Eliot Ness. The Untouchables, 1987
The Kevin Costner portrayal of federal agent Eliot Ness is that of a morally irreproachable law enforcement officer who leads a small team (three men in the film) of incorruptible agents to develop the evidence which took down Al Capone. In the process, Ness personally dispatches Capone enforcer, Frank Nitti, by throwing him off of a roof and personally convinces a judge to dismiss Capone’s jury when evidence suggests that at least some of its members have been bribed.
In reality, Ness was a dedicated agent, despite enjoying a touch now and again, who severely damaged Capone financially. However, he had little or nothing to do with developing the tax evasion charges which finally ended Capone’s empire. Ness did build a hand-picked squad of federal agents to take on Capone in Chicago. Initially this group was of fifty men, later dwindling to only eleven members. They obtained most of the information on the whereabouts of Capone’s operations from wiretaps.
Capone responded to the raids on his stills and shipments by attempting to bribe Ness and some of his operatives. But Ness immediately made these proposals known to the public through friendly newspaper writers. Ness used these same friendly writers to create the impression that it was the efforts of his squad – which the press dubbed The Untouchables – that developed the IRS case against Capone. In fact, Ness had nothing to do with it, the case was built by the US Attorney’s office and the IRS independently of Ness and his raids.
Frank Nitti was sent to prison the same year as Capone – 1931. Nitti was released in 1932 and took over Capone’s operations in Chicago, a far cry from being thrown from a roof into a parked car below. He eventually committed suicide in 1943. Ness left Chicago and spent time as a revenue agent in Appalachia and later Cleveland. He also ran for mayor of Cleveland albeit unsuccessfully and held several jobs for short periods. He developed a reputation as a heavy drinker and by 1951 was often found in bars where he entertained fellow patrons with tales of his glory days in Chicago, which later became the basis of the book The Untouchables, published after his death in 1957 at the age of 54.