Eliot Ness: The Man Behind the Myth
The Boy Scout
In November of 1935, Mayor Harold Burton, newly elected on a law-and-order campaign pledge, urgently needed a strong figure to clean up the police department and rid the city of its festering mob influence. Wes came up with the idea of Eliot as the man. "He's just the kind of guy Mayor Burton needs," Wes told his editor, "but I can't imagine Burton giving him the job. Eliot's so nonpolitical and Burton, even though he tries to be independent, is such a 'dyed-in-the-wool' Republican."
Wes's better judgment told him the idea was probably doomed since Eliot was only thirty-three, had lived in the city a little over a year, and had virtually no political connections. Nevertheless, Wes was so firm in his conviction that Eliot was the right man that he blurted out his idea to Eliot when they met for drinks after work. Even if it was a crazy idea, Eliot liked it so much that he couldn't keep his mind on anything else that evening.
The two of them theorized about what Mayor Burton would want in the man he'd pick to run the police and fire departments: many years of law enforcement experience, terrific management ability to overhaul a department of more than two thousand people, an incredible energy level to show fast, dramatic results, the brains to outwit the vast gangster empire which had entrenched itself in the city and, above all, integrity beyond reproach.
"No wonder he's having trouble finding somebody," Wes commented. "Eliot, you're the only guy I know that comes close. In fact, you have everything but the decades of experience."
Eliot wondered how he was going to get around the problem of his age and experience. "Somehow we have to convince him that ability, enthusiasm, and integrity are more important than years of service," he said in a tone more hopeful, than confident. "We'll have to find a way to get Burton look closely at my record in Chicago and Ohio."
Since Wes had volunteered his help, he and Eliot talked for hours about the best way for Wes to introduce Eliot as a candidate to the mayor. A couple of days later, Wes found a perfect opportunity to remind Burton that a really outstanding lawman, already famous in Chicago, was creating an excellent reputation for himself in Ohio. "Eliot who?" Burton responded with a blank look. "I never heard of him," he said with no interest in pursuing the subject.
That was it as far as Wes was concerned. Eliot didn't have a chance. Wes was sorry he ever brought up the idea to Eliot in the first place. When they met again after work, he would have to convince his friend to forget it.
That night at the bar, Eliot became very quiet after Wes told him about the mayor's reaction. Wes spent the next few minutes trying to persuade Eliot that there was no point in going after the job if Burton didn't even know Eliot's name. Eliot listened, but said nothing.
"Sometimes I think I'm talking to myself." Wes said glumly.
Eliot smiled, his jaw was resolute and his gaze steady. "I'm sorry, Wes. I understand what you're telling me, but giving up is completely out of the question. Now that Prohibition is over, I'm not going to chase moonshiners for the rest of my life, not when I have the chance to really make something out of this rotten police force and, while I'm at it, kick the Mob out of here for good." He grabbed a paper napkin and pulled a pen from his pocket. "Let's make a list," he said. "Who do we know that will talk to the mayor on my behalf? Preferably important businessmen who have been leaned on by the labor racketeers or the Mayfield Hill Mob.
The two of them came up with a dozen or so people who had Harold Burton's ear. Now all they had to do was convince those businessmen that the city would be a lot better off with Eliot Ness heading up the police force. They split up the list of names and planned to make the phone calls over the coming week.
It turned out to be far better idea than they had imagined since labor racketeers had personally affected many of the businessmen on the list. For the most part, the men they called were thrilled at the idea of an energetic young federal agent taking the helm of the worthless police force.
A couple weeks later, after Eliot and Wes had done everything they could think of to persuade Burton, Wes got the word from a close friend of the mayor that, in spite of all their lobbying efforts, Eliot's youth and inexperience had put him at the very bottom of Burton's slate of four candidates.
Fearing the bad news would catch Eliot by surprise, Wes called Eliot at home December 11, 1935, just before he left for work. That morning when Eliot came into his office, his staff knew something was really troubling him. Usually so upbeat and personable, Eliot forced a smile, greeted everyone mechanically, slipped into his office and quietly closed the door.
He stood by the window, but didn't really look through it, gazing instead at his reflection. For the first time in thirty-three years, failure seemed imminent. Since Burton had supposedly made his decision, the announcement could come at any time. The press, knowing about his desire for the job, would contact him immediately. He must prepare himself to accept defeat gracefully.
The situation really galled him. He wanted the challenge of this new job so intensely. So what if he didn't have gray hair and twenty-five years of service? It didn't mean he didn't have the ability. Nobody could clean up the city and straighten out the police force the way he could. Nobody.
Now that this opportunity had fallen through, Eliot would have to find something else soon. After setting his mind on that one position, he didn't have his heart in his federal job anymore. He was so ripe for something much bigger than chasing bootleggers.
His secretary knocked on the door, opened it a crack and stuck her head inside. "Eliot," she whispered, "the mayor's office wants to know if you can be over there at noon. What should I tell them?"
He seemed startled. "Tell them 'yes,' for God's sake!"
"Does that mean you got the job?"
Eliot shook his head sadly. "No, he's just being kind enough to interview me along with his other candidates."
Harold Burton was a sincere, friendly man of forty-seven. Like Eliot Ness, he had accomplished much for someone who was relatively young. Two years after graduating from Harvard Law School, Burton's heroism during the Great War earned him the Purple Heart, the Belgian Croix de Guerre, and a special citation by the U.S. government. He practiced law in Cleveland until he was elected to the Ohio State Legislature as an independent Republican. In the early years of the Depression, he served as the city's law director. Now as a virtual newcomer to politics, he was mayor of the sixth-largest city in America.
The meeting took place at twelve exactly. Eliot came prepared to impress Burton with his reasoned, analytical approach to the position and with his record of showing fast results. The mayor listened politely to Eliot's earnest pitch, which was a resume of his accomplishments as a federal agent and an enthusiastic action plan for the position.
Afterwards, the mayor described the magnitude of the job and its weighty responsibilities, as though he was preparing Eliot to accept the choice of a more experienced candidate.
"What's the largest number of people you've ever managed?" the mayor wanted to know.
"Thirty-four agents and several clerks," he answered.
"There are over twenty-five hundred people in the city's police and fire departments," Burton said simply. "Even if those two departments were in excellent shape, they would need a very experienced manager. As you know, both departments are a mess. They need a miracle worker not just a manager.
Any questions?" the mayor asked, getting up from his chair, which signaled to the young man that the very brief, almost perfunctory, interview was over.
"I think you've explained everything, Mayor Burton," Eliot said as he rose from his seat, choking back his bitter disappointment that the position had slipped from his grasp. "I really appreciate the opportunity to meet with you in person."
The mayor went over to his desk and rummaged through the stacks of paper, finally finding what he wanted. "Good," the mayor said, handing Eliot a copy of the city charter and a recent survey on crime in the city. "This is your homework for tonight. Your boss over there in Treasury told me you can start tomorrow morning."
It took a moment or two for Eliot to understand that Burton had just given him the job. "What about Joe Keenan?" Eliot referred to the respected veteran lawman that was Burton's first choice for the director position.
"Oh," Burton said offhandedly, "he didn't want it. Joe said I'd be crazy if I didn't choose you. That's what everybody's been telling me lately."
With the mayor's permission, Eliot called his boss in the Treasury Department, thanked him for his support and submitted his resignation. Burton had Eliot sworn in on the spot as the new director and the whole thing was over by half past twelve.
In just the few minutes it took Eliot to walk back to his old office, his staff had quickly produced a huge bouquet of roses, which they put in his arms as he walked in the door. While they were genuinely happy for him, they were very sorry he was leaving, knowing the department would never be the same without him.
Soon, reporters crowded into his office, hounding him to tell what he would do first in his new position. "I'm going to be as conservative as possible," he assured them, "until I can fully investigate certain conditions, particularly in the police department. After that, I don't know exactly what I'll do, but I'll take action first and talk about it later."
The Depression took Cleveland to its knees. The exuberant, brawny, industrial powerhouse of 1930 became a shaky, somber, convalescent town in just five years. The end to prosperity brought the city's dynamic industries and financial barons to the brink of ruin. In the years after the great stock market crash, the sixth-largest city in the country coasted downhill at dizzying speed. The economic and cultural preeminence of the previous decade reversed in the early 1930's to a fight for survival.
With one in every three men unemployed, economic distress reached enormous proportions. The $200 million in relief paid out between 1928 and 1937 made up only a sixth of the lost $1.2 billion in normal wages during that time. The city, besieged by plunging tax revenues and soaring relief costs, slashed its budgets and municipal services. Law enforcement nearly disintegrated during this time with dishonest, political leadership and inadequate funding.
Near the end of 1935, on the eve of Cleveland's centennial year, the election of Mayor Harold Burton was the first sign of hope that law and order would be restored. Plenty remained to be done to get the city back on its feet again, but already there were good signs. It looked as if thousands of depositors in the failed Union Trust Bank would soon get a partial payment on their frozen accounts. The Chamber of Commerce planned to hold an exposition on the lakefront in the summer of 1936, which would draw millions of visitors. The Republican national convention, scheduled for June of the next year, would be a big boost to the city's hotels and merchants.
In that mid-Depression period, idealism had taken a terrible pounding from the grim facts of day-to-day existence. The city's old standards of morality, deeply rooted in its New England heritage and the conservatism of its central European immigrants, had collapsed as dramatically as the stock market, the banks, and the general economy. The heart of the city was a reflection of the times: panhandlers and prostitutes were out in droves, intimidating pedestrians on downtown sidewalks; bookstores openly peddled pornographic literature and the entertainment in the night clubs that sprang up all over downtown after Prohibition was almost bacchanalian.
The city looked to Mayor Burton to end the era of rampant lawlessness and congratulated him for choosing a man like Eliot Ness to take on the job. Adding Ness to his new cabinet injected a youthful glamour that the stodgy city government desperately needed. The underworld on the other hand saw its safe, profitable haven suddenly threatened by the same man who destroyed Capone's bootleg operations in Chicago. The Plain Dealer summed up the sentiment in its editorial: "If any man knows the inside of the crime situation here, his name is Ness. The mere announcement of his selection is worth a squadron of police in the effect it will have on the underworld's peace of mind."
Shock waves reverberated throughout a large segment of the police force after hearing about its new boss. Not just among those "on the take," but also with the many who had become lazy from the lax discipline. Policemen had grown careless with their appearance, walking their beats in unbuttoned uniform coats, unpressed trousers, and dusty shoes. Nor were they above having a few drinks while on duty. Even worse, law enforcement was just as casual and ineffectual as the way the policemen appeared.
Despite the very favorable build-up the newspapers had given him, Eliot confronted a serious credibility problem with the men on the police force. For the most part, the police couldn't reconcile those daring Chicago exploits with the quiet, naive-looking man in the expensive suit. Ness was way over his head, they decided, too young and inexperienced for the job. They called him the "Boy Scout" behind his back.
A veteran police reporter said that indifference was the biggest problem Ness would face in dealing with his police force. When asked what the police thought of Ness, the reporter said, "Listen, you don't get any real reaction out of police at a time like this. They have seen safety directors come and go and things don't usually change much under the surface. Most safety directors don't mean anything to cops. A police department is nothing but a set of vegetables. You don't get sharp reactions from vegetables."
Many policemen feared that Ness would bring a swift end to the days of lax discipline and income supplements from the politicians and criminals. They also felt threatened that higher work standards would be imposed. Ness had made it quite clear that he was going to devise a method of properly rewarding policemen and firemen for efficient and honest work as well as severely punishing department members for poor work.
Eliot announced that he would be "right in the front-line trenches in combating crime" in the city and would use the same undercover and wiretap methods he used in Chicago. "I am not going to be a remote director," he said to reporters. "I am going to be out, and I'll cover this town pretty well."
One of his first activities as Safety Director was to visit each police precinct to become familiarized with conditions. He toured some of the precincts with commanding officers to see where the suspected gambling clubs were located. Police Chief George Matowitz had attempted to first clear all interviews between Ness and members of the police force, but Ness put a quick end to that order. "No man can be refused an audience with me by any superior officer. However, not wanting to further damage the moral of the department, the policemen still had to go through the proper channels and not go over the heads of their superior officers.
The politicians generally found the appointment of Ness troublesome. Reputedly, Ness had such a high degree of integrity that it was almost a fetish with him. Extremes of honesty naturally made them nervous. Also, Eliot's lack of political experience suggested he might not sympathetic to a politician's necessities.
Almost immediately after the announcement of Ness's appointment, rumors rushed around City Hall and the police department that there would be a new police chief in the morning. The entire police department was in such a sad state of disrepair that it seemed natural to replace the official who was in charge.
Mayor Burton refused comment, but pointed out that police chiefs are not arbitrarily dismissed without a clear case against them. Burton had promised Police Chief George Matowitz and other high-level police officials that they would all be given a probationary period.