Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Eliot Ness: The Man Behind the Myth

Labour Racketeers

One week after the raid on McGinty's when the front-page stories about Ness were starting to wind down, he was back in the headlines again with a new campaign. This time, he had taken aim at extortion and racketeering at the Northern Ohio Food Terminal. Ness and a special squad of investigators had assembled evidence in 45 cases of intimidation, coercion and assault of farmers and truck drivers delivering food to the terminal.

A group of thugs calling itself a labor union was forcing food producers to pay tribute of up to 45 cents a minute for unloading trucks at the terminal or face beatings, destruction of their vehicles and loss of their cargo. Previously, police squad cars that had been called to protect the haulers and their property turned away and left the victims to fend for themselves rather than be attacked by the gangsters.

Ness's report, which he handed over to his friend Cullitan, the county prosecutor, indicated that producers were being forced to pay two men for a minimum of four hours of work to unload even small trucks. If the farmers tried to unload their trucks themselves, they were beaten and chased out of town. The result was that many farmers stopped coming to the Cleveland market and those that paid the exorbitant rates were forced to pass the costs on to the wholesalers, who in turn charged higher prices to retailers and consumers.

While many of the items in Ness's report would not surprise anyone familiar with union practices in the past few decades, the violence and excessive demands by the produce handlers was shocking to people in the 1930's. This particular investigation into labor racketeering was the beginning of a long, controversial crusade that was to affect Ness's career long after his tenure of safety director.

While the citizens of Cleveland could not help but be impressed by the daily record of Eliot Ness's accomplishments in the newspaper, the tireless workaholic had very little time to spend at home with his wife. After the most exhausting schedule during the day, he spent most evenings working until quite late. Instead of going home to let off steam, he often went drinking with his newspaper friends. Edna had assumed that after a few months on the job, Eliot would slack up a little and lead a more normal life. She didn't want her needs to interfere with his success in his new position, considering how important it was to him.

These were exciting times for a city recovering from the depths of the Depression. Every indicator was pointing upward. The conventions and the Expo kept the excitement running continuously throughout the summer of 1936. The city was preparing for President Roosevelt's upcoming visit to the Great Lakes Expo as part of his 1936 election campaign. Never in recent history did Cleveland have so many positive things going for it all at one time.

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