Eliot Ness was a damned good G-Man.
Born on April 19, 1903, in Chicago, Eliot's parents, Peter and Emma Ness, were a pair of middle class immigrants from Norway. Peter owned a bakery, and eventually expanded to own several shops.
Eliot was the youngest of 5 children, and he was youngest by a LOT. His three older sisters all had families while Eliot was still a small child, and his older brother was still a good 13 years older than him.
Eliot grew up to be a well mannered, hard working boy. He enjoyed reading, especially the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. One of his brothers-in-law, Alexander Jamie, who worked for the Justice Department, taught the boy how to shoot, and encouraged him to practice his marksmanship.
A diligent student, he studied business and law at the University of Chicago. While there, he avoided most extra-curricular activities, focusing on tennis, and learning jujitsu.
Upon graduation in 1925, he got a job as a credit investigator, and went back to the University of Chicago, taking night classes in criminology, earning his Master's degree.
In 1927, he was hired by the Prohibition Bureau branch in Chicago. At the time, this particular agency had a nasty reputation for corruption. His family was a bit less than pleased that he did this, instead of going into business.
But of course, it wasn't just the Prohibition Bureau that was corrupt. The whole damned state was corrupt. Everyone from the police on the street to the governor of Illinois. And in this world of greed and corruption, one man held the most power. Al Capone.
Taking out the trash.
Al Capone lived above the law. From beating dinner guests to death, to negotiating with the government to ensure a safe election, Capone flaunted his brazen disregard for the laws of the land. He amassed a fortune through extortion, bootlegging, gambling, and prostitution.
President Hoover wanted him out.
Since the local law authorities weren't about to do anything about him, Hoover was determined to get him on some federal offences.
The Feds had two angles which they could get at Capone with. Income Tax evasion, and violation of Prohibition.
IRS agents went on doing work behind the scenes proving that Capone's income, as proven by his extravagant lifestyle, was far above what he declared on his income tax returns... which was nothing.
Meanwhile, District Attorney George E. Johnson was in charge of getting Capone on the bootlegging charges. With some difficulty finding honest agents in the Prohibition Bureau, he decided that Ness should head up the task force that would go after Capone's breweries and distilleries. Ness was chosen both because of his sterling reputation, and a bit of influencing from his brother-in-law at the Justice Department.
At the time, Capone had about 20 breweries in operation, each one putting out about a hundred barrels of beer a day. Estimated sales totalled over $1.5 million dollars a week. Might I remind you this was 19-fucking-28! That was a lot of money. It's also estimated that about one third of that cash was paid out as bribes, to help keep the operation going.
If Ness was going to pull this off, he needed to find a really good team of people. Ness went through the entire personnel list of the Bureau of Prohibition, and managed to narrow it down to 9 people who had the skills, and the discipline, that he needed.
In the end, he got his men. Every one of them young, fit, good in a fight. Honest, and brave. And they needed to be brave. Capone's men had killed thousands of people. Many of the people who were killed were law enforcement officers who were actually trying to enforce the law.
The first time that Ness and his men went against Capone was to shut down 18 stills in Chicago, all in one night. Each of Ness's men was assigned a number of Prohibition agents. They coordinated the strikes to start at 9:30 PM. Loading up in their cars, they headed out for the stills. Knowing what the average Chicago Prohibition agent was like, they made damned sure that none of the agents had a chance to get to a phone after they knew the plan.
That night, after bursting in with their sawed off shotguns, Ness and his men dismantled 18 stills, bringing 52 people into custody.
Next Ness wanted to go after one of Capone's breweries. After locating one, they chopped at the wooden door with an axe. But, not shockingly, the wooden door was just a dummy. It took several shotgun blasts to the lock of the steel door behind it before Ness and his men were able to get in. They were able to shut down the brewery, but anyone who had been inside was able to escape through an exit in the roof.
Ness thought he needed some new equipment. So he got his hands on a big freaking flat bed truck, with the entire radiator made of a big freaking steel bumper. Hah! I'd like to see that door stop him now! The truck was also outfitted with ladders, so they could get on the roof of the breweries.
Using the truck, he'd just run through the doors of a brewery. With his men stationed around the exits, he was able to easily capture anyone inside, and shut down the brewery. Alas, all that wasted beer.
Within 6 months, Ness shut down 19 breweries. That's gotta have put a hurting on business. Ness needed to be stopped. Not wanting to assassinate federal agents, for fear of the wrath that would bring upon him, he offered Ness, and a few of his men, $2,000 a week to call the whole thing off. Ness's salary at the time was $2,800. A year.
Ness held a press conference, explaining just how he and his men weren't about to be bribed. He wanted to make damned sure that Capone and his ilk knew that there were at least some men in law enforcement that felt like upholding it.
One of the reporters covering the story dubbed Ness and his task force "Untouchable." The name didn't stick, until Ness titled his biography "The Untouchables."
Capone began being a lot more careful. A lot. Ness and friends were having more trouble ferreting out Capone's new breweries. Most of the tips were starting to come in one of two ways. Either a tip from a rival gang, of by phone tapping.
The phone tapping game was fun, because eventually Capone began having Ness and everyone on the team followed. He also bribed phone company employees to tap Ness's phone for him. You really can't go wrong with two groups having each other's phones tapped.
Ness was becoming a real deterrent to business. Capone decided to try and rub him out anyways. He tried to shoot him down on a deserted street, tried to run him down with a speeding car. Ness got really pissed off when Capone had his good friend Frank Basile killed.
Ness then tried to piss Capone off. A bunch of trucks that had been captured at Capone's breweries were going to be auctioned off. So, Ness had them all shined up real purdy like, and called up Capone. Eliot told Al to look out his window. Capone apparently flew into a rage when he saw a parade of his nice shiny new trucks being led off to be sold.
"What we had done this day, was enrage the bloodiest mob
in criminal history"
The next attempt on Ness's life came as a bomb was planted under the hood of his car. Thankfully, that would be the last time. The government finally felt it had enough evidence to go ahead with the tax evasion charges. After a fairly sordid trail, with stuff like death threats against the jury and the like, on October 17, 1931 Al Capone was sentenced to 11 years in jail. He was out after 6 years, but it didn't really matter at that point. 6 years of jail, and an advanced case of syphilis had left him a shell of a man.
Contrary to popular belief, absolutely none of the evidence that Ness collected against Capone for bootlegging was used to convict him. However, Ness harried and impaired Capone's operation for three years, costing the man millions of dollars.
Prohibition was repealed 2 years later.
It was also soon after he finished going after Capone's breweries and such that he married his first wife, Edna. Apparently, at home Ness was a quiet man, who spent most of his time reading.
So, apparently, Ness didn't die after Capone went to jail, which might as well have happened for all that most people know about him.
In July of 1934, he was appointed to head up the Ohio branch of the Treasury Department. Since the end of Prohibition, there were still a lot of people making, and selling, moonshine to avoid the taxes on alcohol. He got out there and made those moonshiner’s business a lot more unprofitable, by shutting down their stills and dumping their profits into ditches.
Within a year, Eliot had shut down almost all the major still operations in the state. And, after a hard days work, he was getting into the habit of meeting up with some of the reporters who followed his stories, and having a few drinks. Ironic, eh?
One of those reporters, Wes Lawrence, heard of an opening as Cleveland's Public Safety Director, in charge of the police and fire departments. After he mentioned it to Ness, Ness pounced on the idea. Calling up some friends, businessmen who had been hit hard by the mob, who might speak in favour of him, Ness rallied support for the job.
Mayor Harold Burton eventually drafted a list. Ness's name was fourth on that list. Ness didn't really like the fact, but he was a young man, and didn't exactly have the decades of experience that most people look for in a chief of police, especially for that of the United State's 6th largest city.
When he got called in to the mayor's office one day, he expected that all the candidates were getting interviewed. To his surprise he got the job. Apparently the man who was the mayor's first choice for the job had told him to pick Ness.
So, Ness got the job, and what a job. He was in charge of the police force in one of the more messed up cities in the depth of the Great Depression. Crime was rampant, and Eliot Ness had a city to fix.
The public was behind him, wanting to fix up the streets. The police force, on the other hand, was a different story. They didn't have much respect for the quiet young man, calling him "Boy Scout" behind his back. The main thing is that they didn't really care about who was at the top, they would keep doing business as usual.
Now that alcohol was no longer illegal, the criminal element moved on to gambling to fill their coffers. Many gambling joints operated out in the open, filling the pockets of the police in the area as well. Especially outside city limits, where the sheriff let the places prosper without any interference at all.
Thanks to said sheriff, the Harvard Club was the largest gaming establishment between New York and Chicago. And 100% illegal. Oh boy was it raking in cash.
The county prosecutor went after the owners of the club, but to his dismay, when convicted, they were only sentenced to 15 days in jail. And the sheriff made sure they were separated from the normal riffraff he usually kept in there.
The prosecutor, Frank Cullitan, wanted to go after the Harvard Club. So, he obtained a warrant from a justice of the peace, and hired some men from the McGrath Detective Agency, since he couldn't really trust the sheriff and his men.
When he arrived at the Harvard Club, however, he encountered one small problem. Or large, I guess. Namely, some goons pointing machine guns at him and his hired men.
If he was going to pull this off, he needed help. After trying the country jailer, who shockingly refused to send any men out, he tried the Cleveland police department. The chief of police said there were some jurisdiction problems to work out, and that he'd get back to him. As a last ditch, he tried Eliot Ness.
There was still the jurisdiction problem, but Ness went down to the police station and talked some cops coming off duty into helping him. They weren't there officially as police officers, but as private citizens. This meant that anyone who might get killed that night could see their families losing their pension, since they wouldn't have been killed in the line of duty.
Despite this, they still wanted to go. After a quick phone call to the sheriff’s office, ending with "to hell with you," when Ness heard that they won't help Cullitan at all, Ness made a few calls to his friends in the media.
They headed on their way, Ness and 43 police officers, all armed with rifles, shotguns, and teargas. Following close behind them was a reporter from every single newspaper in the region.
Ness then made the gutsiest move that I've probably ever heard of anyone doing. Completely unarmed, he grabbed a nightstick and pounded on the door, yelling "I'm Eliot Ness, and I'm coming in with some warrants." When the door opened a bit, he forced his way inside. Facing him were five men holding machine guns aimed directly at his chest. He stared them down.
The raid went off well after that, despite the fact that most of the gambling equipment had been moved out of the place by the time Ness had arrived.
In the meanwhile, Ness had been focusing on rooting out corruption amongst the police service, demoting those who were flagrantly crooked, and promoting those with a solid reputation.
He also went about making sure that the cops received proper training. After all, he couldn't really go around firing everyone who got hired when the standards were lower.
Rooting out corruption wasn't exactly the easiest thing, since cops won't snitch on other cops. No matter what. So, he founded the first office of internal affairs, and also hired some spies, who would report on police corruption to him.
Ness was doing quite well. He was getting rid of corrupt cops, or shuffling them away where they couldn't do any harm. He was shutting down business for the mob. But, he had another problem on his hands.
Some bodies kept turning up. They kept turning up with the head no longer attached to the body. Minor detail...
The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run was unique among serial killers in that he actually killed his victims by decapitation, instead of beheading them after the fact. As you can imagine, this is probably very hard to do.
The killer was careful, never leaving any clues where he dumped the bodies. And he was a sick mother fucker, what with the decapitations, and additional genital mutilations.
Apparently he waited a bit between victims #6, and #7, but when #7, a headless woman cut in half, washed up on the beach, the media went into a panic.
The police and coroners weren't able to figure out much about the killer. He was certainly a large strong man, with knowledge of anatomy. However, that didn't narrow it down all that much. There were a large number of large, strong, doctors, hunters, or butchers in the area.
The investigation wasn't really going anywhere. Not really knowing anything about serial killers in the 1930's, they used traditional techniques to try and find the killer, by looking for people the victims knew. However, serial killers almost always picked strangers, so this wasn't working at all.
In the meantime, Ness was working his ass off. Spending long hours at the office, he would often unwind, not at home, but out having drinks with some of his newspaper reporter friends.
This was starting to have an effect on his home life. His wife was unhappy being left at home with nothing to do. Plus there was the factor that they still had no children, his wife starting to think she was barren. The relationship was deteriorating.
Having mostly cleaned up the police department, firing dozens of officers, and bringing criminal charges against some, Eliot Ness turned his attention to something that was having a very negative impact upon Cleveland's economy. Labor Racketeering.
Apparently, the leaders of some of the labor unions would extort money from people. This was quite expensive. Not many people were willing to testify against them, but Ness convinced a few to. Once people saw that Ness was actually protecting the witnesses, there were a flood of people willing to testify, including other unions who were pissed off at the fact that these people were driving business away from Cleveland, costing legitimate union members money.
The trials went well, with two of the worst offenders being sent off to jail. Although, unfortunately Ness got an anti-union rep, from people who listened to the propaganda set out by the people defending them.
Ness was also initiating some youth projects designed to keep boys out of crime. The one that he most heavily championed was involvement in the Boy Scouts. It was working pretty well too. Juvenile crime was down a fair amount.
Meanwhile, they had found themselves a suspect in the Mad Butcher case. There was just one problem through. Dr. Francis Sweeney fit the bill for the killer. He had knowledge, size, and a list of problems, from his recently divorced ex-wife filing a restraining order against him, to an alcohol problem. He also knew the Kingsbury Run area, where most of the bodies were dumped, quite well, having been born there. The problem was his cousin. Congressman Martin Sweeney was a democrat who was quite critical of the mayor, and of Ness and his work to clean up the police departments while "ignoring the insane killer who walked the streets of Cleveland." A bit ironic that his cousin was the main suspect.
Despite what might look as a political move to get back at the Congressman, Ness began having Dr. Sweeney followed. However, the intelligent doctor was usually quite able to slip away from the rookies following him. They never caught him in the act of anything.
In August of 1938, right after victims #10 and #11 showed up, Ness made a poor decision. Up until this point, he hadn't been paying too much personal attention to the case. But now, in the face of pressure from the mayor and the media, he led a midnight raid on the shanty town around where most of the bodies turned up. Arresting the homeless, he had them interrogated, and then had the shanties burned to the ground.
Well, it didn't help things one bit. And his reputation wasn't helped much by making the homeless even more homeless.
He eventually dragged Dr. Sweeney in for an interview. He brought in a polygraph expert, who by the end of the interview, was convinced that Sweeney was the killer.
They still didn't have anything more than circumstantial evidence to use against Dr. Sweeney. However, two days after the interrogation, Dr. Sweeney booked himself into the Sandusky veteran's hospital. He spent the rest of his life in various hospitals. No other body ever turned up that was linked to the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run.
Edna finally realized that Eliot's career was more important to him than her, and divorced him, heading back to Chicago.
So, Eliot ended up spending even more time partying, socializing at stylish restaurants with beautiful women. This, plus his apparent inability to catch the Mad Butcher, didn't help out his reputation with the conservative populace of Cleveland.
Ness started doing what he did best. Catching gangsters. He went after the members of the Mayfield Road Mob, who ran most of the city's gambling and prostitution operations. After a series of successful raids, he had arrested 23 prominent gangsters.
Even more importantly, was his work to the traffic division. In the past, tickets issued could often be written off with a smaller bribe to the officer. Ness clamped down on this. Other people had simply ignored their traffic tickets, without repercussions. Well, when Ness started sending people to jail for that, it stopped pretty quick.
Ness also created the Police Emergency Mobile Patrol, who would give first aid to those who needed it. It was one of the first programs resembling an Ambulance in the country. He also outfitted each police car with a two way radio.
Damn did it work. Within 16 months, he had reduced fatal accidents by 58%, and non fatal accidents were down 42%. Other cities began adopting many of the same methods as Cleveland.
While all this was going on, Ness was spending more time partying with friends, and less at work. After all, the job had gotten considerably more boring. He no longer had to clean up the police department, or find a serial killer, or make traffic safer.
During the day, he worked on a project to increase the efficiency of the fire department, and during the night he would party it up with friends. Most notable of these was one Miss Evaline McAndrew. Well, things progressed, and late in 1939, he and her were married.
In 1940, Mayor Burton was elected to the Senate. In the next election, the Republicans begged Eliot to run for mayor, but since he disliked politics so much, he declined. As a result, the Democrats won, and the newly elected Mayor, Frank Lausche was under a lot of pressure from some of his strong supporters to get rid of Ness. So, he did. For a while.
In March of 1942, however, Ness was driving home from a night of drinking with his wife, and skidded into the path of an oncoming car. This did serious harm to his reputation, with his enemies pouncing on it. After a few months, he resigned as Safety Director, and went to work again for the Federal Government.
Holy shit this is a long writeup. Ness in Washington.
Ness moved to Washington, D.C. where he was to come up with programs to help prevent venereal diseases. Unfortunately, this position entailed a lot of travel around the country, mostly to army bases. This didn't exactly have a positive effect on his relationship with his wife.
Eventually, she got bored of his travelling, and entertaining guests in Washington, and left to live in New York. Eliot filed for divorce in October of 1944.
That same year, Ness was offered a position as the chairman of the board of Diebold, one of the largest manufacturers of bank safes. Ness had to completely reorganize the management of the floundering company, something that wasn't a problem thanks to his experience in Cleveland.
He negotiated a merger with the York Safe and Lock company, Diebold's biggest competitor. He also set the company into diversifying a bit, beginning to produce plastics and microfilm.
Around this time he met another woman, Betty Seaver. They married early in 1946.
He also started two companies with some businessmen he knew. The Far East Company dealt with importing and exporting to China, and went out of business when the government banned trade with China a few years later. The Middle East Company did the same damned thing, but to the Middle East. They were running into a few trade restrictions, but were still doing well.
Ness was getting bored though, and was resenting the amount of time he had to spend away from his wife, and his newly adopted son, Robert.
Ness began looking as a position that he had declined before. In 1947, Ness ran for the position of Mayor of Cleveland.
Silly man. He could have won it easily if he had run back in 1941. However, he was now running against a popular incumbent. And he still had his anti-union reputation. Despite having overcome his distaste of politics enough to run, he still wasn't a good politician, being horrid at public speaking.
Ness lost the election in a landslide, after having spent too much money on the campaign.
This was the beginning of the end. He eventually lost his position at Diebold, and the Middle East Company folded. He bounced around a bit, until finding a job in Pennsylvania, working for a company called Guaranty Paper.
He would usually spend part of his nights at the local tavern, telling stories about his time fighting gangsters in Chicago. He told them so well, that someone convinced him to write a book about it. The title of that book was "The Untouchables."
Unfortunately, Ness never lived to see it published, dying of a heart attack on May 16, 1957.
The world of make believe.
ABC made four seasons worth of "The Untouchables," loosely based on his autobiography, starring Robert Stack. When I say loosely based, I mean that they made a whole load of stuff up. There really wasn't enough that happened in the 2.5 years he fought against Capone to fill up 4 years worth of television.
And then there was Kevin Costner's 1987 film. It wasn't really a damned thing like how things really went. Basically the only thing that it did get right was Ness and Capone's names.
While these may not have been accurate, they have done a lot to cement Ness's place in history. After all, I doubt I'd be doing this writeup now if it wasn't for them.