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The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

NESS, ELIOT - The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

NESS, ELIOT (19 Apr. 1903-16 May 1957), nationally known for leading the Chicago "Untouchables," was Cleveland's safety director. Born in Chicago, son of Peter and Emma (King) Ness, he graduated from the University of Chicago (1925) before joining the U.S. Prohibition Bureau in 1929, forming the "Untouchables," who obtained the conviction of Al Capone. Following Prohibition's repeal, Ness was transferred to the Treasury Dept.'s Alcohol Tax Unit in Cincinnati, arriving in Cleveland in 1934 as the head of the alcohol tax unit for the northern district of Ohio. His reputation as honest and capable led Mayor HAROLD H. BURTON† to appoint Ness city safety director in 1935 to clean up the scandal-ridden police department. Ness formed his own Cleveland "Untouchables," funded by an anonymous group of businessmen known as the "Secret 6," and quickly reformed, reorganized, and upgraded the department, motorizing the patrol and using car radios to enhance communication. He established a separate traffic section, hired a traffic engineer, and enabling Cleveland, which had the worst U.S. traffic-fatality record, to twice win awards for reducing traffic deaths. Ness also modernized the fire department, created the Police Academy and Welfare Bureau, and helped found the local chapter of BOYSTOWNS.

Ness crackdowned on labor-union protection rackets, illegal liquor suppliers, and gambling. He closed down the HARVARD CLUB, a notorious gambling house located just outside the city limits in NEWBURGH Critics called for Ness's removal, citing his social drinking, divorce, work with the federal government, and a traffic accident that looked suspiciously like a hit-skip incident. Mayor Frank Lausche, however, retained Ness; however Ness left Cleveland in 1942 to direct the Div. of Social Protection of the Federal Security Agency. After the war Ness returned to Cleveland, ran unsuccessfully as Republican candidate for mayor in 1947, then devoted himself to business, finally leaving for Coudersport, Pa., in 1956. Shortly before his death, suffering financial reverses, Ness collaborated with journalist Oscar Fraley to produce the book The Untouchables. Ness, however, died before the book was published.

Ness was married 3 times. His first marriage was in 1929 to Edna Staley, they divorced in 1938. On 14 Oct. 1939, Ness married Evaline McAndrew, they divorced in 1945. His third marriage was to Elizabeth Anderson Seaver on 31 Jan. 1946; in 1947 he adopted a son, Robert Warner.

Eliot Ness Scrapbooks, WRHS.

Nickel, Steven. Torso: The Story of Eliot Ness and the Search for a Psychopathic Killer (1989).

Last Modified: 21 Jul 1997 10:49:18 AM

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