A Brief History
On May 16, 1957, 54 year old ex-lawman Eliot Ness, he of future television and movie fame as leader of the “Untouchables,” died nearly broke and so forgotten that the Chicago newspapers did not even run an obituary.
Ness was a native Chicagoan, born in 1903, and even attended The University of Chicago, graduating with a degree in economics in 1925. Taking a job as a background investigator for a credit company, Ness became interested in Law Enforcement and went back to The University of Chicago where he got a Master’s Degree in Criminology, the field that would define his life.
In 1927, Ness’s brother-in-law talked him into going into law enforcement for real, this time with the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Prohibition. In 1929, when Herbert Hoover took office as President, Hoover made putting Al Capone, gangster #1 in Chicago, out of business and sicced the Treasury Department on the scar faced mobster, with Eliot Ness himself in charge of the task force. Looking for evidence to put Capone away on violations of the Volstead Act (Prohibition of Alcoholic Beverages) or for tax evasion was no easy feat, since Capone had bribed so many cops and government officials it was hard for Ness to fill his 50 man team with honest cops. Ness cut the team size to 15, and finally to 11 men so trusted and incorruptible they were called by Ness and the media “The Untouchables.” Efforts by Capone to bribe Ness and his team failed. Capone was nailed in 1931 for tax evasion, and jailed in 1932, ending that chapter of Ness’s career (though Ness himself did not really get the goods on Capone).
Ness became a Chief Prohibition Investigator for Chicago, and when Prohibition ended in 1933 he became a liquor agent chasing moonshiners in rural Appalachia. Ness was hired by the Mayor of Cleveland, Ohio, as the City Safety Director in 1935, a job he jumped into with the aim of modernizing the Fire Department and rooting out corrupt cops. During his time as Safety Director of Cleveland Ness pursued charges against mobsters and dealt with the biggest failure of his career, failing to solve the 12 grisly “Torso Murders” (aka “Kingsbury Run Murders”) of Cleveland that took place between 1935 and 1938. Overwork, active social drinking, and a divorce marred his life in 1938, including a possible drunk driving accident, but he remarried in 1939 and was kept on the job by the next mayor.
In 1942, Ness changed careers once again, and went to Washington, DC, to work for the Federal Government trying to clean up vice around military bases. Ness branched off into the business world where he had little success, though he did become the Chairman of Diebold (a safe/strong box company that now makes voting machines) in Cleveland. Ness got divorced again, and then even ran for mayor of Cleveland in 1947, though he lost, and then lost his job with Diebold in 1951. The former lawman floundered for a while, drinking and changing jobs, but also getting married again, and found a new job with a company that made hard to counterfeit papers (his law enforcement background doing him well), and moved to Pennsylvania when the company relocated to Coudersport. In his later years he was known to spin some yarns about his law enforcement years, allegedly grossly exaggerating his contribution to the profession.
After Ness died, his book, The Untouchables, was published and became a hit (selling 1.5 million copies), leading to the television series The Untouchables starring Robert Stack as Ness that ran from 1959 to 1963, and another lesser attempt at a television series in 1993. The 1987 movie, The Untouchables, starring Kevin Costner as the lawman was a major film, and numerous books, novels, and cultural references are made to Ness and the Untouchables in all manner of media.
Whether the real life Eliot Ness could match up to the legend, or even his own gilded opinion of his law enforcement career is not important. What is memorable is that under great danger and with great courage and integrity Eliot Ness and his Untouchables resisted threats and bribes from one of the most powerful and brutal gangsters ever to stain the United States. At least we give him credit for that, but as a question for students (and subscribers), “What is your opinion of Ness?” Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Tucker, Kenneth. Eliot Ness and the Untouchables: The Historical Reality and the Film and Television Depictions, 2d ed. Mcfarland, 2011.
The featured image in this article, en:Image:Nesscredentials.jpg, is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.
You can also watch a video version of this article on YouTube: