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Eliot Ness

Nemesis to Al Capone

Eliot Ness

by Dennis Pollock

The story of Eliot Ness and Al Capone is so fascinating it makes you wonder why every time Hollywood gets its hands on it, they throw in so much fiction and embellishment that their movies and television shows bear little resemblance to the real thing. The setting for this classic drama between good and evil is that colorful period of time in America's history known as the days of Prohibition. With alcohol unavailable from legitimate companies, the gangsters quickly moved in to satisfy the thirst of Americans. They made huge profits, their customers were happy, and most of the policemen and government officials were willing to look the other way rather than attempt to enforce the hugely unpopular prohibition law.

In Chicago the mobster Al Capone rose through the ranks of gangland to become the city's top mob boss. Still in his twenties, Capone was smart, ruthless, and bigger than life. He wore expensive clothes of bright colors, gaudy jewelry, and oversized hats. He never tired of talking to the press, always insisting that he was simply giving the American public what they demanded.

Al Capone loved to be in the spotlight and diligently tried to win over the press, many of whom came to admire him. He often provided them cases of beer or whiskey, which they were only too eager to accept. He was a likeable rogue with a big laugh and constantly reminded everybody that he was simply supplying a service that they all wanted. Capone made appearances at baseball games and was cheered by the fans. He made donations to charity, making sure that everybody knew about it. He started a free "soup kitchen" which made many think of him as a sort of gangster's version of Robin Hood.

Beginning of the End

Things began to change for Capone as a result of the famed Valentine's Day Massacre. Seven members of the Bugs Moran Gang, about the only major competition to Al Capone's group, were lured to a garage, ostensibly in the hope of purchasing a large shipment of whiskey. When the seven men arrived two men dressed as policemen and two others in plain clothes pulled guns on them, forced them to line up against the wall, and sprayed them with machine gun bullets.

Capone was at the top of nearly everyone's list of suspects, but no arrests were made. But although Al Capone was never charged with the crime, it turned out to be his undoing. People began to see him for what he truly was: a vicious, ruthless killer without a conscience. Worst of all for Al Capone, he got the attention of President Herbert Hoover. With Chicago dissolving into total gangland chaos, Hoover was determined to do something about it. He gave the order to get Al Capone and put him away for a long time. It would take a couple of years, but it would be done.


The leading government officials in charge of bringing down Capone decided upon a two pronged strategy. They would hit Capone in his bootlegging operation, putting his distilleries out of business and confiscating his beer and liquor wherever they could find it. This was their visible and public attack upon the mob kingpin. But they had another, far more secretive plan which they felt held more promise for the long term. They would get some of their best IRS agents and accountants going over every record, every bit of evidence they could discover that related to the enormous sums of money Capone was making on his various enterprises, and put together a case against him for income tax evasion.

For the public attack, a special "Capone Squad" was put together. Eliot Ness, a young prohibition agent was chosen to head the squad. Douglas Perry writes:

His special squad… would be limited to one goal only: squeezing Al Capone's income stream. Johnson figured there could be no better way to make the Big Fella buck and scream, to make him lose focus on what should matter most to him – being careful. You make a man angry and he gets sloppy. The U. S. attorney's tax case needed Capone to get a little sloppy.

Eliot Ness

As it turned out Eliot Ness was the perfect choice for his assignment as leader of the newly formed Capone Squad. He didn't look the part or talk the way you would expect from a hard, rough, gangbuster. He never came across as a tough guy. He was soft spoken and quiet, far more comfortable with his own thoughts than in joking and story-telling with the other government agents. Eliot had always been that way. As a youth he was studious, hard working, and respectful of his parents. He had been a bit of a mama's boy, and his mother doted on him. He got good grades, worked hard in his father's bakery, and obeyed his parents.

But there was more to the young man than met the eye. First, Eliot Ness had an intensity to his personality that was usually kept below the surface. He didn't just complete his tasks; he attacked them. He didn't just want to do a job well; he wanted to do it better than anybody else. Burning within this quiet, soft-spoken man was a blazing ambition to excel, to master every task – in short, to be outstanding. Added to this phenomenal work ethic was intelligence. Ness possessed a brilliant mind, able to easily see through problems and discover the most efficient ways to solve them. In his later years Ness was on a radio program where the guests were given certain facts and attempted to solve fictional mysteries. Eliot was so masterful and quick in solving these mysteries that the producers often had to come up with time-fillers to eat up the last minutes of the programs.

In addition to this, Eliot was something that most prohibition agents were not – he was brutally honest and immune to bribes. It wasn't that he had religious convictions about honesty and integrity. Ness wasn't the least bit religious. But somewhere he had developed a strong distaste for corruption and bribery, and when Al Capone's goons came around to offer him fantastic sums of money to ease up on their boss, Ness turned out to be truly "untouchable." Finally, the young prohibition agent was fearless – but not in the sense that he never felt a moment's fear. In the dangerous world of battling powerful mobsters in Chicago in those days, he would have to have been incredibly stupid or simply inhuman never to have felt a trace of fear or a fluttering stomach. But Ness never allowed those emotions to rule him. He went about day by day doing his job, methodically making Al Capone, the most powerful gang leader in the nation, an unhappy man.

Brewery Bashing

Al CaponeAfter being appointed as head of the special "Capone squad" Ness set about to put together a team of men who would be tough, smart, and most important of all, above bribery. The squad's assignment was simple: find and seize the major source of Al Capone's income: his breweries. Cut his income, make his life miserable, and gather evidence against him that could be used in a trial which would put him away for a good, long while. The first question to be solved was a simple one: where do we find these breweries? Ness soon hit upon an effective answer – watch the "speakeasies" which saturated the city, and see where the empty beer barrels went. Beer was delivered in barrels, and it was far too expensive for Capone to constantly provide new barrels. The barrels had to be reused again and again. This meant that once the various speakeasies served the illegal beer, someone would have to pick the barrels up in a truck and take them to a brewery where they would be refilled and sent out again.

Ness stationed his men at the speakeasies and soon the truck drivers would show up, load the empty barrels, and drive off to the nearest brewery. Within a short time Ness and his men were making regular raids on Capone breweries throughout Chicago. One difficulty at the beginning came from the steel reinforced doors guarding every entrance to every brewery. Of course these could be overcome, but the time taken breaking through the doors would allow all the workers and supervisors to slip away.

Eliot Ness, his fertile mind constantly working, soon saw another tact was needed. He had a heavy snow plow mounted on a ten ton flatbed truck to serve as a battering ram. No more chipping away at steel doors with axes. He and a driver would drive the truck straight through the doors, catching the shocked brewery workers completely off guard. His men would pour into the building following the truck with guns at the ready, rarely encountering any resistance from the stunned workers. Then the axes would be brought out, beer and whiskey barrels would be smashed, and the booze would form a river of alcohol running across the floor.

The irony about Eliot Ness is that he had no real beef with alcohol and drinking. In fact he enjoyed a drink or two himself nearly every day. Personally he thought the prohibition law was naïve and foolish. But he absolutely despised organized crime, and he especially loathed Al Capone, whose arrogance and contempt for the law was a constant source of irritation to him. Worst of all, Ness could not understand how Capone could be so popular, even with the common, law-abiding citizens. Ness saw Capone as a threat to the very fabric of America, and considered it his personal mission to be the man's undoing. He was going to get Capone, and if smashing stills and wasting perfectly good whiskey and beer was the best way to do it, so be it.

At first Capone considered Ness little more than a nuisance. The mob boss was fabulously wealthy and had breweries throughout the city. Losing a few was not such a big deal. But Capone had no idea just how obsessed his adversary was, and how dedicated he would be to undermine his dark empire. As the weeks and months passed, brewery after brewery fell to Ness's truck and his men. Sometimes Ness would literally "sniff out" Capone's breweries. They would go to an area where a brewery seemed likely and drive around until they smelled the unmistakable aroma of a brewery. Following their noses they would soon spot the brewery. A raid would be planned and another of Capone's money-making machines would be shut down.


Capone realized that something would have to be done. He first tried bribery, and sent one of his young men directly to Ness. He handed Ness an envelope with twenty $100 bills and promised that he would receive the same amount every week if the agent would back off. Ness was making about $2,500 a year at the time, but wasn't even tempted. Instead he was furious. In his memoirs he wrote that he told the man, "I may be only a poor baker's son, but I want you to take this envelope back to them and tell them, 'Eliot Ness can't be bought. Not for two thousand a week, ten thousand, or a hundred thousand. Not for all the money they'll ever lay their scummy hands on.' " Afterwards he called a press conference, inviting all the major newspaper reporters of Chicago. He described exactly what had happened, after which a reporter from the Chicago Tribune gave Ness and his men the famous label, The Untouchables. It was a breath of fresh air for a corruption-ridden city.

Eventually Ness would do significant damage to Capone's bootlegging business. Paul Heimel writes: "The days of Capone's men boldly driving their big beer trucks down city streets in broad daylight were over, due in large part to the Untouchables' dogged efforts. Instead, the organization resorted to hauling its beer three or four barrels at a time in passenger cars." Capone resorted to death threats and apparently ordered several assassination attempts on Ness's life. None were successful.

While nearly every American has heard of Eliot Ness, few have heard of Frank Wilson, the man who ended up putting Capone behind bars. Wilson was an IRS agent and was an accountant's version of Eliot Ness. Like Ness, Wilson was highly motivated, honest, and fearless. He often spent 16 hour days combing over records and documents, putting together a tax evasion case the government could use against Al Capone. He took his time, and day after day he thoroughly and methodically organized an air-tight case. Witnesses were pressured, given the choice of either long prison sentences for themselves or testifying against Capone.

After over two years of investigations, the government was ready to move forward. Ignoring Capone's racketeering, houses of prostitution, murders, and bootlegging, they would go after him for simple income tax evasion. The gang leader was making millions, some legally but most illegally, and wasn't reporting or paying any income whatsoever. Wilson and his treasury department colleagues had compiled far more evidence than was needed. They presented some of the most damning evidence they had, and a grand jury quickly indicted Capone on 22 counts of tax evasion.


Capone had his men threaten and bribe the prospective jury members, but a last minute switch of the entire panel of jurors sealed his fate. His lawyers did their best, but the evidence was far too overwhelming. Capone was found guilty, but that wasn't the worst of it. Although this was a simple case of tax evasion and would normally lead to a one or two year sentence at most, the judge threw the book at him. Knowing all the other crimes he had committed, crimes for which he would never be tried, Judge Wilkerson sentenced Capone to eleven years in prison, the longest sentence any tax evader had ever been given. President Hoover's orders to "get Capone" had been followed to the letter, and he was effectively removed from society.

Capone gets 11 years

Eliot Ness was elated to see his adversary finally brought down, but no doubt a little disappointed that with all his brewery-busting and evidence-gathering over the last years, none of it played a significant role in Capone's imprisonment. Still, Ness was looked upon by the city of Chicago as a genuine hero. He had stood up to the meanest, most violent, ruthless gang lord in the nation and had made his life miserable while IRS agent Frank Wilson worked quietly behind the scenes. Had Capone not been so continually harassed by Ness, he might have paid more attention to Wilson and found a way to eliminate him.

After Chicago

At this point Eliot Ness had the world at his feet. Although he was not quite thirty years old he was now a national figure. With his good looks, his keen mind, his driving ambition, and his impeccable character, Ness appeared to have a brilliant future. And for a season he lived up to his potential. After continuing to serve diligently as a prohibition agent for several years, he was eventually offered the post as "safety director" over the city of Cleveland. In this position Ness would have oversight of both the police and the fire department of the city. Ness plunged into his new position with gusto, and was incredibly effective. He instituted many police reforms, and after only eighteen months on the job crime dropped in the city by 25 percent while arrests and convictions rose by 20 percent. Corrupt policemen were discovered and removed, and tired, jaded police found new energy and inspiration from their youthful boss.

Ness was also an innovator. At the time he took office, Cleveland, like every city in America, had their police walking "beats" in assigned areas. This required tremendous manpower, and as cities across the nation grew into millions of inhabitants, it became totally impractical. Ness quickly changed the police department into a system of districts, with the policemen patrolling much larger areas in cars. He had two way radios installed in every police car, something no major city had done to such an extent. Once again Eliot Ness was riding a wave of success and adulation. Still young, he was the golden boy who possessed that magic touch, achieving amazing success at every turn. And yet there was a chink in the armor of this gallant knight of justice, a defect which would eventually turn his life sour, remove him from police work altogether, and make him a miserable man in his latter years.


As is usually true in such situations, it had its roots in his personal life. In his Chicago days he had met and married a quiet secretary named Edna Staley. He and Edna had been happy in the early days, but within a year Eliot's obsession with destroying Al Capone had a negative impact upon his relationship with his new wife. Ness would never be satisfied to put in an eight hour day, and then go home to his wife. Not when there was a criminal mastermind to be brought down. As he drove himself harder and harder to root out crime and destroy Al Capone's empire, Edna saw less and less of her husband. Dinners alone came to be the norm, as Eliot would be out smashing stills, arresting bootleggers, or listening in on the phone-tapped conversations of the underworld. When he was home, Eliot was often too exhausted to be much company to his lonely wife.

After moving to Cleveland for the safety director's position, it was no better. Eliot Ness had thrown himself into overdrive, and seemed unable or unwilling to change. The very thing that made him such a success in his police work, his single mindedness and devotion to being the best he could be, made his personal life and especially his marriage, a shambles. Edna endured it for nine years. Finally she could take it no longer and filed for divorce. When the divorce was final, she moved back to Chicago and never spoke to Eliot again.

The divorce stunned and shamed Ness. Although he had been the quintessential inattentive and neglectful husband, he had never counted on divorce. His tremendous sense of propriety and integrity rebelled against the very idea. He was known as Mr. Morality, and in those days divorce was looked upon as something only for the low-class and the immoral. He suffered through a season of depression, before looking up former model Evaline McAndrews, an attractive lady he had met on a train some time before. He and Evaline soon became an item and Ness was temporarily cured of his depression.

The couple married, and Ness seemed to learn from his mistakes. For a time he learned to leave his job at a reasonable hour and spend time with his new wife. Evaline was an incurable socialite, and the couple were seen frequenting all the well-known dance clubs and drinking establishments in town. And so the great gangbuster evolved into a paradoxical dichotomy: corruption uprooter, gangbuster, and crime fighter by day; dancer, drinker, and partier by night. For a while it worked well for both of them, and it seemed that they could keep this up for years and decades to come.

But it was not to be. One of Eliot Ness's fundamental weaknesses was that he absolutely could not stand nor long endure any serious criticism. Part of this was due to his personality, and perhaps part was from the fact that he had known so much success and approval in his early years that criticism and even the appearance of failure was unacceptable. In time the criticism came. Some complained that he drank too much. Other issues arose which caused the press to question Ness' judgment. Negative headlines appeared blasting the police, the city administration, and Eliot Ness. It was more than the sensitive Ness could handle. He made a fateful decision – he would step down and leave the job that had taken him to the heights of the greatest success he would ever know.

During World War II Ness found work with a government agency dedicated to wiping out houses of ill repute around the army bases. He threw himself into his work and once again proved quite effective. However he found himself slipping into that same lifestyle of overwork and overdrinking which had cost him his first marriage. Evaline was not a woman who could endure being ignored, and after six years of marriage she called it quits. Eliot, who was so unsuccessful in keeping a wife, had little trouble attracting women. He was soon married for the third time, to a short, pretty lady named Elizabeth Seaver.

Failure in Business

After the war, Ness gave up on police work. After an unsuccessful attempt to become the mayor of Cleveland, he tried his hand in various and assorted jobs and business opportunities. In his early adult years he had known nothing but success; in his later years he knew mostly failure. His drinking became more and more prominent. Ironically, the man who once smashed beer and whisky barrels by the dozens until the floors became rivers of booze, became himself an alcoholic or a near-alcoholic in his later years!

As a businessman Eliot Ness was not outstanding; in fact he was barely mediocre. Taken out of the climate in which his natural gifts shone the brightest, he became completely ordinary. He lost the ability to focus on details. As safety director of Cleveland he had made big money; in his futile attempts in the world of business he lost his savings and sometimes had to take any job available. He sold frozen hamburger patties to restaurants, and worked in a bookstore for a short time. Often he was in between jobs and struggled to pay his bills. Douglas Perry wrote about the sad state into which the former crime buster had fallen:

(His former business partners) had once respected or feared Eliot, but now they pitied him. He seemed so pathetic in his rumpled suit, his face puffy and red. "Eliot had run out of gas," said an old friend. "He was still a fairly young man, but he simply ran out of gas. He didn't know which way to turn."

AlcoholicAnd always he drank. Perry writes: "By now, drinking had undeniably become central to Eliot's life. He didn't just drink every day. He got drunk every day… A drinking buddy from this period, Jack Foyle, called him 'a very lonesome man' who clearly was in the grip of alcoholism." He was a popular fixture in certain bars, where, after a couple of drinks he would loosen up and tell stories about his Al Capone days.

At the age of fifty-four Eliot Ness came into the house, walked to the kitchen sink to get a glass of water, and fell over dead of a massive heart attack. He had been working with an author on a book of his days as an "untouchable," a book which would once again make him famous, but he never lived to see its publication. Ness died in obscurity, having struggled for years with feelings of failure and frustration, and a sense of never having lived up to his potential. According to author Paul Heimel, his last stop before going home that day, was at a liquor store where he bought a bottle of Scotch.

Lessons for All

One of the lessons that shouts out at us from the biography of this fascinating man is that life is about more than how you start; it is also about how you finish. Simply put, after an amazing early career Eliot Ness did not finish very well. Tiny cracks that appeared in his armor in those exciting Chicago days eventually became huge gaping holes. The most obvious crack was the alcoholism. All of his adult life Ness was a drinker. As the years passed, his drinking increased steadily. One of the reasons people gave for his lack of success in the business world was a lack of attention to details, something common to every alcoholic.

Another source of Eliot's misery and frustration was his failure in his first two marriages. Both appear to be due to the same cause: Before Ness was ever an alcoholic, he was a workaholic. He put in more hours than anyone else, made more sacrifices, and poured himself into cleaning up first Chicago and then Cleveland. He saw it as a mission, a mystical calling. Every success drove him on to greater sacrifices, longer hours, and deeper commitment. Is it possible for a man to be too successful? For someone to so give himself to his career that he ends up accomplishing more than is probably necessary or even right? If 40 hours a week will get you certain results, but 60 will get you more, why not work the 60 hours? And if 60 hours of work in a week will produce so much success, but 80 hours will produce twenty percent more success, why not work the 80? Or perhaps 100 hour weeks will accomplish even more!

If a man has a family it certainly is possible to work too hard, to put in too many hours, and to be too successful as a result. The minute we commit ourselves to the joys and blessings of married life, we limit ourselves in how much time we can and should give to our careers. God is certainly not opposed to hard work, far from it. But He is very much opposed to us making a god out of our careers and ignoring the precious wife or husband He has graciously given to us. The good news is that none of us is called to be the Savior of the world; that spot has already been filled. Jesus Christ remained single and gave Himself entirely to the kingdom of God, died on a cross and rose again the third day. And He is the only Savior. The rest of us are given various tasks to do in life, but never at the expense of those people God entrusts to us.

A huge factor in Ness' later misfortunes was the critical decision he made to leave his position with the city of Cleveland. Ness's sensitive nature and natural insecurity simply could not handle criticism. What he failed to see was that all people in the public eye will face criticism. It is as much a part of public service as bruises are to football players, or sore feet to runners. Ness walked out of a position which highlighted his strengths and ran into the business world, working in situations that highlighted his weaknesses. Dan Moore, a former business partner and friend, showed keen insight as he shared his views of Eliot Ness:

He was a terrific police administrator, but he ended up trying to be something that he wasn't. I think there's a lesson in all this: if you have a tremendous gift in one area, you should abandon it with great caution. Eliot abandoned something that he was the best in the world at doing, and he suffered the consequences.

There is unquestionably a lesson here for Christians. In Christ we are given gifts and assignments, and these form the basis of what the Bible speaks of as our "calling." Often it takes a while to work through various circumstances, eliminate areas of our lives where we are not effective, and begin to flow in the full purpose and grace that was given to us in Christ Jesus. But once we are there, once we have entered our "promised land" and discovered that purpose and grace, we must never let it go. No amount of discouragements, criticisms, disappointments, and betrayals must be allowed to keep us from following our Good Shepherd and "laying hold of that for which Christ has laid hold of us" (Philippians 3:12).

Finishing Well

Eliot Ness' greatest problem was that the Eliot Ness of fifty was not nearly the man that the thirty year old Eliot Ness was. As a young man Ness was fully engaged in life, clear-headed, perceptive, and highly effective. As he aged he not only grew weaker in body and slower of foot, but he weakened mentally and psychologically as well.

Some might say, "Well, of course." Who of us is at fifty what we were at thirty? And it is true that it is common to lose some or much of our looks as we transition from youth to middle age. But many men and women are highly effective in their careers in their fifties, sixties, and beyond. In fact many in the business world are just hitting their peak in their fifties. For Eliot Ness to "run out of gas" by the age of fifty was a mystery, although surely his excessive drinking played a major role.

When Jesus Christ enters a life, He begins a process the Scriptures call sanctification. Although He allows our bodies to age and become weaker as the years pass, He brings about increase in the mental and spiritual realm. Increase is the very nature of His kingdom. The Bible says, "Of the increase of His government and peace, there shall be no end" (Isaiah 9:7). In another place Paul writes that Christians are transformed into the image of Christ from one degree of glory to another by the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18). Becoming more holy, more insightful, more well-rounded, more likeable, more kind, and more productive should be the natural outcome for those who make it the goal of their lives to abide in Jesus Christ.

In Christ you do not have to run out of gas at fifty or seventy or ninety-nine. Your body will age, the wrinkles will come and the hair will go, but the Holy Spirit who lives in you is ageless, and He is able to continually release rivers of divine life within you providing all the energy, wisdom, insight, and clarity you need for fruitful, abundant living until that day when Christ comes for you.


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