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Thursday, July 19, 2018

Who was Eliot Ness?

Millions of people worldwide are familiar with the character Eliot Ness, portrayed as a fearless, gritty, all-knowing lawman who brought down Al Capone and his criminal outfit in gangland Chicago. 
To older Americans, Ness’s name conjures images of Robert Stack, the actor who portrayed him in the Emmy Award-winning TV series, “The Untouchables.” Another generation watched Kevin Costner play him in a 1987 Paramount Pictures blockbuster movie with the same title.
Those are the Hollywood characters, but who was the real Eliot Ness?

“There are more myths about Eliot Ness than there are about Loch Ness,” says John Binder, a Chicago author and historian. “Unfortunately, the myth is more famous than the man, but the man deserves a lot more credit than he’s ever gotten.”

Born in Chicago, the youngest of five children born to Norwegian immigrants, Ness began his career as a federal Prohibition agent in the late 1920s. Capone’s gang was one of several that had swelled its coffers by selling illicit booze to a thirsty public. Criminal outfits also muscled their way into control of gambling dens, brothels, and extortionist labor unions.

Chicago became the nerve center for organized crime. Political corruption was everywhere, and as brutal turf wars developed, newspaper readers became accustomed to reading about high-profile mob hits.

Ness was one of 300 agents charged with enforcing the unpopular dry laws. Prohibition agents were poorly paid and largely ineffective. Many of them supplemented their meager income with the bribes they pocketed to look the other way.

Eliot Ness separated himself from the others by refusing payoffs, fearlessly smashing into mob-controlled breweries and distilleries, and making a name for himself in the Justice Department.
As Chicago’s body count rose and Capone rubbed out or scared away his rivals, the government launched a two-prong attack to take him down. Ness was put in charge of an elite “Capone Squad” – renamed “The Untouchables” by Hollywood – to cut off his biggest income source through even more aggressive raids.

A second team of Justice Department and Internal Revenue Service investigators pored through confiscated ledgers and wiretap transcripts to amass the tax evasion case that would send Capone to prison.

After Prohibition was repealed, Ness was assigned to chase bootleggers in the “Moonshine Mountains” of southern Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. Ness said the hillbillies who fiercely protected their stills struck more fear in him than the Chicago mobsters.

In 1936, he was recruited to serve in the influential position of Public Safety Director in Cleveland. Ness was chiefly responsible for law enforcement, emergency services, traffic control and other city operations.

Organized crime also had a grip on that city. Its police department was corrupt and inefficient. Youth gangs terrorized many neighborhoods and extortionists siphoned much of the profit from post-Depression businesses. 

In a span of seven years, reforms that were spearheaded by Ness transformed Cleveland into a model of urban governance and a national award as America’s Safest City.

Ness was drafted into service during World War II, but not in a military capacity. He was appointed director of the new Social Protection Agency.The federal government was seeking a high-profile spokesman to warn military recruits against the dangers of venereal disease, and to form alliances with local police and social service agencies for a crackdown on prostitution in communities surrounding military bases. 

After the war, Ness was riding high for a short time as board chairman for the Diebold Safe& Lock Company in Canton, Ohio, but he made a fateful decision to run for mayor in Cleveland against a popular incumbent who defeated him by a two-to-one margin.
He drifted between several jobs in the Cleveland area before arriving in Coudersport, Pa., where he died of heart disease in 1957.

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