- - Wednesday, March 19, 2014


By Douglas Perry
Viking, $27.95, 295 pages

Eliot Ness, who died in 1957 at age 55, is once again in the news.

In January, Sen. Dick Durbin, Illinois Democrat, Sen. Mark Kirk, Illinois Republican, and Sen. Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat, introduced a bipartisan resolution to honor the late Prohibition agent by naming the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) headquarters in Washington D.C., the Eliot Ness ATF Building.

“Chicago gangster Al Capone believed that every man had his price. But for Eliot Ness and his legendary law enforcement team ‘The Untouchables,’ no amount of money could buy their loyalty or sway their dedication to the Chicago’s safety. That steadfast commitment to public service is why it is so fitting that we remember Eliot Ness with this honor,” Mr. Durbin said.

Eliot Ness is perhaps best known as the man who helped to bring Al Capone to justice,” Mr. Brown said. “But Eliot Ness was more than just a Chicago prohibition agent. He fought for law and justice in Ohio, and fought for peace and freedom in World War II. He was a public servant and an American hero who deserves to be remembered.”

Not everyone agrees. The Chicago City Council passed a resolution led by Alderman Edward Burke that states the ATF Building should be named after someone more worthy.

“It’s my opinion that Eliot Ness is essentially a Hollywood myth,” Mr. Burke said.

Like most of my generation, I grew up watching actor Robert Stack’s portrayal of Eliot Ness on TV in “The Untouchables” during its run from 1959 to 1963. The crime drama is now in syndication and is viewed by a new generation, as well as those who watched it as kids.

Although I’m still fond of the show, I now know that it is historically inaccurate. The 1987 film starring Kevin Costner as Ness is also historically inaccurate, although I like Robert De Niro as Al Capone and Sean Connery as a tough Irish cop.

The TV series, as well as the film, was based on Oscar Fraley’s book “The Untouchables,” published seven months after Ness‘ death. In the book, Ness received far more credit for taking down Capone than he truly deserved. The IRS, not Ness, took down the notorious gangster for income tax evasion.

Like legendary Western lawman Wyatt Earp, Ness has gone from being hailed a hero to being debunked and belittled.

However, as Douglas Perry recounts in his new book, “Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Hero,” Ness was not without his accomplishments. The fight against Capone was only the beginning.

While the IRS tallied Capone’s lack of tax payment, Ness‘ small squad hit Capone where it hurt — his breweries. As Mr. Perry notes, Ness said the Capone mob’s breweries were a prime target since they had the most capital invested in them and they produced the greatest income. Ness smashed up breweries and he also gathered evidence against the Capone mob through informants and wire taps.

On June 5, 1931, the government delivered a 22-count indictment that alleged Capone had not paid taxes on his illegal income. One week later, Ness‘ evidence brought another indictment against Capone, along with 68 other gangsters, for violation of Prohibition laws and conspiracy.

The tax case went first; with the bootlegging case serving as a fallback plan should the tax case fail. The tax case did not fail, and that was the end of Capone’s reign in the Chicago underworld.

“The thing that gets overlooked, even after all these years, is that Ness didn’t need Oscar Fraley’s help to be a hero. Fans of the Robert Stack TV series and the Kevin Costner movie and the various novels and comic books can all legitimately lay claim to Ness being one of the most influential and successful lawmen of the twentieth century,” Mr. Perry writes.

The author notes that Ness was only 30 when Capone went to prison and the Untouchables unit was disbanded. Three years later, during the Great Depression, Ness moved to Cleveland and became the city’s public safety director, overseeing the police and fire departments. Cleveland, Mr. Perry tells us, was arguably the most corrupt and mobbed-up big city at the time.

Mr. Perry spends most of the book covering Ness‘ time in Cleveland. Ness tackled police corruption, fought the local mob and investigated a serial killer. He revolutionized the police force by placing policemen in patrol cars with a radio system, using lie detectors and developing community outreach programs.

The book also covers Ness‘ sad personal life. Ness went broke, drank to excess and chased women, which led to his failed marriages, failed health and his early death. He died not knowing he was about to become world-famous.

Mr. Perry offers a well-documented, well-written and lively account of an American icon.

Paul Davis is a writer who covers law enforcement, intelligence and the military.

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