The little known story of how Eliot Ness cleaned up Cleveland

Our impressions of well known historical figures are frequently derived from television programs. This reviewer’s image of the legendary Eliot Ness had been shaped by watching reruns of the hit TV show “The Untouchables” which originally aired on ABC between 1959 and 1963. The late Robert Stack portrayed Ness.

The real Ness and his tightly knit group of incorruptible agents working for the U.S. Department of Justice enforcing prohibition laws in Chicago were instrumental in building the case against the notorious bootlegger Al Capone that eventually resulted in a conviction for tax evasion.

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Afterwards, Ness went on to fight crime in other locales and ultimately ended up in Cleveland. In his book “American Demon - Eliot Ness and the Hunt for America’s Jack the Ripper” Daniel Stashower delves into this lesser known period.

Ness became Cleveland’s director of public safety, in charge of the police, a force riddled with corruption during that time, the early 1930′s. Stashower describes how illegal gambling operations were flourishing just outside the Cleveland city limits.

Crimes outside of his jurisdiction were not supposedly his concern. Even so, when he was called on to assist in a raid upon a gambling operation outside Cleveland, Ness stepped right up and fearlessly faced down some heavily armed thugs.

On Sept. 5, 1934, a gruesome discovery was made; part of a body washed up on the Lake Erie shore. This was the first episode of what became a regular horror show as more victims of an unknown butcher began turning up, many of them discarded in a desolate area of Cleveland called Kingsbury Run.

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Initially, Ness was not involved in the investigation of what appeared to be the work of a serial killer with surgical skills. As the body count rose, the mayor became frantic and insisted that Ness needed to get involved in tracking down this elusive psychopath.

Fans of true crime will appreciate the exacting details. We learn about several potential suspects including one fellow, a doctor, who has political connections. This physician would be skilled at dissection and after he became a suspect he derived great joy from taunting Ness.

I’ll leave it to readers to find out on their own if they ever caught the perpetrator of these fiendish homicides. Late in life Eliot Ness began to exhibit signs of mental deterioration. The end of his life was a sad one. In 1957 he was about to publish his memoir when he died suddenly. It became a bestseller and the inspiration for the TV show.

Stashower’s depictions of how Ness ruthlessly harassed Capone and then the prosecution and trial of the infamous gangster who had kept Chicago afloat in a sea of illegal alcohol gives readers a riveting introduction to what follows, the much lesser known chapters when Ness was cleaning up the police department in Cleveland.

Oh, and be warned, there are some excruciatingly gory details.

Vick Mickunas of Yellow Springs interviews authors every Saturday at 7 a.m. and on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. on WYSO-FM (91.3). For more information, visit www.wyso.org/programs/book-nook. Contact him at vick@vickmickunas.com.

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