10 Surprising Facts About Al Capone and Eliot Ness
- AL CAPONE AND ELIOT NESS LIVED ON THE SAME STREET
In 1923, Capone purchased a humble two-flat for his family on Chicago’s South Side at 7244 South Prairie Avenue. Five miles down the road, Eliot Ness—then a twenty-year-old student at the University of Chicago—lived with his parents at 10811 South Prairie. The two adversaries would continue to live on the same street for about five years, from the beginning of Ness’s career as a federal agent until he and his parents moved to a new house in 1928.
- CAPONE’S SOUP KITCHEN WAS A SCAM
After the arrival of the Great Depression, Capone famously opened one of the first soup kitchens in Chicago, claiming that he spent thousands of dollars feeding jobless citizens. Heavily promoted in the press, this charitable venture earned Capone a lot of good will, challenging the popular perception of him as “Public Enemy Number One.” But much of the food Capone gave away had been extorted from local grocers by strong-arm tactics.
- THE UNTOUCHABLE LIED ABOUT HIS AGE TO KEEP HIS JOB
Ness became a Prohibition agent in 1926 at age twenty-three and quickly distinguished himself for his honesty and dedication to the law. But when the federal government reorganized the Prohibition Bureau the following year, seeking to battle corruption within the agency, they raised the minimum age for agents to twenty-five. Ness, still only twenty-four, stayed in the service by changing his birth year from 1903 to 1902, a fiction he kept up for the rest of his federal career.
- CAPONE HELPED CHANGE FORENSIC SCIENCE
On February 14, 1929, Capone’s killers executed several rival gangsters in what came to be known as the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.” Many suspected Capone’s guilt, but no one could prove it until Col. Calvin Goddard, an early pioneer of ballistic science, linked the bullets to two Thompson submachine guns confiscated from one of Capone’s top hitmen, Fred “Killer” Burke. Although Burke went to prison for murdering a policeman and would never be tried for the massacre, Goddard’s work introduced many Americans to forensic ballistics and helped make Chicago a center for scientific crime solving.
- NESS HATED GUNS
Despite Hollywood portrayals of Ness as the ultimate shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later lawman, the real Ness displayed a lifelong aversion to firearms and considered the gangsters who used them to be cowards. Ness carried a gun only when absolutely necessary and was known to wear an empty shoulder holster on duty.
- CAPONE NEVER ATTENDED A NATIONAL MAFIA CONVENTION
Popular myth has Capone traveling to Atlantic City, New Jersey, in May 1929, for a meeting of gang bosses from all over the country, setting up a national crime syndicate. That meeting did take place—hosted by Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, of Boardwalk Empire fame—but it only involved gangsters from Chicago and New York trying to broker peace between Capone and his North Side rivals. Nor did Capone ever belong to the Mafia; as the American-born son of Neapolitan immigrants, he wasn’t eligible to join that Sicilian organization.
- NESS’S UNTOUCHABLES OWE THEIR NAME TO GANDHI
In late 1930, Ness selected a hand-picked squad of Prohibition agents to attack Capone’s lucrative beer business. After several of these men refused huge bribes from Capone’s gang, reporter Charles Schwarz of the Chicago Daily News christened them “the Untouchables.” Although the name would come to symbolize their incorruptible integrity, Schwarz actually borrowed it from contemporary news stories about Mahatma Gandhi’s efforts to liberate the outcasts at the bottom of India’s caste system—also known as “untouchables.”
- CAPONE WAS ONLY EVER SHOT ONCE (BY HIMSELF)
Capone once said he expected to die at the barrel of a gun, but he only ever felt the bite of a single, nonfatal bullet. While Capone was out golfing with some associates in September 1928, a pistol went off in his pocket, wounding him in the scrotum. He apparently survived without lasting injury, though he suffered more genital trauma the following year when prison doctors in Philadelphia circumcised him in a failed attempt to cure his syphilis.
- NESS INSPIRED A COMIC STRIP ICON
Decades before Ness became familiar to millions of Americans through the TV series The Untouchables, he unknowingly inspired the creation of one of America’s most famous fictional detectives—Dick Tracy. In 1931, cartoonist Chester Gould had an idea for a comic strip about a modern-day Sherlock Holmes and modeled the lead character on newspaper accounts of Ness and his Untouchables. The strip debuted during Capone’s trial in October 1931, introducing readers to many of the cutting-edge techniques—from wiretapping to the lie detector—that the real Ness helped pioneer throughout his law enforcement career.
- AL CAPONE AND ELIOT NESS CROSSED PATHS—ONCE
Although some revisionist historians have claimed Al Capone and Eliot Ness never met, the Chicago Tribune of May 4, 1932, lists Ness among the lawmen who took Capone to the train that would carry him to federal prison. A photo from that same newspaper clearly shows the two nemeses walking within feet of each other in their only direct face-to-face encounter, at the very end of Capone’s criminal career.
Max Allan Collins and A. Brad Schwartz are the co-authors of the current Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness and the Battle for Chicago. Collins received the 2017 Mystery Writers of America “Grand Master” Edgar. He is the author of the Shamus Award-winning Nathan Heller historical thrillers and his graphic novel, Road to Perdition, became the Academy Award-winning Tom Hanks film. His innovative Quarry novels led to a 2016 Cinemax series. He has completed a dozen posthumous Mickey Spillane mysteries and 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.
Schwartz is the author of Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News, based in part on research from his senior thesis at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In 2013, he co-wrote a documentary about the “War of the Worlds” broadcast for the PBS series American Experience. He has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, and Vanity Fair. Born and raised in East Lansing, Michigan, he is currently a doctoral student in American history at Princeton University.