“On the eve of retirement, after bombing and shooting his way into the headlines for half a century, Cleveland’s leading racketeer, Shondor Birns, 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?
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!”
–Cleveland Magazine, 1975
Michael D. Roberts
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On March 20th 1975, Shondor Birns, Cleveland’s version of Al Capone, was blown to smithereens by a car-bomb. It was a mode of death Birns was quite fond of in his own practice of disposing of enemies. Most likely, his killer was connected to Danny Greene, an Irish-mob-former-union-leader on the Cleveland waterfront. It could have been many others as well; Birns was perpetually at war with the black criminal gangs as well over control of the numbers racket in Cleveland, and he wasn’t shy about flexing his muscles.
So ended five decades of his dominance in the underworld of that city.
He was something of a local celebrity in the ’50s and ’60s, palling around with Lou Boudreau, Bill Veeck, and Bob Feller to name a few, as well as prominent businessmen he bought rounds for at Alhambra, Cleveland’s premier watering-hole for the big shots in town.
He served much the same function as a guy like Toot’s Shorr or Sherman Billingsley did in their New York saloons. Birns fancied himself as something of a flaneur or a man about town in his later years.
This was Cleveland, Ohio in the mid-seventies and Birns was in a life and death battle with Danny Greene for control of the city’s criminal enterprises and unions, and had tried to kill Greene no less then six times with car bombs. My friend, Stan Klein, a child of Cleveland, told me that in the summer of Birn’s death, over sixty car bombs went off in Cleveland.
At the same time, Lake Erie was a chemical mess. The only fish that could survive in the toxic drink were the wholly unattractive sea lamprey, which look like nothing so much as a yard and a half of snot attached to a sucker disc at one end, and the lowly carp, which my pal, Stan, swears some Cleveland entrepreneurs tried out as an ingredient on. . .pizza.
Really. No Shit. Carp Pizza.
Stan Klein also told me he drove by the Shondor Birns crime scene back in ’75 and there were scraps of Shondor’s flashy wardrobe hanging in trees and on telephone lines. this was also the same year the Indians had 10-cent beer night at the ballpark. It ended in a riot of projectile beer bottles and fights, and rumor has it the team mascot got shanked.
Cleveland became the scrappy carp of American cities. No matter what indignities they must endure, they trundle on with the tacit knowledge that things can always be worse and probably will be.
They comfort themselves with feel-good bromides like, “It could be worse. . .it could be Detroit. It is an odd, beautiful city with a rust belt history and muscle and resilience. It is a place of mordant humor that produces cheery outlooks like that of the late Harvey Pekar. My pal, Stan, knew him a bit from the record stores and comics shops they both frequented and assured me Harvey’s distracted, misanthropic view of the world was no act. “Oh Yeah. He’s Cleveland.”
Even the underworld of this place was decidedly working class. Birns largely made his dough from numbers, gambling, and Union skim. He and Danny Greene fought over this prized turf for years. Only a scant yearand a half later, the notoriously hard-to-kill Greene would also be blown to bits by a car bomb, the seventh such attempt on his life.
They, the citizenry of Cleveland, for better or worse, seem to have been spared the bigger variety of criminal. The Bernie Madoffs, the Jack Abramoffs, the Donald Trump-types who fleece cities, only and always with the
bigger lie. . .the smoke-and-mirrors-type hustles common to bigger cities and economies and populations which always mean “more suckers.” Bigger. Better. More glorious. . .carp pizza.
Cleveland’s vices and criminal enterprises seem almost heart-warming and homey compared to the hustlers that take us over the hurdles now–the insurance, real estate and medical professions are constructed in a way that fuck us far harder and longer than guys like Birns or Greene could have never dreamed of.
Cleveland is Ohio’s biggest city. It has some gorgeous architecture–some of those last-gasp-of-the-Industrial-Revolution beauties. It also has an idiosyncratic and wholly American history; a place of fascinating contradictions and great epic narratives. Like we Chicagoans, hey suffer from a cursed baseball team and the city rests on a great gray lake of unpredictable temperament murky legends. It feeds into the cursed Cuyahoga, which once caught on fire and, before the EPA got a hold of it, was orange.
It is part of the mysteries of Ohio. . . Why do they stay? Why do they leave? There is an odd survivor’s pride about those who come from Cleveland. They are very proud of having lived there and when they meet each other, there is that unmistakeable Midwestern warmth and goodwill. They’ve even learned to laugh about the carp pizza, and the Mayor whose hair caught on fire.
What I would pay to see that happen here!