The Untouchable Eliot Ness

WORLD HISTORY | April 7, 2019

Eliot Ness. Source: (npr.org)

If asked to list the most famous gangsters of all time, most people would unhesitatingly begin with the name “Al Capone.” However, if asked who was responsible for putting Capone behind bars, only some of them would give the credit to Eliot Ness, though most recognize him as the head of the famous task force, nicknamed The Untouchables, which was tasked with bringing the gangster to justice.

Eliot Ness was born in Chicago, Illinois, on April 19, 1903, and was the youngest of five children born to Norwegian immigrants, Peter Ness, and Emma King. He attended Christian Fenger High School before moving on to the University of Chicago, where he studied commerce, law, and political science. He graduated in 1925 and was in the top third of his class. His first job after college was as an investigator for the Retail Credit Company of Atlanta, where he was in charge of credit and background checks. He later returned to the University to earn a master’s degree in criminology.

A view of the campus of the University of Chicago, looking northwest, from the Midway Plaissance. Source: (wikipedia.org)

In 1927, Ness became an agent with the Chicago branch of the U.S. Treasury Department. The following year, he began working with the Prohibition Bureau of the Justice Department. Bootlegging had become a multi-million dollar business for Chicago’s gangsters and U.S. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon had been charged with bringing down Al Capone, both for bootlegging and income tax evasion. Ness was brought in to lead the task force assigned to the investigation. That task force would eventually become known as The Untouchables after Capone tried and failed to pay them off.

The Untouchables. Source: (pinterest.com)

The team’s strategy was to cut off Capone’s income flow by raiding his breweries while at the same time gathering evidence of his illegal activities. They used a combination of wire-tapping, surveillance, and anonymous tips to uncover the locations of the breweries. Ness even went so far as to tip off the press before many of the raids to publicize the success of their efforts. Capone retaliated by increasing security and having the agents and their families followed. After one of the more damaging raids, one of Ness’s close friends was murdered; however, this only increased Ness’s determination.

Al Capone. Source: (biography.com)

 In the end, however, it was not bootlegging, but tax evasion for which Capone was taken down. Thanks to Ness’s efforts as well as research conducted under U.S. Attorney George E. Q. Johnson and IRS agent Frank Wilson, Capone was charged with 22 counts of tax evasion and 5,000 violations of the Volstead Act, which was enacted to enforce Prohibition. On October 17, 1931, Capone was convicted on five charges of tax evasions and the other charges, including the Volstead Act violations, were dropped. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

Eliot Ness’s credentials. Source: (telegram.com)

After Capone’s conviction, the task force was dissolved and Ness moved on to become the chief investigator of the Chicago Prohibition Bureau until the end of the Prohibition in 1933. In 1934, he was transferred to Cleveland, Ohio, where he was in charge of cleaning up corruption, forcing 200 corrupt police officers to resign and bringing 15 officials to trial. He also improved traffic control in Cleveland by establishing a separate court dedicated to traffic cases and cracking down on drunk driving by establishing a procedure for immediate examination of drivers suspect to be intoxicated. Due to his efforts, the annual number of traffic-related deaths was cut in half by 1939.

An exposition dedicated to the Cleveland Torso Murders at the Cleveland Police Museum. Source: (wikipedia.org)

However, it was also in Cleveland that Ness’s reputation began to decline. This was due in large part to actions committed during his investigation of the Cleveland Torso Murders, in which a serial killer dismembered his victims. Suspecting the killer to be hiding among the homeless, Ness had a large shantytown evacuated and burned. Things only got worse for Ness from there and he began drinking and fell into debt. His involvement in an alcohol-related car accident further damaged his reputation. He was divorced twice and married a third time. On May 16, 1957, at the age of 54, he suffered a massive heart attack and died at his home in Coudersport, Pennsylvania. He was survived by his third wife, Elisabeth Anderson Seaver and his adopted son, Robert.

Tags: eliot ness | gangster | the untouchables

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Penny Chavers


Penny, besides writing, loves to spend her time with family and friends. In her spare time, she also enjoys playing the piano, board games, and taking online classes on topics that interest her.