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Authors: Scott M Dietche

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The word untouchable when applied to Eliot Ness and his crime fighters has nothing to do with its more familiar usage, the lowest rung in India’s rigid caste system. To be an untouchable in Al Capone’s Chicago meant that you could not be bribed or intimidated out of performing your duty.

When the Rat’s Away

Al Capone was arrested in Philadelphia for carrying a concealed weapon. He did a little time behind bars. In his absence he left the business in the hands of his brother Ralph and one of his henchmen, Frank Nitti. Nitti took over the administrative duties while Capone was in jail, and he eventually ran things after Capone was sent away for good. Ralph Capone did not have the intelligence, caginess, or business acumen of his brother. He found himself charged with tax evasion. The dogged Elmer Irey had been trying to nail Ralph for a long time. And Eliot Ness had been listening in on Ralph’s business dealings courtesy of hidden wiretaps. Ralph was not adept at covering his financial tracks and he was an easier target for the feds than his brother Al.

Hidden in Plain Sight

Ness did more than simply listen in to private conversations. He began to raid Capone’s breweries, which were often “hidden” in plain sight. Distilleries were also raided, but most of the hard liquor consumed in Chicago was imported from elsewhere. The Capone mob made its own beer, and there were hundreds of breweries in the greater Chicagoland area. As Sean Connery’s character tells Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness in the 1987 movie
The Untouchables
, “Everybody knows where the booze is. The problem isn’t finding it. The problem is, who wants to cross Capone?” Ness was willing to cross Capone. It is estimated that Ness cost Capone over $1 million in spilled beer by seizing and destroying illegal breweries run by Capone. Capone’s first response was to try to bribe Ness and the Untouchables; later he tried to kill them.

Eliot Ness’s legacy of fighting organized crime in Chicago continued through the activities of William Roemer, a venerable FBI agent who was among the first to use wiretapping against mob bigwigs in the Windy City. Roemer was well known to mob bosses like Sam Giancana and Anthony Accardo. He later recounted his exploits in a series of books about the Chicago Outfit.

America’s Most Wanted

When Capone got out of jail (he was released early for good behavior) he was surprised to learn that he and several of his underlings were now on FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover’s Most Wanted list. It seemed that he was in denial about his invulnerability and the bad publicity that his criminal activities inspired. He was popular with the populace but not quite beloved.

The feds decided they needed an agent in place within the enemy camp in order to get a better handle on Capone’s strengths and weaknesses. An Irishman named Malone passed himself off as a Brooklyn hoodlum eager to join the Capone organization. Malone was what is called “black Irish.” He had a Mediterranean look that could pass for Italian. He was also an accomplished actor and good with dialects. He earned the trust of Capone’s henchmen, even met the Big Boy himself, and got a job in one of the many gambling joints.

Malone and another undercover agent provided valuable intelligence. Their information thwarted an attempted hit on a federal agent, and they found out the names of a couple of accountants who had cooked Capone’s books.

Deal with the Devil

Capone, stone-cold killer that he was, preferred to reason with Ness rather than kill him. Bumping off Ness would make it a “federal case” and create myriad problems. Instead, Capone offered Ness $2,000 a week to look the other way. Ness turned down the bribe. Ness was making about $2,800 a year at the time. Ness, never shy of publicity and often accused of egomania, held a press conference to announce that he had turned down the bribe. It was one of the newspapermen who covered the press conference who coined the term “the Untouchables.”

Eventually there were attempts on Ness’s life. He discovered a bomb under the hood of his car at one point. On another occasion gunshots were fired at him as he escorted a date back to her home, and he was almost the victim of a hit-and-run. However, none of these attempts was successful.

Chicago was a dangerous place to be during the wild days of Al Capone. Authorities estimated over 1,200 people were killed as a result of the gangland violence. While most were underworld figures, innocent bystanders and lawmen were also among the victims.

The Feds

Eliot Ness wanted to up the ante with his nemesis after the murder of one of Ness’s associates. Ness figured if Capone got really riled he would act impulsively and slip up. So Ness led a parade of the various trucks and other vehicles that had been used in raids on Capone’s bootleg operations down the street outside of Capone’s office, in an attempt to mock Capone. Ness even called Capone and told him to look out the window. Capone went ballistic and trashed his own office in a rage. The trucks were also a painful reminder of the millions of dollars Capone lost in Ness’s relentless raids.

What ultimately brought the big man down, however, was his long history as a tax scofflaw. An investigation that was years in the making culminated with an indictment against Capone in 1931. He faced twenty-two counts of tax evasion, on top of the evidence Ness had gathered of several thousand violations of the Prohibition law. The tax case was judged the easiest to win, and Capone went to trial.

Twelve Not-so Crooked Men

Capone had a couple of months before his trial began, but the jury had already been selected. His henchmen took the time to locate and bribe the jurors-to-be. Big Al walked into the courtroom quite confident. He got the shock of his life when the judge switched juries, bringing in twelve men from another trial. Capone was found guilty, fined $50,000, and sentenced to eleven years. The reign of Al Capone was over.

Who were the Secret Six?
This crime-fighting team was so secretive, it’s not exactly known to this day who they were. The Six were a group of Chicago businessmen dedicated to ferreting out mob influence in the city. They funded investigations, lobbied influential politicians, and helped businesses deal with extortion attempts.

Eliot Ness and the feds brought down Al Capone, but the Chicago Outfit (as the mob in the Windy City came to be known) continued on. Frank Nitti took over after Capone’s demise, but “offed” himself. Evidently it was too stressful being the big cheese. Anthony “Joe Batters” Accardo, Tony Aiuppa, and Sam Giancana were a few of the successors to the legacy of Capone.

Hoover and the Mafia

Hoover became director of the FBI and remained there for almost fifty years. In that time he amassed detailed files on thousands of politicians, entertainers, and ordinary citizens. It is believed that the dirt he had on the revolving-door residents of the White House was sometimes used as blackmail, and was one of the ways he maintained job security. He was a larger-than-life figure whose image still echoes in the halls of every FBI field office across the country.

Hoover worked for the Library of Congress and later the Justice Department. He tracked down illegal aliens on the home front during World War I. There was a fear that many Germans were potential spies and saboteurs. After the war it was a fear of the communists.

The FBI Story

Hoover was placed in charge of the newly formed General Intelligence Division of the Justice Department, and his career as a lawman had begun. It was here that Hoover began his lifetime obsession of amassing files on people. In these early days it was mostly files on suspected “radical” groups. A necessary endeavor, but over the decades Hoover fancied himself the final arbiter of what was considered radical and “anti-American.” The Hoover Files eventually included people like Bing Crosby and Rock Hudson, hardly rabid anarchists bent on toppling the government.

Hoover rose within the ranks of the Justice Department, seeking out and destroying communists and other radicals both real and imagined. His eyes were on his prize, his personal Holy Grail—directorship of the Bureau of Investigation, later called the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He achieved that goal in 1924 and remained in the position until his death in 1972.

Hoover dressed in white linen suits and had an avid interest in collectibles. He was never seen in the company of women and had a longtime male companion, fellow FBI agent Clyde Tolson. They worked together and lived together. Naturally, rumors about Hoover’s sexual tastes were dished for decades. One mobster claimed to have seen a photograph of Hoover in women’s clothing, dressed as a 1920s “flapper.” The photo has never surfaced.

J. Edgar Hoover

Courtesy of AP Images

This photo shows FBI director J. Edgar Hoover speaking to the Senate Crime Investigating Committee, urging them to continue its exposure of organized crime in Washington, D.C., on March 26,1951.

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