After graduation, Eliot Ness began his career as an investigator for the Retail Credit Company. He was in charge of the Chicago territoryand would conduct background researches and verifications. Meanwhile, he also completed a master's degree course in criminology.
In 1926, he was encouraged by his brother-in-law, FBI agent Alexander Jamie to join law enforcement. Ness agreed andin 1927 he joined the Chicago branch of the U.S. Treasury Department, working with the Prohibition Bureau.
Around that time, the federal government was investigatingthe illegal undertakingsof gangster Al Capone in income tax evasion and violation of prohibition. Ness was selected to lead the investigation under the National Prohibition Act.
Since the widespread corruption among Chicago's law enforcement agents was well-known, in 1929 hemeticulously built a trustworthy team of eleven Prohibition agents called ‘The Untouchables’.
The team immediately began attacking illegal breweries run by Capone and within a very short time, successfully seized and halted operations of breweries worth over amillion dollar.
Ness and his team effectively brought about Capone's downfall.In 1931, Capone was charged with 22 counts of tax evasion and 5,000 violations of the Prohibition Act. Eventually, he was sentenced to eleven years in prison.
Soon after, the special team was dissolved andNess was promoted to the position of Chief Investigator of the Chicago Prohibition Bureau,a position he held till the end of the Prohibition period in 1933.
In 1934, he moved to Cincinnati's Justice Department wherein he was assigned the task of finding and eradicating the ‘Moonshine’ operations in the mountains of Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.
In December 1935, he joined asan investigative agent of the Treasury Department's Alcoholic Tax Unit in Cleveland, Ohio. At 32, he became the youngest agent in Cleveland’s history to claim the position.
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Soon, Cleveland Mayor Harold Burton assigned him the task of eradicating crime and corruption from the city. Heading a team of 34 agents, he began conducting detailed investigations against dishonest policemen. The evidences were presented before a grand jury in October 1936. Fifteen senior officers were brought to trial and two hundred corrupt policemen were forced to resign.
His next assignment was improving Cleveland’s notorious traffic control situation. He established a special court for fast handling of traffic casesand within a short period of time drastically reducedthe number of deaths caused by traffic accidents.
Later, as Cleveland’s Public Safety Director, he led a campaign to wipe out police corruption and modernize the fire department.
Eventually, upheavals in his personal life began to tarnish his professional image in Cleveland. Although his divorce, high-profile social drinking, and conduct in a car accident was much criticised, he continued in his position with the next Mayor, Frank Lausche.
In 1942, he shifted to Washington, D.C.working for the federal government. He led a campaign against prostitution in areasadjoining military bases, where venereal disease had become a grave problem.
For a short period, he unsuccessfully ventured into the corporate world. In 1944, he joined asChairman of Diebold Corporation, a security safe company in Ohio. In 1947, he contested unsuccessfully for the position of Mayor of Cleveland and was later expelled from Diebold in 1951.
Reckless behaviour like drinking and incurring heavy debts forced him to take up various odd jobs in order to earn a living. He worked as an electronics parts wholesaler, a clerk in a bookstore, and a salesman of frozen hamburger patties to restaurants.
By 1953, he joined a start-up company, Guaranty Paper Corporation in Cleveland that specialized inwatermarkingvarious documents in order to thwartforgery. Since Ness was a former law enforcement officer, he easily bagged the job.
The company soon shifted to Coudersport, Pennsylvania to avail lower operating cost. Armed with a respectable income, he once again began visiting local bars and narrating exaggerated tales of his heroic career to fellow customers.
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Earlier, Al Capone had tried to bribe Ness heavily if he was willing to overlook Capone's illegal activities. Ness, however, refused the bribe and was always short of money in later years. He died almost bankrupt at the age of 54.
Personal Life & Legacy
Ness was married thrice. He was married to Edna Staley from 1929 to 1938, then to illustrator Evaline Michelow from 1939 to 1945, and finally to artist Elisabeth Andersen Seaver from 1946 until his death in 1957. He also had an adopted son, Robert (1946–1976).
After he was expelled from Diebold in 1951, he began drinking heavily and spending his spare time in bars, narrating exaggerated tales of his career. He also incurred heavy debts.
On 16 May 1957, at the age of 54 he suffered a massive heart-attack and died at his home in Coudersport, Pennsylvania. His ashes were scattered in a small pond on the grounds of Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland.
Unfortunately, by the time of his death he was almost forgotten as no Chicago newspaper published the news of his death. His heroic reputation resurfaced only after the book he had co-authored with Oscar Fraley was published posthumously in 1957.
The Western Reserve Historical Society maintains many important documents related to his life and career, such as a scrapbook, newspaper clippings, a typewritten manuscript about his career in Chicago, etc.