Eliot Ness

Image of Eliot Ness and his signature.
Image of Eliot Ness
Special Agent Eliot Ness, a Legacy ATF Agent

Special Agent Eliot Ness is one of the most famous federal agents in the history of law enforcement. As a supervisor of an ordinary team of agents, he did the extraordinary. Against all odds, he and his Untouchables broke the back of organized crime in Chicago, a city that was dubbed the "Crime Capital of the World." Ness performed brilliantly as both a crime fighter and a leader in a time of national distress. 

When Ness and his Untouchables emerged as the enforcers who had put away Al Capone after he had maintained a decade-long empire in Chicago, they became so ingrained in the American psyche that cartoonist Chester Gould launched a new comic strip based on the crime stories publicized in the daily headlines.

Using Eliot Ness as his model, Dick Tracy was born. For decades thereafter, Eliot Ness and his fictional alter ego would influence American notions of detective work, crime-fighting and heroism.

The real Ness' success was no accident. During his 10 years of federal law enforcement service with ATF's legacy agencies[1] he faced organized criminal elements flush with huge sums of cash. All the while, he demonstrated that he possessed intelligence, ability and above all else, honesty and integrity which he undisputedly maintained throughout his federal law enforcement career.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about Ness is not that he and his squad sent Capone packing for the penitentiary; but that he later went on to lead two additional teams of agents in the cleanup of two equally crime-ridden cities protected by corrupt law enforcement agencies, Cincinnati and Cleveland.

After fighting organized crime for 10 years as a federal agent, he resigned from his position to become the Cleveland Public Safety Director, in charge of the police and fire departments where he, again, successfully headed a campaign to clean up corruption and modernize both public service institutions.[2]

Prohibition: The Impetus for Federal Law Enforcement Development

From the enactment of the Volstead Act, prohibition agents hunted down bootleggers who were growing enormously powerful and rich by smuggling liquor into the United States primarily from Canada and Europe. By the time 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, sharing information, and conducting joint operations against what would be described today as a transnational organized crime threat.

Criminal syndicates completely controlled the liquor industry. Assassinations, bombs, bullets and corruption were routine; every industry paid tribute, directly or indirectly, 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.

Ness' Chicago Assignment

Chicago belonged entirely to Al Capone. The collective force of 3,000 police officers and 300 prohibition agents failed to bring down Capone's empire. The lack of prohibition convictions in a city as "wet" as Chicago only cemented the fact that Capone was buying protection from law enforcement.

In 1930, two events not only changed the course of Ness' career, but also redirected federal law enforcement's trajectory, in general, and ATF's legacy, in particular. First, the Bureau of Prohibition was transferred from the U.S. Department of Treasury to the U.S. Department of Justice. The Bureau's mission increasingly focused on fighting violent crime. This dangerous new mission began to clash with the Treasury Department's responsibility (since 1791) of ensuring tax compliance. This burgeoning enemy and increasingly treacherous terrain necessitated a more effective and coordinated law enforcement strategy - Treasury Department no longer had the means to direct this new focus. The Justice Department was the organization better suited to lead the Bureau of Prohibition in the fight against organized crime.

The second event, simultaneous with the first, was President Herbert Hoover's directive "to get Capone." Fed up with Capone's brazen and far reaching arm of power and corruption, Hoover declared war against Capone and his "Outfit." This Presidential declaration set in motion Chicago's U.S. Attorney, George E.Q. Johnson's two-pronged investigative attack on Capone. One effort, led by the Bureau of Prohibition Investigative Division's newly appointed Special Agent in Charge (SAC) Eliot Ness and his team of agents, who were ordered to disrupt Capone's operations and gather evidence of prohibition violations. The other, led by lawmen Elmer Irey and Frank Wilson of the Internal Revenue Service, investigated Capone's finances for evidence of money laundering and tax evasion.

Agent Ness' team of specially trained agents damaged the Capone organization's ability to carry out its illegal activities and ultimately led to the indictment of Capone on over 5,000 prohibition violations under the Volstead Act. That indictment was handed down 1 week after his indictment for tax evasion. Prohibition was extremely unpopular, and there was an enormous risk that jurors would be sympathetic toward a bootlegging defendant. On the other hand, no honest taxpayer liked a cheat; U.S. Attorney Johnson took the tax case to trial and secured a conviction on those charges. After the verdict, not wanting to risk the gangster's release on appeal, the Federal government re-indicted Capone on additional prohibition violations as a security measure. His team of uncorrectable agents, later given the moniker "the Untouchables" not only wreaked havoc on gangster Al Capone's criminal empire, but also went on to successfully apprehend many of Chicago's notorious gangsters and bootleggers.

Ness' Cincinnati and Cleveland Assignments

When Prohibition ended on December 5, 1933, the Bureau of Prohibition was reorganized briefly as the Alcohol Beverage Unit under the control of J. Edgar Hoover before being transferred back, again, to the Department of Treasury as the Alcohol Tax Unit (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. The newly organized ATU faced grave problems across the nation. The country was ill-prepared to re-establish the legal liquor industry as criminal syndicates continued to illegally produce and distribute distilled spirits. Organized crime escalated as gangs battled viciously for control of underground distilleries and distribution networks. Machine guns continued to be the weapon of choice. Gangsters killed each other on street corners, in social clubs and in restaurants. The massacres often resulted in the injury or death of innocent bystanders.

The ATU seized many alcohol distilleries in the first few months after its creation. With growing support from the public, the hard work of the ATU slowly began to pay off. The ATU managed to dismantle large liquor syndicates, changing the perception of federal law enforcement as well as the attitudes of prosecutors, juries and the courts.

In December of 1934, Cleveland had a desperate need for a lawman with the talent and integrity of Eliot Ness. As the country's seventh largest city with a population of just under a million, Cleveland was infested with so much crime and corruption that it had earned a reputation as an untamed town. The public had lost faith in its police and city officials were desperate for help.

Agent Ness was just 31 years old when he arrived at his new post as the Special Agent in Charge (SAC) of the U.S. 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. In one of their most sensational raids, they captured what was believed to be the largest distillery in northeastern Ohio. Agent Ness and his agents seized over $100,000 worth of equipment capable of producing a thousand gallons of bootleg liquor a day, cheating the government out of close to $30,000 a week in taxes - an astronomical sum for the day.

Ness as the new Cleveland Public Safety Director

Agent Ness would serve 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.

Ness' Recognition in the 21st Century

Today, to police departments and federal law enforcement organizations across America, Eliot Ness symbolizes that no matter how challenging the times, circumstances, environment or mission objective, the badge continues to represent the tradition of "untouchable" honesty, integrity and ethical behavior for all who serve and protect. Imagine if such a leader emerged in modern society with the skills to restore back into the American psyche the concept of faith and trust in the government. Special Agent Ness' contribution to the science of policing, along with his tireless pursuit of his vision of a professional police force, continues to serve as the standard of excellence in law enforcement leadership today.

[1] Although ATF traces its legacy back to 1791 when the first tax laws were instituted, it is best recognized for its advances in fighting violent crime between 1920 to 1933 while known as the Bureau of Prohibition.

[2] On August 26, 1926, Agent Ness swore in as a temporary prohibition agent with the Prohibition Unit in Chicago. He rose through the ranks from temporary to permanent Prohibition Agent in the Bureau of Prohibition (the Prohibition Unit was reorganized and renamed the Bureau of Prohibition in 1927); to Junior Special Agent; to Special Agent; to Assistant Special Agent in Charge in Chicago (at the same time, July 1, 1930, that the Bureau of Prohibition transferred from the U.S. Department of Treasury to the U.S. Department of Justice,) and finally, after the repeal of prohibition, as an Investigator with the Alcohol Tax Unit (ATU) which was returned to the U.S. Department of Treasury.

Last Reviewed July 14, 2020