WASHINGTON — Federal Prohibition agent Eliot Ness’ legendary campaign against Chicago mob boss Al Capone inspired the 1960s TV series “The Untouchables,” a blockbuster Hollywood movie, countless books and perhaps even the comic-strip hero Dick Tracy.
But a recent move in the Senate to name the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ glassy new Washington headquarters after the 1930s lawman has sparked an acrimonious debate over whether the storied crime fighter really deserves the honor.
FOR THE RECORD:
Eliot Ness: In the March 2 Section A, an article about the controversy over naming the new Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives headquarters after Prohibition-era law enforcement agent Eliot Ness misstated Ness’ job title after leaving Washington. He was not Cincinnati’s public safety director, but a senior investigator. —
The proposal to dedicate the ATF building is being championed by the two Illinois senators, Republican Mark Steven Kirk and Democrat Richard J. Durbin, who issued statements heralding Ness as a tireless federal agent whom “no amount of money could buy.”
But Chicago Alderman Edward Burke, who has written several books about the city’s history, has drafted a city resolution in Ness’ hometown to oppose the honor.
Burke says that the real-life Ness was nothing like the tough-as-nails character depicted by Kevin Costner in the 1987 movie and that the agent’s role in putting Al Capone behind bars has been widely exaggerated.
“He’s a Hollywood myth,” Burke said. “He probably never laid eyes on [Capone].”
Burke says he’s worried that the building dedication might perpetuate historically inaccurate notions about the alleged archrivalry between the men. “There are probably a thousand federal law enforcement agents who are more worthy of the honor,” he said. “I think that the sponsors of the proposal are not well-informed.”
Ness was hand-picked by then-U.S. Atty. George E.Q. Johnson to lead the Bureau of Prohibition investigation against Capone. But Johnson also launched a group of IRS agents to target the crime boss. When Capone finally faced justice in 1931, he was convicted for tax evasion — not on any of the more than 5,000 counts in Ness’ bootlegging indictment. Johnson reportedly feared that a jury might be too sympathetic to Capone’s moonshining activities since Prohibition was so unpopular, but he figured jurors would convict a tax cheat.
Capone was eventually sentenced to 11 years behind bars and became an early resident of Alcatraz Island prison off San Francisco.
Other Ness critics say his personal shortcomings contradict the strait-laced, incorruptible persona that brought him fame. By the end of his life, Ness was in debt, drinking heavily and had cheated on all three of his wives, according to several biographical accounts.
After grabbing headlines and leading the 1930s detective squad, Ness fell into relative obscurity. He died shortly after reading a draft of his original book, “The Untouchables,” co-written with sports journalist Oscar Fraley. Ness is said to have complained that Fraley’s version strayed too far from the truth, according to Doug Perry, author of “Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Hero.”
Defenders of Ness say his personal struggles were irrelevant to his crime-fighting record.
District of Columbia Assistant U.S. Atty. Scott Sroka, the grandson of “Untouchables” member Joe Leeson, said the crime-fighting squad never claimed to be pillars of society.
They “weren’t teetotalers,” he said. “They were fighting against organized crime.”
By most accounts, Ness was a dedicated gangster-buster, regardless of his role in convicting Capone. After leading the charge against Chicago bootleggers, he became Cincinnati’s public safety director, and at 31 he led a team of 34 agents to clean up Cleveland, where legend has it he took down “a still a day” from liquor mobsters.
Said Perry: “Even if you completely take Al Capone off of his resume, he still is a very significant figure in law enforcement.”