Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Eliot Ness: The Man Behind the Myth

The Harvard Club

Eliot had hoped to solve the most pressing internal police force problems before launching his campaign against organized crime, but soon an opportunity arose that couldn't wait. Now that Prohibition was over, gangsters earned their money through illegal gambling clubs and numbers operations. In the Cleveland area, two major clubs operated openly with no regard to the illegality of their business.

Ness's feelings about gambling were practical, not motivated by any particular sense of moral outrage. "It is debatable," he said publicly, "whether gambling is morally wrong, but from the policing standpoint I have an entirely different picture. Gambling brings into financial power men recognized as law violators. They collect large sums of money, which must be distributed among many people, some of them public officials. Gradually, with their money, they make inroads into the police departments and the courts."

Illegal gambling, entrenched throughout Cuyahoga County and the city of Cleveland, depended heavily on police protection. Outside the city limits, the sheriff's department enforced the law for the small suburban towns and villages. As lax as the Cleveland police were, corruption in the sheriff's office was even worse. Ever since "Honest John" Sulzmann became sheriff, gambling joints prospered without any interference and a number of new clubs had opened up.

Reporters, after visiting the Harvard Club, the largest gambling club between New York and Chicago, put together a detailed description of the gambling activities, along with diagrams of where the gambling equipment was set up inside the club. When they sent the package to Sheriff Sulzmann, they included as a joke a set of directions on how to get to the club, which flourished on a major urban street.

A couple of hours after the story appeared in the newspaper, Sulzmann was embarrassed into sending out a squad of deputies to the Harvard Club. Somewhere along the way, the deputies "got lost" and reached the club more than two hours later, just after all the gambling equipment and patrons had been cleaned out of the club. The day after the deputies' visit, the Harvard Club was open for business as usual.

Not only did these mob-owned clubs operate in open defiance of the law, they cheated their customers out of large sums of money with rigged equipment, loaded dice, and an assortment of other tricks. More than one man committed suicide after losing everything he had in one of the clubs' crooked card games.

In 1934, the county prosecutor finally had incontrovertible evidence which he used to convict the owners of the clubs, only to have the judge sentence the mobsters to a mere fifteen days in the county jail. The prosecutor was even more furious when Sheriff Sulzmann specially refurbished his jail so the gangsters could enjoy all the luxuries of home during their short confinement. Sulzmann kept the gangsters separated from the normal jail riffraff so the mobsters wouldn't feel stigmatized by the reprimand. The clubs never shut down, even while their owners were in jail.

The county prosecutor was an honest, hard-charging lawyer named Frank Cullitan, who was hell-bent to close the two biggest gambling joints, the Harvard and Thomas Clubs. In January of 1936, he executed his plan, operating covertly so the clubs wouldn't be tipped off. Cullitan needed trustworthy men, so instead of including Sheriff Sulzmann in the plan, he secretly hired twenty-five men from the McGrath Detective Agency to help him.

Other than excluding the sheriff, Cullitan did everything with formal propriety. He got two sets of search warrants from a justice of the peace in Cleveland Heights for the search and seizure of all gambling equipment inside each club. Other warrants charged individual owners, such as James "Shimmy" Patton, with operating illegal gambling establishments. At the same time, the justice of the peace swore in Cullitan's private detectives as special constables.

Cullitan divided his people into two groups. Late in the afternoon on January 10, 1936, he left from Cleveland Heights City Hall for the Thomas Club with half the constables. His chief assistant McNamee took the rest of the constables to the Harvard Club.

From the outside, the Harvard Club was just a large, drab building that looked like it had started life as a store. Later, with total disregard to the principles of design, an enormous addition ballooned out the back, dwarfing the original building. Wooden cowls covered all the windows of the big, rambling building to discourage outsiders from monitoring what went on inside the club.

McNamee went up to the front door and pounded on it. He told the doorman who he was and unsuccessfully tried to push his way inside. A few moments later, a short, fat man with black hair, plastered back from his face with pomade, appeared at the door and allowed him inside. McNamee recognized the little man as James "Shimmy" Patton, one of the gangsters who owned the Harvard Club.

"I have warrants to search this place and arrest you and the other operators," McNamee told Patton.

Patton sneered at him and told him to get out of the way or he'd get hurt. "If any of those guys you have with you try to get in here, we'll mow 'em down." For emphasis, Patton pointed to the men on the balcony around the inside of the club, each with a machine gun aimed at McNamee's head.

McNamee estimated there were about a thousand people in the club and realized if his men stormed the place, a lot of the customers inside could be killed. Considering the risks, he decided to wait until he could talk to Cullitan. It was demoralizing to just stand around on one of the coldest days of the year. The strong, wintry blasts from Lake Erie cut mercilessly through their winter coats. Some looked for refuge in the gas station across the street, while others rubbed their hands together trying to keep warm in their cars.

After successfully raiding the Thomas Club, Cullitan arrived and McNamee briefed him on the situation. Meanwhile, Shimmy Patton, dressed in an expensive green hat and black overcoat with a white silk scarf billowing from his fat neck, waddled up to them and started to swear loudly. "Anyone that goes in there gets their goddamned head blown off!"

Cullitan had no reason to doubt a bloodbath if he and his men tried to enter the club, nor could he expect a group of hired detectives to risk their lives for his crusade. Maybe if he had some reinforcements, he would be able to intimidate the truculent, tough-talking Patton into giving up. From the gas station across the street, he phoned Detective Inspector Joseph Sweeney of the Cleveland Police and asked for two squads of men, but Sweeney said he needed some time to work through the jurisdictional issues before he could sanction it.

Almost as a last resort, Cullitan called the county jail and talked to Chief Jailer William Murphy who said the sheriff refused to send men unless the mayor of Newburgh Heights requested it, but the mayor of the little village in which the club was located stayed out of sight that night.

Cullitan had a real dilemma. As he waited for someone to help, cars filled with gambling equipment drove away, but his warrants didn't cover equipment in the parking lot outside the club. The patrons had all scattered and the club would probably be stripped bare when and if he finally got into it. He had to continue the raid, even though the evidence was slipping between his fingers, because there was more at stake than just equipment and gambling money. Cullitan had gone there to close the club and that's what he had to do. If he gave up, it would signal the surrender of the state's largest county to a handful of gangsters.

Things had been so easy earlier that day at the Thomas Club raid. When the doorman at the Thomas Club wouldn't let the raiders in, they just picked up a long bench and used it as a battering ram. The haul was so huge, a moving van had to make two trips to cart away all the roulette wheels, slot machines and crap tables.

Cullitan had an idea. Maybe if he could get to Eliot Ness, he could think of a way around the jurisdictional problems preventing Cleveland police from joining in the raid. He telephoned city hall and had Ness pulled out of a city council meeting.

Eliot was more than happy to pitch in, but he told Cullitan he owed it to Mayor Burton to consult with him first. When Eliot explained the problem, the mayor was unsympathetic. Cullitan had opposed Burton very strongly in the election and he didn't want to take a lot of risks for a political opponent, but Ness wouldn't accept "no" for an answer.

"If we're going to clean up the city," he told his boss firmly, "we must support honest men like Cullitan even if they are Democrats. You told me when I took this job there would be no political interference. I'm holding you to your word."

The jurisdictional problem meant Ness had to act as a private citizen and not in his official capacity. He went over to Central Police Station just as men were coming off duty, explained the circumstances and asked if any would volunteer.

"I'm going over there if I have to go alone," he told his men forcefully. Then his voice softened considerably, "but I sure would like to have some of you with me. I won't hold it against you if you don't volunteer," he promised. "You must understand that the city's responsibility for you ends when you cross the city limits into Newburgh Heights. If you get killed out there, as some of you might, your families could get cut off the pension rolls." Despite the risks, every one of them insisted on going along with him.

While his volunteers were changing into their street clothes, Ness personally called the sheriff's office and demanded to speak with Chief Jailer Murphy. "The prosecutor tells me he is in danger of his life. Will you go out there or won't you?"

"I'll have to talk to the sheriff and call you back, "Murphy said reluctantly.

"To hell with that, I'll wait," Ness said angrily.

A few minutes later, Murphy picked up the phone. "No," he said finally. "We won't go out there."

Ness slammed down the phone in Murphy's ear. His next phone calls were to reporters to meet him at the Harvard Club to witness Cleveland policemen protecting the county prosecutor because the sheriff didn't care if he was machine gunned down by gangsters.

Soon Ness and his volunteers were on their way: Twenty-nine patrolmen, four plainclothesmen, and ten motorcycle cops, all fully armed with rifles, shotguns, billy clubs, and tear gas. A few minutes later, the impressive caravan roared down Harvard Avenue, sirens screaming. Right behind this cavalcade of firepower was reporters and photographers from every local newspaper. It was a wonderful surprise for Cullitan and his discouraged constables who had taken shelter from the bone-chilling cold in the gas station.

Eliot Ness confers with Cullitan's team
Eliot Ness confers with
Cullitan's team

Ness's army of policemen surrounded the entire building. Eliot jumped out of his car and rushed over to Cullitan so they could quickly put together their tactics to storm the club.

Completely unarmed as a private citizen, Eliot took one of the biggest physical risks of his life and marched at the head of his volunteers, knowing full well that men with machine guns waited on the other side of the door. He took one of the cop's nightsticks and pounded on the club's front door. "I'm Eliot Ness," he yelled, "and I'm coming in with some warrants."

When the club's big wooden door opened just a crack, Ness shoved it so forcefully that it banged against the wall inside, shuddering on its hinges. He sucked in his breath and braced himself for a hail of gunfire from the men standing just a few feet in front of him. Five machine guns aimed at his body with five simian-looking thugs holding their fingers to the trigger. He glowered at them, hoping they were smart enough to realize that if they opened fire on him, the heavily armed cops behind him would shoot back. For the longest few moments in his life, he stared them down. When Eliot felt reasonably certain they had passed up their moment to shoot, he held the door wide open for Cullitan's special constables to enter. This was the prosecutor's raid and his constables should go in first. Eliot waited until all Cullitan's men were inside before he and his volunteers entered the club.

Once inside, Ness saw that the cavernous club was completely stripped of all the expensive equipment. The enormous main gambling room, measuring at least ninety feet on each side, was bare except for betting slips all over the floor, a couple of dice tables, and a gigantic blackboard race chart on the wall. In the ceiling was a small hole covered with a square of bulletproof glass. Eliot pulled down a hanging ladder from the ceiling and climbed up inside. It was a "strong room," a cubbyhole with slits for machine guns, which could be trained on the gambling room or the money counting room in case of a raid or a holdup.

In the main gambling hall, Ness recognized a newspaper photographer who was all ready to snap a picture when suddenly one of the gangsters rushed him and knocked him down. Eliot tackled the mobster and brought him to the floor. At that moment, the place erupted spontaneously in battle with chairs flying across the room.

When the club was back under control, they arrested the twenty gangsters inside, removed the dice and blackjack tables and took down the race board. Eliot laughed when he noticed the sign on the wall announcing the limousine service the club ran for its customers every fifteen minutes to and from seven locations around the city. One of those locations was the Cleveland Heights City Hall where Cullitan and his constables had launched their raid several hours earlier.

Ness and Cullitan shook hands for the photographers. The main objective had been met: the two notorious clubs were closed. This was an important victory for Ness, for the new mayor who hired him, and for the people of Cleveland who desperately needed this glamorous, young hero. The flamboyant raid was his personal warning to the growing mob presence in the city that its time was up. The man who destroyed the Capone bootlegging empire in Chicago had started his cleanup of Cleveland.

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