Shondor Birns & Danny Green: Cleveland's Killer Celebrities
Shondor the Apprentice Hood
The newspapers called him Alex "Shondor" Birns, but that was backwards.
He was born Szandor Birnstein in 1907 in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire but is now Lemesany, Slovak Republic. (Szandor, or Sandor, is Hungarian for Alexander.) Shortly afterward, the family moved to Cleveland and shortened its name.
With the arrival of Prohibition, his parents were among the many Clevelanders who went into the bootlegging business. In "The Rise and Fall of the Cleveland Mafia," Rick Porrello writes that Birns' mother was killed when the still in their home exploded. He spent his youth in the Jewish Orphan Asylum, where he excelled at athletics and street fighting.
He was still a juvenile when he was arrested for car theft in 1925. He served 18 months in the Mansfield Reformatory.
It was not until 1933, after he hooked up with the Maxie Diamond gang, that his career made Page One, and then only in a supporting role.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported:
"Maxie Diamond, 36, one of Cleveland's most notorious gang leaders, narrowly escaped death from underworld bullets last night in what police say is a continuation of the city's dry cleaning racket war."
The story listed Birns among those picked up for questioning. He was released, but only after paying $2 for two overdue traffic tickets.
Later in the year, he made Page One on his own. In separate incidents in quick succession, two men were shot from the same passing car. Police called it "continuation of guerilla warfare among policy game racketeers." Among others, they picked up "Alex (Shondor) Birns, 27, reputed E. 55th St.-Woodland racketeer, and five of his alleged henchmen."
Birns and three others were charged with manslaughter but were acquitted. Four days later, Birns, along with co-defendant Yale Cohen and attorney Max Lesnick were convicted of bribing a witness.
It was, the Plain Dealer said, "one of the few cases on record in which men identified by police as 'gangsters' were convicted of anything."
The judge sentenced them to 60 days in the Warrensville Workhouse.
Next: Shondor the Brutal Killer