Weekend Argus (Sunday Edition)

Al Capone nemesis who died of drink

Story of The Untouchabl­es boss Eliot Ness was largely fictitious and not so heroic, writes David Leafe


FORweeks, the city of Chicago had been beset by winter blizzards so severe that the large truck which passed through its streets one freezing dawn in 1931 might have been mistaken for a snowplough.

But two clues suggested the huge arrow-head of metal welded to its front had a far more dramatic purpose than simply clearing the roads.

One was the long line of black sedan cars which drew up behind it as it reached a disused warehouse in a suburb full of gambling dens and brothels.

The other was the man in the truck’s passenger seatwho was about to lead this convoy in a terrifying and startlingl­y dangerous operation.

Pulling on the kind of protective leather helmet worn at the time by American football players, Eliot Ness was then an unknown government agent given the seemingly impossible task of bringing down Al Capone, the richest and most notorious mobster in Prohibitio­n America.

Capone’s illicit breweries were known to be virtually impregnabl­e, equipped with escape hatches through which hoodlums fled as enforcemen­t agents outside banged helplessly with sledgehamm­ers on the reinforced steel doors. But Ness was about to change all that.

This would be his first operation using this speciallyd­esigned battering ram, a secret weapon on which he had been working for weeks.

On his order, the driver revved up and they crashed into the building’s outer wooden doors and then through the steel shield beyond.

The startled hoods inside did not have time to draw their guns or put up a fight.

As they were arrested and led away, Ness’s agents smashed barrels and opened taps on the giant vats, leaving them wading ankle-deep in beery foam.

Soon, similar rivers of alcohol would be flowing all over Chicago, with raid after raid reported by the newspapers who hailed Ness as a fearless fighter against crime.

Seemingly impossible to bribe, he and his men became known as The Untouchabl­es. The nickname was later adopted as the title of the 1987 Hollywood movie in which Kevin Costner portrayed Ness as the brave hero who took down Capone.

The Hollywood Eliot Ness was a truly honourable man who refused to drink, or allow his men to do the same during the “dry” years of Prohibitio­n. He was also a loving husband to Edna.

The film was an inspiring tale of a good man triumphing over evil.

Sadly, significan­t parts of it are simply untrue, as revealed in a new biography of Ness by journalist Douglas Perry.

The first book to chronicle his life in full, Eliot Ness: The Rise And Fall Of An American Hero describes how the investigat­or was, in truth, an ardent womaniser and heavy drinker.

Far from running an untouchabl­e elite, he knew that at least one of the men in his squad had accepted bribes from Capone but he turned a blind eye.

And while he was unquestion­ably incorrupti­ble, his integrity did not extend to all areas of his profession­al life.

Indeed, perhaps the most damning suggestion made by his critics is that he connived in the spinning of the biggest myth of all: that it was The Untouchabl­es who brought about Capone’s downfall.

As a young Prohibitio­n agent, Ness seemed an unlikely opponent for this most famously ruthless of gangsters.

Born in a working-class suburb of Chicago in 1902, the son of a baker, Ness lived at home with his parents even after joining the city’s Prohibitio­n Bureau in 1926.

Three years later he married Edna Stahle, a young stenograph­er. One of his favourite pastimes was reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective tales of Sherlock Holmes, whose success often depended on attention to little things which others missed.

He once caught a bootlegger by following a trail of tiny drops of perspirati­on to the attic in which he was hiding.

This was backed up by his “coolness, aggressive­ness and fearlessne­ss” in raids on the smoke-filled dens and bars where contraband alcohol was served – and illegal stills.

During raids, he and his fellow agents wielded truncheons, kicked gangsters downstairs and whacked suspects with phone books.

Ness’s courage and intelligen­ce were beyond question.

But when the Bureau set up a special squad to take on Capone at the end of 1930, the quality which perhaps most recommende­d him for the job of leading it was his reputation for honesty.

He was sickened by colleagues who took bribes.

Legend has it that he scoured hundreds of personnel files, whittling them down until he was left with only the most outstandin­g agents.

In reality, he had to take whoever he could get since good men were hard to come by

But among the 10 core members of the squad was Joe Leeson, known to be the best in the country at tailing cars.

Another top team member was Barney Cloonan, a former marine described by Ness as a “barrel-chested giant”.

But other recruits seemed unsuited to the task ahead, among them Lyle Chapman, an agent from Indianapol­is. “My knees shook when I got the orders telling me what was up,” Chapman would later say. “Frankly, I pondered how to get out of it.”

In the early days, the squad tailed the liquor lorries to the warehouses and busted one after another with their battering-ram.

Before long they had so dented Capone’s profits that the gangster – who normally scoffed at the law as he drove around in his armoured Cadillac – was worried.

Once, he tried to buy Ness

Ness was in truth a heavy drinker and womaniser

off, sending an envoy to offer to match his annual salary every month if he would play along. Ness threw the man out of his office.

Capone then tried to intimidate members of the squad with threats.

“I remember twice Ness and I drove fast to my apartment when my wife reported hoods were outside and she was scared,” recalled Chapman.

The squad’s efforts seemed rewarded when in June 1931 Capone and his associates were indicted on more than 5 000 Prohibitio­n-related offences.

But after much legal wrangling it was decided it would be difficult to work up a jury’s outrage over someone who had provided alcohol to willing customers.

It was easier to have Capone found guilty of tax evasion.

When he was sentenced to 11 years in Alcatraz it was for cheating the government of the equivalent of £500 000 (R8.9m) in today’s money – rather than on the alcohol evidence the squad had risked their lives for.

While Capone had become “an obsession” for Ness, it was only in court that he saw his nemesis in person for the first time.

Realising this fat little man, only three years older than him, was the quarry he had sought for so long left him unexpected­ly dejected.

Throughout his life he was prone to depression and he was wretched when, in February 1932, he discovered that Cloonan – one of his most trusted agents – had been taking pay-offs from Al Capone’s drinking dens all along. Ness instigated no action against Cloonan, perhaps fearing any scandal might undermine the squad’s credibilit­y.

Those glory days were over all too soon.

With the repeal of Prohibitio­n in December 1933, there was no longer a need for such a team and his subsequent success as head of police in Cleveland, Ohio, was overshadow­ed by personal scandal.

In 1936, Edna began to suspect her husband was sleeping with other women. Two years later she divorced him.

By then he was drinking heavily, indulging in a fondness for Scotch which had developed when he was an undercover agent.

Ness took to visiting nightclubs, trawling for female company.

Then, he met the woman who would become his second wife, a married artist named Evaline McAndrew.

He could hardly have made a worse choice. Like him, she enjoyed hard partying.

But their alcoholism took a disastrous turn when in 1942, after a long night out drinking, their car skidded into the path of an oncoming vehicle.

Nobody was seriously hurt but Ness, fearful that he might lose his job, tried to get the accident hushed up. When his involvemen­t was later revealed by a newspaper, he felt obliged to resign.

He would never work in law enforcemen­t again.

He spent the rest of the war heading a campaign to reduce venereal disease among the military, giving lectures across the country, while risking his own sexual health by sleeping withwomen he met along the way.

Like Edna before her, Evaline became aware of these infideliti­es but she ended the marriage in 1944 when she began a lesbian affair.

Packing her fur coat, a champagne bucket and little else, she disappeare­d from his life.

It was left to Ness’s third wife Betty, a sculptress he married two years later, to support him through his last years of alcoholism.

“I would have two drinks and he’d have 22,” recalled Jack Foyle, a drinking buddy.

Ness died of a heart attack in 1957 and few newspapers ran an obituary.

It was, after all, almost 30 years since he had become legendary as the man who took down Capone.

Towards the end of his life he had worked as a salesman for a paper company, begging embarrasse­d former contacts in Chicago and Cleveland to take his wares.

Few did, but it was this ignominiou­s career twist which would ensure his immortalit­y. On a sales trip to New York, he was introduced to journalist Oscar Fraley, who offered to ghost-write his life story.

The difficulty was that, when pressed for detail, his alcohol-addled brain could remember little. For Fraley, that was not a problem.

He simply made up the missing material and produced his colourful account of the era – The Untouchabl­es.

By then thousands of dollars in debt, Ness had little choice but to go along with this highly-fictionali­sed version of events, full of rat-a-tat machine gun exchanges and the patently untrue assertion that the Prohibitio­n charges against Capone secured his imprisonme­nt.

He did not live to see either the book’s publicatio­n or its further embellishm­ent by Hollywood. Great entertainm­ent though it undoubtedl­y was, it bore little resemblanc­e to reality. – Daily Mail

 ??  ?? HEROIC MYTH: Eliot Ness was not the tea-totalling model husband described in his biography.
HEROIC MYTH: Eliot Ness was not the tea-totalling model husband described in his biography.
 ??  ?? LETDOWN: Al Capone was jailed for tax evasion and not the illicit liquor racket that Ness cracked.
LETDOWN: Al Capone was jailed for tax evasion and not the illicit liquor racket that Ness cracked.
 ??  ?? FORTRESS JAIL: Alcatraz, the island prison where Al Capone was jailed.
FORTRESS JAIL: Alcatraz, the island prison where Al Capone was jailed.

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