Eliot Ness: The Man Behind the Myth
Edna Staley Ness realized that most of the women in the city envied her for having such a handsome, polished and successful husband. Truly, there was so much about Eliot that made him almost a perfect mate for the pretty, petite young woman. Several years before, when they were still dating in Chicago, she had told her friends and family that it was Eliot's intellect and idealism, which had attracted her.
The Eliot that came home to her at night was a completely different person than the dashing public figure she read about in the papers. Quiet and bookish, he'd spend his evenings at home with her and their six cats listening to opera on the radio or reading Shakespeare or Sherlock Holmes.
He was a lot like his Norwegian father, who had spent every moment in the work day building up his bakery business, but devoted the evenings to enjoying music and literature with his family. It looked as though Eliot had learned at an early age how to strike the right balance between work and his home life.
That is, until recently. This new job of his had completely absorbed him. The change in him was immediate and startling. At the end of the first day of his new job, she and Eliot were having a quiet, private celebration over his new position at one of the nicest restaurants in the city. He was bubbling over with excitement and talked incessantly about all the changes he was going to make in the police department.
Just as they were served the main course, Eliot heard police sirens go past the restaurant. Suddenly without any explanation, he jumped up, thrust his hand in his pocket for some money, and told her to pay the bill and take a taxi home. He was gone in a moment, running out of the restaurant, leaving her to the stares of everyone seated around her.
Back at home, she waited up until he came home. As she had feared, it was only his craving for adventure and impulsiveness that had driven him to run after the sirens. He had joined his policemen in an unsuccessful chase of a burglar. After the burglar had gotten away, he had been so invigorated by the chase that he directed his men to lead raid on a whorehouse near by.
From her perspective, it was a crazy wild goose chase with nothing to show for it. He had embarrassed her in the restaurant and ruined their evening together for no good reason except his restless craving for adventure. It seemed pretty clear that his new job was more important to him than she was.
She couldn't understand it. He was a law enforcement executive over twenty-five hundred public employees. She expected that he would have to work longer hours, but like other upper echelon public servants, he would come home at the end of the day, not run off to do the work of his patrolmen. Public safety directors sat in offices and managed their departments. They shouldn't go chasing sirens on the street.
The unhappy evening was just a taste of things to come. More often than not, Eliot was not home for dinner. Either he was out "unwinding" with his reporter friends or quietly canvassing the underworld for information on police corruption. Whatever it was he was doing with his evenings, it was not with her anymore. She had become relegated to his weekends.
It might have been easier for her if she and Eliot had some children. She would have had more to occupy her time and someone to keep her company. After several years of marriage, she was beginning to worry that she was infertile. With Eliot coming home later and later, she wondered if they would ever have any children. As it was, she had only her cats to keep her from total loneliness.
She complained and he listened sympathetically. He apologized and promised her his long hours would end in a few months. All he had to do was get the police department under control, weed out all the "bad apples," then he could ease up a bit. Then they would have their quiet evenings together again, reading and listening to the radio.
Eliot focused his intelligence, his formal training in criminology and his first-hand experience with local policemen in Chicago and Cleveland to tackle head-on the serious problems in the police department. His first priority was to root out the corruption, while attacking the problems of incompetence and very low morale with a few important tactical programs.
Widespread corruption at the top levels of the force had devastated the effectiveness and morale of every level below. Honest cops were passed over for promotion and often left police work for jobs where hard work was rewarded. Ness clarified the problem in a speech to the local business community, "In any city where corruption continues, it follows that some officials are playing ball with the underworld. If politicians are committed to a program of 'protection,' police work becomes exceedingly difficult, and the officer on the beat, being discouraged from his duty, decides it is best to see as little crime as possible."
As Eliot probed deeper into the working conditions in his department, he understood why cynicism and low morale were entrenched. Corrupt and incompetent officials at high levels in the department had ignored their roles as managers. As a result, the wrong caliber of men were hired, their training woefully neglected and their equipment faulty and outdated.
Eliot defined a good police officer as having an excellent memory, knowledgeable on many subjects, a good marksman, a boxer and wrestler, a sprinter, and a diplomat.
Eliot needed to find a way to quickly dramatize his new high standards for his men. Within his first week as Safety Director, he personally fired two patrolmen, Michael Corrigan and Joseph Dunne for drinking on the job and absence from duty, hoping the rest of the department would understand the "Boy Scout" meant business. Firing two veteran Irish cops on what many other Irish policemen considered to be a minor offense just before Christmas did not make Eliot Ness popular, especially with the large Irish segment of the force.
Corrigan, a policeman for 12 years, was found sleeping in the Greyhound Bus Terminal when he was supposed to have been on traffic duty. Dunne, who had 14 years in the department and would be eligible for half-pension in a year, was found drunk in a restaurant when he also was supposed to be on traffic duty. Both men had been disciplined before on similar offenses.
Several police board officials urged Eliot to drop the charges, but he refused, "I'm not going to stand for this sort of thing in my department. It's this simple. Either we have a decent, law-abiding community, or we don't. Either we have decent, law-abiding policemen to show us the way, or we don't. These men have a past record of prior offenses. They don't fit."
If the police force didn't get the message then, he gave it another chance just a few days later when he transferred 122 policemen to break up the local enclaves of corruption, demoting some of the most flagrantly crooked cops and promoting others with solid reputations.
He reorganized the entire Detective Bureau, where political favoritism was the basis for promotion, rather than merit. The head of the Detective Bureau, Emmet J. Potts, political satellite of former Mayor Harry L. Davis, was ousted and shifted to the Traffic Division. Chief Matowitz described how Captain Potts' technical intelligence was placed in charge of the recent traffic survey which is designed to curtail the number of traffic accidents and fatalities. Deputy Inspector Joseph Sweeney replaced Potts. The Cleveland Press lauded the appointment and Ness's good judgement in management decisions: "Sweeney is one of the ablest officers in the Cleveland Police Department and has scrupulously held aloof from political activity and factional disputes within the department.
"Eliot Ness was at pains in discussing Potts' reassignment to spare him humiliation. For the problem in dealing with officers like Potts is not finding ways to humiliate them, but finding ways to get out of them the service of which they are capable, while at the same time curing them of the tendencies that have limited their effectiveness in the past."
December 30 Eliot closed out his first month on the job with the hiring of John R. Flynn, a 37-year-old lawyer with military experience. Flynn's job was to ferret out graft and corruption in the police department. Essentially, the precursor of the modern day internal affairs department, Flynn and his staff would "police" the police department. Ness was quick to add that it was not his intention to create a department of spies.
Soon after Eliot took on the widespread problem of corruption, he ran into a major obstacle: cops, even the honest ones, refused to inform on one another. Eliot had to come up with a new way to identify the crooked cops and gather the evidence he needed to get rid of them. He came at the problem from four different angles.
First, he went to his boss, Mayor Burton, and explained his problem. "I need to hire some undercover investigators who are completely unknown to the police department. I'll need to pay them from a special fund that only you and I know about."
As soon as Burton agreed to raise a secret slush fund from key businessmen to pay for the undercover team, Eliot started to look for the men who would be his strike force in the battle against police corruption. He recruited young, energetic, college-trained men like himself. Like the "Untouchables" he hired in Chicago, they had to be smart, brave, discreet, and, above all, completely honest. The fund the mayor raised was enough for six men, sometimes referred to as the "Secret Six."
The "Secret Six" operated in total secrecy and were paid by the special fund. These men were unknown in the city, which made their jobs much easier. Years later, a few of these deep cover operators were unmasked to be Keith Wilson, Tom Clothey, and Sam Sagalyn.
Eliot's "New Untouchables" weren't just the six undercover investigators. Gradually, he assembled a small team of individuals inside the police department he knew were trustworthy. While many of them were young, college-educated rookies who were attracted to the department by Ness's reputation, others were veteran police officials like David Cowles, the head of the crime lab, James M. Limber, who led many of the raids on the gambling establishments in the city.
Eliot himself was the third approach to the police corruption problem. After a full day of administrative work, he went to the saloons and bookie joints to get the evidence directly, spending many of his evenings talking to petty criminals, prostitutes and bootleggers to build his case against corruption. His quiet, earnest personality prodded people into talking who never would have come forward otherwise.
Eliot's fourth way to get at police corruption was through his friends at the three major newspapers in town. A few close reporter friends ferreted out a lot of the information he needed to indict several higher level officers.
Ness's relationship with the press began to really flower in the spring of 1936. At least once a week and often for days at a time, Eliot dominated the front page of the city newspapers with his activities. Sometimes it was a raid on bookie joint, other times his programs to overhaul the police and fire departments, but whatever it was that was being reported about Ness, it almost always made the front page and usually spilled over for several columns on a subsequent page. It was clear to anybody reading the stories that the press overwhelmingly endorsed what Ness was doing and felt him to be one of the most newsworthy men in the city, a position usually reinforced by an energetic blurb in the editorial section.
During that spring, Clayton Fritchey, Eliot's friend at the Cleveland Press, traced the tentacles of a huge swindle into the upper levels of the police department. For some months, County Prosecutor Cullitan, Ness's ally from the Harvard Club raid had been investigating a cemetery lot racket. In violation of state law, several companies bought cheap undeveloped land and sold it at outrageous prices to unsophisticated buyers, who were usually poor immigrants from Central Europe. It was a "get-rich-quick" scheme that promised investors their money would double in a year or two. As Fritchey plodded diligently through the maze of phony companies and fictitious owners, he uncovered some startling information about a police captain named Louis Cadek. With Ness's blessing and assistance, Fritchey secretly investigated Cadek's long career in the police department. What he found was a record of 28 transfers in his 30-year tenure in the department, one suspension and an acquittal, another suspension and reinstatement. Transfers were the time-honored way that the department quietly dealt with blatant corruption. A transfer to a new locale would temporarily disrupt the rackets that a crooked cop was running in his area. During Cadek's 30 years on the force, he earned a total of $68,000 and had saved a whopping $109,000, earning himself quite a name for himself in the process.
Ness wanted to understand how a man with such a reputation had been promoted to captain. The answer was very simple. Louis Cadek had made one important friend, Harry L. Davis, the former mayor, whose incompetence had turned the city into a paradise for criminals. When Davis became mayor, Cadek was promoted to captain and earlier charges of dishonesty were dismissed.
Cadek was smart enough to keep a low profile by living in a small, unpretentious house, driving modest cars and maintaining a living standard commensurate with his salary. The men who worked under him characterized Cadek as a "good guy," who rarely disapproved of his subordinates unless they interfered with people or establishments "friendly to the captain." He hardly ever reported his men for infractions of police discipline and seldom looked for any.
Once Fritchey and Ness got a closer look into Cadek's bank accounts and found large deposits during Prohibition years, they started to interview former bootleggers. One of them described how he collected "tribute" from other bootleggers in Cadek's precinct to give as a bribe to the captain.
The bootlegger testified that one day when he gave Cadek a ride to work, Cadek said, "I wish I had a little car."
"That ought to be easy enough, Captain," he told Cadek. "I'll see what I can do."
The bootlegger consulted with the others who operated in Cadek's precinct and presented Cadek with a car and two $500 bills as a Christmas present. Less than a year later, Cadek told the bootlegger that the car was a "lemon" and wished he had the new model which was supposed to be better. The bootlegger took up a collection among the syndicate members and gave Cadek the car he preferred. Other bootleggers testified that they gave him cash over a period of several years for allowing them to operate without interference in his precinct.
Some of the most interesting testimony came from Cadek's brother-in-law in whose name Cadek had opened a savings account for bribes he had collected. It was this account which was used to buy over three hundred cemetery lots at a passbook value of $82,000. Had it not been for the probe into the cemetery lot racket, Cadek would probably have retired with doubts about his competence and honesty, but nothing ever conclusively proven.
The jury convicted Cadek of all four counts of bribery in one of the speediest decisions ever handed down in that county. It was clear that an important new force of law and order was emerging: a powerhouse of talent consisting of Eliot Ness, Prosecutor Frank Cullitan, Eliot's "New Untouchables," and the investigative genius of reporters like Clayton Fritchey.
Attacking the department's incompetence was more straightforward than the corruption problem, but not any easier. Eliot could get rid of the crooked cops just as soon as he produced the evidence, but wholesale firing of incompetent policemen who were hired when the departmental standards were low and were never exposed to proper training was simply not possible politically.
What he could do was control promotions so that only capable men advanced and make sure that rookies had the training they needed to become effective. Trained in graduate school at the University of Chicago under August Volmar, one of the country's best criminologists, Eliot fully understood the value of the most advanced scientific police procedures. Shortly after he took the director position, he put together plans for the first Cleveland Police Academy, teaching the most up-to-date methods to each new member of the force. Using his personal reputation, he attracted the highest caliber instructors to the new academy, which other police departments around the country looked to as a model.
Sharply higher standards for civil service exams were a key part of his comprehensive program to modernize and upgrade the police department. When he found that many of the existing policemen were illiterate, he insisted on tightening high school equivalency standards. "At a time when jobs in private industry are not plentiful, steps should be taken to raise the requirements for patrolmen," he said. "The examination should be made longer and more difficult."
Eliot also instituted an oral examination to weed out candidates whose appearance, way of speaking or attitude showed them unfit for police work. It seemed incredible to him that no one checked the background of new patrolmen, so he demanded a very thorough character investigation, including fingerprinting, of every candidate before being hired.
His tough, new requirements for promotion assured that only men with outstanding qualifications made it to detective level or higher. Eliot told reporters that he wanted to attract a "new class of men to police service," preferably with some college training.
In record time, Eliot had launched a whole series of programs to cure the most serious problems of the department. The last problem he tackled was very low morale, which he firmly believed was exacerbated by corruption and incompetence. He told his reporter friends he thought the solution was fairly straight forward and simple for anyone with the courage to execute it: "First of all," he told them, "we must make sure any policeman who is doing honest work will not be kicked around by any special interests. Second, we must recognize efficiency and punish inefficiency in our ratings for advancement." Eliot's simple philosophy breathed new life into the police and fire departments once they realized that he was a man of his word. For the first time in more than a decade, optimism rippled through the city's men in uniform.
The new mayor and celebrity safety director, along with all of Ness's allies in the prosecutor's office and the press, had stimulated optimism among the citizens, which had been dormant all through the Depression years. Economically, the city was poised for strong, solid industrial growth. With the worst of the Depression over, the factories had come alive again and were putting on full shifts. To everyone's relief, the city's employment level was once again on the rise.
The cause for optimism was more than just a full workweek. Cleveland's image had suffered in past years, as it became known as a dirty, polluted and lawless town. For the summer of 1936, Mayor Burton had attracted to the city several events, which would focus national attention on Cleveland as a convention center. The first would be the Republican National Convention. The second, following right on its heels, would be the Great Lakes Exposition, a kind of miniature world's fair. Finally, the American Legion convention was scheduled for mid-September.
An enthusiastic press fueled much of the pride Clevelanders began again to have about their city. Eliot Ness, who had learned the constructive value of good publicity in Chicago, was a perfect choice to stoke the belief that Cleveland's lawlessness and police corruption had come to an end. The press was fast becoming one of his strongest allies.
Cultivation of reporters was not accidental. His critics claimed it was Eliot Ness's big ego, which prompted him to develop such close relationships with Clayton Fritchey of the Cleveland Press and with Wes Lawrence and Ralph Kelly of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. There may have been some truth to that allegation, but more likely, Ness saw the press as an instrument to help him perform his job. For example, when the people of Cleveland and the members of the police force read front-page stories about Ness cleaning up crime and corruption, they had something about which to be proud. The publicity had a very uplifting effect on the way people felt about the city and the way the policemen felt about their jobs. This morale booster had an equal and opposite effect on the criminal element, which was very concerned about its future in that city. The dual effect of the publicity was exactly what Ness intended.