10 ADDITIONAL SURPRISING FACTS ABOUT ELIOT NESS
By Max Allan Collins
When Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago (by A. Brad Schwartz and myself) appeared in 2018, we presented ten surprising facts about Eliot Ness.
Now, in our new non-fiction work – Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher: Hunting America’s Deadliest Unidentified Serial Killer at the Dawn of Modern Criminology (on sale: August 4th, 2020) – we chart the rest of the famed Untouchable’s life with an emphasis on his pursuit of a serial killer who plagued Depression-era Cleveland, Ohio.
Here are ten more facts about Eliot Ness that may surprise you.
1. NEVER AN FBI AGENT, NESS WAS TARGETED BY J. EDGAR HOOVER.
In part influenced by famous G-man Melvin Purvis – who feared Ness might replace him heading up the Chicago office – J. Edgar Hoover began a decades-long policy of shunning and belittling Ness and his law enforcement efforts. Hoover’s resentment resurfaced in 1959 when Ness won posthumous, latter-day fame with The Untouchables TV series.
2. AFTER CHICAGO, NESS WAS A “REVENOOER” BUSTING HILLBILLY STILLS.
Post-Capone, Treasury Agent Ness found himself assigned to the “moonshine mountains” of Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, where ducking bullets from “squirrel guns” was an experience Ness numbered among the most dangerous of his career.
3. NESS WAS AN ASTONISHINGLY YOUNG MAN AT HIS CRIME-FIGHTING PEAK.
When reform Mayor Harold Burton recruited Ness to head up both the police and fire departments, the already celebrated Untouchable was only 32 years old (27 when he led the Capone squad). He was the youngest Public Safety Director in the nation at that time.
4. NESS WAS A PIONEER IN COMBATTING JUVENILE DELINQUENCY.
Ness, alarmed by the rate of juvenile crime in Cleveland’s slum areas, got personally involved with troubled youth, following the example of Father Edward J. Flanagan’s Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska.
5. NESS TRANSFORMED A CORRUPT, ENTRENCHED POLICE FORCE INTO A CUTTING-EDGE MODERN DEPARTMENT.
Mayor Burton’s first order of business for his young safety director was cleaning up a bribery-ridden, hidebound police force. Ness forced many “bent” cops off the rolls and jailed numerous others.
6. NESS WAS A RELUCTANT “PRESS HOUND.”
Despite a latter-day reputation for headline-seeking, and actively seeking coverage for his federal units in both Chicago and Cleveland, Ness did not seek personal publicity until Mayor Burton mandated that he do so. Burton had, in part, chosen Ness in order to exploit the Untouchable’s Chicago success.
7. NESS DID NOT CONSIDER THE CAPONE CASE TO BE HIS MOST IMPORTANT ACHIEVEMENT.
While the so-called Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run was slaying apparently homeless victims, Ness initially kept arm’s length, putting his focus on Cleveland’s sky-high traffic fatality rate. His efforts and reforms led to Cleveland being deemed the nation’s safest city.
8. UNDER NESS, AN INNOVATIVE PROFILE OF A SERIAL KILLER WAS DEVELOPED.
As Ness somewhat reluctantly became the hub of the Mad Butcher investigation, a “Torso Killer” clinic in which he participated developed a profile of the madman his police department sought, utilizing techniques still used today.
9. THE CLEVELAND OF NESS’S DAY INSPIRED CHESTER HIMES.
Famed African-American novelist Chester Himes was a longtime Cleveland resident (and a convicted felon well-versed in the city’s crime scene), who wrote of a Harlem whose geography, businesses and even criminals derived from Cleveland’s notorious “Roaring Third Precinct.” Under Ness, black police officers worked the area and may, in part, have influenced Himes in the creation of his famous Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones characters.
10. NESS IDENTIFIED THE MAD BUTCHER.
Some journalists and true-crime writers have claimed that the Butcher case was the failure capping Ness’s career. But Ness almost certainly identified the guilty party, whose politically prominent family avoided public humiliation and trial by jury by urging the madman to confine himself to a mental institution. From there the apparent Butcher wrote Ness taunting postcards for years, though appears to have been able to sign himself out, possibly to kill again.
MAX ALLAN COLLINS received the 2017 Mystery Writers of America “Grand Master” Edgar. He is the author of the graphic novel Road to Perdition, which became the Academy Award–winning Sam Mendes film starring Tom Hanks. His innovative Quarry novels led to a 2016 Cinemax series. He wrote the syndicated Dick Tracy comic strip for fifteen years. His one-man show, Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life, was an Edgar Award finalist. He lives in Iowa.
BRAD SCHWARTZ is a doctoral candidate in American history at Princeton University. He is the author of Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News. In 2013, he cowrote a documentary about the War of the Worlds broadcast for the PBS series American Experience.