In December of 1935, Cleveland's Mayor Harold Burton recruited Eliot Ness to serve as the city’s new Safety Director. That very year, Cleveland was the fifth largest metro area in the nation, and was considered to be the most dangerous city in the United States. Ness went on to spearhead a campaign that nearly eliminated corruption in the police department, brought the fire department up to modern standards, and instituted the latest traffic technologies, bringing national safety awards to Cleveland by 1939. He was also faced with one of the strangest serial murder cases in all of U.S. history.
Ness' Youth and his Chicago Years
Eliot Ness was born in the year 1902 to a Norwegian immigrant couple, Peter (1850-1931) and Emma (King) Ness (1863-1937). His parents came from an area near Stavanger, Norway. Peter grew up in very poor conditions, losing both his parents at the age of 14. Peter and Emma married in Chicago April 2, 1886. They had five children: Clara, Effie, Nina and Charles before Eliot was born as the youngest.(1) There was a 10 year gap in age between the fourth child and Eliot, so it was said he was given lots of family attention. His parents owned a bakery.
As Eliot grew up, he played with his little nieces and nephews and enjoyed going to school. It was said that he took school so seriously that he dressed nicer than most children. This earned him a nickname of “elegant mess” on the playground. He was an avid reader and was fond of the stories of Sherlock Holmes. When he was graduated from Fenger High School, on the south side of Chicago, he spent a year working in the Pullman plant before going to college at the University of Chicago.(2) In 1925 he earned a diploma with a major in political science, commerce and business administration, earning a place in the top 10% of his graduating class.
From the years 1925 to 1927 Ness served as an investigator for the Retail Credit Company in Chicago. He longed for a job that was a bit more exciting, and returned to the university for postgraduate course work with August Vollmer. His oldest brother-in-law, Alexander Jamie, worked for the Prohibition Bureau and brought Ness in as an agent with the U.S. Treasury Department. In 1928 he was transferred to the Justice Department to work for Prohibition. Alexander Jamie eventually became head of Chicago's Department of the F.B.I.
Ness and his task force were then assigned to close down the bootlegging operations of Al Capone. The ten men he handpicked from around the country were nicknamed the “Untouchables” because they wouldn't take a bribe. Albert Wolff was said to be the last surviving member of the Untouchables. He passed away in Mason, OH at the age of 95 in 1998. In an article in People Magazine, July 1987, Mr. Wolff said he was nicknamed “Wallpaper” because he “took everything but.” He also said that “We were all tough guys, I guess. Eliot Ness was young like me when I first met him. He became a tough guy with class. He was naïve when he started, but he learned. He got a little tougher because it got a little more dangerous.” Wolff was asked to serve as an adviser on the set of the “Untouchables” movie that starred Kevin Costner:
I was asked to show Costner how to act like Ness. I told him Ness was passive. I told him how to walk. Ness walked slowly. I said, “When you take the gun out, be ready to use it, because it's your life or their life.”(3)
Ness was known to rarely carry a weapon.
In addition to Kevin Costner, Robert Stack was another actor who portrayed Ness during his Chicago days. He played Eliot Ness on the TV series “The Untouchables for many years. It is said to be the longest running TV series ever. In a note Mr. Stack sent in response to being invited to attend the recognition of Ness' 100th birthday in April 2002, he wrote “While I met Mrs. Ness (Elisabeth) and the boy (their adopted son Robert) on “This I Your Life” I've never involved myself in events dealing with the gentleman I portrayed on TV. I think at this point in time some might think an actor was trying to garner publicity on a dead hero's reputation – why don't we let the famous centenarian rest in peace.”(4)
Ness comes to Cleveland
In 1933, when Prohibition was repealed, Ness was assigned to the Cincinnati enforcement division of the Treasury Department's Alcohol Tax Unit. In 1934 he was transferred to Cleveland where he led the Cleveland Regional Office (located in the Standard Building) of that same department, leading 30 men under his command. The Plain Dealer, September 21, 1934, featured a long story about Ness written by Charles Lawrence. It was headlined “Gangs Here Face Capone Waterloo.”
It was December 11, 1935 that a 33 year old Ness was sworn in to serve as Cleveland's youngest-ever Safety Director. O ess’ first day the Plain Dealer headlined “Facts First, Then Talk, Says Ness.” The article reported that Ness “considers his first duty to be one of fact finding” and that he intended to be “as conservative as possible until (he) is fully informed of certain trends and conditions in the police and fire departments – especially the police.” The paper also predicted that when Mayor Burton hired Ness there would be “a tremendous explosion with after-effects to last for years.” (5)
Within a week of being appointed Safety Director, he was known to the underworld as the “boy scout” or “college cop.” “He has a dimpled chin, a round face, parts his hair down the middle and blushes easily. His voice is mild and his manner hesitant. He keeps a cat, hates to be out late at night, likes to walk around the house in his stocking feet, and sits on the floor for complete relaxation.” The article further states:
No one had any doubts about the size of the job that he had undertaken. For 20 years the underworld had operated in alliance with officials of the police department. Organized labor was victimized by gangster leaders.” Ness would have none of this. He swiftly investigated the protection scams and bribery and found eight officers who were immediately indicted for bribery. Ness was met with a wave of police resignations which he gladly accepted. “He filled the vacancies with men of his own choosing – more than half of them college graduates.(6)
Eliot Ness marries
Ness was married in 1929 to Edna Staley of Chicago. She had formerly worked in the office of Alexander Jamie as a stenographer. While she and Eliot were married, and as he settled into the job of Safety Director, they moved into a cottage on Lake Erie in Bay Village, a suburb west of Cleveland. The cottage was owned by Robert Chamberlain, a Cleveland lawyer who eventually became an assistant Safety Director for Ness. Although Edna and Eliot weren't able to have children, friends had said that Eliot would often knock on the Chamberlain's door to play with their small children. Eliot would sit on the floor and contentedly play for hours. Eliot was dedicated to his job and would rarely come home before 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. This didn't help their relationship, which eventually dissolved. Eliot and Edna were divorced in January 1939,and Edna returned to Chicago where she moved in with family. She never remarried, and kept the name Ness.
Ness Combats Crime and Modernizes the Police Force
Eliot Ness' name became synonymous with one of the strangest serial murder cases in U.S. history, but that is not all he is known for in Cleveland, not by a long shot.
In his first year as Safety Director, Ness didn't take any time at all to become fully immersed in the job:
With an innocent smile, this scientific sleuth recently rounded up 100 witnesses, convicted two police captains of taking bribes and indicted seven other guardians of the law. (He has) personally led raids on gangsters, gamblers, and vice barons, and brings back industries driven from Cleveland by racketeers. He has ousted incompetents and political hangers-on from the police, fire and building departments and taught the ‘boys’ that it's dynamite to mess with Ness-men.” said an article in American Magazine. “(Ness) runs a police training school modeled after J. Edgar Hoover's and demands unqualified efficiency and honesty. (7)
When influential reformers had pressed Mayor Harold Burton into appointing the mild-mannered federal agent, Burton at first demurred. One look at the special agent's record convinced him that Cleveland could expect fireworks,” said an article in Newsweek magazine.
As chief of the Federal alcohol-tax unit for northern Ohio, Ness had closed an average of one still a day. In Cleveland, Ness started his cleanup with characteristic verve. He first slapped five high police department officials in the penitentiary for bribery and graft, then instituted a scientific “rookie” training school for policemen. Revising the traffic control system, he cut auto accident deaths in half. During Ness' first eighteen months on the job, Cleveland's total crimes dropped 25%; its juvenile crime dropped 80% (credited with his starting numerous Boy Scout troops all over the city) and at the same time arrests and convictions increased by approximately 20%. When Ness took on the mob and sent two high-ranking mob figures to the pen, the papers said that “Director Ness . . . lifted fear from the hearts of honest men . . Cleveland is a better, cleaner, more wholesome place . . . a safer place in which to do business.” (8)
Ness knew there were troubles in the police department, so he instituted procedures to make certain that the officers he hired would do their job well. Once he started his police training academy, all potential officers had to take a revised civil service test that was made a little more difficult to pass. He insisted on character investigations and finger printing for all prospective police. He gave every cadet mandatory two year probation and tested their temperament as well as physical prowess. He didn't ask anything of his officers that he didn't demand of his own self. He knew the law well and kept himself in good physical shape.
In the fall of 1938, with the police department rejuvenated, big-time racketeers ensconced in the state penitentiary and crime dropping, Ness was “offered several times his annual employment ($9000) to go into private practice. “Some day,” he said “I may take one of those jobs. Right now, I want to prove what an honest police force with intelligence and civic pride can do.'” (6)
Motorcycles were ordered for traffic control. This was organized as a separate department in order to free those police officers from other duties and focus on the traffic problems rampant across the city. The mounted force was enhanced and modernized as well. With these measures, along with establishing Cleveland's EMS unit and adding accident prevention patrol cars, Cleveland was recognized with winning the American Legion's National Safety Award in 1939.
Not only was Ness concerned with the efficiency of the police officers on the street and traffic concerns, he also knew that more modern equipment was need for the police force. In an article that Ness wrote for American City Magazine he wrote that “the centralization and intensive utilization of two-way radio, radio-telegraph, teletype and the teletypewriter increased the speed and efficiency of police communication beyond anything believed possible.”
Ness Ready to Marry Again
In the fall of that year, Ness had fallen in love and was ready to marry again. After being single for only 10 months, in October 1939 he married Evaline McAndrews. A well liked and a very popular socialite around Cleveland, Evaline had a career as a fashion artist. After their marriage they moved into a boathouse in the Clifton Lagoons that was owned by the Stouffer brothers. The third floor had windows on all sides and afforded Evaline a comfortable place to work on her sketches for the major department stores in Cleveland. She eventually began illustrating and authoring children's books. “Yeck, Eck” was one of the popular storybooks she wrote for youths. Ironically, it is the story of a little girl, “Tana Jones (who) had everything in the world except the thing she wanted most – a real live baby to take care of.” Evaline and Ness also wanted children, but weren't able to have them. Much later, in 1967, she earned the Randolph Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished American picture book with “Sam, Bangs and Moonshine.” Evaline had developed her own career, and friends have related that her husband's long work hours didn't bother her all that much. She was proud that Ness was so devoted to his job as Safety Director.
Mr. and Mrs. Ness enjoyed dining and dancing at the popular hotel ballrooms of Cleveland. Here he met many of the artistic personalities of Cleveland, including artist and designer Viktor Schreckengost. In an interview, Schreckengost said that he enjoyed the Ness' parties, but invariably “Eliot would receive a phone call pulling him away from the party and back to the line of duty as Safety Director. Those were exciting times.” Mr. Schreckengost added that he noticed Ness never wore a gun, although he did wear the shoulder holster empty – perhaps to give the criminals the impression that he might be armed.
Ness Earns Acclaim
The first four years of Ness' career in Cleveland were referred to as the “Burton – Ness Regime.” It seemed that along with Mayor Burton, nothing was impossible to achieve. In 1939 Burton overwhelmingly was returned to the office of Mayor. By this time, Ness had either ousted or jailed the big-time racketeers, the city hadn't had a gang murder in two years, traffic accidents were cut by 50% and juvenile crime was curbed with the formation of Boy Scout troops with Ness and his officers serving as troop leaders. Ness also founded Cleveland Boys Town and established a Welfare Department within the police department for families of officers in need. It's no wonder that Eliot Ness was recognized with the Veterans of Foreign Wars medal for Outstanding Citizen of Cuyahoga county for 1940. Ness remained incorruptible at a time in the nation’s history when virtually anyone could be bought. He demanded honesty above everything else and expected it in others. Alvin Silverman of the Plain Dealer said that even though Eliot wouldn't sit in a restaurant without his back to a wall, he “was as devoid of fear as anyone who ever lived.”
In another Plain Dealer report, Clarence Douglas wrote that “changes in the police department since Eliot Ness became Safety Director – both in personnel and methods – have been the most drastic in the department's history.” Zone cars that were equipped with two-way radios took the place of the beat patrolman. With regard to traffic, “13 yellow accident prevention cars – lent by the Studebaker Corp., since the city could not afford to buy its own – are constant reminders that the long-heralded reform is at hand.” (9)
Ness Gives up the Badge
In 1940, Ness lost an important ally when Mayor Burton was elected to the U.S. Senate; Burton later became a United States Supreme Court justice. Although Ness remained Cleveland's Safety Director, with the initiation of a peace-time draft in 1940 and large-scale military mobilization, the government sought a high-profile spokesperson to warn recruits about the dangers of venereal disease. Ness agreed to accept the part-time position as a consultant to the Federal Social Protection Program. Critics chided Ness for his long absences as he traveled to government offices in New York and Washington, as well as military bases around the country, preaching abstinence and safe sex.” April 30, 1942 Ness stepped down as Safety Director to become the National Director for the Federal Social Protection Program.(10)
After the war ended in 1945, he became chairman of the Board for the Diebold Safe and Lock Company in Canton. He also formed an import-export business with his friend Dan Tyler Moore, Jr., former director of the Securities and Exchange Commission. His travels almost paralleled those of his wife because Evaline was equally busy traveling to Washington and New York to meet with her publishers. The distance between them grew to be too much and they were quietly divorced November 17, 1945.
Ness wasn't alone for long. Another woman, and a friend of Evaline's from their days at the Cleveland Institute of Art, captured his heart. On January 31, 1946, Ness married the former Elisabeth Anderson Seaver. Elisabeth had once been a very popular artist at the Cowan Pottery Studios which had gone under during the Depression. Even today, many of her pieces are displayed in significant art museums around the country as well as the Cowan Pottery Museum in the Rocky River Public Library. Like Eliot, Elisabeth was also of Norwegian ancestry which is why her name was spelled with an “s” instead of the more popular “z.” Ness, now 44 years old, still hoped for a family. He and Elisabeth decided to adopt. They welcomed a 3 year old toddler, Robert, from an orphanage near Ashtabula, OH.
Ness Still In the Public Eye
In 1947 Ness was talked into running an unsuccessful campaign for mayor against the incumbent, Thomas Burke. Apparently, his days of crime-fighting glory had fade, and. Ness boosters underestimated the power of organized labor. Ness depleted his savings on the campaign.
In 1955 Ness joined the Cleveland-based North Ridge Industrial Corporation, a new company “marketing a promising method of watermarking commercial and personal checks to prevent forgery.” The company wanted an identifiable figure to show potential investors that the North Ridge businesses would be profitable,' said William Ayers, one of the original partners.” Ness moved his wife and son to Coudersport, PA, about 6 hours east of Cleveland, to manage the Guarantee Paper and Fidelity Company of the North Ridge Corporation. Ness worked hard and invested all he had into the company because he believed in the concept of watermarking to prevent forgery. The watermarked checks never caught on, and the free-spending habits of the company's founder led to the company's quick demise.(11)
In this same year of 1955, when traveling to New York City, Ness became acquainted with Oscar Fraley, a sportswriter who took an interest in the stories of Ness' days in Chicago. Fraley persuaded Ness to work with him on an account of his experiences battling Chicago's bootleggers. The Western Reserve Historical Society library in Cleveland has the 21 page, double spaced, memoirs that Eliot Ness typed and sent to Oscar Fraley. When Ness saw the galley edition of the book, his pride wouldn't agree to the text Fraley submitted. Ness signed off on all rights to the book, thinking that it wouldn't be the success that Fraley thought it would. In a telephone conversation with the author in 1998, an aging Fraley said that he knew the book would be a best seller. When asked why he went ahead with the book knowing Eliot Ness didn't approve, he said “Tough! I knew it would be a success and if he didn't like it he could sign off on it – and he did.”
On May 16, 1957 at 5:15 p.m. Eliot Ness died in his home in Coudersport from a heart attack. His estate showed over $8000 in debt. Ness never knew how popular his story would become and that Desilu Productions would buy the rights to air the TV series that starred Robert Stack in the lead role. His widow, Elisabeth, could only afford to have Eliot cremated and brought back to Cleveland where she lived in Cleveland Heights. A memorial service was held for him at the Church of the Covenant on Euclid Avenue. His ashes were kept by his son, Robert who was only ten years old when Eliot died.
Elisabeth died in 1977 after suffering from cancer of the throat for several years. She had lived in San Juan Capistrano, CA with a cousin when she passed away. Robert Ness passed away a year sooner, August 31, 1976, of leukemia. He was only 29 years old and left a widow. Both Elisabeth and Robert’s ashes, as well as those of Eliot Ness, were kept by Robert’s widow until 1998 when they were united in a formal funeral ceremony. The ashes of all three Ness family members were dispersed on Wade Lake in Lake View Cemetery on the east side of Cleveland. The funeral was held September 10, 1998 with many hundreds of people and international media in attendance. Eliot Ness can be remembered for the impact he had on Cleveland. Ness restored a sense of hope and pride to a city that had been beaten down for a long time. It can easily be said that Eliot Ness' integrity was sincere and his sense if justice was inflexible. His life was never easy, but he didn't allow fear to guide him.
by Rebecca McFarland, Museum Trustee, January 2012
(editing by Mark Wade Stone)
- Information about Eliot Ness' Norwegian ancestry provided from a retired police officer in Norway, Bjarne Jormeland. June 2011
- Information about his career shared by author, Max Allen Collins in a letter, August 10, 1988 to Rebecca McFarland
- People Magazine, July 1987, p. 56, 57
- Personal letter sent to Rebecca McFarland on a holiday card dated December 2001
- The Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 12, 1935
- Current History, October 1938
- American Magazine, May 1937
- Newsweek, March 21, 1938
- The Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 21, 1939
- Timeline, March/April 1998, p. 23
- Timeline, March/April, p. 30