Inside the Intense Rivalry Between Eliot Ness and J. Edgar Hoover

Newly released files shed fresh light on the difficult relationship shared by the “Untouchable” Prohibition Bureau agent and the powerful FBI director

(Jonathan Bartlett)
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The massive warehouse took up a block on Chicago’s South Wabash Avenue. Shades and wire screens blocked the windows. Iron bars reinforced the double doors. The sign read “The Old Reliable Trucking Company,” but the building gave off the yeasty odor of brewing beer. It was an Al Capone operation.

At dawn on April 11, 1931, a ten-ton truck with a steel bumper rammed through the double doors. Alarm bells clanged as Prohibition agents rushed inside and nabbed five brewery workers. Then they set about blowtorching the brewing equipment, upending vats, hacking barrels open. They sent a cascade of beer worth the modern equivalent of $1.5 million into the sewer.

Eliot Ness had struck again. “It’s funny, I think, when you back up a truck to a brewery door and smash it in,” Ness told a reporter. No one had so brazenly challenged Capone before, but then, the Prohibition Bureau had few agents like Ness. In a force known for corruption and ineptitude, he was known for turning down bribes bigger than his annual salary. He was 28, a college graduate, with blue-gray eyes, slicked-back dark hair and a square-set jaw, and he had a way with the press. When he took to calling his men “the Untouchables,” because the abuse they took from Capone’s men reminded Ness of India’s lowest caste, reporters adopted the nickname as a metaphor for the squad’s refusal to take bribes. Soon newspapers across the country were celebrating Ness as Capone’s nemesis.

But two years later, Ness’ flood of raids, arrests and indictments was running dry. Capone was in prison, the Untouchables had been disbanded and the last days of Prohibition were ticking away. Ness had been reassigned to Cincinnati, where he chased moonshiners across Appalachian foothills. Hoping for another chance at glory, he applied for a job with J. Edgar Hoover’s budding Division of Investigation—the future FBI.

A former U.S. attorney in Chicago wrote to recommend Ness. Hoover expedited a background investigation. One of his agents crisscrossed the Windy City and collected testimonials to the applicant’s courage, intelligence and honesty. The current U.S. attorney told the agent Ness was “above reproach in every way.”

Back in the Chicago Prohibition Bureau office for a weekend in November 1933, Ness spoke with a friend on the phone about his prospects. “Boss is using his influence,” he said. “Everything appears to be OK.” He said he would take nothing less than special agent in charge of the Chicago office. He said it loud enough for another Prohibition agent to overhear. Soon word reached the Division of Investigation’s current special agent in charge in Chicago.

After seeing Ness’ references, Hoover wrote him on November 27 to note that Division men started at $2,465 a year—well below the $3,800 Ness had listed as his senior Prohibition agent’s pay. “Kindly advise this Division whether you would be willing to accept the regular entrance salary in the event it is possible to utilize your services,” Hoover asked.

There is no record that Ness responded. Maybe he never got a chance.

The next day, the special agent in charge in Chicago began dispatching a string of memos to headquarters in Washington, D.C.—41 pages of reports, observations and transcripts. The memos make up the core of a 100-page FBI file on Ness that was held confidentially for eight decades, until it was released to me under a Freedom of Information Act request. Amid a catalog of innuendo and character assassination, the file includes a troubling allegation that the lead Untouchable was anything but. Beyond that, it illuminates the vendetta Hoover pursued against Ness throughout their careers—even after Ness was in his grave.

That vendetta was launched just a week after the director had inquired about Ness’ salary requirements. On December 4, 1933—the day before Prohibition ended—Hoover sat with the file at his desk. Across a memo reporting the overheard phone conversation, he scrawled, “I do not think we want this applicant.”

With a degree in business administration and a year’s experience investigating dull insurance claims, Eliot Ness, 23, signs on with the Treasury Department as a prohibition agent. (Collection of the National Law Enforcement Museum, 2012.39.2)
As an agent of the Prohibition Bureau, Ness made headlines by busting brewers and distillers. (OFF/AFP/Getty Images)
But Ness couldn't make the case against Al Capone, who fell to tax violations instead. As the days of illegal liquor trickled away, Ness sought a new chance at glory—and turned to Hoover. (Keystone/Getty Images)
Hoover extended his hand to Melvin Purvis after the slaying of John Dillinger, but the good will didn't last. (Bettmann/Corbis)
Harold Burton, Cleveland's "Boy Scout mayor," named Ness, just 33 years old, the city's police and fire chief. (Corbis)
Ness returned to Cleveland and ran for mayor in 1947. After losing in a landslide, he told a friend he blamed Hoover. (AP Images)
"The Untouchable" TV series, with Robert Stack as Ness, led viewers to think he was an FBI man. (ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

Eliot Ness’ troubles began on a raid he did not make. On August 25, 1933, a Polish immigrant named Joe Kulak was cooking off a batch of moonshine in the basement of a house on Chicago’s South Side when three Prohibition agents raided his 200-gallon still. Kulak handed them two notes, one typewritten, one penciled.

“This place is O.K.’d by the United States Senator’s Office,” read the typewritten note, which bore the name of an aide to Senator J. Hamilton Lewis of Illinois. The penciled note carried the same message but added Lewis’ Chicago office address and: “Or see E. Ness.”

Until then, E. Ness would have seemed destined to join forces with Hoover. Born in 1902 on the South Side, he was raised by Norwegian-immigrant parents. Peter Ness, a baker, and his wife, Emma, instilled in their youngest son a strict sense of integrity. After earning a bachelor’s degree in business at the University of Chicago, he followed his brother-in-law into the Prohibition Bureau. Later he returned to the university to study under the pioneering criminologist August Vollmer, who argued that beat cops—typically poorly trained, beholden to political patrons and easily corrupted—should be replaced by men who were insulated from politics and educated as thoroughly in their profession as doctors and lawyers.

The United States needed such lawmen as the corruption of Prohibition gave way to more desperate crimes—the bank robberies and kidnappings of the Great Depression. In the summer of 1933, U.S. Attorney General Homer Cummings declared a new war on crime and gave Hoover free rein to build the once-obscure Bureau of Investigation into a powerful new division (which would be renamed the FBI in 1935). Hoover hired agents who had college degrees and respectable family backgrounds. He also punished them for leaving lunch crumbs on their desks, or overlooking a typo in their memos, or arriving for work even a minute tardy. Still, as Congress passed laws expanding the list of federal crimes, his unit became the place any ambitious lawman wanted to work.

Melvin Purvis was Hoover’s kind of agent. He was the son of a bank director and plantation owner in South Carolina; he left a small-town law firm to join the division in 1927. Aloof and aristocratic, with a reedy voice and a drawl, he was, like Hoover, a bit of a dandy, favoring straw hats and double-breasted suits decorated with pocket squares. Hoover made him the special agent in charge in Chicago before he was 30, and he became the director’s favorite SAC. In letters addressed to “Mel” or “Melvin,” Hoover teased him about the effect he supposedly had on women.

Still, everyone knew Hoover could be mercurial, and in 1933 Purvis had reason to worry. He had run the Chicago office for less than a year. That September, he’d staked out a tavern two hours too late and blown a chance to catch the notorious bank robber Machine Gun Kelly. So when he got wind that Ness was angling for his job, he moved quickly.

A lot of the information he sent to Hoover was puffed up, undocumented or tailored to appeal to the director’s prurient streak. Ness, he complained, had failed to take down Capone. (It was common knowledge then that Capone had been convicted of tax, not liquor, violations.) A disgruntled Untouchable had told him the squad held a drinking party. (If so, it was kept quiet; Prohibition Bureau personnel records mention no party-related infractions.) Ness’ family looked down on his wife, and he preferred their company to hers. (Purvis knew Hoover liked to scrutinize his agents’ fiancées or spouses and sometimes tried to break up relationships he found objectionable.)

But the most incriminating part of the file came directly from one of Ness’ fellow Prohibition agents. His name was W.G. Malsie. Newly transferred to Chicago as the acting head of the Prohibition Bureau’s office there, he didn’t know Ness and wasn’t inclined to defer to his reputation. When Joe Kulak reported for questioning the day after his still was busted, Malsie wanted him to explain his protection notes.

It turned out that they had been written by his friend Walter Nowicki, an elevator operator in the building where Senator Lewis kept an office. Nowicki accompanied Kulak to the interview. A transcript of the interrogation is among the documents released to me.

Nowicki told Malsie he’d gotten to know an aide to Lewis on elevator rides and eventually paid him $25 to $30 to protect Kulak’s still. Twice, he said, he’d seen the aide talking with Ness. And once, in front of Ness, Nowicki asked the aide to put Kulak’s still “in a safe position.”

The aide “patted Mr. Ness on the back and told him to give the boys a break,” Nowicki recalled. Then he wrote down the still’s address and gave it to Ness, who tucked it into his inside coat pocket.

“What did Ness say?” Malsie asked.

“He said that it would be OK,” Nowicki replied.

Later, Nowicki said, he approached Ness in the building’s lobby and asked him again about Kulak’s still. “He said that if the police bothered Joe there will be no case on it,” Nowicki recalled.

About Erick Trickey

Erick Trickey is a writer in Boston, covering politics, history, cities, arts, and science. He has written for POLITICO Magazine, Next City, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, and Cleveland Magazine

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