Eliot Ness

Born - Apr 19, 1903   |   Died - May 16, 1957   |   Genres - Crime

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Born in Chicago in 1903, Eliot Ness earned a degree in business and law at the University of Chicago. Upon his graduation, he took a job as a retail credit investigator, taking night school courses in criminology. In 1927 he joined the Chicago branch of the U.S. Treasury department, later transferring to the Prohibition Bureau. Quickly gaining a reputation for hard work and incorruptability, Ness was asked to organize a group of equally honest law enforcement officers as a unified force against the illegal activities of the Mob in general and crime boss Al Capone in particular. Nicknamed "The Untouchables" because they could neither be coerced nor bribed to turn down the heat on Big Al, Ness and his nine fellow agents were largely responsible for breaking the back of the Capone organization -- though it would require an income tax evasion charge to finish the job. As a result, Ness was promoted to Chief Investigator of Prohibition forces. He then moved to Cleveland, where his next assignment was to rid the local police force of all corruption…and then to remove the criminal element from the local labor unions…and then to capture an elusive serial killer known as the Mad Butcher….And so it went until he retired from police work in 1944 to become an executive at the Diebold Corporation. After unsuccessfully running for mayor of Cleveland in 1947, he retired from public service and moved to Pennsylvania. Ten years later, his memoirs of his Chicago days, The Untouchables, was published posthumously (he died of a heart attack at the age of 54). The book was subsequently transformed into a popular TV series starring Robert Stack as Ness, and in 1987, it became the basis of a movie with Kevin Costner in the lead (another TV series, this one based on the 1987 film, showed up in 1993 with Tom Amandes as Ness). Both the original series and the Costner film took great liberties with the facts -- TV's Ness helped the FBI capture the Ma Barker Gang, while his movie counterpart disposed of Capone lieutenant Frank Nitti by throwing the poor fellow off the roof of the Criminal Courts Building -- and both painted a somewhat false picture of Ness as a dour, humorless man (according to his widow -- actually his third wife -- he laughed a great deal, at least when he was at home). A less flattering portrait of Elliot Ness, depicting him as a publicity-hungry hack, was offered by Scott Paulin in the 1989 TV movie The Revenge of Al Capone.