Ness, a Mr. Clean Cleveland Desperately Needed

Plain Dealer article written by Bob Rich and published on July 16, 1996



Plain Dealer, The (Cleveland, OH) – Sunday, June 16, 1996
Author: Bob Rich

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.


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