Eliot Ness: The Agent who Brought Down Al Capone

Bodies From Valentine's Day Massacre
A special crime committee is sworn in over the bodies of the victims of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, Chicago, 1929. The killings spurred the creation of Eliot Ness' 'Untouchables' unit and spelled the beginning of the end for Capone. Chicago History Museum / Getty Images

Eliot Ness (April 19, 1903 - May 16, 1957) was a U.S. special agent in charge of enforcing prohibition in Chicago, IL. He is best known for leading a squad of special agents, nicknamed “The Untouchables,” which was responsible for the capture, arrest, and ultimate incarceration of Italian mobster Al Capone.

Fast Facts: Eliot Ness

  • Known For: Special agent in charge of investigating organized crime and bootlegging in Chicago
  • Born: April 19, 1903, in Chicago, IL
  • Died: May 16, 1957, in Coudersport, PA
  • Education: The University of Chicago BA and MA
  • Key Accomplishments: Spearheaded the investigation that helped bring down Al Capone on counts of tax fraud
  • Spouse: Edna Staley (1929-1938), Evaline Michelow (1939 to 1945), Elisabeth Andersen Seaver (1946-1957)
  • Children: Robert Ness

Ness was born in the “Crime Capital of the World,” Chicago, IL, the youngest of five children. Later in life, he attended the University of Chicago where he earned his Bachelor's Degree studying law, business and economics. He also obtained a Masters in criminology from the University of Chicago.

Career in Chicago

With help from his brother-in-law who worked in Chicago’s prohibition office, Eliot Ness began his career in 1926 when he became an agent in the Prohibition Unit of the Treasury Department. The 18th amendment, which outlawed the consumption of alcohol, spurred a growth in organized crime as bootleggers made fortunes illegally selling alcohol. In Chicago, organized crime and bootlegging were rampant, and one particularly notorious mob boss was the gangster Al Capone.

Even with over 3,000 police officers and agents, Chicago’s authorities were rarely able to convict bootleggers. Members of law enforcement protected many of the crime bosses, and deep-rooted bribery and corruption schemes had turned Chicago into become one of the most crime-ridden cities in the United States by the 1920s.

FBI Agent Eliot Ness Seated At Desk, c. 1930.
FBI Agent Eliot Ness Seated At Desk, c. 1930. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In 1928, Ness was called to join a special squad of agents investigating organized crime specifically. The U.S. government at the time dubbed the mafia one of the greatest domestic threats, which is also why, in 1930, the Prohibition Unit was transferred to the authority of the Department of Justice. A greater emphasis was placed on apprehending the major crime bosses and curtailing the power of organized crime syndicates in American cities.

'The Untouchables' Target Capone

Two years later, in 1930, Ness was tasked with creating a special team, dubbed “The Untouchables,” to investigate Al Capone. This task force was limited in its members and rarely had more than 11 men working on the team at once. Ness believed this small circle of investigators would remain free of the corruption that breached most the larger government agencies. The Untouchables conducted multiple public raids and alerted the media to them in order to increase the pressure on Capone. A popular story goes that an associate of Capone once offered Ness $2,000 a week to turn the other way and curtail the raids, but Ness refused.

Though Ness and his team compiled evidence of over 5,000 counts of bootlegging by Al Capone, the U.S. District Attorney George E. Q. Johnson argued that a jury would not convict on these charges because prohibition was so unpopular. Instead, the attorney, along with investigators for the IRS convicted Capone of tax evasion and sentenced him to 11 years in a federal prison.

Cincinnati and Cleveland

Though much of Ness’s notoriety is due to his career in Chicago, he continued on to work in the Cincinnati Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). When prohibition ended in December 1933, the nation did not have the infrastructure and politics to handle a legal liquor market. Large underground distilleries remained in business which also maintained the power of organized crime syndicates in major cities across the U.S.

Finally, Ness’s hardline policies had the support of the public as the ATF aimed to quell the violence that resulted from the gang violence over control of the distilleries. As the Special Agent in Charge of the Cincinnati Bureau of the ATF, he raided a litany of these distilleries that were robbing the U.S. government of hundreds of thousands of dollars in alcohol taxes.

In 1935 Ness moved his career to Cleveland, Ohio where he became the Cleveland Public Safety Director. He spearheaded campaigns to end corruption in the police force and quell gang violence. He also implemented programs to keep younger children out of gangs by building recreation centers and providing vocational training. This method of law enforcement, communicating with the gangs and providing community support, later became a more widely practiced method of curtailing organized crime. As a result, Ness was initially celebrated in Cleveland for his ability to curb street violence and reform corruption in the government bureaucracies.

However, his career stumbled with his handling of the Cleveland Torso Killer, also known as the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run, who murdered and dismembered 12 people in the 1930s. Because most of the attacks were centered in one of the city’s shantytowns, Ness took the men of the town into custody and burned the shanty town to the ground. His actions were seen as unnecessarily cruel and the Torso Killer was never caught, but he did not strike again either.

Later Life and Death

Ness moved to Cleveland with his then third wife Elisabeth Seaver where he worked in a federal agency which sought to decrease the amount of sexually transmitted diseases in the U.S. military. Soon after, he moved back to Cleveland where he unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 1947. Eventually, he had to resort to taking odd jobs to support himself.

Ness died from a heart attack on May 16, 1957, and died in his home in Coudersport, Pennsylvania.

Legacy

Though Ness received little notoriety during his lifetime, shortly after his death he became an important figure in law enforcement history. A book, The Untouchables, was released only a month after his death and followed his work in incarcerating Al Capone. This led to a series of movies and shows inspired by Eliot Ness, many of which painted him as a 007-type agent who single-handedly ended gang violence in Chicago. Regardless of the Hollywood exaggerations of his story, Eliot Ness’s legacy remains that of a pioneer in law enforcement who successfully combated organized crime in some of the nations most gang-ridden cities.

Sources

  • “Al Capone.” FBI, FBI, 20 July 2016, www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/al-capone.
  • “Eliot Ness.” Brady Law | Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, www.atf.gov/our-history/eliot-ness.
  • Perry, Douglas. Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Hero. Penguin Books, 2015.