Eliot Ness was the youngest of five children born to Norwegian immigrants Peter and Emma King Ness. Born on April 19, 1903, in Chicago, Illinois, Ness would attend public school - graduating from Christian Fenger High School. He would show an early dedication to the work ethic – maintaining his grades at school, a paper route, and working at his father’s bakery. He then attended the University of Chicago, graduating in 1925 with a degree in business and political science.
After a brief career as an investigator of the Retail Credit Company of Atlanta, Georgia – where he was assigned to work in Chicago conducting background investigations gathering credit information – Ness returned to the University of Chicago, earning a Master’s Degree in criminology.
In 1927 Ness joined the U.S. Treasury Department as a member of the Bureau of Prohibition. The Bureau had been created as an enforcement arm for the 18th Amendment – which prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcohol, and ushered in an era known as Prohibition. Ness was encouraged to enter Federal law enforcement by his brother-in-law, Alexander Jamie – who was a Federal agent himself.
Prohibition encouraged the rise of organizations to illegally produce and sell the illicit alcohol. Because of the profit involved, this became the era of gangsters – who made big money in booze, illegal gambling, and more. At the top of the criminal food chain in Chicago was Al Capone.
Starting in 1929, the Federal government decided to make a concerted effort to bring down Capone – whose tentacles of influence included ‘bought’ politicians, police, and civic leaders. Ness was chosen to head the operations that targeted the illegal breweries and the supply routes of Capone’s business empire. Ness’s goal was to reduced Capone’s ability to pay bribe money to public officials by eliminating his main source of income – bootlegged alcohol.
Chicago’s law-enforcement agencies – city, state, and federal representatives – were rife with corruption, and Ness searched through the records of hundreds of Prohibition agents to create a reliable team of eleven men that could not be bought or bribed – the famous “Untouchables”.
"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'shad 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 NessWithin six months Ness had seized breweries worth over a million dollars, which put a crimp in Capone’s operations. After bribery attempts failed, several assassination attempts were made by the Capone organization against Ness – all of which failed.
While Ness was keeping Capone’s attention focused on the loss of income through raids on the breweries, other Treasury Department agents were focusing on Capone’s tax evasion. In 1931, Capone was charged with 22 counts of income tax evasion and 5,000 violations of the Volstead Act. As a result of this, Capone was sentenced to 11 years in prison, winding up at Alcatraz.
Soon after the end of Capone came the end of Prohibition. The 1933 passage of the 21st Amendment provided an end of a great social experiment – and a revamping of Ness’s career.
After Prohibition, Ness was reassigned to the “Moonshine Mountains” in Kentucky, Tennessee, and southern Ohio. A year later he was transferred to Cleveland, Ohio, and in 1935 – at the age of 32 - was hired by the mayor Cleveland, Harold Burton, as Cleveland’s Safety Director. Ness campaigned to clean out corruption in the police department and to modernize the fire department. He formed a new “Untouchable” unit of six men, who took on gambling, racketeers, and organized crime in Cleveland in an attempt to clean up the city. Two hundred Cleveland officers were forced to resign from the force, and over a dozen police officials went on trial for various criminal acts. His concentration on his work was one of the reasons he was divorced by his first wife, Edna Staley Ness, in 1938. He would marry Evaline Michelow, and illustrator of children’s books, in 1939.
Ness showed his far-reaching vision while in Cleveland. He created the Emergency Patrol, which was a special unit of vehicles manned by police officers with first aid training. He also established a central communications center to take and dispatch all emergency calls. Ness also established a juvenile crime unit, and obtained city funds for gyms, bowling alleys, and playgrounds in areas where gangs were prevalent. He also worked with the Works Program Administration to provide employment for the youths of Cleveland’s inner city. Juvenile crime dropped 80% while Ness was Safety Director in Cleveland.
Ness had a number of accomplishments as the Safety Director of Cleveland, but he had one significant failure that would give his critics ammunition against him. Ness was unsuccessful in solving a series of twelve murders were known as the “Torso Murders”, and occurred between 1935 and 1938. These serial murders, committed by the “Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run” were never solved. This - combined with his extensive ‘social’ drinking and a scandal involved when he drove away after car accident in 1942 - would create the conditions for Ness to leave Cleveland in 1942.
America entered World War II in December 1941. In 1942 Ness left Cleveland and moved to Washington, D.C., again in the employ of the Federal government to control prostitution and the spread of venereal disease at the military bases in the area.
In 1944 he left his job and moved back to Ohio to become the chairman of the Diebold Corporation, a security safe company. A year later he would be divorced by his second wife, Evaline, and in 1946 he married artist Elisabeth Anderson Seaver. It was in this third and final marriage that Ness adopted his only child, Robert.
In 1947 he would campaign unsuccessfully for the position of mayor of Cleveland – losing by what one source called an ‘embarrassingly large margin’. He was also removed as the CEO of Diebold after the election. Ness would become involved with several other businesses, but had difficulty providing for his family – until he met Oscar Fraley, an author who worked with Ness and ultimately published a book chronicling Ness’s Chicago years. The “Untouchables” would be published in 1957, just six months after Ness’s May 16th death from a heart attack.
Ness’s remains were cremated and kept by family members until 1997. Then his ashes – along with those of his last wife and his son - were scattered on the waters of Wade Lake in the Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland. A marker was erected to honor the man who revolutionized and revitalized Cleveland’s police force, and had captured America's imagination with his honesty and his war against crime.
FBI Freedom of Information Act Records
Find A Grave
Google Books: Eliot Ness and the Untouchables
Ness Returns to Cleveland
Ohio History Central
Portrait of Eliot Ness, Wikipedia
Ness as a Child, Cleveland Memory
Cleveland Safety Director, Cleveland Memory
Campaign poster for Mayor of Cleveland, Photo collection (Cleveland years)
Elisabeth and Bobby Ness, Cleveland Memory
Ness’s burial marker, Find-a-Grave