Ness c. 1933
|Died||May 16, 1957 (aged 54)|
(m. 1929; div. 1938)
(m. 1939; div. 1945)
Elisabeth Andersen Seaver (m. 1946)
|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 bring down Al Capone and enforce Prohibition in Chicago, Illinois, and the leader of a famous team of law enforcement agents from Chicago, nicknamed The Untouchables. His co-authorship of a popular autobiography, The Untouchables, which was released shortly after his death, launched several television and motion picture portrayals that established Ness's posthumous fame as an incorruptible crime fighter.
Eliot Ness was born on April 19, 1903, in the Kensington neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois. He was the youngest of five children born to Peter Ness (1850-1931) and Emma King (1863-1937). His parents, both Norwegian immigrants, operated a bakery. Ness attended Christian Fenger High School in Chicago. He was educated at the University of Chicago, graduating in 1925 with a degree in political science and business administration, and was a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon. He began his career as an investigator for the Retail Credit Company of Atlanta assigned to the Chicago territory, where he conducted background investigations for the purpose of credit information. In 1929, he returned to the university to take a graduate course in criminology taught by August Vollmer, a noted police reformer and chief of the Berkeley Police Department. Vollmer's ideas about professionalizing law enforcement would influence Ness throughout his career.:29-43, 64-67, 202-204
Ness's brother-in-law, Alexander Jamie, an agent of the Bureau of Investigation (which became the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935), influenced Ness to enter law enforcement. Ness joined the U.S. Treasury Department in 1926, working with the 1,000-strong Bureau of Prohibition in Chicago.:67-71, 96-105
In March 1930, attorney Frank J. Loesch of the Chicago Crime Commission asked President Herbert Hoover to take down Al Capone. Agents of the Bureau of Internal Revenue, working under Elmer Irey and Special Agent Frank J. Wilson of the Intelligence Unit, were already investigating Capone and his associates for income tax evasion. In late 1930, Attorney General William D. Mitchell, seeking a faster end to the case, implemented a plan devised by President Hoover for sending a small team of Prohibition agents, working under a special United States attorney, to target the illegal breweries and supply routes of Capone while gathering evidence of conspiracy to violate the National Prohibition Act (informally known as the Volstead Act). U.S. attorney George E.Q. Johnson, the Chicago prosecutor directly in charge of both the Prohibition and income tax investigations of Capone, chose the twenty-seven-year-old Ness (now assigned to the Justice Department) to lead this small squad.:170-172, 239-241, 247-250, 265-269, 311-314
With corruption of Chicago's law enforcement agents endemic, Ness went through the records of all Prohibition agents to create a reliable team (initially of six, eventually growing to about ten) later known as "The Untouchables." Raids against illegal stills and breweries began in March 1931. Within six months, Ness's agents had destroyed bootlegging operations worth an estimated $500,000 and representing an additional $2 million in lost income for Capone; their raids would ultimately cost Capone in excess of $9 million in lost revenue. The main source of information for the raids was an extensive wire-tapping operation. Failed attempts by members of the Chicago Outfit to bribe or intimidate Ness and his agents inspired Charles Schwarz of the Chicago Daily News to begin calling them "untouchables," a term Schwarz borrowed from newspaper stories about the untouchables of India. George Johnson adopted the nickname and promoted it to the press, establishing it as the squad's unofficial title.:317-331, 349-365, 419-421, 493
The efforts of Ness and his team inflicted major financial damage on Capone's operations and led to his indictment on five thousand violations of the Volstead Act in June 1931. But federal judge James H. Wilkerson prevented that indictment from coming to trial, instead pursuing the tax evasion case built by George Johnson and Frank Wilson.:385-421, 493-496 On October 17, 1931, Capone was convicted on five of twenty-two tax evasion charges. He was sentenced to eleven years in prison and, following a failed appeal, began his sentence in 1932. On May 3, 1932, Ness was among the federal agents who took Capone from the Cook County Jail to Dearborn Station, where he boarded the Dixie Flyer to the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary - the only time both men are known to have met in person.:423-461, 496-501
In 1932, Ness was promoted to Chief Investigator of the Prohibition Bureau for Chicago. 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 H. Burton hired Ness as the city's Safety Director, which put him in charge of both the police and fire departments. Ness soon began a groundbreaking reform program inspired by the ideas of August Vollmer, which focused on professionalizing and modernizing the police, stopping juvenile delinquency, and improving traffic safety. 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.:493, 529-530
Ness was also Safety Director at the time of several grisly murders that occurred in the Cleveland area from 1935 to 1938; though he had oversight of the police department, he was only peripherally involved in the investigation. Ness was the one who interrogated one of the prime suspects of the murders, Dr. Francis E. Sweeney, using a polygraph test. At one point in time, two victims of the serial killer were in close proximity to city hall, the place where he worked.
In 1938, Ness and his wife Edna divorced. His otherwise remarkably successful career in Cleveland withered gradually. He especially fell out of favor after he had the city's large shantytowns evacuated and burned during the Cleveland Torso Murders. Cleveland critics targeted his divorce, his high-profile social drinking, and his conduct in a car accident one night where he was driving drunk. Although there were no victims in the accident, Ness, fearful that he might lose his job, tried to get the accident covered up. Later, his involvement in the accident was revealed by a local newspaper and calls for his resignation increased; however, Burton's successor as mayor, Frank Lausche, kept Ness on.
In 1939 Ness married illustrator Evaline Michelow. In 1942 the Nesses moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for the federal government. He directed 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 owing to 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 left Diebold in 1951. In the aftermath, Ness was forced into taking various odd jobs to earn a living, including bookstore clerk and wholesaler of electronics parts and frozen hamburger patties.:255-256 By 1956, he came to work for a startup company called Guaranty Paper Corporation, which claimed to have a new method of watermarking legal and official documents to prevent counterfeiting. Ness was offered the job because of his expertise in law enforcement and moved from Cleveland to the quiet rural town of Coudersport, Pennsylvania, where much of the investment capital for the company was located. Now drinking more heavily, Ness spent some free time in a local bar telling stories of his law enforcement career. Guaranty Paper began to fall apart when it became clear that one of Ness's business partners had misrepresented the nature of their supposedly proprietary watermarking process, leaving Ness in serious financial jeopardy.
In 1931, a member of Al Capone's gang promised Ness that two $1,000 notes would be on his desk every Monday morning if he turned a blind eye to their bootlegging activities (roughly $33,000 a week in 2018 adjusting for inflation). Ness refused the bribe and in later years struggled with money; he died nearly penniless at the age of 54. Ness and his role in bringing down Al Capone had been largely forgotten at the time of his death in 1957. His heroic reputation underwent a resurgence with the posthumous publication of the 1957 book he had co-written with Oscar Fraley and the 1959 and 1993 television series, 1987 film, and related media adapted from it.:359-360, 531-532
Ness was married to Edna Stahle 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).:124-125, 201
Ness collapsed and died at his home in Coudersport, Pennsylvania, of a massive heart attack on May 16, 1957; he was 54. His ashes were scattered in one of the small ponds on the grounds of Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland. He was survived by his widow, Elisabeth Andersen Seaver, and adopted son, Robert.
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's career in Chicago, and miscellaneous papers, including a report on the Fidelity Check Corporation and Guaranty Paper, of which Ness was president.
Numerous media works have been developed based on Eliot Ness's life and the legend surrounding his work in Chicago. The first of these resulted in Ness's last years from his collaboration with Oscar Fraley in writing the book The Untouchables (1957), which was published after Ness's death and went on to sell 1.5 million copies. Although the historical veracity of this book has been questioned, later research suggests that it is broadly accurate.:xii, 531-532, 588, 593, 608-610, 622, 627, 631-634, 640, 645, 649 A 21-page manuscript that Ness wrote for the book is housed in the archives of the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, Ohio.
The book was adapted in multiple media and inspired many additional works. The best-known eponymous adaptations include the 1959 TV series The Untouchables starring Robert Stack as Ness and narrated by Walter Winchell and the 1987 film The Untouchables by Brian De Palma starring Kevin Costner as Ness and featuring Sean Connery and Robert De Niro. These two fictionalized portrayals, more than actual history, have inspired numerous novels; a TV-movie, The Return of Eliot Ness. in which Stack returned to the role; a second, short-lived 1993 TV series titled The Untouchables; stage plays such as Robert Ullian's In the Shadow of the Terminal Tower; and comic books such as Torso.
Max Allan Collins used Ness as the "police contact/best friend" character in his series of historical private eye novels featuring Chicago detective Nate Heller. Later he spun Ness off into his own series, set during his tenure as Cleveland's Public Safety Director. The first book, The Dark City (1987), depicted Ness's getting hired and undertaking a cleanup of the graft-ridden police force; the second, Butcher's Dozen (1988), his pursuit of the serial killer known as the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run. Bullet Proof (1989) pitted Ness against labor racketeers intent on taking over Cleveland's food service industry. Murder by the Numbers (1993) depicted Ness's investigation of the numbers racket in Cleveland. All of these novels, while fictionalized, were closely based on actual cases investigated by Ness and the Cleveland Police. Collins also wrote a one-man stage play, Eliot Ness - An Untouchable Life, which was nominated for an Edgar award. In 2018, Collins collaborated with historian A. Brad Schwartz on a nonfiction dual biography of Ness and Capone, entitled Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago. Collins and Schwartz are currently writing a second volume about Ness's years in Cleveland, entitled The Untouchable and the Butcher.
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 "Eliot Ness" and included several subtle nods to his career in the beer description and label art.
On January 10, 2014, Illinois U.S. Senators Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk and Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown proposed naming the headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Washington, D.C. after Ness.:545-547 If approved, it would have been called the Eliot Ness ATF Building. Brown said in a statement: "Eliot Ness is perhaps best known as the man who helped to bring Al Capone to justice. But Eliot Ness was more than just a Chicago prohibition agent. He fought for law and justice in Ohio, and fought for peace and freedom in World War II. He was a public servant and an American hero who deserves to be remembered." 
Chicago Aldermen Edward M. 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."
The authors of two separate Ness biographies later disputed the accuracy of Burke's claims, suggesting he mischaracterized Ness's career.:545-547 "If Hollywood has given Eliot Ness too much credit for getting Capone," Max Allan Collins wrote in an article for The Huffington Post, "he has received too little credit anywhere else for helping professionalize law enforcement in the mid-20th Century."
Although the Senate resolution was never adopted, the main atrium in the ATF headquarters building was later renamed for Eliot Ness and features a historical exhibit about the Untouchables.:547-548
Coudersport, Pennsylvania, the town where Ness spent his final months and died, has held an annual "Eliot Ness Festival" every third weekend in July since 2018. Past events have included a public reunion of people descended from the original Untouchables, a dramatization of Al Capone's trial, film screenings, author talks, and antique car shows.