The Untouchables – Eliot Ness and Prohibition

bootleg_eliot_nessAfter Prohibition was passed, a set of racketeers began to trade alcohol, including Al Capone. To take them on a special unit was formed at the Treasury department. Led by Elliot Ness, they became known as the Untouchables.

Taking on men who would stop at nothing, including bribery, blackmail and murder, unable to trust the men outside their own team, the Untouchables’ battle against the racketeers has become the stuff of modern myth.

Passing Prohibition – The Background To The Chicago Mob Scene

Prohibition, probably the most controversial Amendment in American History was passed in 1919 and came into effect in 1920. It banned alcohol completely.

The result was unexpected, but in hindsight obvious. Overnight a massive market in illegal and home brewed alcohol sprang up. Bootleggers ran alcohol to speakeasies – illegal bars. With such massive demand it was inevitable that crime would organize.

The illegal industry quickly grew beyond the ability of the law to control. Trying to enforce an unpopular law, with which many of their members were not in agreement, against organized crime was a recipe for disaster. Hampered by corruption within the departments, public officials taking bribes and above all the vast amounts of money available to the people who controlled bootlegging, the Prohibition agents quickly became ineffective. Worse, due to bad apples, their name became a byword for corruption.

The most notorious area was Chicago, a haven for prohibition breakers, and controlled by a man whose name became linked to the era: Al Capone.

The St Valentine’s Day Massacre

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Victim’s Of St. Valentine’s Day

The gang warfare in Chicago spiraled out of control, culminating in the Valentine’s Day massacre. The fight for control of the lucrative market had narrowed to two factions: Capone and Bugs Moran. Men dressed as police “arrested” seven members of Bugs Moran’s gang, and then shot them with machine guns. This gave Capone full control of the market and made him the prime suspect as the power behind the killings, although no one was ever convicted.

This was however, what it took to focus the attention of the federal government on Chicago.

The full story of Capone’s to power is covered in detail on Wikipedia, but the story of the Untouchables begins once he is in power.

Forming The Untouchables – Elliot Ness And His Men

Realising the problems with trying to enforce the law, Elliot Ness, an up and coming official known for his outspoken anti-corruption views was recruited to clean the town up. He was told to pick his own officers, form a team and take on Al Capone.

Going through the records to find people who were not corrupt, he had a shortlist of fifty names. Some he rejested because they had families, others simply on gut feel, and initially he formed a team of nine officers, named in his biography:

Martin “Marty” J. Lahart
Samuel “Sam” M. Seager
Bernard “Barney” V. Cloonan
Lyle Chapman
Thomas “Tom” Friel
Joseph “Joe” Leeson
Paul W. Robsky
Michael King
William “Bill” Gardner


And one unofficial member: his driver, Frank Basile.

Two other officers are often mentioned as members of the Untouchables:
Jim Seeley
Albert H. Wolff

Ness knew that going after the outlets would be ineffective, but if he could destroy the supply, then the outlets would close. He went after the racketeers’ breweries and supply lines.

The Early Days

The first step was simple. By tracking back the trucks carrying beer to known speakeasies, Ness discovered the location of several stills and raided them. He then got lucky and found a location he could wiretap to eavesdrop on the mob, providing him with information. His successes began to mount.

An attempt was made to bribe Ness through a mob agent, which he forcefully rejected. As they offered $2000 a month, and he was only earning $3000 a year, this highlighted how much the mob had available, and the damage he was doing.

The Mob retaliated by putting a tail on Ness and his men, and offering rewards to anyone who saw them. After failing to bribe Ness, the mob turned to his men. Two of the as-yet unnamed team were surprised by a packet of money thrown into their car through the window. The enraged officers sped up, caught the car it came from, and lobbed it back full force.

Ness released this to the press for useful publicity, and the team were promptly dubbed “The Untouchables”.

Turning Deadly – The War Hots Up

Now in the public eye, Ness arranged a parade of all the trucks he had captured in his raids passed Capone’s hotel. In Ness’ biography it states that Capone lost his temper, and began screaming “I’ll kill him!”. If true, this was when the attempts began.

Eliot Ness’ driver was shot and murdered. Later Ness discovered a car bomb in his car. A double agent they had planted within the mob had to skip town when his life was threatened – not because he was discovered but because he failed to provide accurate enough information on Ness.

And through it all, Ness continued methodically raiding and shutting down breweries. One of the largest they found by accident, when a woman reported an odd smell at the paint factory next door. When they raided it, the still took up three floors of the building.

It was music to Ness’ ears on the wiretap the day one of the racketeers replied to a speakeasy that they could not send them any beer, since they did not have any.

The Untouchables were winning.

The fall of the Chicago mob – Al Capone jailed

1959 The UntouchablesWithout the money to continue to supply bribes and pay officials, the mob’s influence began to wane. Ness pressed his advantage and continued to attack the speakeasies and breweries.

However the treasury department was working on two fronts. While Ness was eroding Capone’s public influence, the IRS were investigating his private affairs and discovered he had never filed a tax return.

Al Capone, Prohibition Era Gangster Boss in 1931 Mug Shot Made by the Miami Police

In 1931 Capone was arrested for income tax evasion. His influence and resources reduced he was convicted and sentenced to ten years’ hard labor. Released in 1939 his influence over the crime syndicates had gone, and he retired to his home in Florida where he died in 1947.

After the Untouchables

With Al Capone in jail, the Untouchables were disbanded at the end of 1931. In 1933 Prohibition ended, removing the lucrative market the racketeers depended on.

Eliiot Ness went on to become Safety Director at Cleveland in 1938, putting him in charge of police and fire. Once again he went after the mob, but also after a serial killer the “Torso Murderer” who was never caught. Running for mayor unsuccessfully, and performing a range of other duties, Ness’s life never again reached the heights of his fame in the Untouchables.

He died in 1957 after working with Oscar Fraley on his authorized biography. It was published a month after his death.