"Searching for Eliot Ness"
Eliot Ness. For many, the name has an instant association. A mention of Ness evokes images of a courageous, incorruptible gangbuster challenging the most powerful crime lord of his day, Al Capone, with only a handful of men. The federal agent is widely credited with playing a pivotal role in Capone’s downfall. Since the 1957 publication of the memoir of his Prohibition Era Chicago adventures, The Untouchables, the public has had an ongoing fascination with the daring crime fighter’s exploits. Ness’s life has provided the basis for the highly successful 1963 television series “The Untouchables”, which starred the iconic Robert Stack as Ness. 1987 saw noted director Brian DePalma bring Ness’s battle against Capone to the big screen. The movie featured an outstanding cast, with Kevin Costner as Ness and Robert DeNiro as Al Capone. Supporting actor Sean Connery won an Academy Award for his performance. A second, short-lived cable television series appeared in the early nineties. Although the depictions vary with each retelling of the story, all of the screen treatments present Ness as a heroic figure, unflinching in his determination to bring a stop to organized crime. But in the political and academic climate of today, in which historical figures are subjected to intense scrutiny and their characters often discredited, one cannot help but wonder how the real Eliot Ness stands up under examination. Is he really the hero that he has been portrayed to be?
Eliot Ness was born in Chicago to a family of Norwegian immigrants on April 19, 1903. His father, through hard work and diligence, established a successful baking business that provided the family with a stable, middle-income existence. Ness had a studious nature, counting reading amongst his favorite pursuits. He enjoyed some sports as well, most notably tennis and jujitsu. Ness attended the University of Chicago, obtaining a degree in Business and Law. Going against the hopes of his parents, Ness avoided a career in business, instead obtaining a job as a credit investigator and beginning work on a Master’s degree in criminology following graduation. In the midst of his graduate studies, Ness got a job with the Department of the Treasury. A short time later, with the help of his brother-in-law, a Justice Department agent, Ness transferred to the Prohibition Bureau. (Pictured - Eliot Ness, taken from "The Encyclopædia Britannica")
Ness soon learned that some of the honest citizens of Chicago held Prohibition agents in low esteem, due to their reputation for corruption. Throughout his early days with the bureau, Ness remained true to his principles, unwilling to accept the widely available bribes that circulated among his fellow officers. Ultimately, Ness’s honesty was key to his selection by U.S. attorneys George Johnson and William Froelich to lead a special squad dedicated to halting Al Capone’s bootlegging operations. Ultimately given the moniker “The Untouchables” by the press of the day, due to their incorruptibility, Ness’s personally selected team of nine men set about shutting down all of the illegal breweries and stills operating in secret in and around Chicago, acutely aware that they could attract the wrath of the city’s reigning crime lord.
There is no question that the efforts of Ness and his fellow agents dealt Capone’s empire considerable financial damage. Ness proved a capable leader for such an operation, demonstrating ingenuity in conducting raids. Because Capone’s gangsters had become adept at fleeing the scene at the first sign of trouble, Ness and his team designed a truck for use in the raids, equipped with a steel ram on its front end and carrying scaling ladders, so the team could smash into buildings, taking their prey entirely by surprise, while covering every conceivable escape route, including exits on the roof. Utilizing wiretaps, surveillance, and undercover work, The Untouchables steadily gathered the intelligence they needed to bring a halt to the Chicago mob’s bootlegging activities. Although Ness’s stream of raids shook Capone’s hold on the city, his squad was only one part of the Federal Government’s attack on the so-called “Chicago Outfit”, the other portion being silently undertaken by the Internal Revenue Service. In the end, the IRS produced the evidence needed to jail Al Capone for eleven years on charges of tax evasion. Ness’s team produced more than 5,000 charges against Capone and his cronies for violations of the Volstead Act, the law that prohibited the sale and manufacture of alcoholic beverages, but due to the strength of the IRS case, their evidence was never put to use. (Pictured - Robert Stack as "Eliot Ness" from the Television series: "The Untouchables.")
Ness was not free from criticism during his time with The Untouchables. Because he frequently spoke to the press regarding his squad’s activities, he was accused of craving the media’s attention. Although such a motive might be plausible, Ness reportedly indicated that he wanted his men’s accomplishments publicized in order to demoralize the mobsters they hunted. In writing, Ness indicated that he viewed his fight against organized crime as one against evil, and that he was working to keep lawlessness from unraveling American society. (Pictured - The Real Eliot Ness from "Famous People with a Cleveland Connection.")
Ness didn’t rest on his laurels following Capone’s fall. He was transferred to Cleveland, Ohio, another city like Chicago that had garnered a reputation for organized crime activity and corruption. Shortly after being assigned there, Ness was selected by newly elected mayor Harold Burton to assume the position of Public Safety Director, which included the supervision of the entire city’s police and fire departments. Not one to flinch from a daunting task, Ness went to work at shutting down the city’s many illegal gambling establishments, the financial lifeblood of Cleveland’s mob, leading many raids on the dens personally. Ness aggressively pursued the prosecution of corrupt police officers and promoted honest cops to positions of leadership. Under his direction, he established a new police academy, which offered cadets with the latest in scientific, forensic, and psychological training. Ness even made changes to the police traffic division, purchasing new equipment and establishing special accident patrol units, which cut down on traffic fatalities throughout Cleveland. Near the close of Ness’s tenure, he dismantled the infamous Mayfield Road Gang, Cleveland’s most powerful crime syndicate.
Ness encountered several difficulties in Cleveland. Most notably, during his term of office, the city was terrorized by a serial murderer known alternatively as the “Torso Killer” or the “Mad Butcher”. The killer preyed primarily on the low-income and transient residents of the city’s Kingsbury Run area. The murders were exceedingly brutal, the victims completely dismembered. In the late thirties, police were unfamiliar with such crimes and they were able to develop few leads. Ness initially left the search for the killer in the hands of homicide investigators, but as fears about the crimes mounted amongst Cleveland’s citizens, he took on a more active role. Ultimately, Ness led a group of police officers into Kingsbury Run in August of 1938. The men removed the transients that resided in the shantytowns that peppered the area and burned the makeshift homes to the ground. It was a move that the press criticized Ness heavily for, but one that Ness had undertaken in hopes of removing the killer’s preferred prey from his primary hunting ground. Despite his positive intentions, his reputation suffered for the perceived brutality of the act, as well as the police’s ongoing inability to capture the killer. The murders ceased later that year, but a firm identification of the “Torso Killer” has never been made. (Pictured: Andy Garcia, Sean Connery, Kevin Costner, and Charles Martin Smith, in Brian De Palma's "The Untouchables.")
In addition to the controversy surrounding the “Mad Butcher” case, Ness attracted the animosity of organized labor when he brought to justice two prominent labor racketeers, Don Campbell and John McGee, men who controlled large portions of Cleveland’s business and industry through intimidation and violence. Ness did not hesitate to build a case against such purveyors of illegal activity and he saw both men successfully prosecuted, but in doing so he was branded an enemy of labor and inherited a set of highly determined political enemies. (Pictured: Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia, Kevin Costner, and Sean Connery in Brian De Palma's "The Untouchables.")
Toward the end of his tenure as Public Safety Director, Ness had taken to socializing more and more. Late one evening in 1942, Ness and his second wife, Evaline McAndrew, were driving home, both having been drinking. Ness skidded on some ice and struck another vehicle belonging to a young man. After tending to his wife, Ness reportedly sought to have the other driver follow him to the hospital for an examination, but lost him in transit. Ness’s enemies were quick to take advantage of the subsequent scandal, and a short time later, Ness elected to resign his position.
The following years were filled with struggle for Ness, both personally and financially. Ness had begun working for the Federal Government part time while he had been Public Safety Director, and continued to work with them afterward. Ness was responsible for developing strategies to combat the spread of venereal diseases amongst military personnel. Ness made an unsuccessful bid for mayor of Cleveland in 1947, the only time he sought an elected office. Ness would later enter the private sector, taking an executive position at the Diebold Company, as well as partnering in a pair of import-export ventures. Both import companies eventually failed and Ness was ultimately forced out of his position at Diebold. An observer at the time commented that being an outsider to the company hurt Ness, as did his insistence on treating everyone equally, rather than engaging in company politics and giving some employees preferential treatment.
Ness’s last professional position was with Guaranty Paper, a company seeking to enter the banking market with watermarked checks that were forgery proof. The company floundered, trying to find buyers for its products. In the midst of his professional woes, Ness was approached about producing a book detailing his Prohibition era exploits in Chicago and Ness began working with writer Oscar Fraley on the manuscript. Although he was reportedly uncomfortable with the literary license that was taken with some of the facts and the treatment of himself as a hero, a label he had never accepted, Ness cooperated in the writing of the book, hoping that its publication would alleviate his financial worries. Tragically, Ness would never see it reach print. A few weeks after giving approval to Fraley’s final draft, the crime fighter suffered a lethal heart attack. He was 54. (Pictured: Mike Cornelison as the title character in Max Allan Collins, "Eliot Ness, An Untouchable Life.")
Reflecting on the life of Eliot Ness, one can conclude that he was not a man without shortcomings. His personal life often suffered at the expense of his career: Ness went through two divorces before finding lasting happiness with his third wife, Elisabeth Seaver. He was capable of costly mistakes, such as the accident that ultimately led to the end of his career with the city of Cleveland. As demonstrated by his professional instability later in life, he lacked the acumen to succeed in the realms of business or politics. At the time of his death, Ness was on the verge of complete financial ruin. (Pictured: Mike Cornelison as the title character in Max Allan Collins, "Eliot Ness, An Untouchable Life.")
Nonetheless, even taking his faults into consideration, Eliot Ness is certainly worthy of his renown. He was a man of principle, willing to act on his beliefs even when doing so placed him in danger. Although he did not live through the kind of bullet-ridden escapades that the popular media has devised in their depictions of his adventures, he had the courage to do what others regarded at the time as impossible. He faced down a seemingly unstoppable criminal syndicate in Chicago and helped put a stop to its stranglehold on the city. In Cleveland, he did the same and restored honor to a police force that many regarded as hopelessly corrupt. He acted with creativity, persistence, and personal bravery and his leadership inspired those that knew and worked alongside him. Despite the fact that he disliked being termed a hero, in many ways the title fits him well, and he is deserving of his place in American history and folklore.
Bardsley, Marilyn. "Eliot Ness: The Man Behind the Myth." Court TV-Crime Library. 3 Mar. 2007
Heimel, Paul W. Eliot Ness: The Real Story. Nashville: Cumberland House, 2000.
Capone: The Life and World of Al Capone. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1971.
Ness, Eliot and Oscar Fraley. The Untouchables: The Real Story. New York: Pocket Books, 1987.
Nickel, Steven. Torso: The Story of Eliot Ness and the Search for a Psychopathic, Killer. Winston-Salem: John F. Blair, Publisher, 1989.
(Pictured, Eliot Ness's grave and monument from "Find A Grave.")
Ren's Flicks To Hold You Over: The Untouchables.
"‘Real’ Eliot Ness Emerging From Behind Hollywood Myth," By Paul W. Heimel, Freelance Writer (Mirror Site.)
FBI: Freedom of Information Act: Eliot Ness Contains facsimile copies of documents concerning Ness and his involvement with the FBI. Released under the Freedom of Information Act
Gangster/Untouchable Tours: "Our two-hour live action tour gets you the inside story on Chicago's windiest politicians, rollicking red-light districts and most notorious vice games!"
Alan Machin: Tourism As Education - Chicago: Tourism Re-Imaging - Website page about rebuilding Chicago's image, focusing on tourism and the city's history.
The Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations: Travel Guide to Film Locations - The Untouchables
Plume-Noire: The Chicago Untouchables Tour.
Museum Of Broadcast Communications: The Untouchables
One fan's site to The Untouchables (aired October 10, 1959 - September 10, 1963 on ABC-TV) starring Robert Stack
From the Brian De Palma's tribute site: THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987) - Summary/review of Brian De Palma's THE UNTOUCHABLES, with photos and the original US poster.