"Eliot Ness: The Real Story"

Paul W. Heimel
Knox Books

Eliot NessTo many, the name Eliot Ness conjures visions of Al Capone, tommy gun fights and the all-knowing crime fighter portrayed by Robert Stack in the black & white TV classic series, "The Untouchables."

That character is largely a myth. Nevertheless, the accomplishments of the real Eliot Ness were no less fascinating.

Ness, a Chicago native, will be in the spotlight on Aug. 24, as The History Channel focuses on “Eliot Ness and the Untouchables,” marking the 70th anniversary of that special crime fighting unit’s formation.

“I never had the pleasure of meeting Eliot Ness, but I think I have a pretty good feel for what he was like, based on what I was told by his widow, Betty, and others who knew him,” said Robert Stack.

Stack, while admitting that television series was fictional, is still proud of bringing the public's attention to the real Eliot Ness. “He was smart, methodical, and rather soft-spoken, but very effective and brave,” Stack said. “My character had to be a bit more flamboyant—that’s television—but I think I was able to capture at least some of the essence of the real Ness.”

The History Channel documentary, to be aired as part of the “In Search of History” series, is the result of a three-month study, which included detailed research and extensive interviews by the producers.

A native of Chicago, Ness was the youngest of five children born to Norwegian immigrants. Although he studied business management at the University of Chicago, Ness chose to become a Prohibition Agent with the U.S. Treasury Department in 1927. By that time, Al Capone had risen from a Brooklyn street thug to a powerful Chicago crime boss.

Their paths collided when Ness was chosen to head a special investigative unit charged with destroying Capone's breweries and gathering evidence of Prohibition violations. This special unit, formed in August 1929, was the basis for the exaggerated accounts of "Eliot Ness and the Untouchables."

Capone's lieutenants really did threaten to kill Ness. They also tried to bribe him. When Ness and two of his agents refused to accept money and turn their backs on Capone’s illicit activities, a newspaper columnist called them "Untouchable." The nickname faded into history, but it was resurrected as the title of a book Eliot Ness and a professional writer, Oscar Fraley, co-authored in 1956-57.

The History Channel program debunks the myth that Ness and his team produced the criminal evidence that sent Capone to jail. Ness did have an overwhelming case of Prohibition law violations against Capone and his associates. However, the true heroes were those Treasury Department and Justice Department officials who, with financial support from the Chicago business community, documented countless violations of income tax law violations. Capone was sent to prison, where his health declined as a result of syphilis and he spent his final years in the Miami, Fla., area, far removed from the Chicago crime scene.

After Prohibition was repealed, Ness was reassigned to the government's Alcohol Tax Unit and was put in charge of enforcing tax laws in the "Moonshine Mountains" of Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. He resigned to become Cleveland's Public Safety Director in December 1935. Mayor Harold Burton wanted an independent director who was not afraid to do battle with corrupt police officials and organized crime. He got all of that and more. Eliot Ness rooted out corruption and inefficiency in the police department, smashed gambling and extortion rings, tamed violent youth gangs, upgraded fire protection and traffic safety, and instituted other reforms.

Despite his professional accomplishments, Ness encountered personal problems. His commitment to law enforcement and long hours away from his home were largely responsible for two failed marriages. Ness also developed a drinking habit and enjoyed an active social life, often mingling with Cleveland's high society.

His failure to apprehend one of the nation's first serial killers, the so-called “Mad Butcher of Cleveland,” not only frustrated Ness, it also brought him under public fire. Criticism of the Public Safety Director intensified in March 1942, the result of an early morning traffic accident on an ice covered Cleveland street. The fact that Ness had been drinking and had tried to persuade the investigating officers to look the other way turned the tide of public opinion against him.

He resigned as Public Safety Director to become National Director of the government's Social Protection Program. In that role, Ness forged alliances with police agencies and community leaders near military bases, in an effort to stamp out prostitution and curb venereal disease.

Ness's career took another bizarre twist when he was installed as Chairman of the Board of Directors for Diebold Inc. of Canton, Ohio, one of the world's largest manufacturers of vaults and safes. At the same time, Ness helped form an export-import company that sent American steel and manufactured goods abroad while bringing silk, tea and other products into this country. He also teamed with General Claire Lee Chennault, famous leader of the "Flying Tigers" air squadron, to set up a separate export-import firm dealing exclusively with China.

An ill-fated attempt to regain his lost fame in 1947 by running for Mayor of Cleveland began a downward spiral that continued for the final decade of Ness's life. He drifted from one failing business enterprise to another. Finally, he accepted an executive position with North Ridge Industrial Corporation, a Cleveland based company that relocated to Coudersport (Potter County), Pa., in 1956.

Dozens of people bought into the dream of a unique method for watermarking checks and other important documents as protection against counterfeiting. However, due to market trends and internal strife, North Ridge was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy when Ness died of a heart attack in his Coudersport home on May 16, 1957 at the age of 54. At the time of his death, Eliot Ness was depressed, disillusioned and deeply in debt. Ness never knew that the book manuscript he and Oscar Fraley had produced would create the legend that endures even today.

The book itself was a poor seller, but Hollywood was attracted to the glorified accounts of Ness's Chicago days. "The Untouchables" took on a life of its own, leading to two television series, made-for-TV movies, and a blockbuster movie starring Kevin Costar.

All the while, the true story of Eliot Ness's career faded further into history.

Note: Paul W. Heimel is the author of Eliot Ness : The Real Story(Knox Books), the first and only biography of Ness. His book was the catalyst behind the Eliot Ness Memorial Service on Sept. 10, 1997. At that time, the remains of Ness, who was cremated in 1957, were brought to the historic Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland for a poignant ceremony that received publicity around the world. Paul Heimel had the honor of presenting the memorial address. Readers can obtain an autographed copy of Eliot Ness: The Real Story by calling 1-800-421-1696. The author has established a web site, containing a wide variety of information about Eliot Ness and links to other information sources.
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May 28, 2001
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