The Rise and Fall of Eliot Ness

By Gayne C. Young

He was the original untouchable, is known as the man that put Al Capone in jail, and was the model for Dick Tracy.

He died the helpless victim of everything he’d once fought against.

Eliot Ness was born to Norwegian immigrants in the Roseland neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois on April 19, 1903. Always one with a strong work ethic, Eliot worked in his parents’ bakery and delivered newspapers as a kid. He attended Christian Fenger High School on Chicago’s South Side where he was known as “Elegant Mess” for always dressing to the nines.

Eliot looked up to and admired his eldest sister’s husband, Alexander Jamie, who worked for the US Treasury Department in the Prohibition Bureau. Eliot got from him an ever-growing love of reading mysteries and of hearing stories of law enforcement and detective work. Eliot took these interests to the University of Chicago for his undergraduate degree in political science and business administration then for his post-grad work in criminal justice.

After completing the latter, brother-in-law Jamie got Eliot a position as an agent with the Bureau of Investigation (the precursor of the Federal Bureau of Investigation). Eliot’s work ethic and reputation as a “Boy Scout” who couldn’t be corrupted garnered him the attention of US Attorney George E.Q. Johnson. Johnson was putting together a two-pronged attack to take down the notorious Al Capone whose bootlegging and violent ways of protecting and expanding that business empire had turned 1930’s Chicago into a gangster’s paradise. Johnson chose Treasury Department Chief Elmer Irey and IRS agent Frank Wilson to investigate Capone’s finances and Eliot to assemble a team to destroy Capone’s day-to-day dealings.

Eliot’s team went all shock-and-awe by driving massive flatbed trucks with a snowplow mounted to the front through the doors of every brewery they could find. Once inside they would destroy stockpiled barrels of beer and whiskey while the shocked employees inside could only watch. Damage to Capone’s empire was immediate and he quickly sent a thug to offer Eliot $2,000 a week to knock off the raids. Despite $2,000 being about what Eliot made in a year, he flatly rejected the offer and told everyone, “I may only be a poor baker’s son, but Eliot Ness can’t be bought: not for two thousand a week, ten thousand or a hundred thousand. Not for all the money they’ll ever lay their scummy hands on.” Because of this, the press labeled Eliot and his men the “Untouchables.”

Elliott and the rest of his Untouchables continued hammering away at Capone’s empire. The press loved it. They reported when the Untouchables raided breweries and speakeasies and drove a parade of confiscated trucks past Capone’s own hotel. Ultimately however it was the financial team of Irey and Wilson that brought Capone down by proving he didn’t pay his taxes. Despite this fact, most of the public identified Eliot as the man who took down Al Capone and he became famous the world over. Pulp magazines developed characters loosely based on him and cartoonist Chester Gould used Eliot’s likeness, image, and mannerisms as the basis for the creation of Dick Tracy.

Unfortunately, things in Eliot’s real life weren’t as bright as the comics. His Untouchables were disbanded and after prohibition ended and he was sent to catch moonshiners in the backwoods of the Appalachian Mountains.

This was hardly a promotion.

Afterward, he was sent to Cleveland, Ohio to clear the city of its heavy criminal element. Despite doing such for a time, Eliot began to fail at his job and his life. He failed to capture the serial killer responsible for the Cleveland Torso Murders; he got divorced from his first wife (he’d end up having three) and started drinking heavily. Although there were rumors he was doing the latter, the public only found out after he committed a hit-and-run that came about as the result of his being intoxicated. The public demanded and got his resignation and the press lamented on how the man that fought prohibition’s strongest battle had become a drunk.

The next few years saw Eliot in freefall. He worked in law enforcement in Washington, D.C., tried and failed to run as mayor of Cleveland (he was defeated by a majority of two to one and spent all his money in the process), then sold frozen hamburgers to restaurants. He moved to Pennsylvania where he spent most of his time drinking in bars and telling anyone who would listen of his good old days back in Chicago as an Untouchable. One person who listened was sports reporter Oscar Fraley. Together he and Eliot wrote an over-exaggerated and far more fiction than fact book entitled The Untouchables. Eliot died of a heart attack at age 54 before the book was released.

Despite the book selling more than 1.5 million copies and inspiring a successful TV series (and Brian De Palma’s classic 1987 movie), Ness died in obscurity. He was cremated and his ashes sat in a box in a relative’s garage until 40 years after his death when, in 1997, the public convinced the family to scatter his ashes in Wade Lake at Lake View Cemetery in Cuyahoga County, Ohio.

From the FE Films Archive

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