Shondor Birns: A Look Into the Mobster’s Life and Gruesome Death

Balls used in “policy,” which was similar to the numbers games.

Cleveland maintained a substantial underground crime network for much of the 20th century. Home to ambitious and often violent mobsters, the Greater Cleveland area witnessed countless conflicts over various forms of organized crime. One such form, known as the “numbers game,” yielded high profits for its operators. Essentially an illegal lottery, the numbers game appealed to residents of working-class neighborhoods because it could be played for only a penny.

A display featuring policy balls in the Cleveland Division of Police Chief’s office. The Cleveland Police Museum put together the display.

One of the most infamous leaders of Cleveland’s numbers game between the 1930s and mid-1970s, Shondor Birns developed a reputation for his criminality and extravagant lifestyle. Labeled “Public Enemy No. 1” by local newspapers, Birns had an extensive criminal record spanning decades. Arrested more than 50 times, Birns was only convicted of felonies three times and served relatively little time in prison. While Birns’ confirmed illegal endeavors ranged from bootlegging to prostitution, his role as a unifying leader amongst Cleveland’s numbers operators established Birns as an influential and formidable mobster.

Birns is pictured above in mugshots decades apart.

Birns and his parents immigrated to the U.S. from Hungary when Birns was an infant. During World War II, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) registered Birns as an enemy alien due to his extensive criminal history. Birns spent two years in a deportation camp, because he could not be deported to the enemy Hungary during World War II. The U.S. government was unable to deport Birns even after the end of World War II, because Hungary and other Eastern European countries refused to accept Birns. The Plain Dealer headline from February 9 ,1951 reports one of the attempts to deport Birns.

Though Birns had long-standing relationships with numerous high-profile Clevelanders, his notoriety did not endear him to Cleveland’s mayors. Mayor Thomas Burke spoke publicly about his distaste of Shondor Birns in the early 1950s. The Plain Dealer headline from April 2, 1950 highlights Burke’s distaste of Birns.

Mayor Burke’s successor, Mayor Anthony Celebrezze formally banned Birns from the city of Cleveland in 1953. He ordered Cleveland police officers to arrest Birns every time he entered city limits. The Plain Dealer headline from June 30, 1954 covers Birns’ ban from the city.
In the 1950s, Birns acted as the head of the “Big Five,” a group of numbers operators in the Greater Cleveland area. Don King, one of the “Big Five,” later left Cleveland and became a boxing promoter. King promoted famous boxers such as Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. Many of these boxers filed lawsuits against King over accusations of fraud. Don King is pictured above in a 1954 mugshot.

A younger associate of Shondor Birns, Mervin Gold created a complex web of criminal financial activities that eventually caught up to him. Shortly after they met in 1960, Birns borrowed approximately $20,000 in loans from Gold. Gold soon needed cash to keep bankers, jilted investors, and the Internal Revenue Service at bay. In 1961, Gold attempted to call in his loans to Birns and recoup some assets. Unwilling to produce cash repayment immediately, Birns provided Gold with $1 million in Canadian bearer bonds as collateral for his $20,000 loan. Because Gold still needed cash, he provided some of these bearer bonds to his banker in order to obtain a cash loan. Gold’s banker learned that the bonds had been stolen from Canadian banks several years prior and reported Gold to the appropriate authorities.

Gold fled the U.S. with his family and tried to claim citizenship in Israel. After being denied citizenship, Gold returned to the U.S. in 1962 and was indicted for several fraudulent financial activities, including the usage of the stolen Canadian bearer bonds. The relationship between Birns and Gold deteriorated quickly. Birns refused to help Gold out of his extensive legal issues while Gold threatened to reveal Birns as the provider of the stolen bonds.

The Plain Dealer headline characterizing Birns from July 11, 1963.

In July 1963, Gold disappeared after telling his wife that he was going to see Birns. Several days later, police found Gold’s decomposing body stuffed in the trunk of an abandoned car in Solon, Ohio. Gold’s wife provided investigators with two legally prepared and signed affidavits that identified Birns as his source of the stolen Canadian bearer bonds. Though there was an inquest into Gold’s death, the investigation fizzled out due to lack of evidence and Birns quickly returned to his racketeering activities.

Inspecting the closed trunk of the abandoned car used to dispose of Gold’s body
Trunk where Gold’s body was discovered

Several decades younger than Birns, Irish-American mobster Danny Greene started working for Birns and prominent mobster Frank Brancato in the 1960s. Though Greene functioned as a driver and enforcer for both men, he was particularly close with Birns and learned much about Birns’ illegal lottery operation. Birns entrusted Greene with running the numbers game in Cleveland while Birns served time at the US Penitentiary and the Marion Correctional Institute between 1967 and 1971.

Danny Greene’s 1959 mugshot.

Greene utilized various methods of intimidation to enforce his status as interim leader of the numbers game. After one numbers operator attempted to take advantage of Birns’ absence and increase his own profits, Greene planned to throw a lit stick of dynamite at the operator’s storefront as he drove by. However, the lit dynamite bounced back into Greene’s car and exploded before Greene could make it fully out of his car. Though he survived, Greene suffered permanent hearing loss in one ear.

After Birns’ release from his final prison stint in 1971 and his return to Cleveland’s numbers game, Greene started devising his own criminal operation separate from the operations of Birns and Brancato. Greene asked Birns for a $75,000 loan to open a “cheat spot,” which would serve liquor beyond Ohio’s legal time limit. Birns relied on Mafia associates from New York City to provide money for Greene’s loan. The middleman who was supposed to deliver the loaned money to Greene stole the money and lost it all in a heroin deal.

Birns running around a corner with an unknown associate.

Feeling increasing pressure from his Mafia associates, Birns demanded that Greene repay the loan but Greene refused to pay back a loan he never received. The relationship between Birns and Greene quickly deteriorated. In 1974, Birns put out an order for Greene’s death. Because one of Birns’ men tipped off Greene, the initial bombing attempt on Greene’s life was unsuccessful. Greene found the bomb beneath his car, disarmed it, and turned over fragments of the failed bomb to the Cleveland Division of Police. Greene then likely returned the favor to Birns.

Danny Greene

On March 29th, 1975, the day before Easter Sunday, Birns spent several hours at Christy’s Tavern. One of the bar regulars escorted Birns to his parked car behind Christy’s at around 7:00 p.m. Though Birns typically kept a Doberman Pinscher dog waiting in his car as a method of security, he did not have one of his dogs guarding his car that evening. Birns’ escort left and started walking away as Birns unlocked his 1975 Lincoln Continental Mark IV. Within seconds of Birns settling into his car, C-4 explosives placed under the car detonated and killed Birns instantly. The force of the explosion flung chunks of his car and body over 1,000 feet away. Bits of Birns’ body embedded into the fences of St. Malachi Parish, a Catholic church across from Christy’s.

On the left, The Plain Dealer article announcing Birns’ death on Easter Sunday, March 30, 1975. On the right, a Cleveland detective examines Birns’ mangled Lincoln following the bombing.

Though Birns’ death is often attributed to Greene, Greene was never arrested or charged with murder. Cleveland police officers feared unrest and power struggles without Birns at the head of the numbers game, but the 1976 death of Cleveland’s Italian-American Mafia boss John Scalish triggered a bloody turf war instead. Greene attempted to muscle into the Cleveland Mafia alongside fellow mobster John Nardi and paid with his life. In 1977, two years after Birns’ death, Greene died after leaving an office building in Lyndhurst and falling victim to a remote controlled car bomb.

The Plain Dealer headline from May 26, 1978 analyzing Greene’s death.

This article was written by Kaitlyn Brulia, AmeriCorps/Ohio History Service Corps Member

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