Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Coudersport, Potter County
A famous Prohibition agent, Eliot Ness spent his last year in Coudersport, never knowing that his memoir, The Untouchables, would make him a Hollywood legend.
Eliot Ness was born in Chicago in 1903. As an agent in the U.S. Justice Department, Ness played a crucial role in the Federal government's mission to bring down gangster Al Capone on charges of tax evasion. Following a largely successful stint in Cleveland as the Director of Public Safety, both Ness' popularity and his career began to fade. In 1956, Ness and his family moved to Coudersport, Pennsylvania. Shortly thereafter, Ness began work on The Untouchables, a book about his Chicago days that he co-wrote with sportswriter Oscar Fraley. Unfortunately, Ness died before the publication of his book, but his legacy was solidly established by the television show, The Untouchables, which aired on ABC from 1959, 1963, and the 1987 Paramount Pictures film of the same name.
Eliot Ness was born on April 19, 1903, in Chicago to Norwegian immigrants Peter Ness and Emma King Ness. Ness demonstrated an early interest in law enforcement--reading Sherlock Holmes mysteries as a boy--and he graduated from Fenger High School in the top third of his class. Ness attended the University of Chicago and received his Bachelor's degree in political science and business in 1925.
After graduating from college, Ness received his first job as a credit investigator for the Retail Credit Company. This job grew to be tedious, and so he went to work for the U.S. Treasury Department in 1927. One year later, Ness was able to secure a job with the Prohibition Bureau, a subsidiary of the Justice Department, with the help of his brother-in-law, Alexander Jamie, who was an officer in the Chicago arm of the Prohibition Bureau.
By 1929, the Federal government, at the instigation of President Hoover, actively sought to put Chicago mobster Al Capone behind bars. While many of Capone's illegal activities were difficult to trace, the government had two grounds on which to prosecute him: bootlegging and income tax evasion. Hoover appointed a task force of agents from the Treasury Department to investigate Capone's income tax evasion.
Another team of Justice Department agents, headed by Eliot Ness, was formed to attack Capone's financial support network by routing out and shutting down his illegal breweries. Ness was allowed to select his own team for this mission, and by October of 1929 his team began its assault against Capone's bootlegging operations. The Untouchables, as they came to be called by the Chicago press, conducted their raids with a ten-ton flatbed truck that had a steel ram attached to its front and ladders for chasing criminals who might try to escape onto the roofs of buildings in which they were being pursued. Ness and his crew were also able to obtain valuable information from a wiretap that they placed at the Montmartre Cafe, the headquarters of Al Capone's brother, Ralph.
On October 6, 1931, Al Capone was tried for income tax evasion. While Ness's crusade against Capone's bootlegging operations did not directly lead to his conviction and imprisonment, Ness and his team had greatly hampered the mobster's financial resources.
Following Capone's incarceration and the end of Prohibition, the Untouchables were disbanded, and Eliot Ness moved to Cleveland to become chief investigator for the Alcohol Tax Unit. Within 16 months of the move to Cleveland, Ness was named as the city's Public Safety Inspector. With this new post, Ness undertook the monumental task of purging the Cleveland police department of corrupt officers. He also continued to work to bring mobsters to trial, was successful in reducing the problem of juvenile delinquency, and almost single-handedly eradicated Cleveland's problems with traffic control.
On the morning of March 5, 1942, Ness, who by this time had begun to lose the edge that he had had as a young Prohibition agent, was involved in a hit-and-run accident. While Ness was not prosecuted for drunk driving, Ness's enemies used this incident to ruin his career as Public Safety Director, and he resigned from the post on April 30, 1942. Ness's career and personal life continued to decline as he struggled with alcoholism and marital problems. Ness had divorced his first wife in 1939 and then remarried that same year; he divorced his second wife and remarried a second time in 1946. In 1956, Ness and his family moved to Coudersport, Pennsylvania, where he ran two small businesses and began to work on his memoirs with sportswriter Oscar Fraley. This collaboration produced what would develop into The Untouchables, but Ness died tragically of a heart attack on May 16, 1957, before the book was published. He was buried in Cleveland.
The legacy of Eliot Ness was that of a champion of law and order, a man who stood up for his principles and did not tolerate corruption and dishonesty. His status as a figure in the history of American law enforcement was solidified by the 1959—1963 ABC TV series The Untouchables, starring Robert Stack, and by the 1987 Paramount film The Untouchables, starring Kevin Costner. Although Ness's book was largely based upon actual events in Ness's life, the TV series and the movie were not historical accounts of Ness's career. Due to the posthumous media attention that has Ness received, however, he will forever be known as the man who got Al Capone.
(With Oscar Fraley.) The Untouchables. Cutchogue, NY: Julian Messner, 1957.