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Nearly six decades after his passing, Eliot Ness is still so admired, Illinois’ two US senators want to name a federal building after him in Washington, DC. And, there are no signs the senators are considering backing down from a resolution to put Ness’ name on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives headquarters.

Eliot Ness is the prohibition enforcer who brought down Al Capone; the principled lawman and relentless investigator portrayed by actors Robert Stack and Kevin Costner, and the  fellow who inspired comic-strip detective Dick Tracy. His career has always been imbued with a mix of fact and fiction. He did go after Capone, but his role was probably less heroic than many Americans imagine.

These facts are undisputed: After graduating from the University of Chicago, Ness was in his 20s when he took a job as a temporary prohibition agent in 1926. He quickly climbed through the ranks until, according to the ATF website, Eliot put together a squad in 1930 to go after Capone’s bootlegging operation. But, prosecutors chose to pursue the gangster on tax charges instead. A few years later, Ness’ law enforcement career took him to Cincinnati and Cleveland. In 1933, he left his job to become a public safety director. He was widely praised for cleaning up Cleveland corruption. Ness ran unsuccessfully for Cleveland mayor in 1947. He died a decade later, but not before co-writing a book about his exploits titled The Untouchables.

Bob Fuesel, a former Internal Revenue Service agent who knew Mike Malone (who  inspired Sean Connery’s character in the 1987 film), did research of the intelligence unit (later becoming the IRS’s criminal division) that conducted the investigation. A consultant on the movie, he told Costner that Ness had little to do with the tax-evasion case, and men who worked with Ness told stories about his real fear of guns. Costner dismissed the premise.

Eliotness-Painting   466px-Robert_Stack_Eliot_Ness_1960   elmer irey

         ELIOT NESS                   ROBERT STACK                ELMER IREY

There is suspicion the virtuous character the public knows may be singularly fabricated because Ness’s co-author, Oscar Fraley, applied most of the lawman’s qualities from Elmer Irey, a lesser known crimefighter who played a key role in sending the famed gangster to prison. Chicago Alderman Ed Burke, citing a recent Capone biography, concludes Ness had about as much to do with putting the gangster behind bars as Mrs. O’Leary’s cow had to do with starting the Great Chicago Fire. And he’s trying to convince the senators to drop the whole idea. Jonathan Eig, the author of Get Capone, a book Burke wants the senators to read, claims that while Ness did investigate bootlegging activities in Chicago, none of what he discovered helped put Al in the clink. And there’s no evidence Capone and his supposed nemesis ever even met.

Despite these allegations, Dick Durbin, fellow Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, and Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, believe that back in the era of Prohibition, each man had a price… except for Eliot Ness. His Untouchable credo is enough to make him the face for every law enforcement officer of the era who fought crime and corruption. The scribe of an upcoming Ness biography has also weighed in, saying while Elliott was not involved with the income tax case that sent Capone to prison, he was a key figure in the broader battle against Capone in Chicago, and his contribution to law enforcement has been misunderstood for too long.

I plan to keep watching The Untouchables on the small screen each weeknight on ME-TV. I’m pretty sure Desi Arnaz, the producer of the iconic television program, and Bob Stack would have found the discussion rather amusing. History has a way of singling out a face in the crowd to honor all who have traveled down a well-beaten path. 

And, so it goes…



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