Why They Blew Shondor Birns Away
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 gr
in the cle
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February 14, 2011