Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Eliot Ness: The Man Behind the Myth

Crooked Cops

If any doubts remained about Eliot Ness keeping his promise of cleaning out the police department, they disappeared forever on October 5, 1936. It was the culmination of ten months of secret investigation by Ness, his undercover agents and a crucial collaboration with reporter Clayton Fritchey of The Cleveland Press. who was a remarkable investigative reporter, provided Ness with important evidence connecting high level police officials with the mob.

Eliot Ness turns over evidence to Cullitan
Eliot Ness turns over evidence
to Cullitan

Fritchey got the honors of breaking the story, which dominated the entire front page. Nine officers, including Captain Michael Harwood of the Blackhawk Inn fame and eleven other policemen were relieved of duty as Ness presented his voluminous report to Prosecutor Frank Cullitan on bribery and graft.

Fritchey spelled out for the public the brazen and wanton corruption that permeated the entire department, from top officials to the patrolman on the beat: "Out of the wealth of testimony which Director Ness and The Cleveland Press accumulated, one salient fact emerges: that the corruption uncovered stems from higher circles than the police department: that the rank and file who have taken money were in many cases the victims of an evil system.

"In short, the department has been so controlled for the last 20 years that it could not breed or attract men of high character.... young men coming into the department got off to a bad start by having to pay several hundred dollars for the good jobs: anywhere from $500 to $750 for a sergeancy, more for a lieutenancy and as much as $5000 for a captaincy."

Ness was quoted as saying that when offices are bought with what in those days were large sums of money that the office holder was not going to be particular about how he gets the money back.

Ness's investigation showed that new patrolmen had only two courses to follow: "If he chose to remain honest and rigidly enforce the laws, he was 'sent to the woods' and given the most unpleasant details, he was denied the easy money his fellow patrolmen were making and, finally, he was repeatedly passed over for promotion.

'If, on the other hand, he 'played ball' - he enriched himself, got the best details and won swift promotion."

Rookies got their initiation into corruption by attending parties given for senior officers that were hosted by well know mobsters and racketeers. The domination of most of the rackets by the "Mayfield Road gang" occurred during Prohibition when independent bootleggers were violently forced out of business. At the same time, the relationships that developed between many policemen and organized rackets persisted well after Prohibition was over. Fritchey stated the situation clearly: "The Mayfield mob became so powerful that police no longer would accept protection money from the independents. In short, the police became the agency for enforcing the monopoly of the mob." This one revelation, more than another other in the investigation, shocked Ness. "This is the worst thing that can happen to a large city," he said.

Prosecutor Frank Cullitan put Ness's evidence in front of a grand jury in record time. By the end of October, just before the November 3rd election, the jury had returned indictments against the officers had been suspended. Not surprisingly, Frank Cullitan easily won reelection. In the excitement surrounding the Roosevelt landslide, a newly elected coroner replaced Dr. Arthur Pearse. Dr. Samuel Gerber was a short, unobtrusive looking man with an impressive set of academic credentials. With degrees in law and medicine, Gerber was on the brink of worldwide fame, initially brought by the "Mad Butcher" and later by the Sam Sheppard case.

1936 closed with a major victory for Eliot Ness, Frank Cullitan, Harold Burton, the investigative reporters of the city's major newspapers and all the forces of law and order in Cleveland. Michael Harwood, one of the most arrogant and brazen of the indicted police officials, was brought to trial in December. In mid-December, Harwood was convicted on six counts of soliciting and taking bribes for police protection of bootleggers. Some months before Harwood, Captain Louis Cadek was convicted of taking bribes. As the year ended, seven other major police officials faced trial.

The honest men on the police force took courage from Ness's relentless pursuit of corruption. January 9, 1937, two rookie policemen, John Sullivan and William Schuler, quietly conducted a successful gambling raid. Ness seized the opportunity to order a major campaign against gambling, holding up the rookies as examples of activity he wanted on a continuous basis in every precinct.

The next day, prodded into sudden activity, police arrested 56 men on gambling charges. Ness reiterated that he expected the police to harass the gamblers until they shut down their operations and left town. A few days later, two gambling joints were shut down and their proprietors arrested.

Ness's campaign was working. For the first time in years bookmakers appeared worried. They could not deal with police dropping in on them several times a day to "have a look." In the old days, gambling operators had always been tipped off before a raid and had time to hid their charts and betting slips. But, with the police hanging around all the time, the bookmakers were afraid to hang up their charts.

The biggest effect of Ness's crusade against the gamblers was to strike fear into the customers. For the first time, customers of the gambling establishments were being arrested along with the proprietors.

While the revitalized police department was shutting down the city's gambling, the operators simply moved out to the suburbs under the jurisdiction of the Cuyahoga County Sheriff. "Honest" John Sulzmann had been replaced by Sheriff Martin O'Donnell, but the level of corruption in the department did not change. Publicity about the cleaning up of the police force helped to embolden the city's business community to report the activities of racketeers. "Gangsters and racketeers could be run out of Cleveland in a few weeks if industrialists and businessmen would report threats and protection schemes," Ness urged.

"Come in and give me the information. I shall not put you on the spot or expose you on the witness stand. But don't hide the facts and help gangs prosper while injuring yourself and endangering all other decent businesses."

The second week in March brought another victory to Ness. Deputy Police Inspector Edwin C. Burns was found guilty of all five counts of receiving bribes from bootleggers. Burns faced from one to ten years on each charge.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported an interesting personal twist to this trial: "When the jury filed out of the court room yesterday afternoon, Edwin C. Burns, a tall, husky handsome man with jet black unruly hair stepped up to Safety Director Eliot Ness and shook his hand.

It was the defendant, Burns, a man with a clean record of 24 years in the police department until Ness' investigation resulted in bribery charges against him last fall.

"I just want you to know that, no matter what happens there are no hard feelings," Burns said. "I know there was nothing personal in your activities."

"Nothing personal at all," Ness replied.

This conversation contrasted sharply with trial of Michael Harwood, whose wife allegedly spat on Ness as she left the courtroom.

In April of 1936, several businessmen were starting to feel confident enough to cooperate with Ness on giving evidence against the racketeers. In mid-month, a grand jury returned a blackmail indictment against Harry Barrington, the business agent of the local Carpenters Union. The police vandal squad obtained information from a large number of building contractors who had to pay Barrington between $50 and $300 on each building job to prevent damage to the building.

A month later, a jury found Police Lieutenant John Nebe guilty of two counts of accepting bribes from bootleggers. Nebe was the fourth of the police officers convicted as a result of Ness' departmental cleanup. The newspapers celebrated Ness's "perfect score against those few members of the department who used their position and power as a means of personal aggrandizement." One casualty of the police corruption probe was Ness's assistant, John Flynn. Rumors swirled around City Hall when Flynn resigned, but the real reasons for his departure were never made public. Ness quickly replaced Flynn with his close friend Robert Chamberlin, a "straight arrow" lawyer with a military bearing and background.

Late spring of 1937 saw the opening of the Cleveland Police Academy that was designed to graduate law enforcement professionals. From his own graduate studies in criminology under the distinguished August Volmar at the University of Chicago, Ness understood the importance of excellent training. The Police Academy was the fulfillment of his commitment to thoroughly upgrade the professionalism of the entire force.

New police department recruits began a three-month course, which included lectures on psychiatry, psychology, narcotics, ballistic, fingerprinting and other forensic sciences. Included in the academy was a "Murder Room," where detectives were trained and tested on their powers of observation.

Things were looking up for honest professional cops. Morale was up and, for once, a decent young man, could take pride in getting a job as a Cleveland city policeman.

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