What Was The Real Relation Between The FBI, Ness & "The Untouchables?"
After everything that has been written over the years, there are still a lot of people who associate Eliot Ness and his agents of the "Untouchables" with the FBI. While this is inaccurate, the uninformed media hasn't helped many outsiders in clarifying this. There's probably no doubt that the original program, "The Untouchables" with Robert Stack confused viewers for decades and the many letters from US citizens about it are proof. The 1957 publication of the book, "The Untouchables" didn't help either. Ness is inaccurately shown in the "epilogue" to be affiliated with the FBI. Although his brother-in-law, Alexander Jamie, was an FBI Agent, Ness was a Prohibition Agent. While he did submit an application to the FBI for Agent employment, it was turned down in part due to salary differences and his relation with the press.
Ness and "The Untouchables" deserve a rightful place in the history of law enforcement and in the last several years, the city of Cleveland, Ohio (where he served as Public Safety Director) has honored him for his contributions to that city. His ashes, along with those of his wife and adopted son were spread over a small water body there.
Ness' association with Hoover and the Bureau Of Investigation (later changed to the FBI) was short lived and is best explained by Bureau Historian, Dr. John Fox:
"Eliott Ness entered the picture in August 1926, when he was appointed a prohibition agent in the Treasury Department. He handpicked a small band of agents who later became known as the “Untouchables” because of their reputation for integrity. It’s said that some of Ness’ agents actually threw back the bribes offered by Capone’s men."
"In 1929, to stem the ongoing tide of corruption, the Treasury’s Bureau of Prohibition was transferred to the Department of Justice yet stayed separate from Hoover’s Bureau of Investigation. On June 10, 1933, President Roosevelt ordered the creation of a “Division of Investigation” that could consolidate both “Bureaus” inside Justice. Hoover argued against the merger, fearing that combining his 340 carefully picked agents with 1,200 prohibition agents would undercut his hard fought reforms over the previous decade. He suggested keeping the Bureau of Prohibition a separate, parallel entity."
"Hoover’s argument prevailed, and the arrangement began on July 1, 1930, with Hoover in charge of both agencies. In December 1933, the 21st amendment repealed prohibition for good, and the Bureau of Prohibition was eventually disbanded. Ness had worked under Hoover just over a month—from July 1 until August 10, 1933, when he was named a senior prohibition investigator in Cincinnati. " (comment ~ FBI website)
The existing evidence in FBI files clearly reveals Ness was cooperative with local FBI Field Offices whenever in contact with them. There was, however, the flamboyant side of Ness and his relations with the press that many in command positions in the '30s didn't like.
Many familiar with gangster research opine today that revelations about Ness and his book with writer Oscar Fraley ("The Untouchables") portray a Prohibition Agent, basically trading his story and information for drinks from Fraley long after his career was over. The credibility of many of the facts are now questioned. It does seem clear from Heimel's book, below, that both Ness and Fraley were "in co-hoots" with embellishing the tales. (I note here that Ness' literary agent later had mentioned he was not a heavy drinker, contrary to what others wrote.)
Crime Library.com didn't pay Ness any friendly attributes, noting "The creation of the Ness legend began with Eliot himself. The Untouchables, the book by Ness and writer Oscar Fraley was for the most part true, (my note: now debatable) but things embarrassing to Ness were left out and the recounting of the war against Capone was hyped and exaggerated. Ness did not think it was necessary to burden his readers with two failed marriages, a number of business failures and his abrupt resignation as Cleveland's safety director after his automobile accident. In fact, he allowed his readers to think that Betty Ness was the only wife he ever had." They continued:
"While these details were not horribly serious in a commercial biography, they nonetheless were the first major written deviation from the facts of his life. Subsequent creative works would go far beyond the fact bending that existed in the Ness autobiography."
One problem with the early "Untouchables" TV program with Robert Stack is that Hollywood took the liberty of having Ness and his group handling investigative areas that neither Ness nor his Department had any jurisdiction over. Like the later movie, the program was entertaining; factually though it was a mess. The most recent movie years back with Kevin Costner is just as bad.
There's no doubt that Ness and his men pursued Capone and others with much vigor and proved they couldn't be bought off. Having said that, it does appear that much of what Ness did, or did not do, may be lost to history and upon re-evaluation, may not even be accurate according to one recent book.
Other than the famous Fraley book about the "Untouchables" the other and most recent writing seems to be done by Paul Heimel, a former neighbor of Ness in Pennsylvania. "Americans love a hero," writes Paul Heimel, author of a new book on Eliot Ness. "They're fascinated by a villain. Stories pitting good against evil captivate them. That could explain their fascination with Eliot Ness."
So goes the introduction to Heimel's, "Eliot Ness: The Real Story." Heimel's book may actually be the only publication in existence that claims "the real story." You'll find out that actually even Fraley, with Ness fully knowing Fraley was doing it, fabricated a lot of what happened. While Ness supposedly despised the "embellishing," he also clearly needed the money to come from the book. To his detriment though, Heimel interviews some of the actual "Untouchables" who reveal that many of Ness' stories aren't even close to what happened!
In sum, Heimel's book reveals that after his days with "The Untouchables," nothing in Ness' life went well. Not his efforts with the Cleveland "Butcher" case, not his business ventures nor his political efforts, and surely not his financial situation, and finally, his health. When he died, he left only a few hundred dollars to his wife and adopted son.
Long into the 1950's, (and even to this day with many) the public still had Ness associated with the FBI. Not so as as you can see by this late '50's memo. Obviously Hoover didn't want this. Hoover's comment is at the bottom of this memo shown below.
It's worth mentioning here that in 2012, the soon to come Law Enforcement Museum obtained memorabilia about Ness and the "Untouchables" from his secretary. These items will be on display at the museum in 2015. Check this link for more:
If there were ever symbols in law enforcement of honesty and integrity, there's no doubt that Ness and his men filled those requirements. Unfortunately, there's a deep fog that surrounds the rest of it...