Recently U.S. Senators Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) proposed naming the Washington headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives after Eliot Ness, leader of the famed "Untouchables."
Since childhood, and the Robert Stack-starring Untouchables TV series (1959-1963), I've been fascinated by the remarkable career of the real Ness. He appears in my graphic novel Road to Perdition, numerous novels of mine, and is the subject of my one-man play and later film, Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life (2005). For over 20 years, Ness has been the focus of intense, intensive research by my research associate George Hagenauer and myself, often on site at the Western Reserve Library in Cleveland.
It's regrettable, if entirely predictable, that some have seized upon the senators' proposal to attack Ness's reputation -- notably author Jonathan Eig, who in the Chicago Sun-Times dismisses Ness's accomplishments as "baloney." Much the same could be said of Mr. Eig's spottily researched book Get Capone (2010), whose major claims, particularly about the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, are difficult for any student of Chicago crime to take seriously.
That Ness and his team did not bring down Al Capone alone (a claim he never made) has led many to dismiss him and his accomplishments as a Hollywood creation. The Desilu TV series attributed many exploits to Ness himself that -- had he been alive at the time -- would almost certainly have dismayed him. The David Mamet screen for The Untouchables (1987) may have made for a memorable Brian DePalma-directed film, but its history was slapdash and laughable. None of this is the fault of the real Ness, though it has inspired nasty revisionism by Eig and numerous others.
What is the truth about Eliot Ness?
During and after his time in Chicago, starting in his mid-twenties, Ness was frequently on the front lines of the war on crime, gathering evidence, leading raids (sometimes in the famous V-nosed truck) and often risking his life to do his duty. He was a major part of the federal government's two-pronged attack on Capone, and the case the Untouchables built, involving scores of indictments against Capone, would certainly have been tried had the tax case failed. Post-Prohibition, Ness became an agent of the Alcohol Tax Unit (forerunner of today's ATF), chasing back-country moonshiners and big city gangsters alike.
Ness was so indispensable to the Capone investigation that the lead prosecutor, George E.Q. Johnson, publicly praised his work in the Chicago Tribune in June 1931; the accomplishments of Ness and team were lauded nationwide, including Time magazine. Before that, however, Ness was rarely mentioned in the Chicago papers. The persistent claim that Ness was a glory hound, motivated by seeing his name in print, does not stand up.
The Prohibition Bureau, when Ness joined it, was widely regarded as a den of corruption and incompetence. Ness distinguished himself not just by his famed incorruptibility, but also his professionalism -- he personally chose the members of his "Capone Squad" by scouring bureau records for honest men. He was well-educated, scientifically literate and a born diplomat -- virtues all too rare in his profession at that time. He spent much of his law enforcement career holding others to that high standard.
That is the part of his career that Ness's debunkers conveniently ignore or gloss over. As Safety Director of Cleveland, Ness rooted out widespread corruption in the police department, raised the qualifications for officers and detectives, and established an extensive training academy to ensure that Cleveland's Finest earned that distinction.
Like most significant figures in our history, his was not a perfect life. Ness suffered the irony of having his reputation tarnished, and eventually losing his job, over a minor traffic accident in a city where his leadership had taken Cleveland from the worst safety statistics in the country to the best. He developed a drinking problem, another irony for the most famous Prohibition agent of all time. On the other hand, he never claimed to believe in the law he is famous for enforcing: His enemy was the organized crime that it had spawned.
If Hollywood has given Eliot Ness too much credit for getting Capone, he has received too little credit anywhere else for helping professionalize law enforcement in the mid-20th Century. Police officers and federal agents today are routinely held up to standard Ness set in Cleveland in the '30s. Naming ATF headquarters after him would not only be a fitting memorial to a laudable career in public service, it would further encourage federal agents to follow his example.
I hope to soon see signs for the Eliot Ness ATF Building in our nation's capital. That will help make up for Eig and others who tarnish Ness's reputation while burnishing Al Capone's.
(Thanks to A. Brad Schwartz for his major contributions to this piece).