Book Talk: The Untouchables

“As I sat in my office and realized suddenly that we were set to challenge the might and ferocity of the most cold-blooded criminal combine of all time, I knew sudden fear. Because, starting tomorrow, there wouldn’t be a day or night until we broke Al Capone when I’d be able to cease worrying about the men I was about to place in constant danger.”

The Untouchables by Eliot Ness with Oscar Fraley (1957)

Now, here is a book near and dear to my heart. As a youth, I had watched the television show The Untouchables every so often and the drama of the series appealed to my young mind. Then, when I was 14, I was poking around my public library and discovered the book we are looking at today, the first-hand retelling of the story of the “Untouchables” by the man who lead the team, Eliot Ness. I checked out what I realize now was a first edition copy and devoured it. Years later, I bought a paperback copy and put it on my shelf, happy to own it. I finally read it again recently – for the first time since I was 14! And incidentally, my copy has no printing history which means I don’t know how old it is. Frustrating. I have scoured the internet and can’t find a copy with the same cover. Which is actually cool; I may have the only one on earth with this cover! I see some with similar designs that are dated 1975.

For those who don’t know, The Untouchables tells the story of prohibition agent Eliot Ness (1903-1957) who, with his team of agents who could not be bribed – they were “untouchable” – helped topple the empire of famed gangster Al Capone. Chicago-born Ness joined the US Treasury Department in 1926 and began his work with the Bureau of Prohibition in his hometown. When federal and state authorities decided to bring down Capone, Ness was chosen to lead a small squad from the Justice Department to shut down the Capone booze combine.

Eliot Ness. Courtesy Cleveland Memory

In his book, Eliot relates being inspired by his brother-in-law, Alexander Jamie, an agent of the Bureau of Investigation (soon to be rechristened the FBI) who detailed for Ness the Capone operation that generated revenue of upwards of $75 million and the rampant graft and bribery paid to police and judges who were in Capone’s back pocket. Ness goes on to describe his epiphany that, while a vast police force was bound to contain many bad apples, a small, hand-picked crew may be an effective tool. Eliot and his ten carefully chosen men were tasked with locating and closing stills and breweries and thereby cutting off the vital flow of money into the Capone organization. Without the revenue generated by alcohol, the mob could not hope to maintain the weight of the extensive pay-offs they were making to police and city officials.

Each member of the crew is well described in this book that reads like a novel. You’ll learn of the men chosen by Ness; the muscle men, the walking tails, the driver, the telephone expert and the office man. Ness then provides a thorough history of Al Capone and his gang and shares statistics showing the grip organized crime had on the city and indeed the nation. The reader is also treated to detailed accounts of the raids and how the Untouchables circumvented the mob’s efforts to remain concealed and to evade capture.

Ness explains that the pursuit of Capone became an obsession, one that caused concern for his folks, with whom he still lived and for his girl, Betty Andersen, who worried about him though he kept even the smallest detail of his work from her.

Eliot Ness – second from right – with confiscated liquor.

The increase in raids caused consternation among the Capone gang but reprisals against these federal men were held in check particularly as Capone was still in prison on a minor gun charge when Ness got to work. As things escalated and Capone was released, a series of acts of “nuisance retaliation” were carried out by the mob such as threatening phone calls and stealing Eliot’s car and leaving it in a far off vacant lot. The reader is treated to a step by step description of wire taps that allowed the feds to listen in on conversations, to overhear plans and to receive confirmation that their raids were starting to pay off. Eventually, attempts are made on Eliot Ness’ life and one of the gang is murdered.

Finally, with every still and brewery being discovered and closed down, booze dried up. With Capone’s speakeasies not making money, the war chest was depleted and pay-offs could no longer be made. With the addition of evidence of Capone’s massive illegal income not being declared on his taxes and prohibition’s repeal, the nefarious empire crumbled.

“‘I want you to take this envelope back to them and tell them that Eliot Ness can’t be bought – not for two thousand a week, ten thousand or a hundred thousand. Not for all the money they can lay their scummy hands on’.”

Eliot Ness enjoyed some successes in law enforcement after Capone went up the river but they were short-lived. He was married three times and ran unsuccessfully for public office. Ironically, it was drink that contributed to his later distresses, financial and otherwise. Knowing a memoir would be lucrative, he teamed with Oscar Fraley, a sports writer from Philly, to write the story of the Untouchables. Eliot wrote a lengthy synopsis from which Fraley worked. By 1957, Fraley had most of the book written and Ness had approved the proofs. Before the book could be published, however, Eliot Ness died of a heart attack at his home in Pennsylvania. He was 54. Upon initial publication, The Untouchables was savaged as inaccurate but research done since then reveals that things did indeed happen as Eliot Ness described them. Some of the belittling of the work of Ness and his crew stems from a judge dismissing the Capone indictment on 5,000 violations of the Volstead Act that were generated from the work of the Untouchables and instead pursuing the income tax evasion case against “Scarface Al”.

“I felt as if a terrific weight had been lifted from my shoulders now that the shadow of ‘Scarface Al’ no longer hovered over Chicago – and over us. We had been lucky men to come through all in one piece.”

Shortly after Ness’s death, this book was published and illuminated the work of Eliot and his crew and soon after this, the Untouchables entered the pop culture lexicon. TV mogul Desi Arnaz used his and Lucy’s Desilu Productions to bring The Untouchables to television starring Robert Stack as Eliot Ness and featuring cracking, staccato narration from legendary newspaperman Walter Winchell – two-time losah! Later in 1987, Brian De Palma put his stylized take on the Ness tale with his film The Untouchables starring Kevin Costner as Ness and Robert De Niro as Capone. This is the film for which Sean Connery earned the Oscar many felt was overdue. Later still, in 1993, there was a short-lived Untouchables series starring William Forsythe as Capone and unknown Tom Amandes as Ness.

But the world of Eliot Ness and the Untouchables finds its origins in the man himself and his accomplishments, first brought to the masses in the pages of this fascinating book. Get your copy at AbeBooks.


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