Eliot Ness: The Man Behind the Myth
A Whore's Death
For some time now, Flo had learned to look past the round, double-chinned face in the mirror to an image ten years and forty pounds earlier. Encouraged in her self-deception by the dim yellowish glow of the room's single lamp, she still saw her eyes as soft brown without the dark circles and pouches beneath. In that artificial light, the streaks of gray were almost invisible in her dark chestnut-colored hair.
The smallness of the mirror on the bureau spared her the panorama of her figure, which had grown progressively wider with age and drink. The more she drank, the less it mattered to her, but in her more sober moments, she realized she couldn't afford to keep buying larger clothes.
Flo hated the idea of going out that night. Her old black coat, too tight now to button, wasn't nearly heavy enough to protect her from the long spell of bitter cold which had lasted the better part of January. But with just a couple dollars to her name, she dare not pass up a Friday night while men still had their pay weighing heavily in their pockets.
As she was putting in a pin to secure her hat from the blustery wind, she heard a faint knock at the door to her room. Only one of the girls would knock that softly. "Just a minute, honey. I'm getting dressed."
She put down the hatpin and opened the door to Sally Ford, her landlady's daughter. "Hi, sweetheart."
Mrs. Polillo," the youngster started. "I hafta go to bed now. Can I give Timmy a kiss?"
Flo smiled at the little girl. "Sure you can, dear. Come on in." She stepped back from the door to let Sally in. "I put him over there on the chair."
Sally rushed over to the large armchair where Flo's newest baby doll sat propped up with a tiny, light blue blanket. She picked up the doll and gave the smiling flesh-colored face a loud smack on the lips. Carefully, she cradled the doll in her arms the way she saw her mother hold her baby sister.
It gave Flo pleasure to see little Sally enjoy the doll so much. These three daughters of Mary Ford's were as close as she would ever come to having children of her own. The dozens of dolls Flo had collected over the years were her assurance that Sally and her older sister would come to visit her at least once a day.
"Are you sure it's okay, Flo?" their mother asked now and again. "Don't let the girls make nuisances of themselves."
Flo assured Mrs. Ford that she loved to watch the girls play with the dolls. "After all," she would say, "they have more fun with them than a forty-year-old woman."
Flo bent down to talk to the little girl face-to-face. "How would you like to take care of Timmy tonight while I'm out? You could take him to bed with you."
Sally's eyes lighted up. "Oh, thank you, Mrs. Polillo. I'll take real good care of him, I promise. He won't get cold under my blanket."
Flo went back to the mirror and picked up the hatpin again. "Okay, dear, you run along now. I have to get ready. See you in the morning."
A few minutes later, Flo opened the downstairs door to a piercing blast of frozen air. She bowed her head slightly to blunt the cold slap of the wind against her face and walked from her rooming house toward the noisy taverns on Central Avenue.
David L. Cowles, the brilliant self-educated head of the crime lab, suspected he wasn't going to make any points bringing up this problem to his new boss, but he didn't really care. He knew his responsibility and he never considered shirking it, regardless of the outcome. It was no secret throughout the department that Eliot Ness's one driving obsession was to clean out and upgrade the police force. Word had it that Ness had no interest in anything else until this enormous self-imposed challenge had been met.
Cowles, like virtually everybody who worked for Eliot Ness, had almost no exposure to the new boss. The rumor was that Ness was staying aloof from everyone until he determined whom he could trust. Knowing how pervasive corruption was in the department, Cowles gave him credit for such a sensible approach.
Had he been a good departmental politician, Cowles would have set up his first substantive meeting with the boss on a subject he knew would be warmly received. Eliot Ness, the only man on the force with a master's degree in criminology, would have been impressed by Cowles' suggestions on modernizing the police crime lab.
Instead, Cowles risked the boss's annoyance by scheduling a meeting about the grotesque murder of a person of no social consequence. Normally, not the kind of thing to distract the mind of a man with Ness's lofty mission, but Cowles had a bad feeling about this strange homicide case and he believed the boss ought to hear about it.
It was February 8. Cowles was a few minutes early for the meeting. He was sitting at the table in Ness's office, sipping a cup of coffee, when the boss arrived.
"Damn," Ness said, rubbing his hands together, "this town's just as cold as Chicago. Next job I get is going to be in southern California.
Cowles stood up, shook hands with the boss and reintroduced himself. "Have some of this coffee," he said, motioning to the white porcelain pot on the table. "It'll warm you up."
He waited until Ness had poured himself some coffee and was seated at the table before explaining why he was there. "We have a very bizarre homicide on our hands. It's made the front page several days in a row and I thought you might want to be briefed on it."
"Good idea," Ness agreed, his eyes focusing on the stack of photographs Cowles had on the table. He picked up the one on top and smiled broadly at the sight of Cowles petting a large mongrel dog.
"That's Lady," Cowles explained. "Her incessant barking and howling led us to the body of a woman in an alley around East 20th Street.
He watched the boss's face as he picked up the next few photos on the stack. Ness's initial smile turned to surprise and, finally, disgust as he realized he was looking at the dismembered torso of a woman. Ness studied the pictures of the gory remains, but said nothing.
"The neck muscles were retracted," Cowles continued, "which means she was killed by decapitation."
"Killed by decapitation?" Ness echoed, his eyes still riveted to the photographs. "Like a guillotine?"
Cowles thought about the question for a moment and licked his lips, a nervous habit, which always indicated that his considerable intellect was operating at full tilt. "No, not like a guillotine. More like a competent, surgical amputation of the head."
Ness looked up from the pictures and scowled. "Jesus Christ. I can't imagine how something like that could happen unless she was drugged or dead drunk."
"Neither one," Cowles responded firmly. "Nor are there any signs of restraints or rope burns, so I gather she was asleep or unconscious when he attacked. Coroner Pearse says he made one long, single sweep with a large knife that virtually severed the entire head."
"He must have been covered in blood," Ness said with distaste. "Once that jugular was cut, blood must have been spurting out all over the place."
"Another interesting thing," Cowles said, pointing to one of the photos, "notice that the torso and arms and legs are cleanly amputated. The body was completely drained of blood and washed before it was wrapped in newspaper and put out behind this butcher shop on East 20th.
"Are you suggesting that some doctor did this?" Ness was skeptical.
"Not necessarily a doctor," Cowles theorized. "It could have been a butcher or a male nurse or even a hunter. Somebody very familiar with anatomy and probably used to cutting up animals."
"That narrows it down to a mere twenty-thousand or so men in the area. Any idea who this poor woman was?"
"We've identified her from her fingerprints as Florence Polillo, a sometime prostitute, recently living on relief.
Her landlady, Mrs. Ford, said Flo had lived in her house for about nine months, mostly staying in her room alone and drinking heavily. Except when she was drunk, the landlady said Flo was a generous woman who enjoyed letting her daughters play with her doll collection."
"Doll collection?" Ness interrupted, studying the police mug shot of Flo's fat face, hardened by decades of boozing and whoring. He must have been wondering what pathetic purpose those idealized creatures served in the empty life of a tired old whore.
"Most of the prostitutes, saloon keepers, and bootleggers in her neighborhood knew Flo and liked her," Cowles continued. "They all agreed on one thing: Flo had bad luck with men. There had been quite a string of them, all drug addicts, pimps, gamblers and bootleggers. They were always beating her up, stealing the little money she made hustling and always abandoning her in the end. It wasn't unusual to see her with a black eye and a swollen face, or struggling to get around on crutches."
Cowles watched the face of his young boss for a reaction. A hardened cop would have made some crack about the old whore, but Ness's face was serious and thoughtful.
Finally the boss responded, "Somehow this final mutilation seems like the last, inevitable stop on the degrading path she'd been on all her life. I wonder if she sensed that and tried to escape into a fantasy world with her dolls."
Cowles was impressed with the young man's introspection. Eliot Ness sure was different than any previous director the department ever had. Cowles was glad to be working at last for a man with some intellect and sensitivity.
"Where do we go from here?" Ness wanted to know, glancing at his watch.
"The guys over in homicide have reached a dead end, just like they did back in '34 when a woman's body, cut up just like Flo Polillo's, washed up on the lakeshore."
"Tell me this kind of thing doesn't happen a lot around here," Ness said half seriously.
Cowles shrugged. "Twice in two years is twice too many. I've got this feeling, we haven't seen the last of this joker."