A Bad End For a Good Guy. Did Cleveland Kill Eliot Ness?

Plain Dealer article written by Brian E. Albrecht and published on September 7, 1997




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.”


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