MIGHTY HISTORY

4 things you didn't know about the agent who took down Al Capone

U.S. Attorney George E. Q. Johnson of Chicago, Illinois, was personally tasked by President Hoover to orchestrate the takedown of Al Capone, the gangster of the Windy City who had the law in his pocket. Capone had transformed Chicago into a hive of organized crime in defiance of prohibition. However, how can the law be enforced if those in charge of gathering evidence accepted bribes? You bring in a man who cannot be bought.

Eliot Ness was a Prohibition agent who attacked the distribution pipeline of alcohol while the U.S. Treasury Department simultaneously collected evidence on Al Capone's tax-related crimes. Ness marshaled a small team of experts to track empty barrels from saloons en route to Capone's distilleries to be refilled with the illegal substance. Whenever there was to be a raid on these operations, Ness notified the press so they could be on the scene. It was his way of sending a message to the public: There was a new sheriff in town.

However, there was a lot more to this moral crusader than met the eye.


1. The Prohibition case was not used against Al Capone

In June, 1931, Al Capone was indicted on charges of tax evasion and one count of conspiracy to violate Prohibition. Unfortunately, the chances of convicting the crime lord for his violating Prohibition required city-level action, and to betray Capone was as deadly as suicide. So, the only charges that would stick were federal tax crimes.

While Eliot Ness is credited as the agent who took down Al Capone, it wasn't his thwarting of the bootlegging operation that did it.

The face of a man who just watched years of his collected evidence get tossed to the wayside.

(Crime Museum)

2. He had a drinking problem

Eliot Ness decompressed after a long day of busting bootleggers by pouring himself a drink and reading the headlines made from his crackdowns. That's like a DEA agent going home to do a celebratory line of coke while watching the news praise yet another successful raid on a cartel. He pieced together a scrapbook of his victories to chronicle his own legacy.

Maybe there's some truth to the saying, "never meet your heroes..."

3. He failed to catch a serial killer in Cleveland

Later in his career, Ness took his fight against organized crime to Cleveland, and he successfully turned it from the deadliest city in America to the safest. Then, in what seems like a deliberate challenge to the man who turned a city around, a serial killer preyed on the homeless, killing them and severing their limbs in brutal fashion.

After 12 bodies were found in succession, Ness brought the police to where the homeless lived in makeshift huts and burned them to the ground. Ness reasoned that if there were no more homeless to fall victim, there would be no murders.

It seems crazy, but it worked. The homeless were relocated to the Salvation Army, and the death toll stopped climbing.

Front-page news

4. He wrote the book that was turned into a movie

The 1987 hit gangster film, The Untouchables, directed by Brian De Palma, was based on Eliot Ness' book by the same name. It recounts a sensationalized version of the hunt for Al Capone that puts him at the center of the investigation as the principal figure who took down the gangster.

Most of the embellishments can be credited to the co-author, Oscar Fraley. An abundance of self-celebration aside, a good story is a good story.