Eliot P. Ness (April 19, 1903 – May 16, 1957) was an American Prohibition agent, famous for his efforts to enforce Prohibition in Chicago, Illinois, as the leader of a legendary team nicknamed The Untouchables. He is associated with Chicago gangster Al Capone in the 1930s. While Ness didn’t catch Capone (who was jailed on tax violations) he and his agents routinely disrupted Capone’s illegal alcohol industry from 1929 until 1932. Ironically once he resigned his from his federal law enforcement career, his personal life unraveled due to his own problems with alcohol.
The cost of enforcing prohibition was high, and the lack of tax revenues on alcohol (some $500 million annually nationwide) affected government coffers. When repeal of prohibition occurred in 1933, following passage of the Twenty-first Amendment, organized crime lost nearly all of its black market alcohol profits in most states. Despite the repeal, states still had the right to enforce their own laws concerning alcohol consumption, competition with low-priced alcohol sales at legal liquor stores. This led organized crime to further expansions into other illicit and socially harmful criminal activities, such as narcotics.
Ness was born in Chicago, the youngest of five, to Norwegian bakers Peter and Emma Ness. As a boy, Ness was interested in reading, especially Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. He was educated at the University of Chicago, graduating in 1925 with a degree in business and law. Ness was a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. He began his career as an investigator for the Retail Credit Company of Atlanta, Georgia. He was assigned to the Chicago territory, where he conducted background investigations for the purpose of credit information. He returned to the University of Chicago to take a course in criminology, eventually earning a masters degree in the field.
In 1926, his sister’s husband, Alexander Jamie, a Bureau of Investigation agent (this became the FBI in 1935), influenced him to enter law enforcement. He joined the United States Treasury Department in 1927 during a time when bootlegging was rampant throughout the nation. He headed a Federal enforcement unit which covered Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin.
Following the election of President Herbert Hoover, Andrew Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury was specifically charged with bringing down Al Capone. The federal government approached the problem of enforcing prohibition from two directions: income tax evasion and the Volstead Act. Ness was chosen to head the operations under the Volstead Act, targeting the illegal breweries and supply routes of the gangster Al Capone.
Because of his familiarity with the endemic corruption in Chicago law-enforcement, Ness went through the records of all the treasury agents to create a reliable team, initially of fifty, later reduced to fifteen and finally to just ten men. Raids against stills and breweries began immediately; within six months Ness claimed to have seized breweries collectively worth more than one million dollars. The main source of information for the raids was an extensive wire-tapping operation.
An attempt by Capone to bribe Ness’s agents was seized upon by Ness for publicity, leading to the media nickname “The Untouchables.” There were a number of assassination attempts on Ness, and one close friend was killed.
The efforts of Ness and his team had a serious impact on Capone’s operations, but it was the income tax evasion which was the government’s key weapon. 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 sentenced to eleven years, and following a failed appeal, he began his sentence in 1932.
Later life and Legacy
Ness was promoted to Chief Investigator of the Prohibition Bureau for Chicago and in 1934 for Ohio. Following the end of Prohibition in 1935, he resigned his position as a federal agent and took a job with the local government of Cleveland, as Director of Public Safety. He headed up a campaign to clean out the corrupt police and fire departments, and also tackle illegal gambling and other criminal activity. Ness’s inability to capture the Cleveland Torso Murderer, a vicious serial killer operating in the Cleveland area during the mid-1930s, may have also contributed to his exit from what was otherwise a successful criminal justice career in Cleveland. He resigned abruptly in 1942 after his involvement in an early morning auto collision—he had been drinking, hit another car and then left the scene of the accident.
Ness then moved to Washington, D.C., and worked again for the federal government. In 1944, he left to become chairman of the Diebold Corporation, a security safe company based in Ohio. He ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Cleveland in 1947 and Ness had a few business failures and was forced from his job at Diebold in April 1951. He eventually came to work for North Ridge Industrial in Coudersport, Pennsylvania. His book, The Untouchables, was published in 1957 shortly after his death at the age of 54 years old following a heart attack.
He was married three times, divorced twice, and had only one child (by adoption). He was married to illustrator Evaline Ness from 1938 to 1946. His ashes were scattered in one of the small ponds on the grounds of Lakeview Cemetery in Cleveland.
Impact on America
A number of television series and feature films have been made (loosely) based on his life, inflating the image of Ness into the fearless incorruptible lawman of legend. Some of the most well-known of these include the 1950s/1960s TV series titled The Untouchables, which features Robert Stack as Ness, and Brian De Palma’s Oscar-winning film of the same title, The Untouchables, which stars Kevin Costner as Ness and also features Sean Connery and Robert De Niro. Tom Amandes portrayed Ness in the short-lived TV remake of The Untouchables, which ran from 1993 to 1994. Eliot Ness was also the protagonist of the graphic novel Torso by Brian Michael Bendis and Marc Andreyko and a film is reportedly in development with David Fincher attached to direct. Ness is the subject of a series of novels by Max Allan Collins and also appears as a minor character in Collins’s graphic novel Road to Perdition.
Great Lakes Brewing Company makes a beer in his honor, “The Eliot Ness,” because Ness allegedly “frequented the Brewpub’s bar during his tenure from 1935-1941 and, according to popular legend, was responsible for the bullet holes in the bar still evident today.”
There is a sandwich shop in Fort Collins, Colorado, just outside the campus of Colorado State University named “Eliot’s Mess” in his honor.
Ness also appeared in an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, “Mystery of the Blues” as Indy’s roommate at the University of Chicago. They, along with a young Ernest Hemingway, attempt to solve a mystery surrounding the murder of Indy’s boss. Al Capone is found to be responsible, but he cannot be brought to justice, as police corruption has started to take hold. While this is theoretically written to be part of Eliot’s motivations later in life, all accounts of him, Hemingway, and Capone here are obviously fictional.