Eliot Ness (April 19, 1903 – May 16, 1957) was an American Prohibition agent, famous for his efforts to enforce Prohibition in Chicago, Illinois, as the leader of a legendary team of law enforcement agents nicknamed The Untouchables.
Ness was born in Chicago, the youngest of five, to Norwegian bakers Peter and Emma Ness. Because his four older siblings were almost grown by the time he was born, Eliot received a large amount of attention from his parents growing up. As a boy, Ness was interested in reading, especially Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. He was educated at the University of Chicago, graduating in 1925 with a degree in business and law. He began his career as an investigator for the Retail Credit Co. 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 masters degree in the field.
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In 1926, his sister's husband, Alexander Jamie, a Bureau of Investigation agent (this became the FBI in 1935), influenced him to enter law enforcement. He joined the Treasury Department in 1927, working with the 300-strong Bureau of Prohibition in Chicago.
Following the election of President Herbert Hoover, Andrew Mellon was specifically charged with bringing down Al Capone. The federal government approached the problem from two directions: income tax evasion and the Volstead Act. Ness was chosen to head the operations under the Volstead Act, targeting the illegal breweries and supply routes of Capone.
Seeing the endemic corruption in Chicago law-enforcement, Ness went through the records of all the treasury agents to create a reliable team, initially of fifty, later reduced to fifteen and finally to just eleven men. Raids against stills and breweries began immediately; within six months Ness claimed to have seized breweries collectively 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's agents was seized on by Ness for publicity, leading to the media nickname "The Untouchables." There were a number of assassination attempts on Ness, and one close friend, Frank Basile, was killed.
The efforts of Ness and his team had a serious impact on Capone's operations, but it was the income tax evasion which was the key weapon. 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 sentenced to eleven years, and following a failed appeal, he began his sentence in 1932.
After Capone's conviction
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 took a job with the local government of Cleveland, as Director of Public Safety. He headed up a campaign to clean out the corrupt police and fire departments, and also tackle illegal gambling and other entertainments. Ness's inability to capture the Cleveland Torso Murderer, a vicious serial killer operating in the Cleveland area during the mid-1930s, may have also contributed to his exit from what was otherwise a reasonably successful career in Cleveland.
Ness then moved to Washington, D.C., and worked for the federal government. In 1944, he left to become chairman of the Diebold Corporation, a security safe company based in Ohio. He ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Cleveland in 1947 and was forced from his job at Diebold in April 1951. He eventually came to work for North Ridge Industrial in Coudersport, Pennsylvania. With friend Oscar Fraley he co-authored the book, The Untouchables, which was published in 1957 shortly after his death at the age of 54 following a heart attack. According to author Howie Carr, Ness was involved in a late night drunk driving accident and his heavy alcoholism contributed to his early death.
He was married three times, divorced twice, and had only one child (by adoption). He was married to illustrator Evaline Ness from 1938 to 1946. His ashes were scattered in one of the small ponds on the grounds of Lakeview Cemetery in Cleveland.