Monday, February 16, 2015
"Eliot Ness" by Douglas Perry (2014)
Everyone is familiar with the story of the St. Valentine Day Massacre of 1929 in Chicago, as well as Eliot Ness; the iconic leader of the “Untouchables.” And even if you are too young to have watched the TV show “The Untouchables” with Robert Stack you are probably familiar with the movie of the same name, starring Kevin Costner and Sean Connery. But that story is just a small slice of who Eliot Ness was.
Though he is chiefly remembered for bringing Al Capone to justice in Chicago, his story didn’t end there. He did a whole lot more in the 1930’s when Ohio was still in the grips of the bootleggers even after Prohibition had been repealed. In addition there was a huge illegal gambling syndicate run by the organized crime gangs, which bought violence and degradation to the city on a scale with the 1920’s in Chicago.
The author has done a superb job in bringing the story of the Eliot Ness; as well as the story of Prohibition and the gangs who ran the bootlegging and the speakeasies; to life. But since we all know most of the Chicago story I will be concentrating more on the Cleveland part of the story. But first there are some misconceptions to clear up.
Eliot Ness’ time in Chicago was at the tail end of the roaring twenties; he actually took command of the Untouchables about a year after the St. Valentine Day Massacre in 1929. He was not a teetotaler by any means; and even delivered confiscated cases of booze to his old fraternity house. He was a good dancer and a constant flirt who enjoyed the attention of women. He was married twice. In short; he was an average sort of guy.
In Chicago he became the legend we know him as; he battled the biggest gangster and bought him down through a series of daring raids and economic cunning. But the troubles he would face in Cleveland were far more entrenched with the Police Department and the Mayor’s office both on the take. It’s hard to dislodge corruption when the very leaders you report to are part of the problem.
In Cleveland Ness honed his social skills; battling crime with psychology rather than battering rams. Working with Boy’s Town he was able to turn over several unused police barracks which were made into homes and schools for the boys. He also pressured the older gangs to saty away from the kids or risk the consequences.
Forming a squad of obscure police officers from the suburbs, and recruiting new police cadets, Ness formed a squad known not as the Untouchables; as was the case in Chicago; but rather the “Unknowable’s”; as they were virtually unknown to the criminals or their fellow officers who were on the take. This put them in a unique position for gathering information on the gangs operating the bootlegging and numbers rackets.
Most people think that illegal whiskey went out with Prohibition; but it didn’t. Not just a backwoods, mountain type of thing; the mob made millions off of moonshine whiskey in the decades after Repeal. Some moon shining still goes on today, but not to the extent that it did then.
This is a book which will fill you in on the real Eliot Ness and what he was really like. The author obviously spent considerable time unearthing just about every article written about Ness and culled the memoirs of the people who were involved with him on both sides of the law. A new look into an old subject can be very enlightening. And so it goes with this book.