I doubt there is a lawman alive that hasn't heard of the daring raids by Eliot Ness and his group of Untouchables, but do you know the complete story behind this 1987 film? Let's take a look back at Eliot's life and see how this legend was built.
Eliot Ness was born into a Norwegian family on April 19th, 1903. His parents were immigrants who had earned a solid middle class living. His father started a wholesale bakery business that flourished. The youngest of five children, Eliot was reportedly a remarkably well behaved boy that worked with his father and had his own job delivering papers.
Eliot was an avid reader and was said to prefer reading to playing baseball. Perhaps it was all the reading of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes or his brother-in-law's job as an agent for the Justice Department, but Eliot became a retail credit investigator following his graduation from the University of Chicago. With degrees in business and law, rather than pursuing a career in business as his parents had anticipated, Eliot began what would become his law enforcement career. He then reenrolled in the University to take night classes in Criminology under the well-known expert, August Volmar.
In 1927, having graduated with a Master degree in Criminology, Mr. Ness joined the Treasury Department, working for the Chicago office of the Bureau of Prohibition. In an attempt to bring down Al Capone, the Federal Government began a two-pronged attack: income tax evasion and the sale of illegal liquor (the Volstead Act). Ness was chosen to head the operation under the Volstead Act, going after supply routes and breweries owned by Capone.
Seeing the wide spread corruption in the Chicago police department, Ness selected agents from the Treasury Department. His 50 initial selections were whittled down to 11 trustworthy men. If Ness was going to have any impact at all, he would need to have agents with the same drive and determination that he held. Most importantly, he would have to have men with integrity that was without question.
Eliot is quoted as having said, "I ticked off the general qualities I desired: single, no older than thirty, both the mental and physical stamina to work long hours and the courage and ability to use fist or gun and special investigative techniques. I needed a good telephone man, one who could tap a wire with speed and precision. I needed men who were excellent drivers, for much of our success would depend upon how expertly they could trail the mob's cars and trucks... and fresh faces - from other divisions - who were not known to the Chicago mobsters."
Raids started immediately with intelligence developed from extensive wire-taps. Unsuccessful attempts to bribe agents on behalf of Capone led to the group earning the nickname "The Untouchables". Ness, acutely aware of public opinion, used the media to sway the masses against Capone who was, at the time, a celebrity. Accounts of assassination attempts on Ness, and the murder of one of his agents were of questionable validity.
In 1931, Capone was charged with 22 counts of tax evasion and 5,000 violations of the Volstead Act. While Ness and his Untouchables were a constant thorn in Capone's side, it was the IRS that ultimately brought Capone to justice. On October 17, 1931, Capone was sentenced to 11 years. Following his appeals, he began serving this sentence in 1932.
With the end of prohibition in 1933, Ness was assigned to southern Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee as an alcohol tax agent in the Moonshine Mountains, and in 1934, he was transferred to Cleveland. 1935 saw Ness hired on as Cleveland's city Safety Director, overseeing both the Police and Fire departments. His appointment resulted in a modernization of the fire department, putting a lid on organized crime in the area and cleaning up the corruption in the police force. At 32 years of age Ness would go from managing 34 agents to well over 2,500. He did all this as the country was running head-long into the Great Depression.
The Untouchables, the book that started Eliot Ness' rise to nationwide fame and cemented his place in the annals of law enforcement was published in 1957 as an autobiography. It was co-written by Oscar Fraley, a sports writer for United Press International. In fact Fraley wrote the manuscripts of the book from the stories Ness had told him. Ness read the proofs shortly before his death. The main portion of the book is written in first-person, anecdotal style as if Fraley had written it strait from his talk with Ness.
Ness' home life just as tumultuous as his career. Because of his immersing himself in his work, his wife Edna, filed for divorce. This would be the first of two divorces for Ness. He was married to Edna Staley from 1929 until 1938, Evaline Ness from 1939 thru 1945 and finally Elizabeth Anderson Seaver from 1946 until his death on May 16, 1957.
While Eliot Ness left behind a history of dramatic exhibitions of personal integrity, perhaps his greatest talent was his ability to manipulate the media and turn public opinion. His famous battles with Al Capone were played out in the daily newspapers as much as they were in the streets. Both Ness and Capone used the media to garner public opinion. Capone's favorite responses to being described as a criminal were "I am just a businessman, giving the people what they want," and "All I do is satisfy a public demand." Eliot Ness knew that befriending newsmen and giving them access would help give the public another view of Capone. It must have worked; the 1957 book resulted in a TV series in the same year, a feature film in 1987 and another TV series in 1993.
In the end, Eliot Ness became famous for his performance in the battle against organized crime in Chicago in the person of Al Capone; his "legendary" status assured thanks to books, television and movies. That part of his career actually spanned four years and most certainly deserves our admiration. To stand up against such a crime figure as Al Capone and to find men who would fight the good fight, their integrity sufficient that they weren't bought away by Capone's dollars, was an amazing success in and of itself.