Eliot Ness’ Raid on the Harvard Club in January, 1936


The Harvard Club at 3111 Harvard Ave., seen here in 1934. Credit: Cleveland Public Library/Photograph Collection

Eliot Ness, in 1935 after becoming Safety Director. Credit: Cleveland Public Library/Photograph Collection

In the mid 1930’s, Cleveland was a city with a crime problem. City leaders knew they needed help to clean up the streets of Cleveland, which had gotten a national reputation as dangerous. Newly elected mayor Harold Burton turned to young federal agent Eliot Ness for his new Safety Director. Ness helped with the effort to put famed Chicago gangster Al Capone behind bars and then worked for a number of years as a prohibition agent.  Immediately upon his arrival in Cleveland in December 1935, Ness implemented a plan to make Cleveland safer and to reform the Public Safety Department.  One of the first challenges he faced was organized gambling.


Local law enforcement officials were often paid to look the other way or tipped off the gambling establishments of impending raids. When raids did happen, they were often failures. As a result, the public did not entirely trust their police force to handle the issue of organized crime. Even the Sheriff of Cuyahoga County was not immune to underworld influence. As the Plain Dealer put it, “the county’s…gambling casinos…have defied the law as a long as John M. Sulzmann has been sheriff.” The arrival of Eliot Ness in Cleveland would change this dynamic.


The well-known Harvard Club was perhaps the largest gambling operation in Greater Cleveland. Located at 3111 Harvard Avenue in Newburgh Heights, it was, according to the Cleveland Press, “the most successful of a succession of blatantly open resorts.”  On Friday, January 10th, 1936, just one month after Eliot Ness had been sworn in as the new Safety Director of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Frank T. Cullitan obtained warrants for the search and seizure of the Harvard Club and the arrest of its operators: James “Shimmy” Patton, Arthur Hebebrand, and Dan Gallagher.  Prosecutor Cullitan’s aim was to shut down the Harvard Club once and for all.  

Prosecutor Frank T. Cullitan, in a photo from 1937. Credit: Cleveland Public Library/Photograph Collection

At 3PM that day, Cullitan arranged a swearing-in session at the Cleveland Heights City Hall of the special constables who would assist him in the raid on the Harvard Club. He appointed Chief Assistant Prosecutor Charles J. McNamee to lead the raid, along with Assistant Prosecutors Frank D. Celebrezze and John J. Mahon. At 4PM, the chief assistant prosecutor and 10 special deputies set off for the Harvard Club with the intent to shut it down.


Arriving at the large building that housed the Harvard Club after 5PM, the assistant prosecutors and the special deputies walked up to the entrance and informed the doorman of their purpose. The operator of the Harvard Club, James “Shimmy” Patton, appeared and spoke to Chief Assistant Prosecutor McNamee. “You come in- alone,” he told McNamee according to the Plain Dealer. McNamee explained that he “had warrants for the search of the club and for the arrest of the operators.”  Patton responded, “You fellows are prosecutors. You just step aside and let those other fellows that you’ve got with you try to get in here. We’ll mow ‘em down.”


At this point there was a large crowd of patrons in the club, and McNamee, not wishing a confrontation with so many bystanders, went back outside so that people who wished to leave were able to do so. By 7PM, law enforcement officials had gathered just off the edge of the property, awaiting Prosecutor Cullitan’s delayed arrival (he had been overseeing a raid on another gambling establishment).


James “Shimmy” Patton, the operator of the Harvard Club, seen here in 1934. Credit: Cleveland Public Library/Photograph Collection

According to the Cleveland News, when Prosecutor Cullitan arrived shortly after 7PM, “Shimmy” Patton stormed up to him shouting, “Anyone that goes in there gets their — head knocked off. You’ve got your — homes at stake and we got our — property at stake.” “I’ve tried every decent way I could-” Cullitan began. “No, you haven’t.” Patton interrupted. Cullitan replied, “This is my job to close this place.” “Why don’t you quit your job?” Patton retorted. “I’ve tried to go about this as decently as I could and we’re going to see it through,” the prosecutor responded.


Prosecutor Cullitan and the rest of the law enforcement officials regrouped at a gas station nearby. At this point, many of the club’s patrons had left, along with van loads of gambling equipment, which, once outside of the club, were no longer subject to the warrants as reported by the Cleveland News. It was 8PM by now and the officials were getting frustrated.


Cullitan called the county jail to ask for help from the sheriff’s deputies there. He was told by the chief jailor that according to Sheriff Sulzmann’s “home rule policy,” unless the mayor of Newburgh Heights personally requested assistance, the sheriff would not send aid to Prosecutor Cullitan, according to the Cleveland Press, Cleveland News, and Plain Dealer. Unable to find either the mayor or chief of police of Newburgh Heights, and frustrated at the sheriff’s unwillingness to help, Cullitan was forced to wait.

Sheriff John M. Sulzmann in an undated photo. Credit: Cleveland Public Library/Photograph Collection

As the stalemate progressed and the crowd of onlookers grew, Cullitan decided to call Safety Director Ness, who was in a city council meeting. Ness talked with Mayor Harold Burton and Law Director Alfred Clum about the legality of the issue, and it was decided that Ness would go to the prosecutor’s aid as a volunteer and private citizen. “I called the jail and told them there that the prosecutor was in trouble,” Ness told the Plain Dealer. “When I learned that the sheriff would not give aid I determined…to volunteer as a private citizen and to ask as many policemen who cared to do so to accompany me in the same capacity.”


Central Station Payne Ave.
Cleveland Police Headquarters, located between East 19th Street and East 21st Street on Payne Avenue

Heading over to Central Police Station, Ness informed officers there of his plan. Many agreed to come with Ness once their shift ended, at 10PM.  Ness told the Cleveland Press,  “I told them if they were killed out there their families might be cut off the pension rolls…I told them I wouldn’t hold it against them if they didn’t want to go. Without an exception, they all agreed to go.” The exact number of policemen who accompanied Ness to the Harvard Club is not clear, although it has been quoted in the Dealer, Press, and News as somewhere between 30 and 45 men. The Plain Dealer had the most descriptive account: “three plainclothes men under Sergt. Harry Wenzel, five motorcycle men under Sergt. Joseph Nigut, and 28 patrolmen under Sergt. John Koterba readily volunteered.” Ness and his armed volunteers arrived at the Harvard club around 10:15PM.


Cleveland Plain Dealer headline, January 11, 1936

Pulling up to the gas station where Prosecutor Cullitan and his men were waiting, squad cars containing Ness and the off-duty officers made their way through the crowd. Ness told the Plain Dealer: “We found Prosecutor Cullitan hemmed in at a gas station by a crowd in which there were many tough-looking ‘birds’… Then I told Mr. Cullitan that we could not participate in a raid because the Harvard Club is outside the city. I added, however: ‘We are here to protect you, and to do that we must go where you go.’”  An unarmed Ness led Prosecutor Cullitan, special deputies, other officials and the off-duty policemen towards the Harvard Club.


Prosecutor Cullitan, Safety Director Ness, and the volunteers demand entry to the Harvard Club. Credit: Cleveland Public Library/Photograph Collection
Officers waiting outside the Harvard Club. The Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections.

The uniformed volunteers were not allowed inside the Harvard Club immediately, only Cullitan and the special deputies. Once they got inside, the group found the large, auditorium-like building empty- aside from the operators “Shimmy” Patton and Arthur Hebebrand; plus a few of their men. Ness and the volunteers then entered the club.


The main hall of the Harvard Club as it was found by officials.
Arthur Hebebrand, co-operator of the Harvard Club, seen here in 1937. Credit: Cleveland Public Library/Photograph Collection

Patton and Hebebrand asked if they could retrieve their coats from a back office. Cullitan and Ness obliged, which led to another standoff as the Harvard Club operators, along with some of their men, locked themselves in the room. After 30 minutes, law enforcement officials were able to gain entry after Ness threatened to tear gas the gamblers out. Inside the room, Patton and Hebebrand were nowhere to be found (it should be noted that Dan Gallagher, the third co-operator of the Harvard Club, was not on scene that night.) It was discovered that Patton and Hebebrand had escaped by climbing through an open window about ten feet off the ground. According to the Cleveland Press, “Like the main gambling room, the office had been stripped of everything moveable.”


The raiders survey the inside of the Harvard Club. L to R: Sgt. John Koterba, Det. Sgt. Patrick Ryan, John R. Flynn, Safety Director Eliot Ness, Prosecutor Cullitan, and private detective Al Cumat. Credit: The Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
Raiders inside the Harvard Club. L to R: Det. Sgt. Patrick Ryan, Prosecutor Cullitan, private detective Al Cumat, Safety Director Eliot Ness, and Assistant Prosecutor Frank D. Celebrezze

The raiders in a room at the Harvard Club. Credit: The Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
An empty safe found at the Harvard Club. Credit: Cleveland Public Library/Photograph Collection

Police and deputies going through a desk at the Harvard Club. Credit: The Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections

Despite the absence of gambling equipment, Cullitan declared that the mission was a success- “We have accomplished the main objective,” he said, according to the Cleveland Press. It was 11PM. Thus ended the raid on the Harvard Club.

Headline, Cleveland Plain Dealer, January 11th, 1936

The Harvard Club raid was a loud way to announce Eliot Ness’ tenure as Safety Director, and his first challenge. Newspapers across Cleveland praised his efforts to lead a group of volunteer policemen to help Prosecutor Cullitan serve his warrants. Ness described the events that unfolded at a public speech several days later to “present a picture of the police force that would offset much unfavorable publicity,” as reported by the Plain Dealer. He said that he went to shore up citizens’ belief in the police department, because it “has suffered more than you can imagine from public apathy…We can do nothing without public support.”


Cartoon showing positive publicity for Prosecutor Cullitan and Safety Director Ness in shutting down the Harvard Club. Credit: Cleveland Press, January 13th, 1936
Cartoon celebrating organized gambling’s loss of the Harvard Club. Credit: Cleveland News, January 13th, 1936

Cleveland Press, January 11, 1936

After the Harvard Club raid, Eliot Ness recognized the policemen who had accompanied him outside of city limits in a volunteer capacity with letters of commendation. Thanking the policeman for going beyond what would have been his normal duties as a police officer, these letters served to shore up policemen’s trust in their new Safety Director and to let them know that Ness would not forget their courage. The officers and patrolmen who joined Ness at the Harvard Club raid are listed at the end of this article.


Letter of Commendation form Safety Director Eliot Ness to Patrolman Henry Sykes, #277, January 14th, 1936

The display of force, and Ness’ insistence on going unarmed, yet at the front of the volunteers, showed Cleveland he was serious about cleaning up crime.  He did not have to assist Cullitan, but he wanted to show Clevelanders that things were going to be different.  Some of the policemen who accompanied him were probably inspired by Ness’ reputation. However, by going with volunteers, Ness helped to reestablish Clevelanders’ trust in their police, and began the process of reforming the Cleveland Police Department.


On the same day of the Harvard Club raid, Prosecutor Cullitan also hit the notorious Thomas Club in Maple Heights, effectively shutting down two gambling operations in 24 hours.

Cleveland Plain Dealer January 11, 1936

Police ram the office door of the Thomas Club. Credit: The Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
Prosecutor Cullitan (L) and Assistant Prosecutor Thomas A. Burke, Jr. (R) with seized gambling equipment from the Thomas Club. Credit: Cleveland Public Library/Photograph Collection

Prosecutor Cullitan with weapons and cash confiscated from the Thomas Club
Detectives removing gambling equipment from the
Thomas Club

Prosecutor Cullitan with equipment from the Thomas Club
Detective in front of the racing scoreboard at the Thomas Club. Credit: The Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections

Below is a list of known officers and patrolmen who agreed to accompany Safety Director Ness in a volunteer capacity, according to the Cleveland Press:

Officers:

  • Lieutenant William Moralowitz, #718
  • Sergeant John Koterba, #1069
  • Sergeant Joseph Nigut, #616
  • Sergeant Frank Rolfs, #147
  • Sergeant Harry Wenzel, #735

Patrolmen:

  • Andrew Bessick, #231
  • Melvin Collier, #606
  • Raymond Coulter, #195
  • Harry Crickon, #213
  • Peter Cunat, #1154
  • Earl Flanigan, #84
  • Frank Gabriel, #477
  • Robert Haymond, #399
  • George Herr, #1049
  • Paul Huston, #1113
  • Ignatius Jeric, #241
  • William Jordan, #959
  • Edward Joyce, #798
  • Joseph Karl, #704
  • Howard Lewis, #1081
  • George Obermoser, #792
  • Anthony Petrash, #334
  • Steve Pinter, #289
  • Joseph Ptak, #1139
  • Walter Schaffer, #402
  • Joseph Suchan, #686
  • Henry Sykes, #277
  • Ray Wagner, #128
  • Walter Walker, #1059
  • Edmund Weber, #1108
  • William Yager, #1137
  • Joseph Zalewski, #1082

Sgt. John J. Koterba, #1069 in 1939
Lt. Joseph Nigut, #616, in 1939

Ptlm. Frank G. Gabriel, #477, in 1939
Ptlm. Paul A. Huston, #1113, in 1939
Ptlm. Walter W. Walker, #1059, in 1943

Ptlm. Howard M. Lewis, #1081, in 1939
Ptlm. Edmund Weber, #1108, in 1939
Ptlm. Joseph J. Ptak, #1139, in 1939

Ptlm. Andrew L. Bessick, #231, in 1932
Ptlm. William A. Jordan, #959, in 1921
Ptlm. Joseph J. Karl, #704, in 1932
Joseph Suchan, #686 (name misspelled in the newspaper article)
Ray Wagner, #128
Ignatius Jeric, #241
George Obermoser, #792

Article written by John Clement, 2024 AmeriCorps/Ohio History Service Corps member