TOUGH GUYS IN THE ROOM

26 ELIOT NESS

He was an American, Chicago born in 1903.  Apologies to Saul Bellow for leaning on the opening sentence of his novel Humboldt’s Gift.  The parents of Eliot Ness were both Norwegian immigrants.  The father owned a bakery that employed twenty bakers, girls that worked in the store, drivers and a stable man.  Eliot attended Chicago University and left with a degree in politics and business administration.  After a spell working as an investigator for the Retail Credit Company of Atlanta he returned to Chicago University to study criminology.  He was taught by August Volmer, a reformer.  Volmer believed the police needed modernisation and that policemen should acquire qualifications in police work.  Within the Treasury the Bureau of Prohibition was promoted to independent status in April 1927.   Seven months before that happened Ness had become an agent.   Eliot Ness received his order to report to the special agency squad on May 31 1928.   George Golding led the squad.  Ness participated in the early raids on distilleries that took place in Chicago Heights, thirty miles away from downtown Chicago.  The industrial centre had produced a domestic bootlegging industry and violent rivalry between gang leaders.  The Treasury raids attacked eighteen small domestic stills and the Cozy Corners saloon, which was the bootleggers headquarters.  The team captured prisoners, machinery and alcohol.  The alcohol discovered must have been of a decent quality because Ness took some home for his own consumption.  Ness drank alcohol throughout his adult life.  The drinking of his later years was enough for writers to describe him as an alcoholic.    

State Attorney E Q Johnson set up within the Chicago special agency squad a small team that he hoped would be incorruptible.   Eliot Ness was appointed the leader of that team.  The influence of his brother-in-law helped him secure the position.   Ness reported to the team for duty on December 8 1930.  The original team members were recruited before he arrived.  Apart from Ness, the team would sometimes have as many as ten men.   Members of the team came and went, and some were more valuable than others.   E Q Johnson had envisaged a team ‘without bad apples’ but the notion that Ness relied on exceptional and crack personnel is misplaced.  Human nature is too flawed for managers to create incorruptible teams.  The message, though, from Johnson would have made a difference to the behaviour of the team.  Ness understood the importance of taking prompt action against corrupt team members.   Understanding is different, though, to knowing who might be corrupt.  Two serious transgressive instances mark the record of The Untouchables.

Ness and The Untouchables progressed from raiding domestic stills to the breweries of Capone.  The other business activities of Capone were ignored.  Ness reckoned the brewing activities of Capone were vulnerable to police intervention.  A gambling saloon and brothel could be transformed into almost normal real estate relatively quickly.  Brewing beer required purpose built premises, heavy equipment and trucks to transport a bulky product.   Money was spent on bribing the police but the gangsters still needed to have decoy buildings, to move brewery equipment around the city and to alternate truck routes to avoid detection.  The brewery business made huge profits for the bootleggers but costs were distorted significantly by setbacks.  The objective of Ness was to increase the number of setbacks and disrupt the business. Ness was enthusiastic about wiretapping to obtain information.  He established wiretaps next to the Montmartre Cafe in Cicero.  His second memorable innovation was adding a huge steel V-shaped battering ram to the front of the trucks used to force entry into the breweries.  The first two raids on Capone breweries resulted in lost revenue worth $10,000 a day, or so Ness claimed.  In the first direct raid by Ness the team captured and arrested Steve Svoboda, the chief brewmaster for Capone.   More raids and more arrests of Svoboda followed.  Subsequent statements from Svoboda would strengthen the Treasury income tax fraud case against Capone.  The contribution of Ness to the case prepared by IRS special agent Frank Wilson, though, was only marginal.  

If the Chicago press found the raids of Ness more sensational than the dogged auditing of the IRS accountants, the bootlegging charges were not the first priority for the authorities.   The attorneys believed that jurors would be hostile to the failure of Capone to pay his taxes but perhaps sympathetic to his efforts to supply booze.  Much has been written about how the reputation and achievements of Ness were exaggerated by the Oscar Fraley biography of The Untouchables and the subsequent TV and film adaptations.  The efforts of Ness did not send Capone to prison.  Yet if priority had been given to the bootlegging crimes of Capone rather than his tax regressions then Ness might have become the hero of the fight against Chicago crime that we have been encouraged to imagine.  Ness collected evidence to charge Capone on 5,000 violations of the Prohibition laws.  No one knows what would have happened to those charges in court but the activity of Ness created interest and admiration and not just in Chicago.   His exploits were reported as far away as California.  

The Untouchables did not shut down the Capone organisation.  Few of the Chicago saloons saw a break in their deliveries but the raids of Ness did increase the costs of the bootleggers.  It also happened in the middle of an economic depression that restricted the ability of the Capone organisation to compensate by raising prices.  Despite embarrassments caused by the odd team member the work of The Untouchables was regarded as a success.  Ness was promoted to chief investigator of the Chicago regional office of the Prohibition Bureau.  Prohibition, though, was stuttering until its inevitable and expected repeal.  The responsibilities of Ness became bureaucratic.  Ness and his first wife Edna moved to Cleveland.   After Prohibition was repealed, Ness became the alcohol tax agent in the rural areas of Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.  The moral argument of Prohibition was soon forgotten.   The priority was now to collect tax.  At least chasing moonshiners took Ness out of the office.  

The city of Cleveland was more corrupt than Chicago.  In December 1935 the post of Safety Director was offered to Ness by the Cleveland, Mayor Harold H Burton.  The previous Safety Directors had done little to check institutionalised crime.   Mayor Burton hoped that Ness would be different.  The real success Ness achieved as Cleveland Safety Director has been overshadowed by the imaginary exploits attributed to him in Chicago.  The moral zeal and work ethic of Ness enabled him to address police corruption.   Convictions were secured against police captains Louis Cadek and Michael Harwood.  The succession of trials against corrupt policemen lasted for eighteen months.  Ness made progress in other areas.  He met juvenile gangs and offered improved facilities whilst demanding a reduction in crime.  Ness promoted road safety and improved police operations by utilising increased use of police vehicles.  The crime rates fell, and arrests increased.  Ness waged a campaign against the gambling rackets.   In 1938, the city of Cleveland was identified as the safest city in the USA.

The extent to which Ness would have been involved in the hunt  for the Cleveland Torso killer is not known.  Between 1935 and 1938, the unidentified serial killer scattered the limbs of twelve victims around Cleveland.   When a shanty town was cleared and burnt down to locate possible witnesses to the killings the press criticised Ness for the heavy handed action by the police.  A car crash that occurred on a March morning in 1942 also tainted the reputation of Ness.   This happened at 4.45 and when Ness and his second wife Evaline were returning home after a long night of drinking at the Hotel Hollinden.  The injured driver in the other car was taken to hospital.   The official report of the accident was not made until two days later.  The name of Ness was not included in the report.   The cover up was discovered, and there were calls in the press for Ness to resign.  Mayor Frank Lausche resisted the calls and no doubt stressed the past achievements of safety director Ness.  

It might have been coincidental but Ness and Evaline left Cleveland for Washington before the end of 1942.   Ness worked for the federal government and on a project to reduce the prostitution that surrounded the military bases.  Ness was sympathetic to the prostitutes and whenever possible sent the girls to the Civilian Conservation Camps for vocational training. After the second world war ended the military bases were much reduced and so was the interest of the government in prostitution.  Ness had become chairman of a security company, Diebold Corporation in 1944.  This did not prevent Ness from campaigning to be the Mayor of Cleveland in 1947.  Either the campaign disrupted the business or a general decline in the performance of Ness contributed to disillusionment by the Diebold board.  He was replaced as chairman in 1951.   $24,000 annual earnings at Diebold should have left Ness economically secure.  He was not.  The rest of his life Ness performed routine jobs, mainly in retail. 

His first wife, Edna, worked in the Prohibition Bureau and was married to Eliot from 1929 to 1938.  Evaline, his second, was a talented artist and designer.  Eliot liked having a wife that was creative and sophisticated.  Evaline liked a husband that had fame and power.  When the couple were young and the times were good the marriage worked well.  Both drank and were sociable.  Their two different careers and the subsequent revelations and discoveries caused strains.  Eliot and Evaline were married from 1939 to 1945 but had separated in 1944.  Evaline later revealed that she left Ness for a female model she was painting.  That happened but the explanation might have been a simplification.  Eliot Ness married Elizabeth Anderson Seaver two months after the divorce from Evaline.    Elizabeth was at home with Ness when he died at fifty-five years of age.  He had a heart attack while reaching for a glass in a kitchen cupboard.  

Howard Jackson has had thirteen books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism.  His latest book BORIS JOHNSON PFEFFELS AND PIFFLES is now available here.