Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Hero

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9780143126287: Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Hero

The story of Eliot Ness, the legendary lawman who led the Untouchables, took on Al Capone, and saved a city’s soul

As leader of an unprecedented crime-busting squad, twenty-eight-year-old Eliot Ness won fame for taking on notorious mobster Al Capone. But the Untouchables’ daring raids were only the beginning of Ness’s unlikely story.

This new biography grapples with the charismatic lawman’s complicated, largely forgotten legacy. Perry chronicles Ness’s days in Chicago as well as his spectacular second act in Cleveland, where he achieved his greatest success: purging the profoundly corrupt city and forging new practices that changed police work across the country. He also faced one of his greatest challenges: a mysterious serial killer known as the Torso Murderer. Capturing the first complete portrait of the real Eliot Ness, Perry brings to life an unorthodox man who believed in the integrity of law and the power of American justice.

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About the Author:

DOUGLAS PERRY is the author of The Girls of Murder City. He is an award-winning writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune and the Oregonian, among other publications. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Praise for Eliot Ness


“Perry paints a riveting portrait of the real man behind the Untouchables icon. . . . It’s a tragic true story more engrossing than the myth.”


“[A] new and invaluable biography . . . [Perry] does justice to his subject, a complicated and self-destructive human being, but one who was also admired by many. He is a tragic rather than heroic figure, and Perry nails him with style and compassion.”

Chicago Tribune

“Perry takes plenty of detours beyond Ness’s work history, exploring fascinating topics like an infamous Cleveland serial killer case, the evolution of law-enforcement tactics, and the ever-present enticements wooing less-than-holy Chicago-area cops. But he doesn’t need to wander afield when it comes to the dangerous missions by the Untouchables squad in Chicago: The action scenes are positively cinematic. . . . Smart, authoritative, and bristling with challenges to the status quo: Eliot Ness has more than a little in common with its remarkable subject.”

The Christian Science Monitor

“[Perry] hauntingly depicts the grimness of the Depression years. . . . Ness lived in interesting times, and the manner in which he cleaned up Cleveland’s corrupt culture was brave and remarkable. As Perry keenly notes, his successes seemed to give him a high that was nothing short of addictive.”

The Cleveland Plain Dealer

“With a shrewd mix of drama, insight, and objectivity, Perry artfully chronicles the life of the leader of the Untouchables squad and illuminates his subject’s complicated worldview, passions, and faults.”

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Perry has spun a riveting tale.”

The Washington Post

“Don’t believe what you’ve seen in the movies. The true story of Eliot Ness is better than the Hollywood version, and Douglas Perry tells it brilliantly, with hard-nosed reporting and graceful prose. This book is so good even Al Capone would have enjoyed it, though perhaps grudgingly.”

—Jonathan Eig, author of Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster

“Douglas Perry is telling three stories here, those of Eliot Ness, of criminal empires, and of America, each done with equal grace and skill. His superb research is matched by his understanding of Ness as a microcosm of these larger tales, and he re-creates a man and a slice of American history with marvelous results. A truly remarkable book.”

—Michael Koryta, New York Times bestselling author of The Prophet

“There’s so much more to the complex life and career of Eliot Ness than the Untouchables and Al Capone, and now we finally have the whole fascinating story. Douglas Perry proves that well-researched truth always trumps one-dimensional mythology, especially when presented by a gifted storyteller. Eliot Ness is that rarity—an authentic page-turner.”

—Jeff Guinn, author of Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson

“Finally, you can forget the overdramatized accounts and Hollywood-hyped film portrayals of the past and read Douglas Perry’s masterfully researched and honest tale of the crime-fighting life and personal struggles of the famed Eliot Ness. This is storytelling at its finest.”

—Carlton Stowers, two-time Edgar Award winner

“Over time—thanks in great part to Hollywood, television, and even comic books—Ness’s remarkable crime-fighting career has been reduced to his famous struggle against mobster Al Capone. At last here is Ness in his first, second, and final acts. A true account of his life that makes for a better story than Hollywood could have ever concocted.”

—James McGrath Morris, author of The Rose Man of Sing Sing



Douglas Perry is the author of The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago, which The Wall Street Journal hailed as “a sexy, swaggering historical tale.” He is an award-winning writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, The Oregonian, the Faster Times, Tennis, and many other publications. He lives in Portland, Oregon.


The Real Eliot Ness

When Walter Taylor arrived, Betty was still in the kitchen, standing over her husband’s body. She was sobbing fitfully, in a daze. Her ten-year-old son stood nearby, paralyzed by fear. A doctor was there, too, and someone else, a business partner of the man sprawled on the floor.

Taylor had witnessed this ghastly tableau many times over the years. He was the town’s deputy coroner and the editor of the local newspaper. But this time was different.

The dead man was lying on his back, his white shirt twisted across his bulk. In the sink basin, smashed glass sparkled in the dissipating light. He’d been getting a drink of water when the coronary hit. Betty had come in from the garden and turned the faucet off before she saw her husband there on the floor. She screamed, high and long and loud—loud enough to bring their son running from the neighbor’s yard. She continued to sob now, a guttural sound, too deep and raw for such a pretty woman. “It will be all right, Betty,” someone said, and that was as much as she could take. She started to collapse. The business partner grabbed her before she fell.

Taylor turned away. He’d seen enough. He walked out of the kitchen, past the soot-stained mantel in the living room with the cherubic white angel suspended above it. The angel, its wings aflutter, gazed toward the trauma unfolding in the kitchen. Betty had made the piece. Someone had once told Taylor that she had been a student of a famous sculptor. Outside, Taylor found the neighbors milling about. The poor man had been sweating when he came up the walk, one of them said. He looked like he was in pain, another offered. Taylor moved away from the bystanders and picked up his pace. It was a warm, humid evening, and he was wearing a suit, but he ran all the way back to the office. He was a newsman. He had to let the world know it had just lost Eliot Ness.


The world didn’t much care. Taylor’s report went out on the Associated Press wire on that balmy spring day in 1957, but few newspapers bothered publishing an obituary. The New York Times, America’s paper of record, did not take note of Ness’s death. In Chicago, the place of his birth and where he raised the once-famous “Untouchables” squad, the Tribune gave his life barely one hundred words. It got his age wrong. Arnold Sagalyn, despite being a newspaper executive in the Washington, DC, area, heard about Ness’s death only because Betty called him a few days later. Sagalyn made a small noise, a kind of pained grunt, when Ness’s widow gave him the news. He thought of Eliot like a big brother. Ness had taught Sagalyn how to carry a gun, how to unnerve a suspect, how to mix a drink. The call couldn’t have been easy for Betty, either. The reality of her husband’s death had settled on her by then, but she didn’t know Sagalyn well. He’d worked with Ness before she came on the scene. He’d been close with Eliot’s previous wife, Evaline. Betty called him because she had nowhere else to turn. Her husband had left her nothing but debts and dreams. Sagalyn sent her some money.

Not everyone was so sympathetic. David Cowles, the superintendent of criminal identification for the Cleveland Police Department, had also worked with Ness during the glory years. But unlike Sagalyn, he didn’t owe his career to the “fair-haired boy.” He thought Ness had hogged the headlines. “The last time I saw Eliot, he didn’t have two pair of shoes to wear,” Cowles would recall when asked about his former boss. “He was a heavy drinker. . . . I think he had four or five wives, didn’t he?”

Broke, alcoholic, and dead from a massive heart attack at just fifty-five. Such a fate for Eliot Ness was inconceivable to most everyone who knew him during his long law-enforcement career. This was the golden boy who crashed Al Capone’s party in Chicago. The young, irrepressible top cop in Cleveland who announced “there was no room for traitors in the police department”—and then set out to prove it. The detective savant who, like his fictional hero Sherlock Holmes, could stun a stranger by deducing some core aspect of his character simply by observing the twitch of his lip. (As one of the resident experts on the crime quiz show Masterminds, Attention!, he solved the mysteries so quickly the radio program burned through its material at twice the expected rate and had to go off the air.)

“He really captured the imagination of the public in his early years,” John Patrick Butler, a former aide for Cleveland mayor Thomas Burke, would recall years later.

By the time of Ness’s death, however, that hero worship was long gone. He hadn’t been a lawman for more than a decade. Desperate for money, his ambitious business plans in shambles, Ness had been working on a memoir when he collapsed in his kitchen in the tiny town of Coudersport, Pennsylvania. The book hadn’t been his idea. His business partner, Joe Phelps, was a childhood friend of Oscar Fraley, a hack for United Press International. On a trip to New York, Phelps and Ness met the journalist at a bar, and Ness sat quietly while the two old pals played “remember when.” During a lull in the conversation, Phelps had jerked a thumb at Ness and said, “You’ll have to get Eliot to tell you about his experience as a Prohibition agent in Chicago. He’s the guy who dried up Al Capone. Maybe you never heard of him, but it’s real gangbuster stuff: killings, raids and the works. It was plenty dangerous.”

Ness smiled bashfully and shrugged. “It was dangerous,” he said.

At Phelps’s urging, Ness offered up some old stories. Fraley, fascinated, told his new drinking companion he should write a book, that it could bring him a nice chunk of change. Ness shrugged again, but Fraley wouldn’t let it go. He said he’d write it for him. Some weeks later, Fraley called Ness at home in Coudersport. He told him he had pitched a book proposal to New York publishers, and he’d found one that wanted a memoir about the Untouchables. Ness stared at the telephone receiver. “I can hardly believe it,” he finally said. “You think it will be interesting?”

Fraley had no doubt that it would be. Ness thought of himself as a failure—it had been a long time since the Capone days—but Fraley knew Ness was an American icon waiting to be discovered. Or, more accurately, rediscovered. Not that Fraley was concerned about accuracy. He would take a series of conversations he had with Ness, along with an outline Ness wrote for him, and stretch them like Silly Putty. He added a lot of biff!s and pow!s and tommy guns going rat-a-tat-tat! He threw in some hard-boiled dialogue cribbed from private-dick movies. He wrote a pulp novel. Worried about what he considered Ness’s “fetish” for honesty, he tried to convince him that this was the way things were done in publishing, that they had “literary license.”


The truth about Eliot Ness has been up for grabs ever since. Thanks to Fraley’s The Untouchables, published seven months after Ness’s death, Ness received more credit for taking down Al Capone than he deserved. This has rankled many Capone stakeholders over the years, as Fraley’s book begat a top-rated TV series in the 1960s, which begat a blockbuster movie in the 1980s, which begat more TV shows and novels and comic books and movies that continue to appear. George E. Q. Johnson Jr., son of the U.S. attorney who hired Ness to harass Capone’s operations, told an interviewer that the Untouchables’ work “was damaging to Al Capone, an annoyance, but resulted in no convictions. There were no convictions of any consequence for violations of Prohibition laws, because it was unenforceable.” An income-tax case, he pointed out, got Capone.

The professional debunkers followed hard and fast. They slathered their own countermyth onto Ness, insisting he was an incompetent and a glory hound, a liar and a drunk. Some even suggested that the Capone hunt turned him into a wild man, a rogue agent. “Eliot changed. The niceties of the law no longer meant all that much to him,” said Al Wolff, a former federal Prohibition agent in Chicago. “He bent a few rules and even broke a few. We didn’t always see eye to eye on that.”

All of this has taken a toll. Thirty years after Ness’s death, the Los Angeles Times wrote that the Untouchables’ leader had committed suicide. A reader had to call the paper and demand a correction. Ken Burns, promoting his 2011 television documentary about Prohibition, said that Ness was nothing but “a PR invention.” Burns’s codirector, Lynn Novick, added: “He raided a few old breweries and busted up some stale beer. Then, after he retired, he wrote a book in which he just made stuff up.”

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. Scarface Al is only one small reason for this. Ness was just thirty years old when Capone was marched off to prison and the Untouchables disbanded. It was the beginning of Ness’s career, and far from the highlight. Three years later, in the heart of the Great Depression, he moved to Cleveland. The Cleveland Press, in announcing Ness’s appointment as the city’s public safety director, pointed out that he had nothing to do with the case in Chicago that sent Capone to prison. This was not a criticism. The newspaper presented Ness as a savior, the man they had all been waiting for. Cleveland was the sixth-largest city in the country and arguably the most corrupt. Ness announced he would clean up the town—all by himself, if he had to. “I am going to be out (in the field). And I’ll cover this town pretty well.”

Marion Kelly, a longtime Cleveland police reporter, would remember him as “the sexiest man I’d ever known.” She insisted “he wasn’t handsome or flashy, but women were drawn to him.” Louise Jamie, who was related to Ness through marriage, believed he personified the very best the country had to offer. “He never carried a gun,” she said. “He was very private. He was typical of the English-Norwegian, the backbone of America. Even the gangsters knew it. There is honor among thieves, you see, if they respect you. Nobody ever shot Eliot for that reason.”

Novelists and screenwriters have used these images to conjure up the man they wanted Ness to be. He was the tough, golly-gee G-man, quick to blush, even downright priggish, but willing to do what needed to be done for God and country. It’s a compelling, all-American portrait, but it’s also wrong. Or, at least, woefully incomplete.

Like the comic-book superheroes popularized during his career, Ness had an earthbound alter ego. In his case, it was his real self. He was, by all accounts, modest, kind, shy. Which only seemed to make his actions on the job al...

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