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Saturday, May 25

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"When they were settled, and while the newsreels were setting up their cameras, I told them of the attempted briberies. I related in detail how an emissary of Capone's had tried to buy me off for two thousand dollars a week and how Marty and Sam had thrown back their flying bribe. [...] It was a long, wearisome process but well worth the effort. Possibly it wasn't too important for the world to know that we couldn't be bought, but I did want Al Capone and every gangster in the city to realize there were still a few law enforcement agents who couldn't be swerved from their duty."
--from The Untouchables by Eliot Ness

Chicago's most famous lawman, Eliot Ness, was born 103 years ago this month, on April 19, 1903. He was born in Chicago, the youngest of five children. His parents, Peter and Emma Ness, were Norwegian immigrants, and his father owned a wholesale bakery business.

Ness attended the University of Chicago, studying business and political science. He graduated in 1925, and, much to his parents' chagrin, accepted a low-paying job investigating insurance applicants for the Retail Credit Company. He worked there for about two years before finding a new job as a special agent for the Chicago branch of the U.S. Treasury Department. Shortly thereafter, Eliot Ness was transferred to the Prohibition Bureau. He was just 24 years old.

The Prohibition Bureau of Chicago, which included about 300 agents, was notorious for its corruption. Many agents accepted bribes from gangsters in return for looking the other way and not interfering with bootlegging operations. Ness, however, stood apart from his fellow agents, earning a reputation for honesty and toughness in cracking down on the illegal manufacture and sale of alcohol.

As a result, in 1928 Ness was tapped by the Justice Department to lead a hand-picked team of agents dedicated to toppling the most notorious gangster and bootlegger in history: Al Capone. Ness was determined to make a significant dent in the gangster's business, and his team wasted no time in locating and shutting down breweries and distilleries associated with Capone.

When one of Capone's henchmen allegedly offered Ness a $2,000 a week bribe to cease his harassment of the gangster, Ness responded by calling a press conference. In front of the reporters and newsreel cameras, Ness publicly announced that neither he nor his men could be bought by Capone. The following day, in a report of the press conference, the Chicago Tribune gave Ness and his agents their now-famous nickname "The Untouchables" to describe their incorruptibility.

Yet, despite the heroic efforts of Eliot Ness, Capone was eventually convicted for tax evasion rather than for his Prohibition violations.

The Untouchables team was dissolved when Prohibition was repealed by Congress in 1933, but the career of Eliot Ness did not stop there. In 1935 he relocated to Cleveland, Ohio, where he was appointed the director of public safety. He rooted out corruption in the Cleveland police department, aggressively attacked organized gambling rackets, and was generally credited with turning the city around. In the late 1930s, however, Ness faced increasing criticism for his failure to capture a Cleveland serial killer responsible for the grisly deaths of at least twenty people. Ness would never again enjoy the shining reputation as the noble lawman he had once had.

In 1956, Ness, along with co-author Oscar Fraley, completed his memoir, titled The Untouchables, of the years he spent fighting Capone in Chicago. But Ness would not live to see it published. He suffered a heart attack and died on May 7, 1957 at the age of 54.

Eliot Ness might have slipped into historical obscurity if it weren't for Hollywood. Instead, thanks to television and film, Ness is one of the most well-known law enforcement agents in U.S. history. In 1959, the activities of Ness and his team of agents were protrayed in the successful television series "The Untouchables," starring Robert Stack as Ness. But the controversial series was cancelled after four seasons because of its "excessive" violence. Then Kevin Costner assumed the role of Ness in the 1987 film The Untouchables.

Now Ness' story is as much myth as it is history, but the dramatization of his career during Prohibition Chicago has ensured that the untouchable Eliot Ness will also remain unforgettable.

Further Reading

Bardsley, Marilyn. "Eliot Ness: The Man Behind the Myth."
This lengthy biography of Ness can be read online on Court TV's Crime Library website.

"Eliot Ness in Cleveland."
A collection of photos of Ness forming part of the Cleveland Memory Project of the Cleveland State University Library.

Heimel, Paul W. Eliot Ness: The Real Story. (Cumberland House Publishing, 2000) 320 pages.
An extensively researched biography of Ness.

Ness, Eliot, and Oscar Fraley. The Untouchables. (Buccaneer Books, 1993) 256 pages.

Tucker, Kenneth. Eliot Ness and the Untouchables: The Historical Reality and the Film and Television Depictions. (McFarland, 2000) 208 pages.

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About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is a Chicago librarian. She welcomes questions and topic suggestions for her column at . Due to the volume of email received, she may not reply to every query, but you may be contacted if your question is selected for the column.

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