Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Eliot Ness: The Man Behind the Myth

The Final Chapter

The business life of Eliot Ness began to disintegrate soon after his humiliating defeat in the Cleveland mayoral election. New Diebold management forced him out and the Middle East Company eventually dissolved. Ness went from one unsuccessful venture to another, finally ending up in Pennsylvania, working for a failing new company called Guaranty Paper.

In the sleepy little town of Coudersport, Pennsylvania, Eliot stopped in the local bar as he did most evenings and entertained folks with his stories about fighting gangsters during Prohibition. Of course, nobody believed for a minute that this quiet, gentle man led the raids that destroyed Al Capone's bootleg empire. But, for a little more than an hour, he had all of them back almost thirty years earlier to the bloody streets of gaudy, gangland Chicago.

It seemed as though telling the stories of these raids was a kind of ritual for him, always following the same pattern. He began nonchalantly with how he planned the operation, explaining where he got his information and what he intended to do with it. Slowly, as the drama of his methodical execution unfolded, the muscles in his body tensed and his eyes darted around warily looking for the signs of an ambush or police betrayal. It reached a peak when he and his men busted down the brewery doors, found themselves outnumbered five to one, and barely escaped a bullet in the chest. Then, once it was over and the gangsters arrested, he uncoiled with lightening speed, downed the rest of his beer and said goodnight.

His audience was amazed at how vivid his details were and how real he made the action seem. They didn't care if it was true or not. That man sure could spin a story. In fact, he was such a good storyteller that a stranger had come to town to help him write it all down in a book.

Outside the bar, he breathed in the refreshing pine-scented air and started to walk the few blocks to the modest home they rented. For the first time in years, he had a reason to be optimistic. If his publisher was telling him the truth, he might be able to pay off all the debts that weighed so heavily on him and his family. The poverty didn't bother him so much. He didn't mind going without the material things he used to have. Living in the tranquility of the evergreen forests, surrounded by deer and birds, made him far happier than the dirty, crime-infested cities where he had spend most of his life. He was at peace finally in this quiet, friendly town.

The only thing that gnawed at him was having his wife and son live so humbly. When they were married, she had every right to expect their comfortable life to continue. Instead, for ten years his income had sharply declined and his debts had steadily increased. Though she never complained, he felt she deserved much more than he could afford to give.

Often over the years, he thought about how different things would have been if only he had been more practical. His degree in business could have launched him as a successful executive, but he had been seduced by the excitement of law enforcement, risking his life daily for a few dollars a year. Then when he finally went into business, he didn't have the experience he needed to make the right decisions. That inexperience and bad luck had plagued his short corporate career. Maybe with this book he had just finished his decades of financial sacrifice would come to an end once and for all.

The abundance of blooming tulips livened up the modest clapboard house. She put down her gardening tools and came toward him with a smile. Her kiss reassuring him that his homecoming was still the big event in her day. Funny how treasures like that had gone unappreciated years earlier when he was at the height of this career.

A sudden tiredness came over him and his throat was parched. He left her for a moment and went into the kitchen to get a glass of water. As he opened the cupboard door, he felt a crushing pain in his chest. His whole body convulsed in sharp rhythmic spasms and he sank to the floor, gasping for breath.

Perhaps he saw her as she came in the house when she heard the glass breaking. He may have even heard her cry of anguish when she saw him lying crumpled on the floor. But that was all because Eliot Ness was dead just a few moments later at the age of 54.

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