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Eliot Ness and the "Untouchables"


Eliot Ness and the "Untouchables": Herbert Hoover was the 31st American President who served in office from March 4, 1929 to March 4, 1933. One of the important events during his presidency was the emerging role of the FBI and the role of Eliot Ness and "The Untouchables" in the downfall of Al Capone.

Definition and Summary of the Eliot Ness and the "Untouchables"
Summary and definition:
Eliot Ness (1903 – 1957) was an American Prohibition government agent (G-Man) based in Chicago who was made responsible for the enforcement of the 18th Amendment Prohibition law, enacted by the Volsted Act, that prohibited the illegal manufacturing and consumption of alcohol.

To counter police corruption in Chicago he selected a squad of eleven special Prohibition enforcement agents in 1930 known as "The Untouchables". Their mission was to combat the activities of gangster Al Capone and his crime syndicate, the Chicago Mafia (aka the Outfit or the Chicago Mob). The investigations of Eliot Ness and "The Untouchables" ultimately led to the conviction of Al "Scarface" Capone and other Chicago gangsters involved in organized crime.

Who was the Eliot Ness? Eliot Ness was the famous Government Agent (G-Man) who led a group of 11 law enforcement agents, called the "Untouchables" in 1930-1931, during the Prohibition Era. Eliot Ness was famous as a champion of law and order who did not tolerate corruption or lawlessness.

What did Eliot Ness die from? Eliot Ness died from a heart attack on May 16, 1957 shortly before his autobiography, co-written with Oscar Fraley, was published

Where was Eliot Ness buried? Eliot Ness was buried in Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio

What was Eliot Ness famous for? Eliot Ness was famous for bringing down Al "Scarface" Capone and other gangsters in the Chicago Mafia.

Who played Eliot Ness?
The role of Eliot Ness was famously played by Robert Stack in the TV series (1959-1963) called 'The Untouchables', Kevin Costner in the 1987 movie also called 'The Untouchables'. In the TV crime drama 'Boardwalk Empire' the character of Eliot Ness was played by Jim True-Frost.

Facts about Eliot Ness and the "Untouchables"
The following fact sheet contains interesting facts and information on Eliot Ness and the "Untouchables".

Eliot Ness was born in Chicago, Illinois on April 19, 1903. His parents were Norwegian immigrants Peter Ness and Emma King Ness. Eliot was the youngest of five children, Clara, Effie, Nina, Charles and Eliot. He was married three times, divorced twice, and had only one child called Robert by adoption. Ness was married in 1929 to Edna Staley of Chicago. In October 1939 he married Evaline McAndrews. On January 31, 1946, Ness married his third wife Elisabeth Anderson Seaver and they adopted Robert.

He graduated from Fenger High School and then attended the University of Chicago and received a Bachelor's degree in political science and business in 1925.

His family expected him to pursue a career or enter business. From the years 1925 to 1927 he worked as an investigator for the Retail Credit Company in Chicago. However, his brother-in-law, Alexander Jamie, who worked as an agent for the Justice Department sparked his interest in law enforcement.

He studied criminology for 2 years and was accepted as an agent of the Treasury Department’s Chicago branch in 1927.

On the recommendation of his brother-in-law, Alexander Jamie, he was transferred to the Chicago Prohibition Bureau in 1928.

By the end of 1928, Al "Scarface" Capone was one of the most notorious gangsters in American history. Al Capone was the massively wealthy crime boss of the Chicago Mafia, aka the Outfit or the Chicago Mob who were pulling in approximately $60 million per year by bootlegging, operating 20 illegal breweries and controlling the sale of liquor to over 10,000 speakeasies.

Al Capone enjoyed being a celebrity and created a flamboyant public image. The bribery and corruption of the police, politicians and Chicago city officials enabled Al Capone to operate his crime empire with relative impunity.

Eliot Ness was earning a reputation in the Bureau as a firm defender of law and order, reliable and honest, who did not tolerate corruption or lawlessness.

The violence of the St Valentine’s Day Massacre on 14 February 1929, with the alleged involvement of Al Capone, attracted unprecedented publicity.

J. Edgar Hoover (1835 – 1972), director of the Bureau, understood the public relations value in taking out Al "Scarface" Capone. J. Edgar Hoover  had the support of the newly-elected President Herbert Hoover who was determined to end the career of Al Capone.

At the end of 1930 J. Edgar Hoover tasked Eliot Ness with the job of setting up a special, incorruptible squad to take out the gangster and his Chicago crime syndicate.

Eliot Ness searched the personnel files of potential squad members and asked for recommendation from his brother-in-law. He eventually initially selected nine men for the incorruptible team of agents who would become known as "The Untouchables". Two more men subsequently joined the squad - see the names and descriptions of the real Untouchables at the end of the page.

Eliot Ness and the Untouchables began their mission in December 1930.

Why were they called the Untouchables?  The agents were paid a small salary of less than $3000 per year. Al Capone believed that every man had his price. Eliot Ness was offered a weekly payoff and bribe of $2000 by the Capone outfit, as were agents Lahart and Seager. To refuse such massive bribes showed the honesty and determination of the squad.

Why were they called the Untouchables? The failed attempt by Al Capone to bribe the special agents was seized on by Eliot Ness for publicity purposes and led to the press nickname of "The Untouchables".

The strategy adopted by the squad was two-fold. Criminal investigators of the Treasury's Bureau of Internal Revenue, would investigate matters relating to tax avoidance. Agents from the Bureau of Prohibition would attack Capone's illegal liquor empire by raiding speakeasies, clubs, stills and breweries and his transportation network for alcohol.

Al "Scarface" Capone had not filed an income tax return for several years which provided the IRS Untouchables to investigate his extravagant lifestyle with no visible means of legal support.

The Prohibition agents in the squad tailed the lorries which collected empty beer barrels from speakeasies and returned them to Capone’s breweries.

Once they had identified the warehouses and breweries, armed with sawed-off shotguns, axes and crowbars, they busted one after another with their steel enforced lorry they used as a battering-ram.

During its first 6 months of operation, Eliot Ness and his team of Untouchables had closed down 19 distilleries and key breweries, worth an estimated $1,000,000 and siezed 20 stills. Thousands of gallons of beer and alcohol were dumped.

Eliot Ness was seriously impacting Capone's operation. The crime boss was furious and several attempts were made to murder Ness including bomb attempts. The lives of the whole squad were in serious jeopardy and they had to move quickly to get Capone out of the way.

In June 1931, just 6 months after the elite squad was formed, Al Capone and his gangster associates were indicted on more than 5,000 Prohibition-related offences.

There was substantial legal wrangling and it was decided that it would be difficult to get a jury to go against someone with the celebrity status of Al Capone who had provided alcohol to willing customers. The decision was made that it would be easier to have Capone found guilty for tax evasion.

On November 24, 1931 Al Capone was sentenced to eleven years in jail, fined $50,000 and charged  $215,000 (plus interest) due on back taxes.

Following Al Capone's incarceration and the end of Prohibition in 1933, the Untouchables were disbanded.

Eliot Ness moved to Cleveland to become chief investigator for the Alcohol Tax Unit and then became the city's Public Safety Inspector.

As Cleveland's Public Safety Inspector Eliot Ness undertook the enormous task of purging the Cleveland police department of corrupt officers and bringing more gangsters to trial.

Eliot Ness resigned from his post in Cleveland on April 30, 1942 after being involved in a hit-and-run accident and gave up his career in law enforcement. He took the job as the National Director for the Federal Social Protection Program.

In 1945, he became chairman of the Board for the Diebold Safe and Lock Company in Canton

Always happy to court publicity, Eliot Ness ran for the position of Mayor. He was unsuccessful and lost all of his savings on the campaign.

In 1955 Eliot Ness joined the Cleveland-based North Ridge Industrial Corporation, but the company failed.

In 1956 the family moved to Coudersport, Pennsylvania, where he ran two small businesses and began to work on his memoirs with sportswriter Oscar Fraley.

This collaboration with Oscar Fraley produced a book called 'The Untouchables' but Eliot died of a heart attack before his co-written autobiography was published.

He died from a heart attack on May 16, 1957 and was buried in Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio

The legacy of Eliot Ness lives on due to the movies and TV series that depict his life. He will always be most famously remembered as the man who got Al Capone.

US American History
1913-1928: WW1 & Prohibition

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