Eliot Ness

Biography of Eliot Ness, head of the famous group of Treasury Department agents known as

When one thinks about prohibition and the Chicago mobs, two names seem to come to mind, Al Capone and Eliot Ness. Al Capone was of course the most famous of the crime bosses during the roaring twenties and Eliot Ness was the head of the "Untouchables," the group of federal lawmen sworn to bring him to justice.

Eliot Ness was born in Chicago, Illinois on April 19, 1903 to Peter and Emma Ness. He was the youngest of five Ness children and grew up in a middle class family whose wholesale bakery business had turned into a profitable enterprise.

Known as a quiet boy who preferred reading to playing with the neighborhood boys, Eliot went on to attend and graduate from the University of Chicago with a degree in business and law. He showed little interest in collegiate sports except for his study of jujitsu and practicing his marksmanship.

He graduated in 1925 and took a job as a retail credit investigator while attending postgraduate criminology courses in the evening at the University of Chicago. In 1927 he had finished the needed criminology courses and his brother in law Alexander Jamie who had a well-established career at the Treasury Department, landed Eliot a Treasury job as well. It wasn't long before Ness transferred to the notoriously corrupt Prohibition Bureau.

While Eliot was establishing himself in the Treasury Department, Al Capone had grown to be the most powerful gangster and come under the scrutiny of none other than the newly elected president of the United States, Herbert Hoover.

Hoover vowed to end Capone's crime career and charged Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon with bringing Capone down. Mellon decided to pursue Capone on two fronts; the first concerned his lavish lifestyle that he had filed no income tax returns for in several years. Mellon's second front was to focus on Capone's known violations of prohibition's Volstead Act.

While the IRS agents went to work on the possible tax evasion charges, Mellon dropped the ball for bringing Capone down into the lap of U.S. District Attorney George Johnson who had to find an honest officer in the Chicago branch of the Treasury Department. Thanks to the recommendation of Eliot's brother in law, Johnson chose Eliot Ness to head the investigation into Capones bootlegging business. Ness was then handed the personnel records of every agent in the Prohibition Bureau.

In his book "The Untouchables," Ness listed the qualities he was looking for in his men. He wrote, "I ticked off the general qualities I desired: single, no older than thirty, both the mental and physical stamina to work long hours and the courage and ability to use fist or gun and special investigative techniques. I needed a good telephone man, one who could tap a wire with speed and precision. I needed men who were excellent drivers, for much of our success would depend upon how expertly they could trail the mob's cars and trucks"¦ and fresh faces -from other divisions""who were not known to the Chicago mobsters."

Hoping for thirty men, he eventually only ended with nine who met all of his qualifications. They were Lyle Chapman, Barney Cloonan, Tom Friel, Bill Gardner, Mike King, Marty Lahart, Joe Leeson, Paul Robsky and Sam Seager.

Feeling he was leading them on a suicide mission, Ness began his quest of shutting Capone's million and a half dollar a week bootlegging operation. Within his first six months as head of the task force, Eliot Ness had shut down nineteen breweries worth an excess of one million dollars. The amount Ness cost Capone in lost revenue will never be known to any but Capone's men themselves. Al Capone was convinced that every man had a price and made an attempt to buy two of Ness's agents, Seager and Lahart.

Late one evening one of Capone's men passed Seager and Lahart driving in their car. The man leaned out and tossed in an envelope with $2,000 in it. Not wanting to be left holding the money, the Treasury agents chased the Capone car down and tossed the envelope right back in. The surprise on the mobster's face must have been amusing since the average agent only made $2800 for the entire year. Unknown to Seager and Lahart, a Capone man had made the same offer to Eliot Ness himself.

Seeing a publicity opportunity, Ness called a press conference and told the reporters about the failed bribery attempts. It was from these failed attempts that the press coined the phrase that would stick with the agent's until Capone went to prison. They became, "The Untouchables."

While Ness raked up enough evidence to indict Capone some 5,000 separate Volstead Act violations, the IRS finally decided to use the evidence they had and charged the mobster with 22 counts of tax evasion. On June 16, 1931 Capone went to court and pled guilty knowing he had made a deal for a light sentence. Judge Wilkerson who was presiding the case surprised the DA and Capone when he informed them that while he would consider the recommendations of the prosecutors, he wasn't bound to follow their wishes. In the end, Capone was sentenced to eleven years in prison, $50,000 in fines and $30,000 in court costs. In May 1932, The Untouchables escorted Capone from Chicago to Leavenworth Penitentiary near Atlanta, Ga.

With Capone out of the picture, Eliot Ness was promoted to Chief Investigator of Prohibition Forces for the entire Chicago division. He was then sent to Ohio to begin shutting down the bootlegging operations in that state. In less than a year, he had completed his mission.

In 1935 Eliot Ness resigned his job with the Treasury Department and went to work for the Mayor of Cleveland, Ohio, Harold Burton. His job was to clean up the mob's influence over the city's police and fire departments. With the end of Prohibition, the mob had found a new way of making money, gambling. By the end of 1936 he had turned Cleveland around from being a town well known for corruption and crime into a place new policeman could be proud to be part of the department.

The year 1936 was also the year of the Kingsbury Run serial killer. Eliot Ness had a full plate between the 1936 Republican National Convention, the Great Expo and the American Legion Convention and tried to avoid being sucked into the investigation of these murders. In the end he couldn't avoid hunting for a killer who decapitated and cut up his victims like joints of meat at a butcher's shop. Reporters dubbed the killer the "Mad Butcher."

The Mad Butcher killed men and women, blacks and whites. His methods suggested some type of training either as a surgeon, medical student, male nurse, veterinarian or butcher. By 1938 his victims had risen in number to 12 and the police were no closer to catching him than before. Their best suspect in the case was Dr. Sweeney who just so happened to be a cousin to a US. Congressman. While he was never officially charged, Dr. Sweeney began taking extended stays at mental hospitals and coincidentally, the murders stopped.

Ness had other irons in the fire during this time. After making a sizable dent in the number of corrupt police officers, he began going after the "bad apples" among the labor unions.

Also in 1938 his marriage to Edna couldn't compete with his job responsibilities and she filed for divorce only to move back to Chicago. In 1939 he met Evaline McAndrew and they were married in October of that same year.

On March 5, 1942 after a long night of dancing and drinking, Eliot and Evaline were driving home when he lost control of his car and struck an oncoming vehicle. The driver was 21 years old Robert Sims, who Ness spoke to after the accident. Ness supposedly asked Sims to follow him to the hospital but on the way realized the other car wasn't behind him. He reportedly went back to the accident scene only to find another motorist had taken Sims to the hospital. Instead of following them there, Ness went home and called to see what the condition of Sims was. Looked at by the public as a hit and run, the public's opinion of Ness dropped dramatically. Within two months Ness had submitted his resignation to the City of Cleveland and gone back to work for the federal government.

Over the next few years Ness would hold a variety of jobs, lose Evaline by way of divorce, meet and marry Betty Seaver and adopt a son. In 1957 at the age of 54 Eliot Ness died at home from a heart attack.

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