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