The bullets were flying over Chicago, mobsters pitted against each other in the era of Prohibition, law enforcement waging a war with gangs that was worthy of – and later immortalized by – Hollywood screenplays. Al Capone and his associates were being relentlessly pursued by Prohibition agent Eliot Ness in the 1920s and ’30s, the former cultivating a reputation as a bit of a modern-day Robin Hood, the latter coming off as a Boy Scout-esque hero – an ‘untouchable.’
Capone courted the press and would hand out money on the streets, even – according to many legends and accounts – opening soup kitchens to feed starving Depression-era families.
But a new book offers a much more nuanced account of Capone – and Ness, too, who led the close-knit band of agents labeled ‘the Untouchables’ – in a comprehensive, 700-page collaboration by a novelist and a historian.
‘A lot of times, people refer to it as soup kitchens, plural,’ laughs author A. Brad Schwartz, talking about Capone’s ostensibly charitable efforts. ‘There was only one. The notion that he did this out of the goodness of his heart, and it was the Depression, and that he wanted to help these poor people nobody was helping … In our research, we turn up the fact that, not only did he only run the soup kitchen for a brief period of time primarily, if not exclusively, for the publicity value – that he stocked it by actually extorting donations from local grocers, strong-arming them into giving him food and passing it off as his own charity.
Prohibion agent Eliot Ness, far left, escorts mobster Al Capone, center, through Dearborn Station in Chicago in May 1923 – in the only known photo of the two men together
Ness dedicated his life to law enforcement during Prohibition, when Chicago police were notoriously corrupt and gangsters warred with each other with violence such as the Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929, when five members of the North Side gang and two affiliates were executed point-blank with Tommy guns and other high-powered firearms
Ness was raised in Chicago, the son of Norwegians who ran a bakery, and was urged to join law enforcement by his brother-in-law; pictured are his Treasury Department credentials. Chicago was rife with corruption during Prohibition, so Ness put together a band of tight-knit officer he deemed trustworthy which became known as The Untouchables
Capone is pictured in his mugshot from November 1930; he’d offered Ness a bribe of two $1,000 notes a week – which the lawman turned down
‘There are all of these great little anecdotes that I think explain someone’s character perfectly, and I think that – how Capone did the soup kitchen thing – I think that is a perfect encapsulation of what his true character was.’
He adds: ‘He’s a very charming character; I think a lot of people who have written about him expecting sort of the snarling figure that you see in the movies are surprised how charming and charismatic – even through newspaper accounts – he comes across. He was good at offering his sort of moral justifications for everything he did, and there had been a tendency to cut him more slack as an individual than I think he deserves.’
The stories of both cop and robber are well known, at least on the surface. Capone, the Brooklyn-born son of Italian immigrants, began a life of crime at a young age in New York before moving to Chicago, where he soon climbed the mobster ranks and earned a reputation for eliminating the competition. Ness, also the son of immigrants, grew up in Chicago, where his Norwegian parents ran a bakery – before his brother-in-law helped convince him to become a law enforcement agent.
It suited the personality of the quiet, schoolboy-like Ness, and he was very straight edge, refusing to take bribes at a time when almost all law enforcement in Chicago was corrupt (Capone’s people even offered him $2,000 a week – about $29,000 today – but he wasn’t swayed). Ness surrounded himself with a small group of like-minded agents when he took the charge on cracking down on gangs running the city during Prohibition, and they became known as the Untouchables.
Schwartz and co-author Max Allan Collins initially considered doing an in-depth, cradle-to-grave book about Ness – but it soon became apparent that they had enough material to dig into the lives and psyches of both the officer and his nemesis, Capone, especially because their lives were both diametrically opposed and inextricably linked. They also wanted to incorporate new facts they’d put together through their research and refute earlier accounts.
‘One of the sort of false perceptions that we attempt to correct in the book [is Capone is ] forced into the criminal life because he has to provide for his family – and that turns out to be not true at all. He chooses to be a crook. He could never have foreseen, in 1919 when he goes to Chicago, that Prohibition’s going to come along and [he would] end up being immensely powerful and a celebrity. So in that respect, it’s just like you’re looking for a drink of water and you get fire-hosed.
‘So he finds himself in a situation where, just in order to stay alive, in order to stay on top, he’s very reactive. He’s fighting this multi-front war; he’s having to do things that, to him, he would always argue are self-defense, self-preservation. But he finds himself being dragged in deeper and deeper.
‘I certainly believe, when he said that he wished he could just retire to a quiet life and get out of it, but he didn’t think he could, I think he’s telling the truth. I also think he’s somebody who had the ability to rationalize almost anything – so I’m not inclined to take all of his denials at face value.’
The roots for the new book, Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago – written by novelist Collins and historian Schwartz – were formed more than a decade ago, when a teenage Schwartz first met Collins at a book signing by the latter in Chicago. Schwartz was a fan of Collins’ work and turned up wearing an Eliot Ness t-shirt from a play the author had written, and the two quickly bonded over their fascination with Capone, Ness and the fictional character modeled after the lawman: Dick Tracy.
Capone, the Brooklyn-born son of Italian immigrants, began his life of crime early and quickly moved through the underworld ranks after moving to Chicago; he earned the nickname Scarface for marks on his cheek and tried to hide his scars from the press during the 1920s
Capone learned to court the media – giving interviews, appearing dapper and appealing to the common man. Stories were passed down through the years of the mobster opening a string of soup kitchens during the Depression, but historian/author A. Brad Schwartz tells DailyMail.com that it was only one soup kitchen – and Capone strong-armed local grocers into handing over food, which he passed off as charity. Here, Capone and his son receive a signed baseball from Barry Hartnett of the Chicago Cubs in 1931
Capone, center, with boxer Jack Sharkey, right, in Miami, about a week after the Valentine’s Day Massacre; although he was in Florida at the time of the atrocity, it was allegedly carried out for the benefit of his gang – which had an especially brutal reputation
Novelist Max Allan Collins, left, and historian A. Brad Schwartz, right, both nurtured a childhood love of Dick Tracy, who was based on Eliot Ness; they first touched base when Schwartz – a fan of Collins’ books – went to one of the author’s book signings when he was just a teenager. They eventually agreed to collaborate on a new book about Ness and Capone, Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness and the battle for Chicago
‘When I was 12, my mom suggested I check out the film The Untouchables, because – and her exact words were – “It’s like Dick Tracy, but real life,”’ Schwartz says of the film, which chronicles the Capone versus Ness battle. ‘She didn’t know how correct she was, but seeing that film at a very impressionable age, I kind of immediately connected it in my head with Dick Tracy. I knew it was based on a true story, but that somehow this comic strip that I loved as a kid had actually happened in real life, and I wanted to know more.’
He adds: ‘Sure enough, I found my way to my future co-author’s work, the books that he had written about Eliot Ness and other novels featuring Ness and Capone – and I knew him very well, his work already from Dick Tracy, and I had a certain realization at a certain point where: This guy from Iowa, whose name was Max Allan Collins, he’d be interested in all the things that I was interested in.’
Collins had also developed a childhood interest in Dick Tracy and later landed a job as a writer on the Dick Tracy comic strip in Chicago, pressing creator Chester Gould about the similarities Collins observed between the real-life lawman and the comic strip character.
‘He told me when he created the strip in 1931, the newspapers were filled with stuff about Capone, also about these federal agents who took Capone on,’ Collins tells DailyMail.com. ‘And I said, “Well, that really sounds like you’re talking about Eliot Ness and the Untouchables.” And he confirmed that, yes, that was right. That was a very little-known fact, even today – that Dick Tracy was based on Eliot Ness.’
The pair meticulously researched Capone and Ness, even visiting the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland – where Ness moved after Chicago – which houses the lawman’s scrap books and memoir. Ness had collaborated with writer Oscar Fraley on the book The Untouchables, which became hugely popular, especially when it was turned into a television series and films – but that account was written decades after Ness’ heyday, when he was burdened by debts and alcoholism. His memories were not often correct, so for their own account, Schwartz and Collins went straight to primary sources: his scrapbooks, writings, newspaper accounts from the time and even friends still living.
‘One of the things that was wrong with a lot of previous books, the Untouchables, the memoir that Ness wrote … the chronology is all messed up,’ Schwartz tells DailyMail.com. ‘And a lot of people say, “Well, he claimed he was fighting the mob in 1929, then you look at the newspapers, and there’s no records … so obviously he made that up.”
‘Well, he wasn’t; the Untouchables didn’t begin until 1930 – and then, if you look at 1931, ’32, ’33, all of the events he’s describing in the book are covered in the press at that time. By shifting the chronology a little bit and correcting it, based on what we know from newspaper articles, you see that a lot of what’s described in the book actually did happen – just not when they’re saying it happened.’
Collins explains: ‘For all the fanciful things that you see in, for example, The Untouchables movie – which is a good, entertaining movie – doesn’t have much to do with history. There’s a little bit that’s accurate in there, like Ness turning a bribe down – a huge bribe … There’s also a scene where he throws Capone’s successor, Frank Nitti, off a building. That’s so unlike what really happened. It’s so unlike anything Eliot Ness would’ve done.
Schwartz and Collins say their book, left, aims to paint more nuanced portraits of both gangster and lawman and corrects previous misinformation about both of their lives; they contend that other books and movies about Ness and Capone – such as 1987 film The Untouchables starring Kevin Costner, right – contain incorrect or fictionalized information
‘So we set about trying to correct the record and also to correct the backlash, because people were really kind of lazy about how they portrayed Ness … and this happens so often in history, really, the writers being a little bit lazy, quite frankly. They write what they read in somebody else’s book. They look at the secondary sources. They don’t look at the primary sources.’
Thought it’s a bit of a ‘gross simplification’ of the research and writing process, Schwartz says, he focused on Ness while Collins focused on Capone.
‘I’d gotten to the point with Eliot Ness that I had come up with a way of understanding his character – just this notion that occurred to me, which is: he has this strange naivete,’ Schwartz tells DailyMail.com. ‘It took me a while to figure out what was going on, but I started to think, “Well, if he knows you’re a gangster, if he thinks you’re a criminal, you’re not going to get anything past him. But if he thinks you’re his friend, you could almost literally get away with murder.”
‘He would cut you a pass – and that took me a while to figure out. But that notion arose kind of naturally from the research I was doing. And then later I found an unpublished interview – it wasn’t like something I could’ve seen and forgotten about – with one of Ness’s friends, who said, “Yeah … he had two baskets. You were either in the criminal basket or you were in the OK basket. And if you were in the OK basket, you know, he didn’t look at you as critically as he should have.”
‘I had so gotten his character in my head that I was able to perceive that, without having somebody explain it to me – so yeah, it’s weird. You really do get to know them; you kind of get to know what they will do in a situation, and then, in the research, when those judgements start to play out … that’s when you know you’re onto something.’
Despite the hero-versus-villain nature of the entire Ness/Capone story, both men’s lives ended dismally. The law eventually caught up with Capone, who was sentenced in 1931 to 11 years in prison for tax evasion and fined $80,000. He was first imprisoned in at the US penitentiary in Atlanta but was later transferred to maximum security at Alcatraz; he got out in 1939 for good behavior and eventually died at home at the age of 48 in Florida after suffering from syphilis and complications for years.
Ness and the Untouchables were lauded for their relentless pursuit of Capone and his gang, and the imprisonment of the mobster was obviously a triumph. Things were not to remain rosy for the Untouchable, however. While trying to gain political connections and advance his career, he learned of an illegal still run by a Polish immigrant named Joe Kulak, a constituent of a senator with whom he was trying to curry favor, Collins and Schwartz write in the new book. Ness did nothing about it, and it was raided by other agents – who found a note ‘directing anyone who raided the still to contact the senator’s secretary or ‘E. Ness,’ the book explains.
An investigation ensued and Ness never faced disciplinary action, but within a month, he was transferred to Ohio.
Ness was eventually implicated in looking the other way in the case of an illegal still to curry favor with a politician, the new book claims; he was transferred to Ohio, where his career took a nosedive, and he died of heart attack at the age of 54, a near-broke alcoholic
Capone arrives at the Federal Building to plead guilty in June 1931; he was sentenced to 11 years in prison for tax evasion and fined $80,000, serving his time in at the US penitentiary in Atlanta but in maximum security at Alcatraz
Capone eventually got out of prison in 1939 for good behavior; he is pictured on the day of his release from jail
Capone spent the rest of his life in Florida, pictured, and died at home at the age of 48 after suffering from syphilis and complications for years. Author Collins tells DailyMail.com that the gangster was a ‘visionary’ in the sense of how he realized the criminal opportunities presented by Prohibition and how he handled his underworld enterprises with professionalism
‘This may well have been penance,’ the book explains. ‘If Ness hadn’t exactly crossed a line, he’d come dangerously close, led astray by his own ambition. In his determination to move up the federal ladder, Ness had stumbled, attempting the brand of Chicago politicking he’d always before rejected – only to have it backfire terribly.’
‘The man who spurred Capone’s offer of $2,000 a week still wouldn’t accept a bribe to protect anyone. But he would, with reluctance, let slip a small-timer like Kulak, who was breaking a law soon to be defunct, if it meant staying in the good graces of a powerful friend.’
Ness eventually became public safety director of Cleveland, in charge of both police and fire departments. But a series of bad decisions, such as setting fire to a homeless encampment and trying to get out of a DUI, sullied his reputation. He unsuccessfully ran for mayor, financing his own campaign and basically bankrupting himself in the process, as his worsening alcoholism forced him to take odd jobs. He died at the age of 54 from a massive heart attack – and not a single Chicago paper even mentioned the passing of the Untouchable who’d so dedicatedly worked to clean up the Windy City.
Both he and Capone, however, had a lasting impact on both Chicago and the nature of American crime and law enforcement, the authors of the new book say.
‘This is a key thing: both Capone and Ness revolutionized their profession, let’s say their businesses, by bringing a professional point of view,’ Collins tells DailyMail.com. ‘So you have Ness looking at law enforcement not just as like, “We carry night sticks and we give traffic tickets.” No – he looked at it as a profession, like a lawyer or a doctor.
‘Capone looked at Prohibition – which comes in and, instead of being another racket like prostitution or gambling, he sees, “Oh, this is something that’s going to appeal to a huge portion of the American population. People are going to want to still drink, even though it’s supposedly illegal.”’
He adds: ‘He saw the potential – [that it] was an industry, essentially, that this was much bigger than the criminal enterprises that preceded it. And of course it spawned the organized crime, really modern organized crime springs out of Prohibition.
‘Capone was a visionary.’