Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Eliot Ness: The Man Behind the Myth

After Chicago

Reporter Wes Lawrence couldn't wait to shake the hand of the celebrity G-Man who had just been promoted in July of 1934 to head up the Ohio arm of the Treasury Department "revenuers" in Cleveland. Wes had already formed a mental picture of the tough guy who rammed a truck through the doors of Capone's biggest breweries, the leader of the famous Chicago "Untouchables."

Expecting a brawny, big-chested, loud-talking lawman, Wes almost spilled his drink when the real man walked up to his table. Could this pencil-thin, apple-cheeked boy in stockbroker's clothing be the legendary Eliot Ness? At first sight, it seemed incredible that any gangster, not to mention the brutal Al Capone, could be intimidated by this freckle-faced young man.

Getting over his shock, Wes invited his tall, slender guest to sit down and ordered a beer for him. He started out the interview by asking Ness what it was really like taking on Al Capone's gang. Eliot sat back in his chair and smiled, deciding where to begin his story.

Wes had never run into a cop as polished and articulate as Eliot Ness, but then not many lawmen had an undergraduate degree in business and a master's degree in criminology. After listening to Eliot for a half-hour, Wes felt himself drawn to the personable, soft-spoken man who steered the conversation away from himself to praise his "Untouchables" for all their accomplishments in Chicago. Eliot played down his role, telling Wes that the best ideas came from the other members of the group. All he did was make sure the good ideas were funded and executed properly. Modesty like that was unusual in Wes's experience, but then Eliot Ness was an unusual guy all around.

When Eliot started to talk about his new mission to shut down Ohio's flourishing bootleg industry, a passion and intensity took over his large, blue-gray eyes. "Wait and see," he said with quiet conviction, "in a couple months at the most, it's going to be too damned expensive to make bootleg liquor in this state."

Wes didn't have to wait long. Within a few days, Eliot and his team of federal agents began a reign of terror that soon crippled the bootleg business in the state. Eliot was out in the field every day with his men closing down at least one still a day. Suddenly, the bootleggers couldn't afford to buy new equipment, now that Eliot's agents were dumping their source of revenue down the sewer and dismantling their stills.

In a less than a year after his conversation with Wes, Eliot and his agents had destroyed equipment producing thousands of gallons of liquor a day, wiping out all the important illegal distilleries in the region.

During that year, Wes saw quite a lot of Eliot Ness. Like Wes, Eliot liked to unwind and have a few beers at the end of the workday before he made the long trip back to the far western suburb where he lived. More often than not, Eliot preferred to drink with Wes and other reporters who had been covering his daily raids on the bootleggers, most of whom had developed a deep admiration for Eliot's work and greatly enjoyed his company.

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