Eliot Ness (April 19, 1903 – May 16, 1957) was an American Prohibition agent, famous for his efforts to enforce Prohibition in Chicago, Illinois, bringing down Al Capone, and the leader of a famous team of law enforcement agents from Chicago, nicknamed The Untouchables. His co-authorship of a popular autobiography, The Untouchables, which was released shortly after his death, launched several television and motion picture portrayals that established Ness' posthumous fame as an incorruptible crime fighter.
Eliot Ness was born on April 19, 1903, in Chicago, Illinois. He was the youngest of five children born to Peter Ness (1850–1931) and Emma (King) Ness (1863–1937). His parents, both of whom were Norwegian immigrants, operated a bakery. Ness attended Christian Fenger High School in Chicago. He was educated at the University of Chicago, graduating in 1925 with a degree in economics and a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon. He began his career as an investigator for the Retail Credit Company of Atlanta. He was assigned to the Chicago territory, where he conducted background investigations for the purpose of credit information. He returned to the University to take a course in criminology, eventually earning a master's degree in the field.
In 1926, Ness' brother-in-law, Alexander Jamie, an agent of the Bureau of Investigation (which later became the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935), influenced Ness to enter law enforcement. He joined the U.S. Treasury Department in 1927, working with the 1,000-strong Bureau of Prohibition in Chicago.
Following the election of President Herbert Hoover, U.S. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon was specifically charged with bringing down gangster Al Capone. The federal government pursued his illegal activities in two areas: income tax evasion and violations of prohibition. Ness was chosen to head the operations under the National Prohibition Act (informally known as the Volstead Act), targeting the illegal breweries and supply routes of Capone.
With corruption of Chicago's law enforcement agents epidemic, in 1929 Ness went through the records of all Prohibition agents to create a reliable team (initially of 50, later reduced to 15, and finally to just 11 men) called "The Untouchables." Raids against illegal stillsand breweries began immediately; within six months Ness claimed to have seized breweries worth over one million dollars. The main source of information for the raids was an extensive wire-tapping operation. An attempt by Capone to bribe Ness' agents was seized on by Ness for publicity, leading to the media nickname "The Untouchables." Although Ness was not attacked, one of his close friends was killed.
The efforts of Ness and his team inflicted major damage on Capone's operations. Ness' efforts eventually led the IRS to prosecute Capone for income tax evasion, according to Ness, although in reality the Capone tax trial was a result solely of the research work done under the aegis of U.S. Attorney George E.Q. Johnson and IRS agent Frank Wilson whose investigations led to Capone's downfall. In a number of federal grand jury cases in 1931, Capone was charged with 22 counts of tax evasion and also 5,000 violations of the Volstead Act. On October 17, 1931, Capone was convicted on five of the tax evasion charges, after the Volstead Act violations were dropped. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison and, following a failed appeal, began his sentence in 1932.
Ness was promoted to Chief Investigator of the Prohibition Bureau for Chicago and in 1934 for Ohio. Following the end of Prohibition in 1933, he was assigned as an alcohol tax agent in the "Moonshine Mountains" of southern Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and in 1934 he was transferred to Cleveland, Ohio. In December 1935, Cleveland mayor Harold Burton hired him as the city's Safety Director, which put him in charge of both the police and firedepartments.
In 1938, Ness and his wife Edna divorced. He declared war on the mob, and his primary targets included "Big" Angelo Lonardo, "Little" Angelo Scirrca, Moe Dalitz, John Angerola, George Angersola, and Charles Pollizi. Ness was also Safety Director at the time of several grisly murders that occurred in the Cleveland area from 1935 to 1938 and made relatively small efforts during the investigations after being pressured by the mayor. Ness was the one who interrogated one of the prime suspects of the murders, Dr. Francis E. Sweeney, using a polygraph test. At one point in time, two victims of the serial killer were in close proximity to city hall, the place where he worked.
His otherwise remarkably successful career in Cleveland withered gradually. He especially fell out of favor after he had the city’s large shantytowns evacuated and burned during the Cleveland Torso Murders. Cleveland critics targeted his divorce, his high-profile social drinking and his conduct in a car accident, but he continued with the next Mayor, Frank Lausche.
In 1939 Ness married illustrator Evaline Michelow. In 1942 the Nesses moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for the federal government. He directed the battle against prostitutionin communities surrounding military bases, where venereal disease was a serious problem. Later he made a number of forays into the corporate world, all of which failed owing to his lack of business acumen. In 1944, he left to become chairman of the Diebold Corporation, a security safe company based in Ohio.
After his second divorce and third marriage, he ran unsuccessfully for Mayor of Cleveland in 1947, after which he was expelled from Diebold in 1951. In the aftermath, Ness began drinking more heavily and spending his free time in bars telling (often exaggerated) stories of his law enforcement career. He also spent himself into debt. Ness was forced into taking various odd jobs to earn a living, including electronics parts wholesaler, clerk in a bookstore, and salesman of frozen hamburger patties to restaurants. By 1953 he came to work for a startup company called Guaranty Paper Corporation, which specialized in watermarking legal and official documents to prevent counterfeiting. Ness was offered a job because of his expertise in law enforcement. The company soon moved from Cleveland to the quiet rural town of Coudersport, Pennsylvania, where operating costs were lower. He made a decent income from GPC and moved with his wife and adopted son into a modest rental house. Once again, he enjoyed going to local bars and regaling amazed audiences with his tales of crime fighting.
Al Capone promised Ness that two $1,000 notes would be on his desk every Monday morning if he turned a blind eye to his bootlegging activities (roughly $29,000 a week in today's money). Ness refused the bribe and in later years struggled with money; he died almost broke at the age of 54. Ness and his role in bringing down Al Capone had been largely forgotten at the time of his death in 1957, and no Chicago newspaper carried news of Ness' death. His heroic reputation only began with the posthumous publication of the 1957 book he had co-written with Oscar Fraley and the 1959 and 1993 television series, 1987 film, and related media adapted from it.
Ness collapsed and died at his home in Coudersport, Pennsylvania, of a massive heart attack on May 16, 1957; he was 54. His ashes were scattered in one of the small ponds on the grounds of Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland. He was survived by his widow, Elisabeth Andersen Seaver, and adopted son, Robert.