Eliot Ness, the famed Prohibition era agent often credited with bringing down the empire of Chicago mobster Al Capone, is perhaps best known to many from his fictional portrayals on the big and small screens.
Although Ness is a legendary figure, some politicians are debating whether the headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Washington, D.C., should bear his name.
Eliot Ness began his career as a Prohibition agent in 1926. Four years later, he was the special agent in charge of going after Al Capone’s bootlegging operation.
U.S. senators Mark Kirk and Dick Durbin of Illinois and Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio all admire Ness’ tireless effort to get public enemy no. 1. That’s just one of the reasons they say the headquarters of the ATF, the successor to the Bureau of Prohibition, should be named after Ness.
Not so fast, says Chicago Alderman Edward Burke. He spearheaded a resolution approved by the Chicago City Council telling the senators that they should drop the idea and think of a more worthy agent.
“It’s my opinion that Eliot Ness is essentially a Hollywood myth,” Burke argues.
Here’s what is not up for debate: Al Capone terrorized Chicago for years with gangland-style shootings and bribed law enforcement officers and others to get his way. So Ness selected the so-called “Untouchables” to go after him: agents considered incorruptible and with special skills.
At the same time, the Internal Revenue Service had Capone in its sights. Retired IRS Special Agent Bob Feusel met former members of the Untouchables when he joined the agency in 1958.
It was during that time that he got to know the real Eliot Ness, and he says he wasn’t too impressed. “According to their testimony to me, he was afraid of guns and he barely left the office,” he says.
Federal prosecutor Scott Leeson Sroka, a grandson of one of the Untouchables, says the stories he’s heard are entirely different. And he says the parallel investigations by the Prohibition unit and the IRS marked one of the first unified attacks against an organized crime syndicate in U.S. history.
The Untouchables, Sroka says, “were literally tearing apart Capone’s production facilities and making him unable to conduct his business.”
Ness, a smart guy going after the wiseguys, became the face of organized crime-fighting in Chicago. Nearly 30 years later, the agent’s exploits – and some invented ones – were hyped by actor Robert Stack in the television series The Untouchables. Kevin Costner later portrayed the agent in a 1987 movie of the same name.
So why rail against putting Ness’ name on a building in Washington?
Alderman Ed Burke says he would “like to have Chicago history reflected in the appropriate, truthful way.”
But there’s no indication that the U.S. senators are backing off their resolution to put name the ATF building for Ness – and a statement from the ATF calls Ness a proven and innovative leader.