con that should get her past the opening round.
Ohio City-Cleveland Bridge War
Oct. 31, 1836
Cleveland could have been two hostile cities, facing off across the river, if only a mob from Ohio City had torn down a new covered drawbridge in 1836. They tried, furious that the bridge to Cleveland had siphoned trade from Ohio City businesses. But when they stormed the bridge with axes and crowbars, Cleveland’s mayor and militia showed up. By the time the sheriff broke up the riot, three men were seriously hurt. The bridge stayed, and Cleveland annexed Ohio City 18 years later.
The Line: An East-vs.-West war is always a good bet.
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