In December of 1935, Cleveland’s Mayor Harold Burton recruited Eliot Ness to serve as the city’s new Safety Director. That very year, Cleveland was the fifth largest metro area in the nation, and was considered to be the most dangerous city in the United States. Ness went on to spearhead a campaign that nearly eliminated corruption in the police department, brought the fire department up to modern standards, and instituted the latest traffic technologies, bringing national safety awards to Cleveland by 1939. He was also faced with one of the strangest serial murder cases in all of U.S. history.
Ness’ Youth and his Chicago Years
As Eliot grew up, he played with his little nieces and nephews and enjoyed going to school. It was said that he took school so seriously that he dressed nicer than most children. This earned him a nickname of “elegant mess” on the playground. He was an avid reader and was fond of the stories of Sherlock Holmes. When he was graduated from Fenger High School, on the south side of Chicago, he spent a year working in the Pullman plant before going to college at the University of Chicago.(2) In 1925 he earned a diploma with a major in political science, commerce and business administration, earning a place in the top 10% of his graduating class.
From the years 1925 to 1927 Ness served as an investigator for the Retail Credit Company in Chicago. He longed for a job that was a bit more exciting, and returned to the university for postgraduate course work with August Vollmer. His oldest brother-in-law, Alexander Jamie, worked for the Prohibition Bureau and brought Ness in as an agent with the U.S. Treasury Department. In 1928 he was transferred to the Justice Department to work for Prohibition. Alexander Jamie eventually became head of Chicago’s Department of the F.B.I.
Ness and his task force were then assigned to close down the bootlegging operations of Al Capone. The ten men he handpicked from around the country were nicknamed the “Untouchables” because they wouldn’t take a bribe. Albert Wolff was said to be the last surviving member of the Untouchables. He passed away in Mason, OH at the age of 95 in 1998. In an article in People Magazine, July 1987, Mr. Wolff said he was nicknamed “Wallpaper” because he “took everything but.” He also said that “We were all tough guys, I guess. Eliot Ness was young like me when I first met him. He became a tough guy with class. He was naïve when he started, but he learned. He got a little tougher because it got a little more dangerous.” Wolff was asked to serve as an adviser on the set of the “Untouchables” movie that starred Kevin Costner:
Ness was known to rarely carry a weapon.
In addition to Kevin Costner, Robert Stack was another actor who portrayed Ness during his Chicago days. He played Eliot Ness on the TV series “The Untouchables for many years. It is said to be the longest running TV series ever. In a note Mr. Stack sent in response to being invited to attend the recognition of Ness’ 100th birthday in April 2002, he wrote “While I met Mrs. Ness (Elisabeth) and the boy (their adopted son Robert) on “This I Your Life” I’ve never involved myself in events dealing with the gentleman I portrayed on TV. I think at this point in time some might think an actor was trying to garner publicity on a dead hero’s reputation – why don’t we let the famous centenarian rest in peace.”(4)
Ness comes to Cleveland
It was December 11, 1935 that a 33 year old Ness was sworn in to serve as Cleveland’s youngest-ever Safety Director. O ess’ first day the Plain Dealerheadlined “Facts First, Then Talk, Says Ness.” The article reported that Ness “considers his first duty to be one of fact finding” and that he intended to be “as conservative as possible until (he) is fully informed of certain trends and conditions in the police and fire departments – especially the police.” The paper also predicted that when Mayor Burton hired Ness there would be “a tremendous explosion with after-effects to last for years.” (5)
Within a week of being appointed Safety Director, he was known to the underworld as the “boy scout” or “college cop.” “He has a dimpled chin, a round face, parts his hair down the middle and blushes easily. His voice is mild and his manner hesitant. He keeps a cat, hates to be out late at night, likes to walk around the house in his stocking feet, and sits on the floor for complete relaxation.” The article further states:
Eliot Ness marries
Ness Combats Crime and Modernizes the Police Force
In his first year as Safety Director, Ness didn’t take any time at all to become fully immersed in the job:
When influential reformers had pressed Mayor Harold Burton into appointing the mild-mannered federal agent, Burton at first demurred. One look at the special agent’s record convinced him that Cleveland could expect fireworks,” said an article in Newsweek magazine.
Ness knew there were troubles in the police department, so he instituted procedures to make certain that the officers he hired would do their job well. Once he started his police training academy, all potential officers had to take a revised civil service test that was made a little more difficult to pass. He insisted on character investigations and finger printing for all prospective police. He gave every cadet mandatory two year probation and tested their temperament as well as physical prowess. He didn’t ask anything of his officers that he didn’t demand of his own self. He knew the law well and kept himself in good physical shape.
In the fall of 1938, with the police department rejuvenated, big-time racketeers ensconced in the state penitentiary and crime dropping, Ness was “offered several times his annual employment ($9000) to go into private practice. “Some day,” he said “I may take one of those jobs. Right now, I want to prove what an honest police force with intelligence and civic pride can do.’” (6)
Motorcycles were ordered for traffic control. This was organized as a separate department in order to free those police officers from other duties and focus on the traffic problems rampant across the city. The mounted force was enhanced and modernized as well. With these measures, along with establishing Cleveland’s EMS unit and adding accident prevention patrol cars, Cleveland was recognized with winning the American Legion’s National Safety Award in 1939.
Not only was Ness concerned with the efficiency of the police officers on the street and traffic concerns, he also knew that more modern equipment was need for the police force. In an article that Ness wrote for American City Magazine he wrote that “the centralization and intensive utilization of two-way radio, radio-telegraph, teletype and the teletypewriter increased the speed and efficiency of police communication beyond anything believed possible.”
Ness Ready to Marry Again
Mr. and Mrs. Ness enjoyed dining and dancing at the popular hotel ballrooms of Cleveland. Here he met many of the artistic personalities of Cleveland, including artist and designer Viktor Schreckengost. In an interview, Schreckengost said that he enjoyed the Ness’ parties, but invariably “Eliot would receive a phone call pulling him away from the party and back to the line of duty as Safety Director. Those were exciting times.” Mr. Schreckengost added that he noticed Ness never wore a gun, although he did wear the shoulder holster empty – perhaps to give the criminals the impression that he might be armed.
Ness Earns Acclaim
In another Plain Dealer report, Clarence Douglas wrote that “changes in the police department since Eliot Ness became Safety Director – both in personnel and methods – have been the most drastic in the department’s history.” Zone cars that were equipped with two-way radios took the place of the beat patrolman. With regard to traffic, “13 yellow accident prevention cars – lent by the Studebaker Corp., since the city could not afford to buy its own – are constant reminders that the long-heralded reform is at hand.” (9)
Ness Gives up the Badge
After the war ended in 1945, he became chairman of the Board for the Diebold Safe and Lock Company in Canton. He also formed an import-export business with his friend Dan Tyler Moore, Jr., former director of the Securities and Exchange Commission. His travels almost paralleled those of his wife because Evaline was equally busy traveling to Washington and New York to meet with her publishers. The distance between them grew to be too much and they were quietly divorced November 17, 1945.
Ness wasn’t alone for long. Another woman, and a friend of Evaline’s from their days at the Cleveland Institute of Art, captured his heart. On January 31, 1946, Ness married the former Elisabeth Anderson Seaver. Elisabeth had once been a very popular artist at the Cowan Pottery Studios which had gone under during the Depression. Even today, many of her pieces are displayed in significant art museums around the country as well as the Cowan Pottery Museum in the Rocky River Public Library. Like Eliot, Elisabeth was also of Norwegian ancestry which is why her name was spelled with an “s” instead of the more popular “z.” Ness, now 44 years old, still hoped for a family. He and Elisabeth decided to adopt. They welcomed a 3 year old toddler, Robert, from an orphanage near Ashtabula, OH.
Ness Still In the Public Eye
In 1955 Ness joined the Cleveland-based North Ridge Industrial Corporation, a new company “marketing a promising method of watermarking commercial and personal checks to prevent forgery.” The company wanted an identifiable figure to show potential investors that the North Ridge businesses would be profitable,’ said William Ayers, one of the original partners.” Ness moved his wife and son to Coudersport, PA, about 6 hours east of Cleveland, to manage the Guarantee Paper and Fidelity Company of the North Ridge Corporation. Ness worked hard and invested all he had into the company because he believed in the concept of watermarking to prevent forgery. The watermarked checks never caught on, and the free-spending habits of the company’s founder led to the company’s quick demise.(11)
In this same year of 1955, when traveling to New York City, Ness became acquainted with Oscar Fraley, a sportswriter who took an interest in the stories of Ness’ days in Chicago. Fraley persuaded Ness to work with him on an account of his experiences battling Chicago’s bootleggers. The Western Reserve Historical Society library in Cleveland has the 21 page, double spaced, memoirs that Eliot Ness typed and sent to Oscar Fraley. When Ness saw the galley edition of the book, his pride wouldn’t agree to the text Fraley submitted. Ness signed off on all rights to the book, thinking that it wouldn’t be the success that Fraley thought it would. In a telephone conversation with the author in 1998, an aging Fraley said that he knew the book would be a best seller. When asked why he went ahead with the book knowing Eliot Ness didn’t approve, he said “Tough! I knew it would be a success and if he didn’t like it he could sign off on it – and he did.”
On May 16, 1957 at 5:15 p.m. Eliot Ness died in his home in Coudersport from a heart attack. His estate showed over $8000 in debt. Ness never knew how popular his story would become and that Desilu Productions would buy the rights to air the TV series that starred Robert Stack in the lead role. His widow, Elisabeth, could only afford to have Eliot cremated and brought back to Cleveland where she lived in Cleveland Heights. A memorial service was held for him at the Church of the Covenant on Euclid Avenue. His ashes were kept by his son, Robert who was only ten years old when Eliot died.
Elisabeth died in 1977 after suffering from cancer of the throat for several years. She had lived in San Juan Capistrano, CA with a cousin when she passed away. Robert Ness passed away a year sooner, August 31, 1976, of leukemia. He was only 29 years old and left a widow. Both Elisabeth and Robert’s ashes, as well as those of Eliot Ness, were kept by Robert’s widow until 1998 when they were united in a formal funeral ceremony. The ashes of all three Ness family members were dispersed on Wade Lake in Lake View Cemetery on the east side of Cleveland. The funeral was held September 10, 1998 with many hundreds of people and international media in attendance. Eliot Ness can be remembered for the impact he had on Cleveland. Ness restored a sense of hope and pride to a city that had been beaten down for a long time. It can easily be said that Eliot Ness’ integrity was sincere and his sense if justice was inflexible. His life was never easy, but he didn’t allow fear to guide him.
by Rebecca McFarland, Museum Trustee, January 2012
Plain Dealer article written by Bob Rich and published on July 16, 1996
NESS, A MR. CLEAN CLEVELAND DESPERATELY NEEDED
Cleveland’s own G-Man, Eliot Ness, came to town in the summer of 1934 as head of the Treasury Department’s Alcohol Tax Unit. He had achieved celebrity as the chief of a special Justice Department task force that had literally battered down the doors of Al Capone’s breweries and warehouses in Chicago during Prohibition, but it would be many years later, long after Ness was dead, before a book and TV would make him into a near-mythical lawman.
Ness had always given credit for jailing Capone to the undercover work of the IRS, but he was symbolic of the new breed of enforcement officer: college-educated, smart, and incorruptible – “untouchable” as he became known for spurning constant bribe offers from Capone.
Cleveland had a new mayor, Harold Burton, who, when he couldn’t get the Republican Party’s endorsement, ran as an independent Republican and won. Burton appointed the 32-year-old Ness as his safety director in charge of a thoroughly demoralized force of 2,400 policemen and firemen.
Times had changed since Cleveland’s men in blue were the recognized model for the country under Mayor Tom Johnson; now, with the worst depression in history in full bloom, there were hundreds of homeless people, panhandlers, prostitutes and robbers; gambling was wide open, labor extortion common, the police rackets at full blast. Cops looked and acted the way they felt – slovenly and unkempt; sometimes they were informants and even enforcers for mob figures.
In December 1935, author Steven Nickel quoted Ness as telling the Cleveland Advertising Club, “In any city where corrpution continues, it follows that some officers are playing ball with the underworld. If town officials are committed to a program of `protection,’ police work becomes exceedingly difficult, and the officer on the beat, being discouraged from his duty, decides it is best to see as little crime as possible.’
Ness went on to explain that while he personally wasn’t against gambling, profits from illegal gambling opened the door to drug dealing, prostitution and union racketeering.
Quite a mouthful for a young man whom many locals considered not tough enough to be a top cop, with his college-boy good looks, university education and low-key manner. They began to believe him when he transferred 122 policemen, including a captain and 27 lieutenants, and replaced the head of the detective bureau.
Ness captured Cleveland’s affection when he made a flamboyant and courageous raid on the Harvard Club in Newburg Heights, a notorious gambling club operating openly with police protection, one month after his appointment as safety director. He had been called in by the county prosecutor even though the club was out of the city limits, and moved against it as a private citizen, accompanied by police and his newspaper reporter friends.
Now, with the city solidly behind him, Ness put together a team of volunteer detectives and police – Cleveland’s own group of “Untouchables” – and went after corruption in the police force. He used wiretaps, informers, subpoenaed bank accounts; the same tools of the trade he had used against Al Capone in Chicago. Grand jury indictments, trials and convictions followed.
Later, juries would send labor extortionists to jail, leading to anti-union charges against Ness. The AFL investigated and decided that Ness was only against labor racketeering.
He instituted a professional training program for police and reformed the traffic division leading to Cleveland being rated the safest city in the United States by the National Safety Council.
Many evenings, on his own time, he met with youth gang leaders and social workers. He fought to get city funding of playgrounds and basketball courts for Cleveland’s youth: “Keep them off the streets and keep them busy. It’s much better to spend a lot of time and money … keeping them straight than it is to spend even more time and money catching them in the wrong and then trying to set them straight.”
As a result of his programs, there was an 80 percent drop in juvenile delinquency.
Then, a much greater evil than corruption or organized crime struck: a serial killer – the man the media would call the Cleveland Butcher – who left pieces of corpses scattered about.
Eliot Ness from the Encyclopedia of Cleveland
NESS, ELIOT (19 Apr. 1903-16 May 1957), nationally known for leading the Chicago “Untouchables,” was Cleveland’s safety director. Born in Chicago, son of Peter and Emma (King) Ness, he graduated from the University of Chicago (1925) before joining the U.S. Prohibition Bureau in 1929, forming the “Untouchables,” who obtained the conviction of Al Capone. Following Prohibition’s repeal, Ness was transferred to the Treasury Dept.’s Alcohol Tax Unit in Cincinnati, arriving in Cleveland in 1934 as the head of the alcohol tax unit for the northern district of Ohio. His reputation as honest and capable led Mayor HAROLD H. BURTON† to appoint Ness city safety director in 1935 to clean up the scandal-ridden police department. Ness formed his own Cleveland “Untouchables,” funded by an anonymous group of businessmen known as the “Secret 6,” and quickly reformed, reorganized, and upgraded the department, motorizing the patrol and using car radios to enhance communication. He established a separate traffic section, hired a traffic engineer, and enabling Cleveland, which had the worst U.S. traffic-fatality record, to twice win awards for reducing traffic deaths. Ness also modernized the fire department, created the Police Academy and Welfare Bureau, and helped found the local chapter of BOYSTOWNS.
Ness crackdowned on labor-union protection rackets, illegal liquor suppliers, and gambling. He closed down the HARVARD CLUB, a notorious gambling house located just outside the city limits in NEWBURGH Critics called for Ness’s removal, citing his social drinking, divorce, work with the federal government, and a traffic accident that looked suspiciously like a hit-skip incident. Mayor Frank Lausche, however, retained Ness; however Ness left Cleveland in 1942 to direct the Div. of Social Protection of the Federal Security Agency. After the war Ness returned to Cleveland, ran unsuccessfully as Republican candidate for mayor in 1947, then devoted himself to business, finally leaving for Coudersport, Pa., in 1956. Shortly before his death, suffering financial reverses, Ness collaborated with journalist Oscar Fraley to produce the book The Untouchables. Ness, however, died before the book was published.
Ness was married 3 times. His first marriage was in 1929 to Edna Staley, they divorced in 1938. On 14 Oct. 1939, Ness married Evaline McAndrew, they divorced in 1945. His third marriage was to Elizabeth Anderson Seaver on 31 Jan. 1946; in 1947 he adopted a son, Robert Warner.
Plain Dealer article written by Brian E. Albrecht and published on September 7, 1997
A BAD END FOR A GOOD GUY DID CLEVELAND KILL ELIOT NESS?
Author: BRIAN E. ALBRECHT PLAIN DEALER REPORTER
She leans against a walker in a small Cleveland apartment; frail and timeworn, but with eyes blazing as bright as the memories of her years as the housekeeper, cook and friend to a living legend.
Others knew Eliot Ness as the two-fisted Prohibition-era crimefighter who dodged bullets and bribes to help put Chicago gangster Al Capone behind bars; then rode into Cleveland to clean up the town in the best Old West/Gary Cooper tradition.
But to Corrine Lawson, 78, he was simply Mr. Ness – a hard-drinking, hard-partying guy; silky smooth with the ladies but also kind, decent, and soft-spoken, “one of the nicest men you’d ever want to meet.”
Come Wednesday, however, when Ness is memorialized with full pomp and ceremony at Lakeview Cemetery, his cremated remains laid to rest 40 years after his death, Lawson won’t be there. Wouldn’t, even if she could.
Because she and others who knew Ness, or looked beyond the legend, know the story that isn’t buffed to an invisible gloss by TV and movie distortions.
And it’s a sad one. No happy ending in this final reel.
Cleveland represented both the brightest and darkest hours of Eliot Ness. As Public Safety Director from 1935-42, he shot to the top, moving with the movers and shaking with the shakers; scandalizing the stuffed shirts, inspiring the hopeful, scrubbing the municipal dirty laundry, and all the while, busting the bad guys.
It was here that Ness made the leap from leader of a small team of elite federal investigators, “The Untouchables” – smashing bootleg breweries in Chicago during the Roaring Twenties – to being handed, at the age of 32, the resources of an entire city to bring to bear against crime, corruption, and all the other ills of a town mired in its own squalor.
But it was also here that Ness started a slippery slide to financial ruin and obscurity; rejected by the city that once hailed him as its knight in shining armor; stumbling through a succession of business failures to end up sipping scotch on a barstool in a small Pennsylvania town, recalling the old glory days with the faint hope that if those memories were ever published, they’d be good for one last ride.
They were, but Ness wasn’t aboard to enjoy it.
Some blamed his downfall on booze; a cruel irony, if true, for a legend born by slaying the gangster dragons of Prohibition.
Some cite bad luck and worse timing; a natural-born lawman who left his element for business and politics, and couldn’t get back.
Others speculate that Ness may have cracked under the pressure of his failure to capture Cleveland’s infamous “Torso Murderer,” who scattered amputated pieces of his handiwork around town for three years.
Or perhaps the knight in shining armor simply ran out of dragons to slay …
Except his own.
“Anyone who goes in gets his head blown off!” came the shout from the Harvard Club, one of many area gambling clubs located just beyond the Cleveland border in 1936.
Private detectives hired by assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Charles McNamee to raid the Newburgh Heights’ casino, hesitated as customers flew out the club’s doors and windows to escape.
The county sheriff would send no help, citing his “home rule” policy of non-interference unless asked by the local mayor. Desperate, McNamee placed a call to Cleveland’s new safety director, who soon arrived with a posse of cops who’d volunteered to act as private citizens beyond the city limits.
“All right, let’s go,” he simply said, and Eliot Ness led his small army into the casino without a shot being fired.
Decisive, deliberate action became a Ness trademark in Cleveland, according to Jo Chamberlin, brother of Ness’s administrative assistant and close friend, Robert Chamberlin.
“He was always on the go, never kept regular working hours,” says Chamberlin, of Pallisades, N.Y. “If something was happening, he’d say `We’d better go take a look,’ and the next thing you know he’d be across town, and whoever happened to be with him went sailing along, too.’
One such rider was Viktor Schreckengost, 91, of Cleveland Heights, who knew Ness’s second and third wives, both local artists.
He recalls attending a party in Cleveland Heights where Ness, after receiving an urgent phone call, invited him along for a ride downtown. Next thing Schreckengost knew he was part of a convoy of cars roaring down Euclid Avenue at 80 mph; sirens screaming, hearts pounding.
When they arrived at the scene, Schreckengost was told by Ness to stay in the car, and never did find out what the call was about. “He came out after 10 or 15 minutes and said `No problem. We got it solved.’ ‘
It was just one of many surprises about Ness, he adds. The first time they met, “I was looking for a big fellow, and here’s this quiet guy who never liked to brag, but would just sit back and listen. Not the kind of fellow you expected to be a gangbuster at all. In fact, he was the last person you’d think would ever have anything to do with Al Capone.”
But a much stiffer challenge awaited him as safety director, and one of the stiffest was the corruption and inefficiency that crippled the police department. Many cops were on the payroll of local mobsters, or even running small rackets of their own.
Mayor Harold H. Burton, who’d been elected promising reform, was sure he’d appointed the right man for the job. He remarked, “Eliot Ness works hard and he serves the public, no one else.”
Ness quickly set the tone. Six days after taking office he fired two policemen for drinking on duty, saying, “I will not stand for this sort of thing in my department. It is that simple. Either we have decent law-abiding policemen to show us the way, or we don’t.”
Others would soon discover how serious Ness was, as a wave of transfers and dismissals swept every precinct in the city.
Those regarding Ness’s pursuit of corruption with an almost religious zeal – labeling the youthful safety director as a “Boy Scout” and “College Cop” – weren’t far wrong, according to Paul Heimel, author of the recent biography, “Eliot Ness: The Real Story.”
Heimel notes, “In his writings, Ness clearly saw his job as a mission, as if he had been chosen to defend all that was good about America against all that was evil.”
To aid his investigations, Ness re-created the old Untouchables concept with a hand-picked team of incorruptible lawmen called “The Unknowns,” who worked undercover to gather evidence against criminals and crooked cops alike.
But rooting out corruption was only half the job. It’s the other equally enduring but less colorful half that often gets lost in the legend, says Rebecca McFarland, a local expert on Ness who has lectured about his life and times for the past nine years.
“He not only solved problems at hand, but had the foresight to look beyond a problem to make sure it didn’t happen again,” she says. “He had a tremendous impact on the city, which endures to this day.”
Ness established the city’s first police academy, created a police scientific investigation unit, and launched a new fleet of police vehicles painted a vivid red, white and blue to increase their visible presence around town.
He equipped prowl cars, motorcycles and his newly created “Emergency Patrol Trucks” (forerunners of today’s ambulances) with two-way radios, linked to a central communications/dispatch center.
When he took office, Cleveland was second in the nation in traffic-related deaths and injuries. Ness rejuvenated the city’s traffic division, imposed tougher vehicle inspections, cracked down on speeders and drunk drivers, and helped devise new traffic routing and an Accident Prevention Bureau to promote traffic safety through public awareness campaigns.
In less than four years, traffic accidents were reduced to the point where Cleveland was honored by the National Safety Council as the nation’s safest city.
Ness had similar success in reducing juvenile crime by 62 percent. “Keep them off the streets and keep them busy,” was his credo in organizing a citywide Boy Scout program (with scoutmasters recruited from the police and fire departments), founding a Cleveland Boy’s Town program, and establishing a special police bureau to handle juvenile cases.
Ness overhauled the fire department, arranging for new equipment to replace an aging inventory that included leaky hoses and such antiquities as one hook-and-ladder so decrepit it could only climb hills in reverse.
In battling crime, Ness’s early effort at the Harvard Club was repeated with greater success at gambling joints inside the city limits.
But in one case involving a surgeon’s skill and a madman’s terror, Ness failed; perhaps opening the first chinks in his seemingly invincible armor and public personna.
Newspapers dubbed him the Mad Butcher and Torso Murderer, for his technique of of severing the limbs and heads of 12 victims left scattered across Greater Cleveland from 1935-38. Ness responded with the largest manhunt in Cleveland history, but the killer was never apprehended.
Jim Badal, Cuyahoga Community College English professor and an authority on the torso murders, says Ness may have been out of his depth.
“It has always been my feeling that Ness didn’t particularly want any part of it. This was a man used to dealing with men like Al Capone who committed crimes for understandable reasons – greed, jealousy, power – and Ness was smart enough to realize this was something totally new in the annals of crime, and simply didn’t want to get involved in it.”
Steven Nickel, author of the 1989 book, “Torso,” also believes the old Chicago dazzle just didn’t cut it with serial murders.
“He didn’t know how to handle it. When you take on mobsters, you find out where the alcohol is, you break down the door and make the bust. But with this, he didn’t know how to approach it,” Nickel says.
“In the end, Ness probably did what he could and just came up short,” he adds. “I know it bothered him, and I know it bothered the public and probably added to the disenchantment and the crumbling of his public image in Cleveland – which is unfair, really, because he did a lot of good for the city.”
Max Collins, author of four novels about Ness, believes the crimefighter may have actually solved the case, but at a crippling cost to his honor.
A popular theory has Ness discovering that the killer was a member of a prominent local family. Lacking sufficient evidence to prosecute the man, Ness supposedly cut a deal in which the suspect was committed to a mental institution for life.
Collins says Ness may have been forced into the deal by the same local movers and shakers who funded his undercover anti-corruption campaign. “When they presented the bill, when Ness had to cover-up the identity of the Butcher because he came from a well-to-do family, it would have been a staggering blow.”
Without drawing a single drop of blood, the Mad Butcher may have claimed his 13th victim in Cleveland.
But for Ness, who’d already spent most of his life atop a pedestal, there would soon be other ways of falling off.
Such a good boy, this Eliot Ness. His mother once said, “He was so terribly good that he never got a spanking.”
This son of Norwegian immigrants, raised largely by his mother and sisters because his father spent long hours at their Chicago bakery, grew up a shy loner; “Elegant Mess” his classmates taunted, for Ness’s carefully groomed appearance and aloofness.
But he blossomed into a dashing lady’s man in high school and college, and still had the charm when he came to Cleveland with his first wife, Edna, his college sweetheart.
Ness was divorced twice, and married three times during his 20-year tenure in Cleveland.
“He was handsome and charming, very quiet and witty, just as nice as anyone could possibly be,” says Marjorie Mutersbaugh, 93, of Rocky River, who became a close acquaintance of Ness and his third wife, Elisabeth
“They were so congenial,” Mutersbaugh recalls. “Betty said one time she had never been so happy in her life as when she was married to him.”
Ness also was social whirlwind. By day, he’d hit the downtown hot spots with big-name bands, like the Lotus Gardens and Golden Pheasant; by night, dining and dancing at the Cleveland Hotel or Hollenden House, or making the rounds of private parties.
When the badge came off, people discovered the safety director actually had a mischievous sense of humor.
“He loved practical jokes,” says Dan T. Moore, 89, of Cleveland Heights, a friend and business associate of Ness. He recalled that Ness would invite a seven-foot-tall woman to his parties, then pair her up with the shortest man in the room, just for laughs.
They were fun times, says housekeeper Corrine Lawson. “We used to have nice parties, and they always had a crowd. He was a party man, a party man, and all the women were just crazy about him.”
Not that he didn’t have a few quirks. Lawson says Ness was strictly a meat-and-potatoes man. Strictly. Couldn’t stand vegetables or spices.
“I once asked him, “How about a tossed salad?’ And he said, `Well, you go ahead and mix it up, and I’ll toss it out the window.’
She remembers Ness’s nervous habit of biting his fingernails to the quick, or constantly flipping his “lucky” coin in the air.
Ness rarely carried a gun, and only kept a .22-caliber rifle in a closet at home. But some of the old habits died hard. Lawson says that whenever Ness entered a room, “he always kept his back to the wall.”
Otherwise, there was never a hint of scandal, never even an argument or raised voice in the Ness household.
But Ness drank. And drank heavily, Lawson says. “He always had scotch and soda. He loved his Cutty Sark.”
In his defense, McFarland points out that back then, drinking wasn’t quite the taboo it is today; considered, after the debacle of Prohibition, “not only proper but socially acceptable.”
It might not have even mattered until that night in 1942 when Ness skidded on an icy street, and never stopped sliding.
Ness and his second wife, Evaline, had been out partying downtown until 4:30 a.m. when they finally hit the road … and Robert Sims.
No one was seriously injured and Ness went home, unaware that Sims had identified the safety director’s distinctive license plate, EN-1, to police. The next day, it was headline news.
As public criticism mounted, Cleveland’s newly elected Mayor Frank Lausche summoned the safety director to his office.
The following morning, April 30, 1942, Ness resigned; ostensibly to assume new duties as director of the Federal Social Protection Program, but some suspected the scandal was just too much for even Lausche’s largesse.
With America embroiled in World War II, it became Ness’s job to stamp out prostitution and venereal disease at military installations across the country. Mother Ness’s good boy would be saving other good boys for Uncle Sam.
As the war entered its final years and the Social Protection Program disbanded, Ness launched the second phase of his career aboard a slowly sinking ship.
Through social contacts in Cleveland, Ness met the daughter of the majority shareholder of the Diebold Safe & Lock Co. in Canton, and was subsequently installed as chairman of the company’s board of directors.
For a time, it was smooth sailing.
On the business front, Ness reorganized, diversified and expanded Diebold’s product line. He also joined Dan Moore in an import-export business, the Middle East Co.
On the homefront, Ness’s second marriage, which fell apart during his term in Washington, ended in divorce. A year later he wed Elisabeth, and the couple soon adopted a 3-year-old boy, Robert; Ness’s first and only child.
Life should have been full, but it wasn’t. Not for the old dragon-slayer. “Ness felt a growing restlesssness and an unshakable desire to return to public life,” wrote biographer Paul Heimel.
So he ran for mayor in 1947, to the stunned shock of friends and family.
Moore says Ness was no politician. “His idea of campaigning was to stand at the corner of E. 9th St. and Euclid Ave. and shake people’s hands … He thought he could make it work by sheer force of personality.”
George Condon , former Plain Dealer columnist and author, covered Ness’s campaign and recently said it was a foregone conclusion, even to the candidate.
“He knew he didn’t have a chance. His timing was terrible. He should’ve run back in ’41, but he waited too long. His name had slipped out of the public’s memory. A lot of the old glamor had faded away, and he was running against a very successful mayor (Thomas Burke) with a great personality.”
Ness was soundly drubbed, 168,412 to 85,990, but his troubles had only just begun. Diebold executives, still resentful of Ness’s sudden appointment years earlier, took advantage of his absence while campaigning to oust him from the firm.
The import-export business fell apart, and even Moore had to admit that if Ness was a poor politician, he was an even worse businessman.
“He was no businessman at all. He had no instinct for it. He was completely out of his element, and it was so obvious to everybody but Eliot.”
“He used to constantly say, when things weren’t going well, `What we need here is a break.’ Well, he sure didn’t get too many breaks.’
Suddenly Ness was scrambling for work; selling electronic parts, personal security alarms, and burger patties to restaurants. Nothing panned out.
Ness finally landed a job with the Guaranty Paper and Fidelty Check Corporations, whose watermarking process showed promise of thwarting counterfeiters, and moved with the firm to Coudersport, Pa., where most of the investors lived.
What he needed here was a break. He didn’t get one.
The check-printing company unraveled, and the only dim light at the end of the tunnel seemed to be the manuscript that he and wire service reporter Oscar Fraley were working on, recounting Ness’s days as a Prohibition agent in Chicago.
The book, “The Untouchables,” was due to be published just a few months from that hot afternoon of May 16, 1957, when Ness brought home a bottle of scotch, went to the kitchen sink for a glass of water and suddenly fell to the floor, dead of a heart attack at age 54.
There were the expected, posthumous accolades.
“A courageous, competent public official with the utmost integrity, completely devoted to duty,” said his former boss, Harold Burton.
But perhaps the most telling testament was revealed when it was found that Ness died with only $900 in assets, including $275 in his checking account and a rusty ’52 Ford, and $8,000 in debts … no surer proof that the famed Untouchable had remained just that, to the very end.
Elisabeth Ness and her son moved back to Cleveland where she worked as a sculptor and store clerk, while living with her former housekeeper, Corrine Lawson.
Elisabeth Ness died of cancer in 1977, a year after her son, Robert, who had stayed in Cleveland and became an electronics technician, died of leukemia.
There never was a marker or statue erected to honor Cleveland’s most famous safety director … until now.
Perhaps because none was needed – at least not to those who knew the real story of Eliot Ness.
It was, as Corrine Lawson says, “a sad story, a real sad story.”
Biographer Paul Heimel agrees. “His life was a sad story, and I think the sadness continues today with the legend and myth so distorted at the expense of the real story.
“He always seemed not to get the credit he deserved, yet so continually sought.”
But to Rebecca McFarland, this is the lesson to be learned beyond the tragic end, and shortcomings, usually omitted from the legend of Eliot Ness.
It’s a lesson that lies in his accomplishments in Cleveland; in the workings of today’s police, fire and public safety departments that Ness set in motion 50 years ago.
As McFarland notes, “When you start learning the real truth behind the man, in this case, fact is more fascinating than fiction.”
from the Ohio Historical Society
Eliot Ness was born on April 19, 1903, in Chicago, Illinois. He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1927 with dual degrees in business and law. He briefly worked for the Retail Credit Company, before returning to the University of Chicago to earn a Masters degree in criminology.
In 1927, Ness accepted a position with the United States Department of the Treasury. Ness was assigned to Chicago, where he was to enforce Prohibition. Ness created an elite team of Treasury officers, nicknamed the Untouchables, to shutdown the alcohol operations of gangster Al Capone. After operating for six months, Ness claimed that he had either seized or shutdown more than one million dollars in breweries. While Ness’s actions complicated Capone’s operations, they did not end his bootlegging activities. Rather, another group of Treasury officers arrested Capone for income tax evasion. Capone was convicted of this crime in 1931.
In 1934, Ness became the chief investigator of the Department of the Treasury’s Bureau of Prohibition for Ohio. The next year, Prohibition ended, causing Ness to seek new employment. This same year, he became the Director of Public Safety for Cleveland, Ohio. Ness took over a police force in Cleveland that was known for its corruption. Under his leadership, the Cleveland Police Department dramatically improved and gained the respect of other departments across the United States. Ness also helped curtail illegal gambling and prostitution in the city, although his department failed to solve several prominent crimes, including finding a serial killer known as the “Cleveland Torso Murderer.”
In 1942, Ness resigned. He worked briefly in Washington, DC, before becoming the chairman of the Diebold Incorporated, a safe manufacturer in Canton, Ohio, in 1944. In 1947, he unsuccessfully ran for the Cleveland mayoral seat. This same year, the Diebold Corporation released Ness from the company. He then took a position with North Ridge Industrial, in Pennsylvania. Ness died from a heart attack on May 16, 1957.
An assortment of articles and images from Cleveland State University Special Collections