Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Eliot Ness: The Man Behind the Myth

Early Years

Eliot Ness was born on April 19, 1903, in Chicago. He was a lucky boy born into an almost storybook type of American family. His parents, Peter and Emma Ness, were Norwegian immigrants who had earned a comfortable middle class life for their family by very hard work and practical living. Over the years, Peter had made his wholesale bakery business into a thriving concern with several shops and delivery trucks.

Eliot was the youngest of the five Ness children. There was a huge age difference between Eliot and his siblings. His three older sisters had families of their own when Eliot was very young. Even his brother was thirteen years older.

The result was that Eliot received a great deal of individual attention from his parents who were well into middle age when he was born. Their indulgence paid off because Eliot was a remarkably well-behaved boy, who helped his father at his work and earned money on his own from his paper route.

Young Eliot was a good student and an avid reader. Fueling his imagination with adventure stories from Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Eliot seemed to prefer reading to playing ball with the kids in his neighborhood.

His older brother-in-law, Alexander Jamie, who was an agent for the Justice Department, fueled young Eliot's need for adventure. It was Jamie who taught him to shoot and encouraged him to develop his marksmanship.

Eliot went to school at the University of Chicago and earned a degree in business and law. By now, the young man was six-feet-tall, slender and boyishly handsome. He was quiet and introverted, preferring to read Shakespeare than take part in the rowdier college pursuits. His only interest in physical sports was in playing tennis and developing his skill in jujitsu.

Nobody in his family was happy when upon graduation in 1925, he chose to be a retail credit investigator instead of pursuing a career in business. At night, he went back to the University of Chicago to take courses in criminology under the well-known expert, August Volmar.

In 1927, when he had finished his year of criminology studies, Ness hired on with the Treasury Department in Chicago. With some help from his brother-in-law, whose career in federal law enforcement was on the rise, Ness transferred over to the Prohibition Bureau

He was one of the three hundred men responsible for prosecuting the flourishing Chicago bootlegging industry. The Chicago branch of the Prohibition Bureau had a reputation for corruption that equaled the rest of the Windy City's law enforcement establishment. Again, his family wished that he had made a better choice for himself.