Special Agent Eliot Ness: Law Enforcement Service with ATF’s Legacy Agencies
During Special Agent Eliot Ness’ 10 years of Federal law enforcement service with ATF’s legacy agencies, he is most remembered for his role in the government’s effort to bring down Al Capone. Ness possessed intelligence, ability and above all else, honesty and integrity which he undisputedly maintained throughout his Federal law enforcement career.
With the enactment of the Volstead Act, prohibition agents hunted down bootleggers who were growing enormously rich by smuggling liquor into the United States from Canada and Europe. When Agent Ness entered the service in 1926, three of Treasury’s six law enforcement arms – the Prohibition Unit, the Coast Guard, and Customs – were working together to combat what would be described today as a transnational organized crime threat.
Assassinations, bombs, bullets and corruption were routine; every industry paid tribute to bootleggers and gangsters who had forged such close ties with local authorities that anonymous prohibition enforcement squads became necessary in some cities. Chicago was one of those cities — it belonged entirely to Al Capone.
By 1930, President Herbert Hoover declared that he wanted Capone in jail. One effort, led by the Investigative Division’s newly appointed Special Agent in Charge (SAC) Eliot Ness and his team of agents, worked to cripple Capone’s operations.
Agent Ness’ team of specially trained agents damaged the Capone organization’s ability to carry out illegal activities and led to the indictment of Capone on over 5,000 prohibition violations under the Volstead Act. His team of uncorruptable agents, later known as
the Untouchables not only wreaked havoc on Al Capone’s criminal empire, but also went on to successfully apprehend many of Chicago’s notorious gangsters and bootleggers.
When Prohibition ended on December 5, 1933, the Bureau of Prohibition was reorganized briefly as the Alcohol Beverage Unit under the control of the Department of Justice before being transferred back, again, to the Department of Treasury as the ATU.
In September 1933, Agent Ness transferred from Chicago to Cincinnati as a senior investigator and soon after was promoted to assistant investigator in charge of the Cincinnati Office. Then, in December 1934, Cleveland desperately needed a lawman with the talent and integrity of Ness. Agent Ness was just 31 years old when he arrived as the SAC of the Department of Treasury’s ATU in the northern district of Ohio. With 34 agents under his command, Agent Ness methodically tracked down, raided and destroyed a string of illicit liquor operations, earning a reputation for taking down a still a day.
Agent Ness served as the Investigator in Charge of the Cleveland Office of the ATU until January 1, 1936, when after fighting organized crime for 10 years, he resigned from his position to become the Cleveland Public Safety Director, putting him in charge of the police and fire departments where he successfully headed a campaign to clean up corruption and modernize both public service institutions.
Over three quarters of a century ago, at a time when ATF’s legacy Bureau of Prohibition agents were facing violent organized crime, Eliot Ness’ contributions helped form the public’s perception of these Federal agents as a professional crime fighting unit. Gangsters bribed local, State, and Federal officials, businessmen, jurors, and everyday citizenry to simply
turn the other way, or to join their criminal ranks. These hoodlums were thought to be untouchable. However, as it turned out, it was Bureau of Prohibition Special Agent and ATU Investigator Ness who was untouchable. The moniker given to him and his team by the Chicago Tribune captured and immortalized his character.