Eliot Ness: The Man Behind the Myth
By late 1928, Al Capone was one of the most flamboyant and successful criminals in the country. His power in the Chicago area was as awesome as his intrinsic cruelty.
Frank Loesch, the president of the Chicago Crime Commission, had the humiliating task of asking for Capone's help in securing an honest election in Cook County. It was a thoroughly absurd situation: there was no elected or appointed power that was not openly corrupt, from the Illinois governor to the mayor of Chicago, so Loesch had to turn to the most powerful man in the city
Uppermost in Loesch's mind was the spring Republican primary in which candidates and party members were murdered and voters terrorized by bombs and threats. There was no reason for him to doubt that the violence would be even worse for the November election.
"I'll give you a square deal if you don't ask to much of me," Capone offered arrogantly.
The two men made a deal. Capone had the Chicago police round up and disarm all the known gangsters the night before the election. The next day, the police guarded the polling areas and the election proceeded without any violence.
Loesch later admitted: "It turned out to be the squarest and the most successful election day in forty years. There was not one complaint, not one election fraud and no threat of trouble all day."
As John Kobler, Capone's biographer, pointed out: "It was also a display of power such as few outlaws have achieved before or since."
Capone's cruelty was as great as his power. Kobler recounts a famous Capone story in his CAPONE: The Life and World of Al Capone. Capone had invited three Sicilian gangsters to a lavish feast. He was the most exuberant and genial of hosts until the enormous meal had been consumed. Then, suddenly, he accused them of disloyalty an offense he could not tolerate. "Capone's bodyguards fell upon them , lashing them to their chairs with wire and gagging them. Capone got up, holding a baseball bat. Slowly, he walked the length of the table and halted behind the first guest of honor. With both hands, he lifted the bat and slammed it down full force. Slowly, methodically, he struck again and again, breaking ones in the man's shoulders, arms and chest. He moved to the next man and, when he had reduced him to mangled flesh and bone, to the third. One of the bodyguards then fetched his revolver from the checkroom and shot each man in the back of the head."
The newly-elected President Hoover was determined to end the career of Al Capone. There are a number of stories about how Hoover arrived at that goal, some of which are patently untrue, others are well documented.
After his election, Herbert Hoover was the guest of J.C. Penney at his Miami estate, which was not far from Capone's. Supposedly the constant rowdiness at the Capone estate offended Hoover so much that he vowed to have the mobster silenced.
Another unproven story was that the newspapermen in Miami gave more press coverage to the gangster than the newly-elected president.
More likely, the fervent appeal of Frank Knox, who published the Chicago Daily News, was a key motive for Hoover's war on Capone. After hearing from Knox of Capone's power, Hoover was anxious to see the prosecution of this brazen criminal who was living so flamboyantly above the law. If the law enforcement officials of Illinois were not willing to prosecute, then Hoover would get him on the myriad of federal offenses that were, in fact, a main source of his revenue and power.
Hoover charged Andrew Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury, with putting an end to the Capone Mob. The federal government had two areas to attack Capone: income tax evasion and violations of the Volstead Act which enforced Prohibition. The Feds pursued both avenues with equal vigor.
Capone, with his extravagant lifestyle, had not filed an income tax return for several key years. His vulnerability to the IRS was even greater when the Supreme Court handed down the Sullivan decision. No longer could a criminal claim that income from illegal activities was exempt from income taxes on the grounds that reporting the illegal income was self-incriminating. While Capone's lawyers must have warned him of the ramifications of this ruling, Capone still didn't get the message. Even after his brother Ralph and other gangsters were being indicted on tax evasion, Capone did not protect himself from prosecution.
It did not matter that Capone personally did not have bank accounts, did not sign checks and did not appear to own any assets. Established legal precedent allowed for prosecuting criminals with extravagant lifestyles and no visible means of legal support.
Quietly and anonymously, the IRS agents went about building their case against Capone by proving that Capone's net worth and net expenditures were far in excess of his income in the years in which Capone had not filed any income tax statements.
The parallel attack that President Hoover had mounted against the Capone empire was focused upon violations of the Volstead Act which enforced the Prohibition amendment. U.S. District Attorney George E. Johnson had the job of closing down Capone's enormous bootlegging operations and prosecuting him for thousands of Volstead infractions.
Finding honest men amongst the corruption-ridden Prohibition Bureau was no easy task. Ness, it seemed, was one of the very few agents who had earned a reputation for reliability and honesty. Through the recommendations of his brother-in-law, who enjoyed a very high profile as an elite law enforcement officer, Eliot was tasked with assembling and leading the team to go after Capone's breweries and hard liquor operations.
In Ness's book The Untouchables, he estimates that Capone had at least "twenty breweries in operation. Each brewery out one hundred barrels of beer a day." The hard liquor, purchased from the Mafia, was delivered through the same system as the beer.
With a weekly sales volume in excess of a million and a half dollars, it seemed incredible that the operations were never shut down or faced prosecution. His brother-in-law, Alexander Jamie, estimated that a third of the alcohol was being paid out in graft and protection.
Eliot was given the personnel records of the entire Prohibition Bureau from which to select his small team of "crack" agents. The success of his mission depended upon the honesty of the agents, but Ness demanded much more than integrity:
"I ticked off the general qualities I desired: single, no older than thirty, both the mental and physical stamina to work long hours and the courage and ability to use fist or gun and special investigative techniques. I needed a good telephone man, one who could tap a wire with speed and precision. I needed men who were excellent drivers, for much of our success would depend upon how expertly they could trail the mob's cars and trucks... and fresh faces from other divisionswho were not known to the Chicago mobsters."
Initially Ness selected about fifty men, which he quickly whittled down to fifteen. An intensive investigation left him with just nine:
- Marty Lahart, an Irish sports and fitness enthusiast,
- Sam Seager, a tough, but unobtrusive looking man who had once been a Sing Sing death row guard,
- Barney Cloonan, a giant muscular, black-haired Irishman,
- Lyle Chapman, a brilliant problem solver and investigator with the body and strength of the Colgate University football player he had been,
- Tom Friel, a former state trooper from Pennsylvania,
- Joe Leeson, a legendary genius when it came to tailing someone in an automobile,
- Paul Robsky, a short, ordinary-looking man, who brought both telephone expertise and extraordinary courage to the job,
- Mike King, another man unobtrusive-looking man with special talent for absorbing and analyzing facts,
- Bill Gardner, an enormous former professional football player of Native American descent.
Even with his crack team of agents, Eliot Ness, gutsy and determined as he was, was not without human fears about the task they were facing: "Doubts raced through my mind as I considered the feasibility of enforcing a law which the majority of honest citizens didn't seem to want.
"I felt a chill foreboding for my men as I envisioned the violent reaction we would produced in the criminal octopus hovering over Chicago, its tentacles of terror reaching out all over the nation. We had undertaken what might be a suicidal mission."
Capone, the most powerful mobster at the zenith of his career, had killed or ordered murdered hundreds of men all ready. Some of these murders struck very close to home for Eliot because they were some of the few courageous law enforcement officials who dared to go after the mobster.
Others were rival gangsters working for Bugs Moran , subsequently executed in the famous St.Valentine's Day Massacre. Many other Capone-ordered murders went virtually unnoticed as minor mob associates were rubbed out for errors in judgement, incompetence, treachery or simply being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Many have wondered why Eliot Ness, with a college degree and a year of graduate study at the University of Chicago, would risk his young life for less than $3,000 per year going up against the most ruthless criminal in the country. Some have claimed that Ness was an egomaniac who excessively craved attention and that his crusade against Capone was the surest way to get that attention.
While it was certainly true that Eliot enjoyed publicity, which he cultivated through friendships with newspapermen, he was not an egomaniac, nor did he crave attention. At least two other motivations were uppermost in his mind as he undertook this dangerous venture. Ness was always a man of very strong ideals. He was completely committed to seeing Capone and all the crooked cops and officials who helped Capone go to jail. The other powerful motivator was excitement and danger. Eliot Ness was in many ways a frontier sheriff, who craved action more than publicity.
He is sensitive to this issue of motivations when he explains why he took the job: "Unquestionably, it was going to be highly dangerous. Yet I felt it was quite natural to jump at the task. After all, if you don't like action and excitement, you don't go into police work. And, what the hell, I figured, nobody lives forever!"
One of their first skirmishes in the war was Ness's plan to close down eighteen stills located in Chicago Heights in one night. Each of Ness's men was given several Prohibition agents and at least one still to target. Some of them would make two raids that night.
They spent hours studying the map and deciding how to approach each target. Then they gathered their cars and equipment and waited for the Prohibition agents to arrive. Given the poor reputation of the average Prohibition agent, Ness's agents made sure that none of the men in these raiding parties ever had a chance to get to a telephone.
The raids were all scheduled to occur simultaneously at nine thirty at night, so that they could make a clean sweep before the news got around.
Ness had chosen as his target the Cozy Corners Saloon, the brain center of the Chicago Heights operation as well as a supply center for many major Midwestern cities.
With a sawed off shotgun in his arms, Ness and his men charged through the front door, yelling, "Everybody keep his place! This is a federal raid!"
All across Chicago Heights, the same thing was happening. The operation was a success: eighteen stills were shut down and fifty-two people jailed. The stills were dismantled and stored as evidence. Now with that successful raid to boost their confidence, Ness and his men took aim at Capone's major operation the breweries.
Ness understood that if hundreds of federal agents and local police had never inflicted any serious damage on Capone's breweries the income which was the lifeblood of his operations that his little band of agents was going to have to be a lot smarter to make any impact at all.
After a number of false alarms, Friel and Robsky located what appeared to be a fully operational brewery. Ness planned the raid for ten fifteen in the evening. Armed with sawed-off shotguns, axes and crowbars, they began their attack. Ness broke the door lock with an ax and Chapman pried the lock off with a crowbar. But the wooden door was only the start. Right behind it was a steel door. Ness shot the lock several times and finally it gave.
Inside was a huge room, reeking of beer, with two trucks half loaded with barrels. The only problem is that there wasn't a soul in the place. Everybody had fled through an escape route on the roof.
Ness was upset that they took no prisoners, but pleased that they had confiscated nineteen 1,500-gallon vats, 140 barrels of beer and two trucks, with a total estimated value of $75,000 and a capacity of 100 barrels a day.
Ness decided that he would need a new type of weapon if he wanted to force his way quickly into any other Capone breweries. He got his hands on a 10-ton flat-bed truck with a reinforced steel bumper covering the whole radiator. The flat-bed was outfitted with scaling ladders, so that his men could get on the roofs of the breweries.
Soon, Leeson and Seager confirmed the location of another Capone brewery on South Cicero Avenue. As they watched it, they noticed that a convoy of thugs was protecting the delivery trucks. Word of Ness's earlier raid had caused a strengthening of the guard.
While his men kept a vigil on the comings and goings of this Cicero brewery, Ness attended to some political fence-mending. Since his last raid did not include anyone from the Prohibition Bureau, Ness thought he had better invite the Chicago bureau on this next raid they were planning. Otherwise there would be more hurt feelings and political unpleasantness.
Annoyed at Ness's upstaging of his group, the head of the Chicago Prohibition Bureau claimed he could only spare a single man for the upcoming raid a new agent with no experience.
Ness described him as "a mousy little man with thick, horn-rimmed glasses" who had been a department store clerk before he got the Prohibition agent job as a political favor. The poor agent was shocked when he joined the heavily-armed, tough crowd of agents ready for the raid. The diminutive new prohibition agent was dwarfed by the bulk of the huge men on Ness's team.
The raid took place at five in the morning when the trucks were normally loaded. One of the agents drove the truck through the closed doors of the brewery. Ness also sat in the truck's cab with the prohibition agent squeezed in between. Ness's other agents had been stationed at the back doors and on the roof.
This raid was an unqualified success. Frank Conta, Capone's friend, and Steve Svododa, Capone's top brewer, were among the men captured. Better still, seven 320-gallon vats, a hundred barrels, the brewing equipment and three new trucks were captured. Capone was now minus another 100 barrels a day in brewing capacity. The only real casualty of the operation was the immediate and impassioned resignation of the newly-minted prohibition agent.
Over the coming months, Ness and his team closed down brewery after brewery, each time confiscating expensive equipment, barrels and vats, and trucks of all kinds. The mobsters were really feeling the pinch. In its first six months of operation, Ness had closed down some nineteen distilleries and key breweries, worth an estimated $1,000,000.
There was obviously some reticence on the part of Capone to assassinate the members of this presidentially-ordered federal team. Capone was smart enough to understand that killing off these federal agents could bring him more trouble than he already had. Still, these damaging search-and-destroy missions had to be stopped.
Capone fully believed that every man had his price, so his next move was to have one of his men offer Ness $2,000 a week. A similar offer was made to Seager and Lahart, when a man threw an envelope with the cash into their car as he passed them on the road. Ness's agents caught up with Capone's guy and threw the money back at him. To men making $2800 per year, refusing that kind of money underscored how deeply-engrained was their integrity and commitment.
Ness wanted to use this event to make a point publicly. He gathered all of the news media for a press conference on Capone's failed bribery attempts. Ness explained his rationale: "Possibly it wasn't too important for the world to know that we couldn't be bought, but I did want Al Capone and every gangster in the city to realize that there were still a few law enforcement agents who couldn't be swerved from their duty."
The story was carried by newspapers all over the country, one of which coined the term "The Untouchables."
As the Capone operatives became more cautious and secretive about their operations, it was harder for Ness to ferret out the location of the breweries and distilleries. In many cases, the information came from tips from rival gangs, but more often their best information came from wiretaps and an undercover agent that Ness had inside the Mob.
One of the problems the federal agents faced was that a key source of information the sales office for the beer and liquorwas in the Liberty Hotel, which was a place too difficult to install a wiretap. Using his undercover agent George Thomas, he planted disinformation about an upcoming raid on the sales office. As Ness had hoped, the sales office was quickly moved to another area, which, fortunately, was much easier to tap. Ness's friend in the phone company was kind enough to lend a telephone company truck and uniform so that Robsky could tap every phone line in the place without arousing suspicion.
As Ness continued to inflict pain on Capone's operations, the mobsters developed new ways of protecting their source of income. Not surprisingly, they began to follow Ness and the other "Untouchables" around the clock. They installed a hotline so that anyone could inform on what Ness and his agents were doing. If the tip was a good one, the person received $500. Ness lost no time in tapping this particular phone.
Sometimes the wiretaps worked against them. A couple of times, Ness's carefully planned raids were foiled by tip-offs. After a while, Ness found out that the mobsters had tapped his phones and those of his agents. The gangsters had lured away telephone company technicians with huge salaries to set up their own wiretaps.
One of the best wiretap opportunities Ness had was Ralph Capone's headquarters in the Montmartre Café in Cicero. This tap would be particularly important since Ralph's brother Al had just been put in jail May 16, 1929, for carrying a pistol. For almost a year, Ralph would carry out Scarface's orders from prison.
The difficulty was that the telephone exchange was so busy that it was long and difficult operation to figure out which were the right phones to tap. Ness had Lahart disguise himself and burrow his way into the Montmartre Café as a free-spending customer from out of town.
Lahart determined that Ralph Capone did most of his telephoning in an alcove just behind the Montmartre's bar. The real complication was that the café was heavily guarded outside , making it impossible for Robsky to work on the terminal box in the alley near the café. The café's guards had to be distracted so that Robsky could climb the telephone pole and complete the wiretap, while Ness stood at the base of the pole with his gun in his hand. With the odds against them, they completed the most successful surveillance operation to date.
This Montmartre wiretap yielded some of their best information. Capone had been overheard ordering the reopening of a major brewery on South Wabash Avenue, which had been closed earlier by one of Ness's raids.
Ness waited several days until all the new equipment had been installed and the brewery was online, then he raided it and confiscated all the new trucks and equipment.
Ness was very sensitive that he was becoming Capone's recurring bad dream and that eventually Capone would overcome his reluctance to snuff out federal agents. Soon after the raid on the South Wabash brewery, the mobsters started planning Ness's funeral.
Ness narrowly escaped death several times, once just a few days after the second closing of the South Wabash brewery. Ness had cut short his date with Edna Staley, his long-time girlfriend because his car was being followed. He walked her to her door and noticed then that the neighborhood seemed to be deserted. Ness had almost convinced himself it was his imagination when he noticed a parked car facing in the opposite direction. "...as I approached to within a few yards of it, there was a bright flash from the front window, and I ducked instinctively as my windshield splintered in tune with the bark of a revolver. Without thinking, I jammed the accelerator to the floor. As my car leaped ahead, there was another flash, and the window of my left read door was smashed by another slug.
"The tires squealed as I hurtled around the next corner...Driving madly, I circled the block, taking my gun from the should holster and holding it in my left hand as I doubled back to get behind the car which had ambushed me. Now I wanted my turn, but the would-be assassin had faded into the night."
Another time, Ness recalled when he and Lahart were on their way to a restaurant for a cup of coffee. "...I veered between two cars parked at the curb and started out across the street. I heard the high-pitched whine of the powerful motor at the same moment Marty yelled hoarsely:
"Eliot! Look out!
Without thinking, I spun and dove headlong back between the two parked cars. My chest crashed against the curb, driving the breath from my body, as the roaring machine rushed by inches from my legs. By the time I dragged myself painfully to my feet, the speeding car was out of sight around the next corner."
Frank Basile, Ness's friend and sometime assistant, was found brutally murdered. Ness's reaction gives some insight into his character: "Lying there was a lifeless husk which had been Frank Basile! I had expected it, I suppose, and in the course of my career I had often witnessed the ravages of violent death. You think, eventually, that nothing can disturb you and that your nerves are impregnable. Yet, looking down at that familiar face, I realized that death is something to which we never become calloused."
Ness wanted very much to humiliate Capone publicly as well as to put him in jail. The murder of Basile was the catalyst to a plan to openly embarrass Capone. From his many successful raids on Capone breweries and other liquor operations, Ness had accumulated some forty-five trucks of various types, most of which were new. The government had contracted for a new storage place for Ness's vehicle collection that would eventually be sold at public auction. Until then, it was necessary to move the trucks to the new garage.
Ness hit on an idea to strike a psychological blow to Al Capone pride, something few intelligent people ever attempted. Ness had all of the trucks polished to a fine shine. Then he arranged for a group of drivers to operate the convoy of trucks. When everything was ready, Ness made his boldest move.
He called Capone's headquarters at the Lexington Hotel and bullied his way into getting Capone himself on the phone.
"Well, Snorkey," Ness called him by the nickname only Capone's close friends used," I just wanted to tell you that if you look out your front windows down onto Michigan Avenue at exactly eleven o'clock you'll see something that should interest you.
"What's up?" Capone asked, curiosity in his tone.
"Just take a look and you'll see," Ness said just before he slammed down the phone.
The motorcade came to the Capone's Lexington Hotel headquarters at eleven o'clock in the morning. Moving very slowly, it passed a bunch of Capone's gangsters milling around outside the hotel. Ness could see the wild gesticulating and confusion on Capone's balcony.
This was a big day for Ness and his team. "What we had done this day," he told people later, "was enrage the bloodiest mob in criminal history...We had hurled the defiance of "The Untouchables" into their teeth; they surely knew by now that we were prepared to fight to the finish."
Ness had certainly succeeded in making Capone angry. Right after the parade, Capone stormed through his suite shrieking and breaking things up. Remembering the time Capone took a baseball bat to his enemies, Ness wondered if Capone would come after him in personally.
Not only had Ness succeeded in enraging Capone, but, more importantly, he was making a significant dent in Capone's business. Millions of dollars of brewing equipment had been seized or destroyed, thousands of gallons of beer and alcohol had been dumped and the largest breweries were closed.
Wiretaps on Capone's lieutenants revealed how bad things were getting. The mob had to cut back its graft and payments to the policemen. Beer had to be imported from other areas to supply the speakeasies that used to buy Capone's beer. Things got even worse when they raided a gigantic operation that was supplying 20,000 gallons a day.
Capone's need to have Eliot Ness dead, became an obsession. One day when Ness went from his office to his car, he noticed that the fastener on his briefcase had come open. He put the briefcase on the hood of his car to refasten the snap and happened to notice that the hood was open a little bit.
No stranger to assassination attempts, Ness cautiously raised the hood to find a dynamite bomb inside. He closed the hood of the car even more cautiously and called the police. Had he just touched the starter, he would have been history. Ness wondered how long his luck would last.
Finally, the government's mission was coming to closure in the early spring of 1931. Facing a six-year statute of limitations on some of the earlier evidence, the government had to prosecute the 1924 evidence before March 15, 1931. A few days before that deadline, on March 13, a federal grand jury met secretly on the government's claim that in 1924 Al Capone had a tax liability of $32,488.81. The jury returned an indictment against Capone that was kept secret until the investigation was complete for the years 1925 to 1929.
On June 5, 1931, the grand jury met again and returned an indictment against Capone with twenty-two counts of tax evasion totally over $200,000. A week later, a third indictment was returned on the evidence provided by Ness and his team. Capone and sixty-eight members of his gang were charged with some 5,000 separate violations of the Volstead Act, some of them going back to 1922. The income tax cases took precedence over the Prohibition violations.
Capone was facing a possible 34 years in jail if the government completely won its case. Capone's lawyers presented the U.S. Attorney Johnson with a deal. Capone would plead guilty for a relatively light sentence. Johnson took the deal and agreed to recommend a two-and-a-half-year sentence. The government had some concerns about its witnesses living to testify, plus the upholding of the statute of limitations by the Supreme Court. The press was outraged that Capone would get off with such a light sentence.
Capone went into the courtroom on June 16 a fairly happy man. When Capone pleaded guilty, Judge Wilkerson adjourned the hearing until June 30. Capone told the press he was entertaining offers from the movie studios to make a film of his life. He was in excellent spirits when he appeared for sentencing in front of Wilkerson at the end of the month.
Judge Wilkerson had a little surprise for Al. "The parties to a criminal case may not stipulate as to the judgment to be entered," Wilkerson said firmly. Wilkerson made it quite clear that while he would listen to Johnson's recommendation, he was not bound to go along with it. "It is time for somebody to impress upon the defendant that it is utterly impossible to bargain with a federal court." Capone was allowed to withdraw his guilty plea and a trial was scheduled for October.
Subsequently, it was secretly proven to Judge Wilkerson that Capone's gang was bribing and threatening the potential jurors. Again, Judge Wilkerson had a surprise for the gang leader. At the last minute, he switched the jury pool with another one that had been assembled for a different trial.
Late Saturday night, October 17, 1931, the jury completed its deliberation and found Capone guilty of some counts, but not all counts of tax evasion. The following Saturday, Judge Wilkerson sentenced Capone for eleven years, $50,000 in fines and court costs of another $30,000. Bail was denied and Capone was led to the Cook County Jail to await eventual removal to Leavenworth.
As Capone left the courtroom, an official of the Internal Revenue Service slapped liens on his property so that the government could satisfy its tax claims. Capone lost his temper and tried to attack the man, but was restrained by the marshals who had him in custody.
The government decided not to prosecute Capone on any of the Prohibition violations that Ness and his team had worked so hard to document. Instead, this evidence was held back just in case Capone was able to beat the income tax rap. Capone's appeal was denied and in May of 1932, "The Untouchables" escorted Capone to the train that took him to Atlanta penitentiary.
Ness made certain that the train compartments were secure and checked for the last time on the prisoner, who had taken off his coat and lighted a cigar.
"Well, I'm on my way to do eleven years," he said, looking at Ness. "I've got to do it, that's all. I'm not sore at anybody. Some people are lucky. I wasn't. There was too much overhead in my business anyhow, paying off all the time and replacing trucks and breweries. They ought to make it legitimate."
"If it was legitimate, you certainly wouldn't want anything to do with it," he told Capone as he walked away, seeing him for the last time.
The work of "The Untouchables" was done and Eliot Ness got a promotion out of it. He was made Chief Investigator of Prohibition Forces for the entire Chicago division. Al Capone, already infected with syphilis, deteriorated mentally and physically. As he neared the end of his prison term, the most powerful criminal in America had been reduced to a near vegetable.