April 19, 1903|
|Died||May 16, 1957
|Department||Bureau of Prohibition
Cleveland Division of Police
|Rank||Chief Investigator of the Prohibition Bureau for Chicago in 1934
Director for Public Safety for Cleveland, Ohio
Eliot Ness (April 19, 1903 – May 16, 1957) was an American Prohibition agent, famous for his efforts to enforce Prohibition in Chicago, Illinois, and the leader of a famous team of law enforcement agents nicknamed The Untouchables.
Eliot Ness was born on April 19, 1903, in Chicago, Illinois. He was the youngest of six siblings born to Peter Ness (1850-1931) and Emma (King) Ness (1863-1937). His parents, both of whom were Norwegian immigrants, operated a bakery. Ness attended Christian Fenger High School in Chicago. He was educated at the University of Chicago, where he was a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, graduating in 1925 with a degree in economics. He began his career as an investigator for the Retail Credit Company of Atlanta. He was assigned to the Chicago territory, where he conducted background investigations for the purpose of credit information. He returned to the University to take a course in criminology, eventually earning a Master's Degree in the field.
In 1926, Ness' brother-in-law, Alexander Jamie, an agent of the Bureau of Investigation (which later became the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935), influenced Ness to enter law enforcement. He joined the U.S. Treasury Department in 1927, working with the 1,000-strong Bureau of Prohibition, in Chicago.
Following the election of President Herbert Hoover, U.S. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon was specifically charged with bringing down gangster Al Capone. The federal government pursued his illegal activities in two areas: income tax evasion and violations of prohibition. Ness was chosen to head the operations under the National Prohibition Act (informally known as the Volstead Act), targeting the illegal breweries and supply routes of Capone.
With Chicago's corrupted law-enforcement agents endemic, in 1929 Ness went through the records of all Prohibition agents to create a reliable team, initially of 50, later reduced to 15 and finally to just 11 men called "The Untouchables". Raids against illegal stills and breweries began immediately; within six months Ness claimed to have seized breweries worth over one million dollars. The main source of information for the raids was an extensive wire-tapping operation. An attempt by Capone to bribe Ness' agents was seized on by Ness for publicity, leading to the media nickname, "The Untouchables." There were a number of assassination attempts on Ness, and one of his close friends was killed.
The efforts of Ness and his team brought major damage to Capone's operations. Ness' efforts eventually led the IRS to prosecute Capone for income tax evasion, according to Ness, although in reality, the Capone tax trial was a result solely of the research work done under the aegis of US Attorney George E.Q. Johnson and IRS agent Frank Wilson whose investigations led to Capone's downfall. In a number of federal grand jury cases in 1931, Capone was charged with 22 counts of tax evasion and also 5,000 violations of the Volstead Act. On October 17, 1931, Capone was convicted on five of the tax evasion charges, after the Volstead Act violations were dropped. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison, and following a failed appeal, he began his sentence in 1932.
Ness was promoted to Chief Investigator of the Prohibition Bureau for Chicago and in 1934 for Ohio. Following the end of Prohibition in 1933, he was assigned as an alcohol tax agent in the "Moonshine Mountains" of southern Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee; and, in 1934, he was transferred to Cleveland, Ohio. In December 1935, Cleveland mayor Harold Burton hired him as the city's Safety Director, which put him in charge of both the police and fire departments. He headed a campaign to clean out police corruption and to modernize the fire department.
In 1938, Ness' personal life was completely transformed while his career began to have some ups and downs. He concentrated heavily on his work, which may have contributed to the divorce that year from his first wife Edna (Staley). He declared war on the mob, and his primary targets included "Big" Angelo Lonardo, "Little" Angelo Scirrca, Moe Dalitz, John Angerola, George Angersola, and Charles Pollizi. Ness was also Safety Director at the time of several grisly murders that occurred in the Cleveland area from 1935 to 1938 and made relatively small efforts during the investigations. Unfortunately, his otherwise remarkably successful career in Cleveland withered gradually. Cleveland critics targeted his divorce, his high-profile social drinking and his conduct in a car accident but he continued with the next Mayor, Frank Lausche.
Ness remarried in 1939, to illustrator Evaline Michelow. The Nesses moved to Washington, D.C. in 1942 where he worked for the federal government, directing the battle against prostitution in communities surrounding military bases, where venereal disease was a serious problem. Later he made a number of forays into the corporate world, all of which failed from his lack of business acumen. In 1944, he left to become chairman of the Diebold Corporation, a security safe company based in Ohio.
After his second divorce and third marriage, he ran unsuccessfully for Mayor of Cleveland in 1947, after which he was expelled from Diebold in 1951. In the aftermath, Ness began drinking more heavily and spending his free time in bars telling (often exaggerated) stories of his law enforcement career. He also spent himself into debt. Ness was forced into taking various odd jobs to earn a living, including as an electronics parts wholesaler, a clerk in a bookstore, and selling frozen hamburger patties to restaurants. By 1953, he came to work for an upstart company called Guaranty Paper Corporation, which specialized in watermarking legal and official documents to prevent counterfeiting. Ness was offered a job because of his expertise in law enforcement. The company soon moved from Cleveland to the quiet rural town of Coudersport, Pennsylvania, where operating costs were lower. He made a decent income from GPC and moved with his wife and adopted son into a modest rental house. Once again, he enjoyed going to local bars and regaling amazed audiences with his tales of crime fighting.
Ness collapsed and died at his home in Coudersport, Pennsylvania of a massive heart attack on May 16, 1957, at the age of 54. Collaborating with Oscar Fraley in his last years, he co-wrote the book The Untouchables, which was published a month after his death. This book, among others about the Untouchables by Oscar Fraley, was heavily spiced with fiction including fictional characters and events to make the books more appealing to a general audience. The 21-page manuscript that Ness himself wrote for the book was a more trustworthy source and only included the real events that Ness experienced during his career. His manuscript is housed in the archives of the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, Ohio. The Western Reserve Historical Society houses additional Ness papers, including a scrapbook (1928–1936), copies of newspaper clippings (1935–1950), a typewritten manuscript detailing Ness' career in Chicago, and miscellaneous papers, including a report on the Fidelity Check Corporation and Guaranty Paper, of which Ness was president.
Al Capone promised Eliot Ness that two $1,000 notes would be on his desk every Monday morning if he turned a blind eye to his bootlegging activities (roughly $27,000 in today's money). Ness refused the bribe and in later years struggled with money. He died almost broke at the age of 54. Eliot Ness and his role in bringing down Al Capone had been completely forgotten at the time of his death in 1957. No Chicago newspaper carried news of his passing. His heroic reputation only began with the posthumous publication of the Untouchables book he had co-written with Oscar Fraley and the television series adapted from it.
Ness was married to Edna Staley (1900–1988) from 1929 to 1938, illustrator Evaline Michelow (1911–1986) from 1939 to 1945, and artist Elisabeth Andersen Seaver (1906–1977) from 1946 until his death in 1957. He also had an adopted son Robert (1946–1976). Ness' ashes were scattered in one of the small ponds on the grounds of Lake View Cemetery, in Cleveland.
Television programs and feature films have been made based on the life of Eliot Ness, and the legend surrounding his work in Chicago. The two best-known of these include the 1950s/1960s TV series titled The Untouchables, which starred Robert Stack as Ness and which Walter Winchell narrated, and Brian De Palma's 1987 film of the same title, The Untouchables, which starred Kevin Costner as Ness and also featured Sean Connery and Robert De Niro. These two fictionalized portrayals, more than actual history, have inspired numerous novels, a second, short-lived TV series, comic books, as well as references in animated cartoons, rap lyrics, and television. (The Simpsons episode "Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment" and the Supernatural episode "Time after Time" are notable examples.)
Cleveland-based Great Lakes Brewing Company, which claims several connections to Ness (including the brewery owners' mother having worked as his stenographer) named an amber lager "Elliot Ness", and included several subtle nods to his career in the beer description and label art.
On January 10, 2014, Illinois' US Senators proposed naming the headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Washington, DC after Ness. If approved, it would be called the Eliot Ness ATF Building. However, Chicago Aldermen Ed Burke (14th Ward) and James Balcer (11th Ward) opposed the resolution in an article in the Chicago Tribune. In a news release, Burke said, “Eliot Ness had a checkered career after leaving the federal government. I simply do not think his image matches the actual reality of his legacy.”
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