Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Hero

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Overview

The true story of Eliot Ness, the legendary lawman who led the Untouchables, took on Al Capone, and saved a city’s soul

Eliot Ness is famous for leading the Untouchables against the notorious mobster Al Capone. But it turns out that the legendary Prohibition Bureau squad’s daring raids were only the beginning. Ness’s true legacy reaches far beyond Big
Al and Chicago.

Eliot Ness follows the lawman through his ...

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Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Hero

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Overview

The true story of Eliot Ness, the legendary lawman who led the Untouchables, took on Al Capone, and saved a city’s soul

Eliot Ness is famous for leading the Untouchables against the notorious mobster Al Capone. But it turns out that the legendary Prohibition Bureau squad’s daring raids were only the beginning. Ness’s true legacy reaches far beyond Big
Al and Chicago.

Eliot Ness follows the lawman through his days in Chicago and into his forgotten second act. As the public safety director of Cleveland, he achieved his greatest success: purging the city of corruption so deep that the mob and the police were often one and the same. And it was here, too, that he faced one of his greatest challenges: a brutal, serial killer known as the Torso Murderer, who terrorized the city for years.

Eliot Ness presents the first complete picture of the real Eliot Ness. Both fearless and shockingly shy, he inspired courage and loyalty in men twice his age, forged law-enforcement innovations that are still with us today, and earned acclaim and scandal from both his professional and personal lives. Through it all, he believed unwaveringly in the integrity of law and the basic goodness of his fellow Americans.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 11/04/2013
Though he’s now a revered as the lawman who helped bring down the Chicago Mob and Al Capone, Eliot Ness was all but forgotten by the time he died, virtually penniless, in 1957, at age 55. Ironically, a book touting his dramatic efforts would hit stores just six months later. With a shrewd mix of drama, insight, and objectivity, Perry (The Girls of Murder City) artfully chronicles the life of the leader of the “Untouchables” squad and illuminates his subject’s complicated worldview, passions, and faults. An introverted misfit and perfectionist, Ness perpetually felt like an outsider until he found his way to the nascent Prohibition Bureau. Under constant threat of violence, particularly in the early days, Ness thrived, leading his department on daring raids in a tireless effort to take down Capone, something Ness would later characterize as an obsession. Though he later made great strides fighting crime and corruption as public safety director in Cleveland (though the pursuit of a sadistic serial killer proved elusive), he would never regain the esteem he once enjoyed. By WWII, Ness was scraping for work. After an unsuccessful effort to become mayor of Cleveland, Ness all but gave up. A drunken ramble in the presence of a reporter led to the publication of his biography, which turned out to be too little too late to save the real Ness, though it did much to burnish his posthumous fame—a cruel twist to a story full of them. Photos. Agent: Jim Donovan, Jim Donovan Literary.(Feb.)
From the Publisher
A Best Books of 2014 Selection, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“This is rip-roaring stuff, and Mr. Perry tells it with gusto.”
—The Wall Street Journal

“Perry paints a riveting portrait of the real man behind the Untouchables icon… It’s a tragic true story more engrossing than the myth.”
Parade Magazine

“[A] new and invaluable biography… [Perry] does justice to his subject, a complicated and self-destructive human being, but one who was also admired by many. He is a tragic rather than heroic figure, and Perry nails him with style and compassion.”
The Chicago Tribune

“Perry has spun a riveting tale.” 
The Washington Post

“Perry takes plenty of detours beyond Ness's work history, exploring fascinating topics like an infamous Cleveland serial killer case, the evolution of law enforcement tactics, and the ever-present enticements wooing less-than-holy Chicago-area cops. But he doesn't need to wander afield when it comes to the dangerous missions by the "Untouchables" squad in Chicago: The action scenes are positively cinematic… Smart, authoritative, and bristling with challenges to the status quo: [Eliot Ness] has more than a little in common with its remarkable subject.”
—The Christian Science Monitor

“[A] new and invaluable biography… [Perry] does justice to his subject, a complicated and self-destructive human being, but one who was also admired by many. He is a tragic rather than heroic figure, and Perry nails him with style and compassion.”
The Chicago Tribune

“Don’t believe what you’ve seen in the movies. The true story of Eliot Ness is better than the Hollywood version, and Douglas Perry tells it brilliantly, with hard-nosed reporting and graceful prose. This book is so good even Al Capone would have enjoyed it, though perhaps grudgingly.”
—Jonathan Eig, author of Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster
 
“Douglas Perry is telling three stories here, those of Eliot Ness, of criminal empires, and of America, each done with equal grace and skill. His superb research is matched by his understanding of Ness as a microcosm of these larger tales, and he recreates a man and a slice of American history with marvelous results. A truly remarkable book.”
—Michael Koryta, New York Times Bestselling author of The Prophet  
 
“There’s so much more to the complex life and career of Eliot Ness than the Untouchables and Al Capone, and now we finally have the whole fascinating story. Douglas Perry proves that well-researched truth always trumps one-dimensional mythology, especially when presented by a gifted storyteller. Eliot Ness is that rarity – an authentic page-turner.”
—Jeff Guinn, author of Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson
 
“In this true crime page turner, Douglas Perry cuts through the myths surrounding the legendary lawman to reveal a figure far more flawed, complex—and fascinating—than the squeaky-clean do-gooder of “Untouchables” fame.  Readers will be riveted by Perry’s gripping account of Ness’s post-Chicago career, where, among other adventures, he found himself on the trail of one of America’s most savage serial murderers, the maniac known as the Cleveland Torso Killer.”
—Harold Schechter, author of The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, the Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation
 
“Finally, you can forget the over-dramatized accounts and Hollywood-hyped film portrayals of the past, and read Douglas Perry’s masterfully researched and honest tale of the crime-fighting life and personal struggles of the famed Eliot Ness. This is story-telling at its finest....”
—Carlton Stowers, two-time Edgar winner
 
“Over time—thanks in great part to Hollywood, television, and even comic books—Ness’s remarkable crime-fighting career has been reduced to his famous struggle against mobster Al Capone. At last here is Ness in his first, second, and final acts. A true account of his life that makes for a better story than Hollywood could have ever concocted.”
—James McGrath Morris, author of The Rose Man of Sing Sing

    
“You may have thought you knew Eliot Ness, but Douglas Perry shows us that The Untouchables and taking down Capone were only the start of his story. Ness, though he went on to fight more gangsters and hunt a serial killer, was a far more complicated and flawed American hero than we previously realized.”
—Paul French, author of Midnight in Peking

 

Library Journal
12/01/2013
Perry's (The Girls of Murder City) newest historical work about famed Al Capone fighter Eliot Ness tells the story of a complicated and often uncompromising man who cleaned up not only Chicago but Depression-era Cleveland before losing himself to alcoholism and lack of direction. The book is well researched and contains extensive footnotes, which will no doubt satisfy academics, but Perry writes in a style that is readable, fast-paced, and empathetic. Unlike Ness and Oscar Fraley's heavily embellished text The Untouchables, which Fraley published after Ness's death, this volume is founded in fact. The book makes Ness's life not just a series of victories over crime and corruption but, ultimately, portrays a driven man with deep flaws who was able to do great things. Perry's title shows Ness the man, not Ness the legend. VERDICT Recommended for historical crime buffs, biography fans, and the general reader.—Amelia Osterud, Carroll Univ. Lib., Waukesha, WI
Kirkus Reviews
2013-12-22
A thorough recounting of the career of Eliot Ness (1903–1957), from humble beginning to humble ending, with spectacular fame in between. Al Capone may have gone to prison for tax evasion, but Perry (The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago, 2010) understands that the name Ness is synonymous with shutting down Capone's bootleg operation. The author ably shows that there was far more to Ness' career than just his battles with Capone, with accomplishments that may even outweigh his work during Prohibition. Unlike many of his colleagues, Ness did not fade into the background when the law was repealed. After a short stint in Cincinnati, he moved to Cleveland, where the mayor made him director of public safety with instructions to clean up the city. His years in Cleveland were probably the best of his career, with Ness implementing many firsts in the police department that are now standard procedure. Unfortunately, after leaving Cleveland, Ness never re-entered law enforcement and wasn't successful in his other work. Alongside intense and energetic investigative tales, Perry injects humor into the story with anecdotes--e.g., when a Cleveland patrolman, gun drawn, stopped Ness on the street. Though Ness identified himself, the patrolman was skeptical, insisting he was just as likely to be President Franklin D. Roosevelt. "Eliot carefully produced his ID and said that, with FDR's approval, he would like to be on his way," writes the author. Perry also peppers the book with his own colorful language. While this works in his favor when he calls a bad area of town "Cleveland's colostomy bag," it is jarring and off-kilter when he writes that Ness "gave Stafford a little smile, savoring the moment like a postcoital cigarette." Despite minor flaws, there is much to learn and enjoy for crime-solving fans and American history buffs.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670025886
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/20/2014
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 239,083
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Douglas Perry is the author of The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago. Percy’s an award-winning writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, The San Jose Mercury News, The Oregonian, Tennis, and many other publications. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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Read an Excerpt

Praise for Eliot Ness

“Perry paints a riveting portrait of the real man behind the Untouchables icon. . . . It’s a tragic true story more engrossing than the myth.”

Parade

“[A] new and invaluable biography . . . [Perry] does justice to his subject, a complicated and self-destructive human being, but one who was also admired by many. He is a tragic rather than heroic figure, and Perry nails him with style and compassion.”

Chicago Tribune

“Perry takes plenty of detours beyond Ness’s work history, exploring fascinating topics like an infamous Cleveland serial killer case, the evolution of law-enforcement tactics, and the ever-present enticements wooing less-than-holy Chicago-area cops. But he doesn’t need to wander afield when it comes to the dangerous missions by the Untouchables squad in Chicago: The action scenes are positively cinematic. . . . Smart, authoritative, and bristling with challenges to the status quo: Eliot Ness has more than a little in common with its remarkable subject.”

The Christian Science Monitor

“[Perry] hauntingly depicts the grimness of the Depression years. . . . Ness lived in interesting times, and the manner in which he cleaned up Cleveland’s corrupt culture was brave and remarkable. As Perry keenly notes, his successes seemed to give him a high that was nothing short of addictive.”

The Cleveland Plain Dealer

“With a shrewd mix of drama, insight, and objectivity, Perry artfully chronicles the life of the leader of the Untouchables squad and illuminates his subject’s complicated worldview, passions, and faults.”

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Perry has spun a riveting tale.”

The Washington Post

“Don’t believe what you’ve seen in the movies. The true story of Eliot Ness is better than the Hollywood version, and Douglas Perry tells it brilliantly, with hard-nosed reporting and graceful prose. This book is so good even Al Capone would have enjoyed it, though perhaps grudgingly.”

—Jonathan Eig, author of Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster

“Douglas Perry is telling three stories here, those of Eliot Ness, of criminal empires, and of America, each done with equal grace and skill. His superb research is matched by his understanding of Ness as a microcosm of these larger tales, and he re-creates a man and a slice of American history with marvelous results. A truly remarkable book.”

—Michael Koryta, New York Times bestselling author of The Prophet

“There’s so much more to the complex life and career of Eliot Ness than the Untouchables and Al Capone, and now we finally have the whole fascinating story. Douglas Perry proves that well-researched truth always trumps one-dimensional mythology, especially when presented by a gifted storyteller. Eliot Ness is that rarity—an authentic page-turner.”

—Jeff Guinn, author of Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson

“Finally, you can forget the overdramatized accounts and Hollywood-hyped film portrayals of the past and read Douglas Perry’s masterfully researched and honest tale of the crime-fighting life and personal struggles of the famed Eliot Ness. This is storytelling at its finest.”

—Carlton Stowers, two-time Edgar Award winner

“Over time—thanks in great part to Hollywood, television, and even comic books—Ness’s remarkable crime-fighting career has been reduced to his famous struggle against mobster Al Capone. At last here is Ness in his first, second, and final acts. A true account of his life that makes for a better story than Hollywood could have ever concocted.”

—James McGrath Morris, author of The Rose Man of Sing Sing

PENGUIN BOOKS

ELIOT NESS

Douglas Perry is the author of The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago, which The Wall Street Journal hailed as “a sexy, swaggering historical tale.” He is an award-winning writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, The Oregonian, the Faster Times, Tennis, and many other publications. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

INTRODUCTION

The Real Eliot Ness

When Walter Taylor arrived, Betty was still in the kitchen, standing over her husband’s body. She was sobbing fitfully, in a daze. Her ten-year-old son stood nearby, paralyzed by fear. A doctor was there, too, and someone else, a business partner of the man sprawled on the floor.

Taylor had witnessed this ghastly tableau many times over the years. He was the town’s deputy coroner and the editor of the local newspaper. But this time was different.

The dead man was lying on his back, his white shirt twisted across his bulk. In the sink basin, smashed glass sparkled in the dissipating light. He’d been getting a drink of water when the coronary hit. Betty had come in from the garden and turned the faucet off before she saw her husband there on the floor. She screamed, high and long and loud—loud enough to bring their son running from the neighbor’s yard. She continued to sob now, a guttural sound, too deep and raw for such a pretty woman. “It will be all right, Betty,” someone said, and that was as much as she could take. She started to collapse. The business partner grabbed her before she fell.

Taylor turned away. He’d seen enough. He walked out of the kitchen, past the soot-stained mantel in the living room with the cherubic white angel suspended above it. The angel, its wings aflutter, gazed toward the trauma unfolding in the kitchen. Betty had made the piece. Someone had once told Taylor that she had been a student of a famous sculptor. Outside, Taylor found the neighbors milling about. The poor man had been sweating when he came up the walk, one of them said. He looked like he was in pain, another offered. Taylor moved away from the bystanders and picked up his pace. It was a warm, humid evening, and he was wearing a suit, but he ran all the way back to the office. He was a newsman. He had to let the world know it had just lost Eliot Ness.

***

The world didn’t much care. Taylor’s report went out on the Associated Press wire on that balmy spring day in 1957, but few newspapers bothered publishing an obituary. The New York Times, America’s paper of record, did not take note of Ness’s death. In Chicago, the place of his birth and where he raised the once-famous “Untouchables” squad, the Tribune gave his life barely one hundred words. It got his age wrong. Arnold Sagalyn, despite being a newspaper executive in the Washington, DC, area, heard about Ness’s death only because Betty called him a few days later. Sagalyn made a small noise, a kind of pained grunt, when Ness’s widow gave him the news. He thought of Eliot like a big brother. Ness had taught Sagalyn how to carry a gun, how to unnerve a suspect, how to mix a drink. The call couldn’t have been easy for Betty, either. The reality of her husband’s death had settled on her by then, but she didn’t know Sagalyn well. He’d worked with Ness before she came on the scene. He’d been close with Eliot’s previous wife, Evaline. Betty called him because she had nowhere else to turn. Her husband had left her nothing but debts and dreams. Sagalyn sent her some money.

Not everyone was so sympathetic. David Cowles, the superintendent of criminal identification for the Cleveland Police Department, had also worked with Ness during the glory years. But unlike Sagalyn, he didn’t owe his career to the “fair-haired boy.” He thought Ness had hogged the headlines. “The last time I saw Eliot, he didn’t have two pair of shoes to wear,” Cowles would recall when asked about his former boss. “He was a heavy drinker. . . . I think he had four or five wives, didn’t he?”

Broke, alcoholic, and dead from a massive heart attack at just fifty-five. Such a fate for Eliot Ness was inconceivable to most everyone who knew him during his long law-enforcement career. This was the golden boy who crashed Al Capone’s party in Chicago. The young, irrepressible top cop in Cleveland who announced “there was no room for traitors in the police department”—and then set out to prove it. The detective savant who, like his fictional hero Sherlock Holmes, could stun a stranger by deducing some core aspect of his character simply by observing the twitch of his lip. (As one of the resident experts on the crime quiz show Masterminds, Attention!, he solved the mysteries so quickly the radio program burned through its material at twice the expected rate and had to go off the air.)

“He really captured the imagination of the public in his early years,” John Patrick Butler, a former aide for Cleveland mayor Thomas Burke, would recall years later.

By the time of Ness’s death, however, that hero worship was long gone. He hadn’t been a lawman for more than a decade. Desperate for money, his ambitious business plans in shambles, Ness had been working on a memoir when he collapsed in his kitchen in the tiny town of Coudersport, Pennsylvania. The book hadn’t been his idea. His business partner, Joe Phelps, was a childhood friend of Oscar Fraley, a hack for United Press International. On a trip to New York, Phelps and Ness met the journalist at a bar, and Ness sat quietly while the two old pals played “remember when.” During a lull in the conversation, Phelps had jerked a thumb at Ness and said, “You’ll have to get Eliot to tell you about his experience as a Prohibition agent in Chicago. He’s the guy who dried up Al Capone. Maybe you never heard of him, but it’s real gangbuster stuff: killings, raids and the works. It was plenty dangerous.”

Ness smiled bashfully and shrugged. “It was dangerous,” he said.

At Phelps’s urging, Ness offered up some old stories. Fraley, fascinated, told his new drinking companion he should write a book, that it could bring him a nice chunk of change. Ness shrugged again, but Fraley wouldn’t let it go. He said he’d write it for him. Some weeks later, Fraley called Ness at home in Coudersport. He told him he had pitched a book proposal to New York publishers, and he’d found one that wanted a memoir about the Untouchables. Ness stared at the telephone receiver. “I can hardly believe it,” he finally said. “You think it will be interesting?”

Fraley had no doubt that it would be. Ness thought of himself as a failure—it had been a long time since the Capone days—but Fraley knew Ness was an American icon waiting to be discovered. Or, more accurately, rediscovered. Not that Fraley was concerned about accuracy. He would take a series of conversations he had with Ness, along with an outline Ness wrote for him, and stretch them like Silly Putty. He added a lot of biff!s and pow!s and tommy guns going rat-a-tat-tat! He threw in some hard-boiled dialogue cribbed from private-dick movies. He wrote a pulp novel. Worried about what he considered Ness’s “fetish” for honesty, he tried to convince him that this was the way things were done in publishing, that they had “literary license.”

***

The truth about Eliot Ness has been up for grabs ever since. Thanks to Fraley’s The Untouchables, published seven months after Ness’s death, Ness received more credit for taking down Al Capone than he deserved. This has rankled many Capone stakeholders over the years, as Fraley’s book begat a top-rated TV series in the 1960s, which begat a blockbuster movie in the 1980s, which begat more TV shows and novels and comic books and movies that continue to appear. George E. Q. Johnson Jr., son of the U.S. attorney who hired Ness to harass Capone’s operations, told an interviewer that the Untouchables’ work “was damaging to Al Capone, an annoyance, but resulted in no convictions. There were no convictions of any consequence for violations of Prohibition laws, because it was unenforceable.” An income-tax case, he pointed out, got Capone.

The professional debunkers followed hard and fast. They slathered their own countermyth onto Ness, insisting he was an incompetent and a glory hound, a liar and a drunk. Some even suggested that the Capone hunt turned him into a wild man, a rogue agent. “Eliot changed. The niceties of the law no longer meant all that much to him,” said Al Wolff, a former federal Prohibition agent in Chicago. “He bent a few rules and even broke a few. We didn’t always see eye to eye on that.”

All of this has taken a toll. Thirty years after Ness’s death, the Los Angeles Times wrote that the Untouchables’ leader had committed suicide. A reader had to call the paper and demand a correction. Ken Burns, promoting his 2011 television documentary about Prohibition, said that Ness was nothing but “a PR invention.” Burns’s codirector, Lynn Novick, added: “He raided a few old breweries and busted up some stale beer. Then, after he retired, he wrote a book in which he just made stuff up.”

The thing that gets overlooked, even after all these years, is that Ness didn’t need Oscar Fraley’s help to be a hero. Fans of the Robert Stack TV series and the Kevin Costner movie and the various novels and comic books can all legitimately lay claim to Ness being one of the most influential and successful lawmen of the twentieth century. Scarface Al is only one small reason for this. Ness was just thirty years old when Capone was marched off to prison and the Untouchables disbanded. It was the beginning of Ness’s career, and far from the highlight. Three years later, in the heart of the Great Depression, he moved to Cleveland. The Cleveland Press, in announcing Ness’s appointment as the city’s public safety director, pointed out that he had nothing to do with the case in Chicago that sent Capone to prison. This was not a criticism. The newspaper presented Ness as a savior, the man they had all been waiting for. Cleveland was the sixth-largest city in the country and arguably the most corrupt. Ness announced he would clean up the town—all by himself, if he had to. “I am going to be out (in the field). And I’ll cover this town pretty well.”

Marion Kelly, a longtime Cleveland police reporter, would remember him as “the sexiest man I’d ever known.” She insisted “he wasn’t handsome or flashy, but women were drawn to him.” Louise Jamie, who was related to Ness through marriage, believed he personified the very best the country had to offer. “He never carried a gun,” she said. “He was very private. He was typical of the English-Norwegian, the backbone of America. Even the gangsters knew it. There is honor among thieves, you see, if they respect you. Nobody ever shot Eliot for that reason.”

Novelists and screenwriters have used these images to conjure up the man they wanted Ness to be. He was the tough, golly-gee G-man, quick to blush, even downright priggish, but willing to do what needed to be done for God and country. It’s a compelling, all-American portrait, but it’s also wrong. Or, at least, woefully incomplete.

Like the comic-book superheroes popularized during his career, Ness had an earthbound alter ego. In his case, it was his real self. He was, by all accounts, modest, kind, shy. Which only seemed to make his actions on the job all the more impressive. There was simply no explaining them. “There is nothing about Ness’ appearance to inspire fear,” the Cleveland News wrote in 1940 during the racketeering trial of a union boss. “But the shadowy characters who sometimes drift into the Criminal Courts Building point him out with awe. ‘There goes Ness,’ they say as though they were indicating Wyatt Earp, the two-gun sharpshooter of the gold rush days.” During another racketeering trial, Ness’s reputation and its possible effect on jurors so unnerved the defense attorneys they tried to get him banned from the courtroom.

Work obsessed Eliot Ness, so much so that he couldn’t help but ruin his marriages with it. He never could separate his public self from his private self. The two inevitably rolled together. He could be a heroic figure in his personal life as well as his professional one; he found scandal in both as well. Women fell in love with him on trains and from across crowded rooms. He loved to shoot guns and to dance, and he was good at both. (He was good at everything he did; he steered clear of activities that didn’t come naturally to him.) He was a hard partier—so hard that he never figured out how to come down from the high. So hard that it undermined his reputation and, ultimately, helped end his life at what should have been not much more than the midway point.

Once he was dead and gone, the rest of the world caught up with Chicago and Cleveland, and became fascinated by Ness. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to know about the “real” man. “Tell me, what kind of guy was this Eliot Ness?” the mobster Lucky Luciano asked Oscar Fraley in the early 1960s. Fraley fielded this question frequently.

Back on that night when the reporter had first met Ness, the former Prohibition agent had described his Untouchables’ adventures as “dangerous.” That word had stuck with Fraley, and it was how he now liked to describe Ness to anyone who asked. It was true enough—Eliot Ness had been dangerous in many ways—so Fraley usually left it at that. Even though he knew there was so much more to say about the man.

PART I

Rising Star

Photos of employees collectively make up Eliot Ness’s face in artwork at the headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Washington, DC.

CHAPTER 1

Hardboiled

Edna Stahle opened her eyes and looked at the ceiling. She had no idea where she was. She’d been warned that might happen.

She was on the floor, that much was obvious. She rolled onto her side, got her knees under her, and rose slowly. She realized she was sweating. A wall heaved into view, and she reached out to steady herself.

She noticed other women in the room. Everyone was moving slowly, with measured steps. One of them let out a moan. They were beginning to understand what had happened to them.

Just the day before, Edna and the five other girls from the office thought they were being so grown-up. They had rented this cottage on Lake Michigan. They’d picked it out themselves, paid for it themselves, stocked it themselves. They didn’t tell anyone what they were up to. It was their secret.

The weekend had started innocently enough. The first thing they did was go for a swim. They banged into the lake like children, laughing and splashing one another, unselfconscious with no men around. They stood up to their waists, heat dazed, and looked out at the horizon, at the boats backlit along its edges. There were beautiful yachts on the lake all day. The girls didn’t know it, but bootleggers owned the grandest ones. The gangsters had figured out that the big, gaudy vessels, laid out in rosewood, with “gold handles on the toilets and all that jazz,” were better for business—at least for now. The Coast Guard was suspicious of any fast little boat zipping across the lake, but it paid no mind to the pleasure cruisers, home to industrialists and politicians at play. “So [gangsters] took these yachts and decorated them with pretty girls in bathing suits, like going out for a little sail. Load up and come back,” one of those pretty girls confided years later. This was a good time for them to be out there. It was a hot summer day—perfect for a little sail. Perfect for a drink. Back in the city, the bootleggers’ thirsty customers sat on shiny wooden barstools, sweat running down their faces. Nineteen twenty-eight had been surprisingly warm so far, starting early and building to a record-breaking heat wave in July. Some club owners brazenly propped their doors open, allowing the pungent smell of beer to waft onto the sidewalks. Most of them kept a wad of cash ready in case a dry agent walked in—and a truncheon behind the bar in case he was honest.

None of the women at the rented cottage ever went to those “private clubs.” Pretty girls were always welcome; Prohibition had brought women into what long had been a male-only domain. But for the respectable ones, it was a dangerous game. A young woman couldn’t get away with drinking on her own or even with a girlfriend. She was going to be approached, time and again. And if a girl did accept a drink from a man? One saloon regular put it succinctly: “If she had two drinks with him, and she didn’t lay her frame down, she was in a serious matter.” Worse yet for these particular young women now enjoying their lakeside holiday: at a saloon they might run into one of the men they worked for. After all, they didn’t slave away at just any office. They were all secretaries in the Chicago office of the Prohibition Bureau. That was why they had planned this secret drinking weekend at an out-of-the-way cottage way up on the lake, where no one would see them, let alone recognize them.

Now they realized they might have made a mistake. There was no way to tell what you were going to get from a bootlegger. How many times had they heard that? Coal tar dyes, industrial solvents, paint thinner, rat droppings. Anything could be in there. They’d read reports about men dying or going blind from drink. One drink. Women just like them had gone mad and killed their lovers. Of course, those were extreme cases. No one would say otherwise. The fact was, everyone they knew drank bootleg liquor. Everyone but them.

Edna settled herself at the kitchen table. Until this summer, the petite twenty-one-year-old had never tasted alcohol. The way her head felt now, she figured it would be a long time before she tried it again. The other women at the table had already resolved to take it easy all morning. Read books and sit on the beach.

Maybe they should drink some more, one of them said. Hair of the dog.

The women stared off into space, pondering that one. Maybe later, they decided. For now, they would do nothing, enjoy the quiet.

Early afternoon brought a knock on the door. One of the secretaries, decked out boyishly in a shapeless shift and bangs, opened up and found Eliot Ness standing on the porch, kneading his hat in his hands. She almost cried out. The women had cleaned themselves up by then. They’d come to terms with the previous night and begun to relax about it. The liquor hadn’t been poisonous after all. They were chatting and laughing, talking about giving it another go. But now silence gripped the cottage. The women exchanged glances, their eyes wide. They invited Eliot in—they had to invite him in—but, as the nephew of one of the secretaries would remember the story, “with him there they were afraid to break out the booze. He was the kind of guy who probably would have arrested them.”

They actually weren’t too worried about that. True enough, he was the new agent on the special squad, the most hardcore unit in the office. But they were pretty sure he hadn’t driven all the way up there to bust them. He’d come because he was “sweet on one of the girls.” Which was just fine with them. In fact, it was exciting. Because all of the girls were sweet on him.

Eliot stepped into the room, into the light. The women watched him with sucked-in breath. It wasn’t that he had matinee-idol looks. He didn’t. He had a soft, indistinct face, a face that blended into the background of photographs. But he was tall—easily six feet in his stocking feet—with a rangy, athletic build. And there was such sadness in his eyes, even when he was smiling. Those blue eyes told everything. They told you he was cerebral and sensitive and maybe a little troubled down deep in his soul. Women could see this—or feel it. He just gave off a vibe.

Edna had caught it right off. Eliot would always pause by her desk when he was in the office and give her a smile. She loved the way he talked to her. He was amiable and jokey with the men, slapping backs and all that, but he would settle down as soon as he turned his gaze on the assistant administrator’s secretary. He’d sit on the edge of her desk, his voice muted, those sad eyes at half-mast, and Edna would gaze up at him as the rest of the bustling office hurtled off into the cosmos. She couldn’t understand why this incredible man was interested in her.

Edna Margaret Stahle was not beautiful. She knew it. She hated her mousy brown hair and her bony, plain face. She had a nice figure going for her—a long torso and boyish curves, the body of a natural-born flapper—but she didn’t know that. No one else did, either. The social revolution that had brought women the vote and the Charleston hadn’t yet made it out to Kensington, the far South Side neighborhood where Edna had grown up in a squat, cramped house on Union Street, just a few blocks from the Ness home. Edna wore high-collared blouses and calf-length wool skirts, usually topped with a heavy overcoat. Nobody saw her curves. She rode the streetcar to the Prohibition Bureau offices every day, her head always down, too shy to meet anyone’s gaze. On the weekend, she clattered around town on a secondhand bicycle, gliding through intersections with her eyes closed. The bike riding was her escape, her way of clearing her head. She needed it. Edna was studious and serious. She worked hard. She was determined to never make a mistake at anything.

Until she started dating Eliot. Then her attention to detail began to slip, just a little. In her first federal efficiency report after she and Eliot began seeing each other, her marks fell, an unprecedented occurrence. Dating Eliot—a special agent, a college man—had opened her up, made her realize she was stronger and braver and more interesting than she ever could have imagined. That was why she had gone up to the lake with the girls. She took chances now. She’d try almost anything, especially when she was with Eliot. “We used to double-date,” Eliot’s fraternity brother, Armand Bollaert, would recall years later, grinning, “and we used to have some very interesting escapades.” Those escapades had lodged in Edna’s consciousness, fluttered in her stomach. She had started daydreaming about Eliot—or, more to her nature, worrying about him. About them. All she had to do was look around this cottage. These women, her colleagues and new drinking buddies, were shocked that Eliot was standing there before them. And they loved it. “Women threw themselves at Eliot,” one of his longtime friends would remember years later. “That was his trouble.”

He clearly didn’t feel like he was in trouble. A roomful of young women couldn’t make him nervous—not anymore. Joining the special agency squad had boosted Eliot’s confidence. In the weeks that followed the appointment, he had used a billy club when he’d had to. He and the boys had kicked gangsters down staircases and whacked suspects with phone books. They carried shotguns as naturally as most men carried briefcases. Carpe diem was now young Eliot’s motto.

This dichotomy—between the “very modest man, very pleasant, very sophisticated,” as one female friend put it, and the tough guy who liked to call Chicago’s gangsters “yellowbellies” because they usually shot their enemies in the back—proved an irresistible mix. It had certainly made an impression on this crowd. “Hello, Mr. Ness,” they said, almost in unison, as he moved into the cottage, causing him to flap his hat in casual acknowledgment. The women all smiled at him, but after a quick scan of the room, Eliot’s eyes fell on Edna. She tried not to give herself away.

Edna hadn’t told anyone in the office that she and Eliot were dating. He might have shown up to check on her story that it was a girls-only weekend, and that was fine with Edna. She was happy to see him. She was always happy to see him. She stood, took Eliot’s hat, and hung it on a rack. Then she turned to the room and offered to make a round of drinks for everyone. The other women gasped in shock. Eliot began to laugh; he couldn’t help it. This set Edna to giggling. Slowly, the others joined in. Everyone laughed a little too hard.

***

Eliot wasn’t supposed to be a member of the special squad. He might have impressed the women in the office, but he didn’t have the same effect on the supervisors. It was widely believed that he lacked the chops for high-level duty. He certainly didn’t have the pedigree. The special agents, after all, had been handpicked and trained in the nation’s capital. Many were Ivy League graduates, tops in their classes. Eliot had been just an ordinary Prohibition agent, a local boy.

The Special Agency Division stood apart from the rest of the Prohibition Bureau. The division oversaw ten “small, highly trained mobile forces of investigators,” each led by a special agent in charge. Their mission: to handle large-scale liquor conspiracies beyond the scope and training of the average Prohibition office, and to clean out dishonest agents wherever they found them. George Golding, a cocky, barrel-chested former New York City cop, led the twenty-man team dispatched to Chicago. Another George—George E. Q. Johnson, the new U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois—considered the team’s assignment to the city a significant coup. Many in the Treasury Department, home to the Prohibition Bureau, believed Golding to be the best lawman in the federal government. He had plenty of fans in the Justice Department as well. Assistant Attorney General Mabel Willebrandt, who was in charge of Prohibition cases, said a hundred George Goldings could dry out the entire country.

Johnson was satisfied to get the one and only. The U.S. attorney had dedicated himself to bringing down the region’s booze syndicate. But he realized that before he could take on the liquor gangs, he had to roust the criminals within the Prohibition Bureau itself—or at the very least bypass them. The Chicago Prohibition office had recently forced out most of the longtime temperance activists who had joined the agency through political patronage. But the crooks were proving harder to dislodge. The problem had been going on from the very beginning. In 1922, two years after the arrival of the constitutional amendment that banned the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol, a local federal grand jury had declared that “almost without exception [Prohibition] agents are not men of the type of intelligence and character qualified to be charged with this difficult and important duty and Federal law.” That was understating the matter. Dozens of dry agents in the office were on the Mob’s payroll. Some were even full-fledged members of a gang. With Golding in place, Johnson believed this shameful state of affairs could finally change. He and Chicago’s Prohibition administrator, E. C. Yellowley, announced that “no dry agents or other government employees violating the law will be dealt with leniently.”

Landing in the city in the fall of 1927, Golding met with reporters on his first day on the job. The big, brash New Yorker charmed them right down to their toes, telling them eye-popping tales of derring-do and insisting that his tenure in the nation’s second city was going to be “all action.” The newspapers dubbed him “Hardboiled Golding” and announced that the war against the gangs finally was in good hands. Hardboiled wanted to have an immediate impact, before the glowing headlines about the team’s arrival could molder in birdcages. He big-footed ongoing investigations into the booze syndicate and his agents started shouldering their way through locked doors, usually with reporters right behind them. “The agents swooped down on unsuspecting Chicago, their eyes blazing and their guns in hand,” recalled Elmer Irey, head of the Internal Revenue Service’s Intelligence Unit, which provided training to the Special Agency Division. “The chief of this new group led his men through miles of popping photographers’ flash guns as he rounded up dozens of illicit backroom gin mills and bathroom alcohol stills. He even knocked off a few breweries.”

But Hardboiled Golding’s hero worship would be short-lived. In March 1928, one of Golding’s men shot an off-duty municipal court bailiff in the back while the team was raiding a saloon on the South Side. Overnight, the glowing press notices ground to a halt. The newspapers, careful to stay with public opinion, responded to the shooting with outrage. They questioned the raiders’ competence, forcing Johnson to defend the squad in a makeshift press conference. The U.S. attorney insisted the special agents were cracking down on the “Kensington–Chicago Heights alcohol ring, to whom this department attributes at least three murders.” He added that the squad was seeking Chicago Heights gangster Lorenzo Juliano, along with evidence that the mobster was responsible for setting off a bomb at the home of U.S. senator Charles Deneen, a well-known foe of gang rule.

Johnson’s defense wasn’t good enough. Or it never had a chance to be, for Golding immediately undermined it. The special agent in charge announced that the bailiff, William Beatty, had fired two shots at his men. He said the wounded man, under guard in the hospital, would be charged with “obstructing justice and assaulting officers.” But eyewitness testimony was unanimous that the bailiff had no gun on the night of the raid and posed no threat. Beatty, it turned out, was running away from the agents—he thought they were gangsters robbing the place. Reporters didn’t doubt this version of events. Golding’s men cultivated a black-ops image and rarely identified themselves when they crashed through doors. They had arrived at the saloon on South State Street in four unmarked cars and raced into the joint wielding shotguns, rifles, machine guns, and sledgehammers. When the police showed up fifteen minutes later, the special agents told them to turn right back around. “You get the hell out of here; we’ll handle this,” one of them told the officers. Added another, “It’s none of your business.”

Local law-enforcement officials took their cue from the newspapers. “I want to know whether a bunch of gun-toting roughnecks from the east side of New York can come into Chicago and shoot an unarmed man and then tell the police to go to hell,” Police Commissioner Michael Hughes demanded. The state prosecutor issued an arrest warrant for Myron Caffey, the agent who shot Beatty. Newspaper headlines about the cocked-up raid continued to stretch across Chicago’s front pages day after day, turning Caffey into the most reviled man in the city. Irey recalled that the special agent “had to go into hiding in the Federal Building, sleeping and eating in an Assistant United States Attorney’s office until his victim disappointed the critical Chicago press and recovered from his wound.” On April 5, Caffey surrendered to the police.

Assistant Attorney General Willebrandt, alarmed by the reports coming into her office, decided to make an emergency trip to Chicago for a day of meetings. On her way into the Transportation Building, the Printers Row tower where the Prohibition Bureau kept its offices, she waved off reporters who tried to determine the reason for her visit. “The situation here is so tense that I think it better for me to say nothing at all,” she said. In the bureau’s offices, rumors sprouted like mushrooms in the dark. Surely somebody was getting fired; surely there was going to be a shakeup. In his meeting with Willebrandt, Johnson “begged that the special crew be withdrawn before somebody got lynched.” Golding scoffed at the U.S. attorney. He still refused to acknowledge that he or his men had done anything wrong. He made it clear that he had no plans to slink out of town, no matter how bad the situation looked. Retreating wasn’t his style.

***

On May 31, 1928, two months after the Beatty shooting, Eliot Ness received orders to report to the special agency squad. He stared at the piece of paper, stunned. Most of the agents in the Chicago Prohibition office were desperate to distance themselves from Golding, whom the newspapers were now calling a rogue cop, a legal gangster. The papers reported that the Justice Department was investigating the special squad after dozens of barrels of confiscated beer had disappeared from a government warehouse on the West Side. Gossip circulated in the office about Golding attempting to get a traffic cop prosecuted for obstruction of justice for trying to give him a jaywalking ticket. But Eliot wasn’t one of Golding’s or the squad’s critics. He had requested the transfer. He was twenty-six years old and had just a year and a half in the bureau, but he felt disillusioned. He often gazed out his fourth-floor office window at South Dearborn Street below, his melancholic blue-black eyes soft and unfocused, unable to get himself out the door to do his job. The fug of corruption permeated the office. He suspected that his own partner was taking money from the booze syndicate. He knew of agents who socialized with gangsters. It disgusted him. He didn’t care what the newspapers or the police said about the special squad. He wanted to be a part of it. He believed in Golding and his hard-boiled tactics. He believed that only ruthlessness could win the war against the bootleggers.

The question was, What kind of special agency squad was he joining? That George Golding took Eliot onto the team was a sure sign that the champagne had gone flat for the special agent in charge. From their initial interview, Golding pegged Eliot as an odd duck. The candidate, Hardboiled noted, seemed unsure of himself, too eager to please. Golding had a good eye. Eliot surely was trying too hard. The young agent couldn’t believe he was being considered for the team. He’d put in the transfer request—weeks before—to make himself feel better, not because he thought he’d get it. He knew what his record was. He was a college boy—University of Chicago, class of ’25—but his grades were awful. He’d started his career at the consumer-reporting powerhouse Retail Credit Company, a definite plus, but he spent most of his year there doing clerical, not investigative, work. He hadn’t done much since coming to the Prohibition Bureau, either. Eighteen months was enough time to make a mark in the dry service, and yet Eliot could boast of no significant arrests, nothing to set himself apart. He’d pretended to be a student down on the University of Illinois campus and busted a few coeds for drinking. And he was among the few agents in the office who actually managed to pass the civil service exam. That was about it. Golding put down that Eliot had landed at the bureau through family connections.

Nepotism certainly played a part in Eliot joining the bureau’s ranks. His brother-in-law was Alexander Jamie, Edna Stahle’s boss, a senior manager in the Chicago office. Eliot had always wanted to follow in Jamie’s footsteps. The forty-five-year-old assistant Prohibition administrator, a former FBI agent, had been something of a father figure to Eliot over the years. Eliot’s actual father, Peter Ness, rarely took a day off from the thriving wholesale bakery business he owned, so it was the tall, grim-faced Jamie who had taught Eliot how to drive a car and shoot a gun. It was Jamie who had taught him about the importance of honesty in all things. (Woe unto them that call evil good and good evil, he told him.)

Ever since adolescence, Eliot had sought to make Jamie proud of him. He wanted to be just like his brother-in-law: upright, tough, uncompromising. As an agent, Eliot hadn’t scored many arrests so far, but he took the badge seriously—more seriously than most. He carried the Prohibition Bureau’s rule book around in his jacket pocket every day. He trawled for speakeasies even on his own time. He was the kind of agent Jamie expected him to be. Crooked Prohibition agents had built-in radar for like-minded colleagues, and the meter never blipped when it settled on Eliot Ness. He fit all the do-gooder stereotypes. He still lived at home. He took his meals there and called his mother every day to let her know if he’d be late. He wore the same two suits over and over. As a junior agent, he earned $2,500 per year, which was enough for him. That was the problem. He couldn’t find a friend in the office. No one wanted anything to do with him.*

Golding was an honest man, too, the questionable investigative tactics of his team notwithstanding, but he didn’t want to be Eliot’s friend any more than the crooked agents did. The special agent in charge was frustrated by his limited personnel options. When he and his team had arrived in Chicago eight months before, he could boast of having the bureau’s crème de la crème. No more. This Ness kid clearly was not qualified for the special squad, but Golding took him because few others wanted to work for the team anymore. Golding had even been forced to bring on college interns to fill stakeout shifts. The transfer to the elite squad moved Eliot from Prohibition agent to special agent—skipping over the investigator grade entirely—but, in a telling bureaucratic decision, it came with no change in salary. (A memo from Washington the week before his reassignment stated that “it is not desired to promote him at this time.”) On June 5, Golding personally gave him the oath of office. Eliot replaced Caffey, now under indictment for murder.

CHAPTER 2

Mama’s Boy

It didn’t take long for Eliot to get the action he craved, the kind that would impress a starry-eyed secretary during hushed, conspiratorial lunchtime conversations. Shortly before Eliot joined the team, Golding and his men had captured Juliano. Golding insisted the arrest justified the raid in which Beatty was shot, seeing as Juliano had been the target that night. Thus, the arrest justified Beatty’s shooting. This was how Golding thought. “The way of the transgressor is hard, the Bible states, and it seems to me that the work of enforcing laws is no cinch,” he announced to the press. The special agent in charge had recovered his verve.

One thing you could say about Hardboiled Golding, he was consistent. He never learned from his mistakes. By summer, the Beatty debacle had receded in the public’s mind, which to Golding meant it never happened. He was ready for action again. On August 21, a few weeks after Edna and the other secretaries had had their secret weekend holiday, Golding’s special agents burst into rooms 803 and 804 of the City Hall Square office building downtown, seeking records for the Northside booze syndicate.* This was the first major raid by the squad in which Eliot played a key role; he was charged with securing the first room. Golding would praise a handful of agents in his official report (Eliot was among those he singled out), but no one outside of the special squad would view the mission as a success. That was because in the second room, room 804, a man named Merle Adams had responded to the intrusion by punching an agent in the jaw and fleeing, sliding out the door on freshly polished shoes and scrambling down the hall like an overeager puppy. One of the raiders, Arthur Franklin, gave chase, pulling out his revolver as he leapt into the hallway. Up until this point, office workers along the length of the floor had been watching from doorways, agape at what appeared to be an audacious robbery. Now screams echoed in the enclosed space, and men and women rushed inside their offices and underneath desks. A deafening pop resounded throughout the floor. This prompted more screams and gasps from the scattering peanut gallery. Franklin—a twenty-three-year-old “student dry agent,” it would turn out—watched as the fleeing man issued a small “Ooopphhhh!” and dropped to his knees at the top of the stairwell. The student agent turned and strode back to room 804. He leaned his head in. “I got him,” he announced.

That hardly was the end of it. While the intern boasted about his marksmanship, Adams slowly righted himself and continued his flight. He made it down to the seventh floor before Agent Edward Gill, following the trail of blood, caught up to him. More office workers watched as Gill whacked the wounded man in the head with a blackjack. Gill and another raider carried the suspected liquor-syndicate accountant back up to the eighth floor and ran the gauntlet of gapers down the hallway. “Get into your offices, we’re government men,” the agents barked as they alternated between hefting and dragging Adams, periodically thumping him with their clubs. “For God’s sake,” Adams finally wailed to no one in particular, “call Mrs. Adams at Longbeach 4800 and tell her I’m shot.” Leaving the door to the office open, the agents dropped Adams into a chair and told him to open the cashbox or else. They put wet towels on his wound in a halfhearted attempt to stop the bleeding and continued to threaten him when he didn’t respond. Then they took the phone receivers off the hooks so they could concentrate on the safe without interruption. A woman from across the hall, after watching for half an hour as Adams bled through the clump of towels, decided she should call a doctor. Someone else had already called the newspapers, and the reporters beat the doctor to the scene. “Get out—we’ll smash your cameras and your faces,” a special agent bellowed when the hacks arrived in the doorway. This, they should have known by now, was not the best way to handle the press.

“Hardboiled George Golding’s special prohibition squad shot a fleeing suspect yesterday in the City Hall Square building,” the Chicago Tribune blared. The city’s newspapers had plenty of eyewitnesses to feature, and none of them put the special agents in a positive light. Office workers had crowded around the hacks to tell about being violently shoved back into their offices “by a couple of boys who looked like college students and who dressed as such but who kept displaying gold badges and yelling, ‘We’re federal agents: get back.’” Miss Constance Bemis, a secretary, told reporters that Agent Franklin “acted as though he were in a frenzy” as he chased the suspect. She added: “I was standing in the hall when the men ran out, the agent with gun in hand . . . I nearly fainted when I saw the other man crumple to the floor as the bullet struck him.”

The papers railed against Golding’s “terrorist” tactics—first the Beatty shooting and now this—and called for his dismissal. Editorials and analysis about the raid dominated the city’s front pages. The Tribune even used the City Hall Square incident to indict the entire Prohibition Bureau. “All previous records for brutality, depravity, and utter ruthlessness in prohibition enforcement were broken during the last 60 days, when dry sleuths in widely scattered sections of the country killed three citizens, maimed dozens more, and even seduced a schoolgirl—all ‘in the line of duty.’” That proved to be the last straw. The killings and the ruined schoolgirl had nothing to do with Golding, but it was because of him that the news was now flying around the country on the wires. The special agent in charge wasn’t going to be able to brazen this one out.

The state’s attorney charged Agents Franklin and Gill with “assault with intent to commit murder,” and neither U.S. Attorney Johnson nor the bureau publicly supported them, as they had Caffey. Willebrandt was so upset at Golding’s recklessness that she supposedly never spoke to him again. The Treasury Department called Golding back to Washington, and he left without a word to the press or his men. Yellowley, Chicago’s bureau administrator, abruptly disbanded Golding’s squad, calling a press conference to make the announcement. The Prohibition Bureau dismissed a handful of the special agents from the service and reassigned the rest. Two weeks later, Yellowley named Jamie as the acting special agent in charge and told him to build an entirely new team.

***

Just a few years before, prohibitionists even in their worst nightmares wouldn’t have been able to conjure up the need for someone like George Golding—or even Alexander Jamie. At first the federal prohibition force was primarily a PR outfit. Veteran temperance activist Georgia Hopley, hired by what was then the Prohibition Unit of the Bureau of Internal Revenue, spent the first two years of the dry era on the road, heralding the Eighteenth Amendment.* She loved the assignment. The stout, stern-faced woman, always in her signature birdcage dresses, found herself inspired by the transformation she was seeing everywhere: sober faces, healthy faces. America on the rise. At one stop in 1922 a reporter asked her if more women were drinking today than ever before. Hopley snorted, but with a smile, as if a child had said something funny. “A certain type, perhaps,” she said. “But not the backbone of the nation.”

Hopley saw what she wanted to see. She loved to quote “the highest authority of the Nation,” President Warren G. Harding, a personal friend, on the glories of dry America: “In every community men and women have had an opportunity now to know what prohibition means. They know that debts are more promptly paid, families better fed and clothed, and more money finds its way into the savings banks. The liquor traffic was destructive of much that was most precious in American life. In another generation I believe that liquor will have disappeared not only from our politics but from our memories.”

The president, of course, did not for a minute believe his own words. White House staff, if not President Harding’s good friend Miss Hopley, had seen the great man casually drinking alcohol in the Oval Office on more than one occasion. But even such a sight could not possibly have swayed the dusty-dry sisters and brothers of the movement. It made sense in those early years that Georgia Hopley would serve as the public face of the dry force. The prohibition movement had been founded and largely driven by women—women who had seen husbands, brothers, and fathers destroyed by drink, their weekly paychecks washed away, their children gone hungry. In the second half of the nineteenth century, when the movement began to pick up momentum, the typical American adult knocked back ninety bottles of 80-proof liquor every year. The rise in the popularity of spirits, thanks in part to modern distilling innovations, had created a new class of drunks: addled, unrepentant, irredeemable. Something had to be done. Righteous members of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, Hopley’s predecessors, sought to change hearts and minds by gathering in front of saloons to pray and cry.

Yet even decades later, after years of the WCTU marching through the streets of major cities, of the Anti-Saloon League declaring (and proving) that its sole purpose was “administering political retribution” against politicians who opposed prohibition, few Americans seemed to believe a booze ban could ever actually happen. When the Volstead Act—the Eighteenth Amendment’s enforcement arm—went into effect in January 1920, a full year after the constitutional amendment was adopted, the new reality caught many by surprise, emotionally if not intellectually. “The whole world is skew-jee, awry, distorted and altogether perverse,” Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane wrote in his diary the day before the liquor ban officially took hold. True enough, the world was now skew-jee, but prohibitionists, despite their astounding legislative success, proved to be deadly wrong about what would occur next. Most activists believed that removing the temptation—the brewery-owned saloons on almost every commercial corner of every decent-size town in the country—would cause the desire to fade away, like smoke from a dying fire. Never mind that the booze business was—or had been—the fifth largest in the country, or that to millions of Americans drinking was as culturally significant as marriage. Never mind that the timing was particularly poor. The World War, finally ended in 1919, had brought about a most unexpected lucidity. Millions of Americans suddenly seemed to accept that life was short and ugly, and that maybe there was nothing to come after it. The war had changed everything—art, music, politics, literature. The old world had been swept away completely, as if it never existed. Americans in the 1920s wanted to listen to jazz and to dance, and they did. They wanted to buy automobiles and drive them fast, and they did. Most of all, they wanted to drink. Prohibition—a strange remnant of that old world, somehow renewed—had to be defied. They might not have been able to articulate why, but legions of Americans felt a kind of moral imperative to defy it. No law had ever inspired such contempt across the country.

Instead of the tranquility and good will the prohibitionists had expected, the Eighteenth Amendment brought turmoil and violence. And, somehow, alcohol. It was everywhere, more so than ever before. The Volstead Act hardly worried anyone. Indeed, for the right kind of entrepreneur, the possibilities of Prohibition proved endless. A huge, long-established industry had been wiped off the books with the arrival of the constitutional amendment, but the trucks, equipment, supply chains, relationships, know-how, and other accoutrements of the liquor business were still there in the real world, waiting for a new breed of men who didn’t mind taking new kinds of risks. The spoils would go to those who thought big—and showed no mercy. In Chicago, the country’s second largest city, vice king Johnny Torrio was such a man. Torrio brought in a twenty-one-year-old hood from Brooklyn named Al Capone shortly before the Volstead Act went into effect. Torrio’s gang took control of many of Chicago’s breweries, whose owners at first saw the gangsters as saviors. Without the underworld’s intervention, the brewers would have had to produce yogurt or soft drinks to stay in operation, and where was the self-respect in that?

Few members of Congress—or managers in Washington’s Prohibition offices, for that matter—had anticipated this. Gangsters were now industrialists. The new economic landscape meant hoodlums suddenly did everything on a much bigger scale than they ever had before. Such was especially the case in Chicago, which overnight became the headquarters of Prohibition resistance. Once upon a time the city’s hoods ducked into alleys when they saw a copper. Now they greeted him warmly and slipped him an envelope. They had no other choice; any half-competent patrolman with a functional nose could find beer being brewed in the city. Next came payoffs to judges and politicians. The notoriously corrupt William “Big Bill” Thompson, Chicago’s mayor since 1915, had primed the city for the gangland takeover of its police department and judicial system. By 1923, as much as a million illicit dollars a month were going into the pockets of Chicago officialdom. A visit the following year showed Mabel Willebrandt just how bad things were. In the nation’s second-largest city, she sneered, police suffered from “sleeping sickness”—her picturesque way of saying they were taking money to look the other way. When Prohibition agents conducted raids on speakeasies, they usually found cops happily drinking at the bar.

This scared Willebrandt. Trying to enforce the law, she said, was “like trying to dry up the Atlantic Ocean with a blotter.” The assistant attorney general hadn’t been a prohibitionist before she joined the Justice Department. She freely admitted that she’d “had liquor in my own home in California.” But she and her allies believed that if the government allowed the Volstead Act to go unenforced, terror and violence would take over society. Criminal gangs would run the country. That was why, in the middle of the decade, she had helped run Hopley and other temperance veterans out of the bureau and replaced them with a force of professionally trained law-enforcement agents. Of course, by then it was too late. Gang control had already arrived—again, especially in Chicago. “The skies were black with smoke from ‘alky’ cooking plants, beer was as easy to get as water, and it was a foolhardy policeman who dared molest a citizen peddling whiskey that would eat a hole in a battleship,” noted Elmer Irey. No place in America took to illicit drinking like Chicago. Songwriter Fred Fisher called it “that toddlin’ town,” and he meant it literally. Hundreds of men stumbled and twirled around the downtown Loop every evening, looking for a taxi or the steps to the elevated trains. The booze that inspired most of these late-night interpretive dances came from Torrio’s so-called Outfit, which dominated the bootlegging scene from its headquarters in the western suburb of Cicero. “Chicago, the world’s Fourth City, has fallen,” a local reporter wrote of the Outfit’s sudden and extreme rise to power. This news quickly spread far beyond the Chicago metropolitan area. When Torrio’s forces, led by young Capone, took over Cicero’s elections in 1924, the New York Times highlighted the Chicago Problem on its front page, declaring that “bullets, bricks, blackjacks and fists were used generally instead of ballots to decide the issue.” The election, wrote another paper, was the underworld “announcing that it realized its power.”

Chicago had become the symbol of all that had gone so wrong in the war on liquor. Willebrandt understood that the federal government had to take a stand there. She had sent Golding because the city needed her best general. And when he flamed out, poisoning public opinion, she decided to keep the special agency squad in place, even with three of its members facing murder charges. The fight would go on. For Prohibition, it was Chicago or bust.

***

It really couldn’t have worked out better for Eliot. He was one of the few special agents on Golding’s team to be kept on in Chicago. He’d received valuable experience under a daring leader but not so much that he’d ended up in the dock. And now he would serve under his own brother-in-law, who was more careful and professional than Golding, and who took Eliot’s best interests to heart.

It was far from certain, however, that Alexander Jamie would be able to remain in his new position for long. Before returning to Washington, Golding had done his best to destroy the man who was his logical successor. Jamie “is lazy and takes three hours to do that which another man would do in fifteen minutes,” Golding wrote in a memo to Yellowley. “He is sort of Bolsheviki, all the time expressing to other agents statements relative to his political power . . . and how he could have the Administrator’s post or mine whenever he desired.” The attack almost worked. Yellowley fired Jamie, only to have Johnson intervene on the assistant administrator’s behalf. Jamie was unemployed for twenty-four hours before he was returned to the bureau’s ranks and given the promotion—albeit without additional pay—to acting special agent in charge. Though he probably never saw Golding’s memo, Jamie knew Hardboiled had gone around the office slandering him. Already he was self-conscious about having only a grammar-school education and having gotten his start as an investigator by informing on union efforts for the Pullman Company, the Chicago maker of railroad cars and a notorious union buster. (When Eliot was in college, Jamie helped him land second-shift work at the Pullman plant as a stacker, a dangerous and physically draining job.) Now that Jamie had the position he’d always wanted, albeit on an interim basis, he was determined to prove that he belonged in the corner office. The disastrous Beatty and Adams shootings notwithstanding, he intended to lead an active, aggressive special agency unit.

To that end, his first target as acting special agent in charge was a big one: Chicago Heights, the industrial town about thirty miles directly south of downtown Chicago that Lorenzo Juliano called home. Nearby Inland Steel, producing a million tons of ingots every year, promised the Heights economic stability, which helped bring one of the first major highways straight through town, giving the burg the nickname “The Crossroads of the Nation.” The highway also made it a perfect place for bootleggers. Jamie and other bureau muckety-mucks believed the town was central to the syndicate’s statewide operations. They had good reason to think so: a lot always seemed to be going down in this small workingman’s city of twenty-two thousand. The dry law, the Tribune declared, had “transformed the peaceful industrial community with its happy homes into a haven for a great alcohol cooking ring, a terrain of contention, locale of alky wars and a battle ground of bootleggers.” In 1926, the Heights’s preeminent liquor boss, the Sicilian gangster Philip Piazza, had been ostentatiously murdered in front of his café in the middle of the day. Since then, more than twenty men had been killed in the town’s “alky wars.” Another Sicilian, Joe Martino, president of the local branch of the Unione Sicilione, stepped forward after Piazza fell, but others also were in the mix. The Torrio gang had been taken over by Al Capone after rival bootleggers seriously wounded Torrio in a 1925 attack. The Outfit’s influence stretched across most of the metropolitan area, and that included the Heights. Still, much of the violence seemed to be spurred not by Martino or Capone but by the trigger- and bomb-happy Juliano, a dapper, chubby man with a sleek little mustache fit for a cinema comic. The police believed him to be responsible for at least eight murders, including the beating death of a paramour he suspected of being a double agent. But the blood continued to flow even after Juliano’s capture. Earlier in the year, gangsters had shot to death South Chicago Heights police chief Lester Gilbert, who had resisted bribery attempts and even seized some of the bootleggers’ trucks. No one had been arrested for the murder.

Jamie decided he would break the Chicago Heights syndicate by taking out Martino and infusing the town’s bootlegging ranks with fears of turncoats. Of course, such a bold objective would require undercover work. It would require agents who knew the area, who understood the far South Side. His young brother-in-law, he recognized, fit the bill. The South Side was the city’s—the region’s—industrial heartland, its own world, cut off as if by an impassable moat from the glamorous bustle of downtown Chicago and the wild bohemia of the North Side. Instead of classical skyscrapers and elegant townhouses, the South Side offered “ungainly, picturesque outlines of steel mills with upturned rows of smoking stacks, of gas-holders and of packing-houses.” The noise—“a mighty clattering and reverberating of . . . echoes”—was ceaseless.

This was Eliot Ness’s world; he grew up on the far South Side and identified as a Southsider, not a Chicagoan. The difference from the rest of the city—in attitude, in outlook, in experience—was unmistakable. On the far South Side, men came home from work singed and defeated, a retreating army. Everyone drank, the men so they could face another day, the women so they could face their husbands. “I would not want to live there for anything in the world,” the Italian playwright Giuseppe Giacosa wrote after visiting Chicago in 1898. He would not have thought differently four years later when Eliot was born, on April 19, 1902.* He would not have thought differently eighteen years after that, when Eliot, still with no experience of any other part of town, graduated from Christian Fenger High School. Giacosa hated most everything he saw in the city, with its “extraordinary number of sad and grieved persons,” but he thought the South Side was by far the worst. Smoke hung from the air there like drapery. The neighborhood streets, hemmed in by steel plants and ironworks, “seemed to smolder a vast unyielding conflagration,” the mammoth blast furnaces glowing orange and white throughout the night. Children on the way to school clumped through hard granules of soot that fell from the sky like hail, through a deadened landscape where not even “a ghost of the sun shines.”

Eliot’s neighborhood, Kensington, started out as a railroad stop called Calumet Junction. The Illinois Central and Michigan Central Railroads met there in 1852 during the track-building boom that settled the West and made Chicago a central player in the country’s life. In the four decades that followed, immigrant Irish, Germans, Scandinavians, and Italians poured into the area. The nearby company town of Pullman, with its nine thousand worker-residents, banned saloons, so Kensington served the need, earning the nickname Bumtown. Eliot arrived on the scene in the wake of a catastrophic Pullman strike that had radicalized the area. Bumtown was where embittered unionists came to drink, shout about injustice, and fall down. (During his seven years with the railroad-car company, Jamie spent his evenings following these men from pub to pub.) During the World War, crowds in Kensington jeered as young men from the neighborhood marched off to boot camp, because the boys wore the same uniform as the federal soldiers who had beaten down strikers back in 1894. The kids of the far South Side were notoriously aggressive, innately mean. The area produced first-rate athletes in unusual numbers during the first half of the twentieth century, boys like Tony Zale (Gary, Indiana) and George Mikan (Joliet) and Dick Butkus (Roseland), boys who would do anything to win, to escape.

Eliot didn’t seem to fit. He was a mama’s boy, the youngest—by far—of five children. His mother, Emma, a Norwegian immigrant like her husband, missed her three grown daughters, who had married and left the house, and so she coddled young Eliot. Unlike his older brother, Charles, Eliot grew into a soft, amiable, unthreatening personality. Well into his teens, he reveled in his mother’s attention, in being seen as a good boy. At the same time, he struggled with blue moods. He would come home from school and shut himself up in his room to hide his depression. He didn’t want to talk about his feelings. He hated being asked questions. He liked to keep to himself. His mother indulged this solitariness. “Although he has a store of wit, he’s very shy in using it,” his high school yearbook noted. He wasn’t a joiner. As an adolescent, he became a dedicated football fan (he followed the powerhouse University of Chicago Maroons), but even though he was a good athlete, he never tried out for a team. He played tennis, an individual pursuit, a sissified country-club sport. Still, the South Side’s influence ultimately proved every bit as powerful as Emma Ness’s. He spent hours hitting a tennis ball against a brick wall, day after day, until he was the best player at his school. After he landed a part-time job at a clothing store, he obsessively practiced his sales pitch in front of a mirror, determined to sell more suits than even the full-time staff. Whatever caught his interest, he became determined to win at it, to be the best. That’s the way it had always been for Eliot. That’s what Alexander Jamie was counting on now.

CHAPTER 3

The Special Agents

Don Kooken liked to be seen. It was the best way to be undercover: walk around town like you have a purpose, make eye contact with people and smile, get a haircut in the first chair of the downtown barbershop.

Everyone in the Heights knew Kooken was a Prohibition agent, and that was fine with him. He was undercover not as a bootlegger or a small-time hood but as a corrupt G-man. So he wasn’t surprised in the fall of 1928 when a short, well-dressed Italian, with “a stickpin about the size of a lump of sugar,” approached him on the street. The man fell into step with Kooken and stuck out a bejeweled hand. He didn’t introduce himself, but Kooken knew who he was. This was Johnny Giannini, one of Joe Martino’s factotums.

Kooken played along. A Hoosier farm boy and former railroad man, he had built an impressive record with the bureau, where he had become known for his honesty. After Kooken reported the approach, Jamie assigned Albert Nabers, Eliot’s new partner, and Eliot to go with the more experienced agent to meet Giannini. The agents drove over the next day. Eliot knew the Heights well enough to have spent as little time there as possible while growing up. The town’s small downtown had some class, especially the Hotel Victoria, designed by Louis Sullivan, but it was a thin facade. Three blocks in any direction and you felt like you might be set upon by wild dogs. The woof-chunk of heavy machinery could be heard everywhere, all the time; in many parts of town it could be felt, a perpetual mini-earthquake, rattling cups and nerves. For Eliot, it was the feel of home, the feel of the South Side. The three agents strode into the downtown Cozy Corners saloon in iconic Wild West style, screwing their expressions into the kind of hardened, cynical looks they figured dirty agents had. A uniformed policeman stood at the bar, shooting the breeze with the bartender. Kooken sidled over and showed his badge. Neither the barkeep nor the cop blanched: they were expecting him. The bartender poured drinks—real drinks, not colas or near beer—and the dry agents found a booth in the back.

Eliot had hit it off right away with Nabers, a war veteran and a fellow college man. Years later he would describe Albert as “the handsomest man I have ever seen. He was built like a Greek God, with natural, light wavy hair.” The Georgia native, only recently assigned to Chicago, had a gregarious, open-faced personality, as alien to Southside Chicagoans as Swahili. Eliot began inviting Albert to dinner at the Ness home on South Park Avenue. They didn’t talk much about their work while under the Nesses’ roof. Emma disapproved of her youngest son’s career choice. A devout Christian Scientist, she hated the idea of her sweet-tempered boy spending his days around all those dishonest men in the dry service. Eliot, who as a child had dutifully attended church with his parents, tried to bring his mother around. “If there’s anything you taught me, mother, it’s to be honest,” he told her. Eliot’s father apparently didn’t have an opinion on the subject. The baby of the family was—and remained—an afterthought to Peter Ness, who now, in his old age, wanted only to concentrate on the bakery he had spent so many years making a success. He had been nearly fifty years old when Eliot was born, and he’d already raised a clutch of children while struggling to get his business going. Eliot had worked at the bakery throughout his adolescence, but he never felt like he really got his father’s attention. Peter had more than twenty bakers to oversee, as well as “store girls” and drivers and a stable man. He paid attention to every detail. Later in life Eliot would try to put a positive spin on this monomania. “He never had a lot to say, but when he did speak, I knew it was something worth listening to,” he said of his father. “I always took it to heart because I didn’t see him all that much.” With his singular focus, Peter didn’t like anything to upset his equilibrium, at work or at home. Emotions were kept on an even keel around him, never too high or too low. Eliot learned early to hold back his feelings, to express himself only in reasonable tones. This could be stressful. While in grade school he began a lifelong habit of biting his fingernails, gnawing away whenever he faced a decision or a school exam.

Eliot’s nervousness, his inclination to bottle up his feelings, no doubt made Albert Nabers attractive as a colleague and friend. Albert was loud. He was larger than life. Eliot viewed him as the brother he never had, one close to his own age and who shared his interests. (Eliot’s brother, Charles, was more than a decade older than him, his three sisters older still.) They might not have talked about it over dinner at the Ness home, but the two young federal agents relished their work. It was no moral crusade for them, as it had been for the dry movement’s founders; they weren’t concerned with the rightness or wrongness of an after-work beer. But the call proved no less powerful. They had the sense they were doing something important. Neither man understood what exactly that something was—not yet, anyway—but for now, the objective was almost beside the point. What mattered was that they mattered.

At least they thought they did, and working an undercover operation with Don Kooken surely helped that perception. After a few minutes of sipping their drinks and pretending to chitchat at the Cozy Corners, the agents looked up to find Giannini coming toward them, a big smile thumbtacked to his face. Kooken took charge of the conversation, and he impressed Eliot with the way he charmed the Italian with his “slow, quiet, Indiana drawl.” Soon enough, Giannini passed over $250. The four men clinked glasses, drank, laughed. The gangster seemed pleased with himself. He already had “things pretty well arranged with the police and Prohibition Department,” Giannini said, but he admitted this was a real coup. Eliot couldn’t help but swell with pride. “We, of course, were the Special Agents,” he would report.

The dry agents left the saloon a bit tipsy and feeling good about themselves, but they knew this successful meeting was only the beginning. No one—certainly not Jamie—cared about nailing small fry like Johnny Giannini. The bureau wanted to build a conspiracy case, “which would include corrupt police, city officials, and perhaps Prohibition agents.” Which meant the three agents had to prove to the syndicate that they deserved to make real money, that they had ambition. A couple of nights after the bonhomie at the Cozy Corners, Kooken took Eliot and Albert on a tour of the Heights. Their chauffeur was Frank Basile, a smiley twenty-seven-year-old who had been a member of a “Kensington cooking gang” before getting busted on Volstead violations. Basile, who spoke fluent Italian, had turned government informer to stay out of jail, and now he worked for the Chicago Prohibition office for $5 a day and expenses. He and Eliot, both from Kensington and the same age, knew each other from the neighborhood. They quickly became close; Eliot considered him all but a fellow agent.

Basile drove the men up and down the Heights’s outer streets, and it didn’t take long before first one and then another car fell in behind them. The next night, the dry agents slowly toured another part of town, and again two sedans mimicked their pace and their every turn. Both nights they ended up at the Cozy Corners for some drinks. It was a fine place to be—a haven for bootleggers from all over the region who used the sparkling new highway that cut through the small city. “They would leave their cars with the bartender, and the cars would be driven away by members of the Chicago Heights alcohol mob,” Eliot would relate later. “The drivers from out of town would stay at the bar, drinking, or avail themselves of what the brothel located on the second and third floors had to offer.”

Eliot did not admit to availing himself of the offerings on the second and third floors, but he and his partners did do a fair amount of drinking on the ground level. While in college Eliot had discovered that he enjoyed booze, and becoming a Prohibition agent hadn’t changed that. He had an illicit drink almost every evening—often more than one—before heading home to his parents’ house. And now he was drinking as part of the job—and getting a bit loud about it, laughing and slapping backs. Even Basile joined in, pretending he didn’t understand when anyone spoke Italian to him; he was posing as “just Mexican,” just a boozer. It was an enjoyable way for the men to build up their bona fides.

That done, Kooken and his two junior agents returned to the Heights on another night, this time leaving their car on a back road outside of town and walking in through farm fields and empty lots, each taking a separate route. They met up in an alley after satisfying themselves that they’d avoided the “Mafia scouts”—fledgling gangsters at unofficial checkpoints, gas-station attendants on the edge of town, grandmothers peering out living-room windows. Now, keeping to the shadows, they followed their noses, for the stink of fermenting mash was almost impossible to hide. They put in miles during the night, staying low in the darkness as they came up on farmhouses and squat suburban homes, and then doubling back again for a second pass. The men found more than a dozen illegal brewing operations and took “careful notes,” which they knew they’d need for search warrants. The next day, and for the rest of the week, they made sure to be back out in the open, especially at the Cozy Corners, laughing it up, drinking, being seen. Finally, they sought out Giannini again. They made plain they knew where most of the stills in the Heights were—and that they wanted to be real partners with the Martino crew. Giannini excused himself, leaving the three special agents and Basile to sit and worry. Albert slammed back a whiskey; Eliot chewed on his thumb. Soon, two large men loomed over the table.

“Come and talk to the boss,” the twin statuary said.

The agents stepped through to a back room, where they found Giannini and a “big, swarthy,” heavy-shouldered man—Joe Martino. They barely bothered with pleasantries. Eliot, assigned the role of eager beaver, laid it out for the don of Chicago Heights: a full partnership, all aspects of the business, including gambling and the other rackets. They could provide protection for everyone in the organization—everyone they knew about. Martino gave the kid a hard-eyed appraisal, before sitting back and sweeping the lot of them with a half-lidded gaze.

“How do I know you can put in the fix?” he said.

The agents waved their badges like backup singers. “Money will do anything,” one of them said.

“How much?”

Kooken smiled. “First we’ve got to see how much it’s worth to you.”

Eliot, “the hungry one,” threw his knowledge of the syndicate’s operations in Martino’s face. The forty-five-year-old Mob boss had managed to stay out of jail—and the cemetery—for years while running a good-size bootlegging ring in a particularly violent corner of Chicagoland, but he apparently bought what this greenhorn agent was selling. He joked about owning Kooken, and local cops galore, and that he would own this pushy new kid, too. That made Eliot push harder still. The young agent loved the opportunity to assume a role, to take on a bigger and bolder personality than his own. He and Martino “had quite an argument about the amount to be paid,” Eliot recounted later. Finally, they grudgingly agreed on a weekly payment amounting to a thousand dollars a month, and the special agents shoved away from the table. No one seemed especially happy with how they were leaving things.

Frank Basile, who’d been standing by the door like a servant, looked ashen as the agents turned toward him. He took Eliot’s arm. “The silk-shirted Italian has just asked Johnny whether or not he should let you have the knife in the back,” he whispered. The words penetrated slowly. Eliot stood there paralyzed. He noticed, for the first time, a lithe, stone-faced man in the background. He was indeed wearing a silk shirt. The other men in the room seemed to melt in place, Wicked Witch–like, leaving only this blank-eyed killer. “I felt young and alone at that minute,” Eliot would admit years later. He felt like an amateur. Until Basile pointed him out, he hadn’t even noticed this man who was proposing to kill him. Basile—his eyes locked on Eliot, searching for proof that he’d been heard—said the agent’s name, snapping Eliot back into real time. Eliot knew now, if there’d ever been any doubt, that this was no game. He managed to leave without turning his back to the mystery man.

Eliot kept his paralyzing fear to himself. He didn’t tell the other agents what the silk-shirted man had said. He was too ashamed. He couldn’t accept that his fear was a normal and reasonable reaction. So the murderous query—spoken in Italian by the gangster, who assumed none of the federal men understood the language—did not get factored into the agents’ next move. Even if Eliot hadn’t been embarrassed by his terror, he wouldn’t have dared hold back the operation. He believed they were close. A thousand dollars for the three of them—Basile was just the driver and got nothing—was a good start, but not exactly a partnership. They had more work to do to prove their worth to Martino, to prove their power. There was only one way to do that: show the Mob why they should be taken seriously.

Not long after the meeting, Eliot and Albert stood on the side of the highway outside of town, stamping their feet and clapping their hands to beat back the creeping numbness in their extremities. It was late and there wasn’t much traffic, but eventually the cold night disgorged two sets of massive headlamps. The agents stepped into the road and brought the booze-laden trucks to a gurgling, sliding halt. Moving quickly, shouting over one another, they yanked the drivers out of their cabs, “squeezed their balls and beat the shit out of them, hit them with clubs,” recalled a bootlegger who worked with Martino. “It looked as though the shipment would not be delivered, but then money changed hands, and the trucks got through,” the bootlegger said, amazed at the audacity of the move. Martino’s crew, he said, now understood that the agents “wanted to be a fifty percent partner in the stills and the whorehouses.”

Eliot and Albert continued to hang around the Cozy Corners and collect their money, which they dutifully turned over to Jamie. Kooken moved on to another case, but the two younger agents made it clear to Giannini that they would take Kooken’s share as well every week. They also began pocketing $100 for each independent “alky cooker” in the area they reported to the Martino gang. The weekly grind of taking bribes and getting drunk soon paled, though. Nothing ever came of it. Their hijacking gambit hadn’t paid off. They had made a place for themselves in the crew, but while they were taking in good money week after week, they weren’t being given more responsibility. They couldn’t find out who else the gang was bribing or how exactly Martino’s distribution network worked. “It was apparent,” Eliot wrote, “that we were not going to be taken into the confidence of the gang any further.”

As the calendar flipped to November, the head office told the agents they would have to make do with the evidence from their nocturnal treks around the Heights and their meetings with Giannini and Martino. Volstead violations and bribery were penny-ante stuff in the grand scheme of things, but better than nothing. Eliot and Albert obtained search warrants for eighteen stills. The stills were relatively small, but they were good enough to mobilize the special agency unit and garner the loan of a clutch of Prohibition agents.

However disappointed he must have been at being unable to put together a conspiracy case, Eliot decided to make the best of the situation. That meant hitting the Cozy Corners hard, at the height of business. Eliot found himself teamed up not with Albert but with another young special agent looking to make his mark, Marty Lahart, a sparkly-eyed Irish kid who’d been one of Golding’s favorites. Accessorized with sawed-off shotguns and with a brood of Prohibition agents in tow, the two men stormed into the saloon. They planted their feet as if to release dueling jump shots and called out: “Everybody keep their places, this is a federal raid!” Stunned silence met the announcement, followed by the thump of weaponry hitting the floor. These were mostly customers and freelancers, not Martino’s men; nobody wanted a shoot-out with federal agents, especially when the G-men clearly had the drop on them. The Prohibition agents herded the saloons’ customers and staff to a wall and began to frisk them, while Lahart scooped up as many discarded guns as he could. He jammed four revolvers in his belt and slung a second shotgun over his shoulder. Eliot no doubt had told him about the delights on the second and third floors. Lahart took the stairs at a lope. “Everybody keep their places!” he yelled again as he bounded down the brothel’s hallway and banged open doors to expose the prostitutes in their natural habitat. These girls were not prone to hysterics. They’d seen a lot of violence; they’d been on the receiving end of it and accepted it as normal. One girl, nonplussed at the sight of Lahart weighed down with guns, cracked: “Look who’s here. Tom Mix.”

The Cozy Corners raid was about sending a message—and nothing else. The eighteen stills, hidden in houses and industrial buildings around town, were the real target. Agents spent the night smashing through doors and carting away brewing equipment and ledgers. “Luckily, the raids were successful,” Eliot recalled, “and in most places we captured prisoners, machinery and alcohol.”

Not all the evidence made it into the evidence lockup. Late that night, Eliot showed up on the doorstep of Armand Bollaert, his University of Chicago fraternity brother. Bollaert followed his friend out to the curb, where he found the trunk of Eliot’s car packed to the gunwales with liquor. “It was the most beautiful collection of booze in the city of Chicago,” Bollaert would remember years later. Without a word between them, the two men hefted the alcohol into the house.

***

You never knew what you were going to find on the side of the road in Chicago Heights, but a dead body was never a bad guess. That winter, it became a great guess.

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 12, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    Excellent

    Very Informative, clears up his history nicely,

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 24, 2014

    I Also Recommend:

    A great book and a hero! Another great read is Hector's Juice!

    A great book and a hero! Another great read is Hector's Juice!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 7, 2014

    Haru

    Hey i got grounded wont be back for awhile

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 7, 2014

    Annabeth

    Oh... ok

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