Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Eliot Ness: The Man Behind the Myth


In mid-July, one of Ness's sources mentioned a gambling joint called McGinty's on West 25th Street which had operated for ten years without a single instance of interference from the police in the Eighth Precinct. It was clear to Ness that McGinty's was making payoffs to someone on the force, but he didn't know who or how many were involved in the bribery.

Ness hand picked five rookie cops and had them infiltrate the gambling joint as customers. Then for the fun of it, Ness had a woman on his staff call up the Eighth Precinct and tell them that her husband had been to McGinty's and lost his whole paycheck, demanding that the police raid the place.

"Oh, you mean that bookie joint down the street?" the cop in charge said to her. He later claimed he didn't have any assistance at the time and telephoned the Ninth Precinct to make the raid. Suspiciously, the cop also called Ness's office to see if the call about McGinty's had come from there. Ness's office denied it had made the call to the precinct station.

Two officers from the Ninth Precinct went to McGinty's, but found no evidence of illegal gambling. Later, the undercover rookies explained what happened. As the two patrolmen entered the building and started to climb the stairs, the lookouts in the Club Cafe on the first floor of the three-story building set off the security system. The rookies saw warning lights come on and the building was immediately cleared of customers, while equipment was quickly hidden from view. The patrolmen took one of the blackjack dealers in for questioning, but didn't arrest him. Within an hour of the raid, McGinty's was in full swing once again.

Ness had his rookies watch McGinty's for the next few days. He had Police Chief Matowitz call up Captain Adolph Lenahan, who had been on the force for 26 years, and ask him to come downtown for a meeting. When Matowitz talked to Lenahan, it was clear that Lenahan was very drunk. As Lenahan staggered into the meeting with his boss, the chief suspended him on the spot. Armed with the layout of the gambling joint provided by his rookies, Ness decided to take action immediately. "I have had McGinty's watched for a week and Captain Lenahan will be asked to answer why this establishment was allowed to run as openly as it did." Residents of the neighborhood had told Ness the joint had been running in the open almost continuously for at least ten years.

On July 21, with his five rookies inside McGinty's posing as customers, Ness took a small raiding party up to the door. The lookouts saw Ness coming and pressed the warning lights. When the rookies saw the lights flash, they took out their guns and kept the people from escaping.

"This is a police raid!" Ness yelled as he burst into the crowded gambling room at the head of his raiding party.

As they had agreed beforehand, the rookies covered Ness and his men as they collared the blackjack operators. Other rookies arrested five men who had been in the cashier's room taking bets on the horses. Three cashiers attempted to throw away their betting record books, but Ness personally seized them along with a truckload of other records.

When Ness questioned the seven employees and eighty customers captured in the raid, he found that three sons of Deputy Inspector Timothy J. Costello worked at McGinty's Bainbridge race track. Costello, who was in charge of the district that included the Eighth Precinct, said it was no secret that his sons had summer jobs at McGinty's dog track and thought it was unfair of Ness to investigate him because of his sons.

Costello claimed he had no idea that McGinty's was a bookie joint. However, he also said that he and his men had frequently been to McGinty's to check out complaints and never found anything illegal. Ness said he wanted all of the written reports of those alleged visits, plus police reports for other gambling joints in his district.

Ness turned over all the records from McGinty's that spanned a number of years to the local Treasury Department office. The next day, the Treasury agents announced that McGinty's alone made $5 million in just a few years. Ness wanted the federal agents to help him find out who got the income from McGinty's, whether taxes were paid on that income, and if the records showed any evidence of police bribery.

Nick Shelby, one of the men arrested in the raid claimed to be the club owner. He told Ness that McGinty just owned the building and had nothing to do with the gambling club Shelby operated on the third floor. McGinty, he said, had no connection with the club except to collect $60 a month rent. Ness knew better, but he had to find some hard evidence before he could indict Tommy McGinty, the race track promoter.

As they sifted through the material they seized, the raiders found a bits of evidence linking McGinty to the gambling hall. The cashiers had envelopes of money in their pockets which were stamped Bainbridge Breeders Association. Letterhead stationery in the desks showed Thomas McGinty as the general manager of the breeder's association. One of the rookies who had infiltrated the gambling joint was told by a blackjack dealer that McGinty owned the place, but none of the rookies had seen McGinty in the building while they were there. Telephone numbers for McGinty's Bainbridge racetrack were posted on the wall.

Once the club was closed, the records in the hands of the Treasury Department, and the operators under indictment, Ness went after his errant policemen with a vengeance. After his experience with Cadek, Harwood, Lenahan and Costello, he publicly warned the police force that he would use wholesale suspensions for gross neglect of duty where police officers failed to clean up gambling and other vices in their districts. Ness was tired of hearing lame excuses from cops that they didn't know about betting parlors and gambling clubs that everyone in the city seemed to know about. "When ignorance is pleaded by officers charged with neglect," Ness declared, "they will be suspended and part of their salary taken away."

Ness chose suspension rather than dismissing the officers because the police boards always reinstated the officers and restored their pay, which amounted to an extra vacation with pay. The next day, Lenahan resigned so that he could save his pension. By resigning, he was entitled to $140 a month retirement pay, whereas if he were convicted of intoxication and gross neglect of duty, he would have only received half that amount.

Ness hinted that Costello could expect a suspension as well on grounds of gross neglect. "That is," Ness said somberly, "if he fails to convince me he was not to blame for the rampant gambling in his district."

By the end of July, there was no one left on the police force that made fun of the man they used to call the "Boy Scout." Captains and other officials clamped down hard on the gambling in their areas. The day after Ness articulated his stance on neglect of duty, Captain Eugene Aufmuth raided five suspected bookie joints and arrested eleven people. The message was finally getting through, not only to the police, but also to the gambling operators that things in Cleveland would be very different under Eliot Ness.

After Cadek, Harwood and Lenahan, the police force was very jumpy. Everyone wondered who would be next. Instead of wholesale transfers of men from one precinct to another, a practice of previous directors which for a while disrupted the relationships between the criminals and the cops to whom they paid bribes, Ness was shaking out the high level officers on the take.

The cops were afraid of Ness because he was a mystery to them, as he was to the politicians, his sources in the criminal underworld and even the men who worked most closely with him. He took no one into his confidence, particularly high-ranking police officers. No one knew what he was thinking, what he planned to do next or where he would be likely to strike. Supposedly, Ness had identified half a dozen captains he wanted out of the department, but no one knew which ones they were. He investigated very quietly and thoroughly every tip he got about high-level officers then, when he had the evidence, he struck quickly.

Ness moved about the city listening and observing almost anonymously. After almost ten months as safety director, most of the men who worked for him had never set eyes on Ness. Those who had worked most closely with him were still unsure about his personality. They never knew where he was or how to predict his reaction to anything. His manner of speaking was so mild and inoffensive that the officers who had dealt with him found it difficult to believe he took such dramatic action against gangsters and corrupt officers. Restless, charged with energy and extremely impulsive, he worked tirelessly until he accomplished his goal. Afterwards, instead of relaxing for awhile, he charged on towards his next goal. It was no wonder that many times during the spring and summer of 1936, there would be two and sometimes three separate features stories on the front page of the newspaper describing his various programs and accomplishments. It went well beyond simple workaholism. Eliot Ness seemed almost like a man possessed.

Things were changing at a very fast pace in the department. A new crop of college-trained rookies was replacing out-of-shape, overweight, lethargic and incompetent men. As impatient as Ness was to accelerate that trend, he was very careful not to penalize honest, hardworking men just because they didn't fit his profile of the ideal police officer. Chief of Police Matowitz, for example, was kept in his position, in spite of the opinion of many that he was ineffectual. Early in Ness's tenure as safety director, he investigated Matowitz personally and was satisfied about the chief's integrity.

Matowitz's integrity aside, Eliot Ness worked alone and never included the chief in his important plans. That was abundantly clear in the raid on McGinty's, which the chief knew nothing about until it was over. In fact, nobody else in the police department, except for Ness's handpicked rookies, had any idea that an investigation of McGinty's was being conducted.

That summer, Ness made clear his simple prescription for the police department: "Reward men for good work and punish them for bad." While it seemed that the entire summer was being consumed with punishing the bad officers, Ness promised to find new ways in the system to reward good work. He made a special point of spending time with the new rookies to inspire them to rise to the new standards he had set for the department.

Ness swore in his new rookies personally in his office, using the opportunity to tell them what he expected of them and give them a pep talk at the same time. "You have been appointed to this job on your own merits and because you stood at the top of the civil service lists," he told them. "If anyone says he was responsible for your appointment, ignore him. Your advancement in this department is completely up to you."

"You are expected to be honest so don't be obligated to anyone, even in small things." He ended his speech with a revolutionary statement: "When you walk into a restaurant for a meal, pay for it. When you get any marketable commodity useful to you, pay for it. If people want to give you something without charge, you can conclude they are buying your badge and your uniform."

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