A real Dick Tracy and his gangster nemesis: how agent Eliot Ness fought Al Capone for Chicago

Prohibition officer Eliot Ness, left, escorts mobster Al Capone, downtown, through the Dearborn station in Chicago in May 1923 - the only known photo of the two men together

Bullets flew over Chicago, gangsters faced in the Prohibition era, law enforcement fighting a war with gangs that was worthy of, and then immortalized by, the Hollywood scripts. Al Capone and his associates were relentlessly pursued by Prohibition Agent Eliot Ness in the 1920s and 1930s, the former cultivating a reputation as a bit of a modern Robin Hood, the latter as a Boy Scout-esque hero – a & # 39; Untouchable. & # 39;

Capone courted the press and would distribute money in the streets, including, according to many legends and accounts, the opening of soup kitchens to feed hungry families of the Depression era.

But a new book offers a much more nuanced account of Capone – and also of Ness, who led the band of very close agents called "the Untouchables" – in an exhaustive 700-page collaboration of a novelist and historian.

"Many times, people refer to him as soup kitchens, in the plural," laughs author A. Brad Schwartz, speaking of Capone's ostensibly charitable efforts. There was only one. The notion that he did this for the goodness of his heart, and that was the Depression, and that he wanted to help these poor people that no one helped … In our research, we discovered the fact that, not only ran the dining room charity for a brief period of time mainly, if not exclusively, for the advertising value, which supplied him by extorting donations from local shopkeepers, arming them strongly to give him food and pass it on as his own charity.

Prohibition officer Eliot Ness, left, escorts mobster Al Capone, downtown, through the Dearborn station in Chicago in May 1923 - the only known photo of the two men together

Prohibition officer Eliot Ness, left, escorts mobster Al Capone, downtown, through the Dearborn station in Chicago in May 1923 – the only known photo of the two men together

Ness dedicated her life to law enforcement during the Prohibition, when the Chicago police were notoriously corrupt and the gangsters fought each other with violence like Valentine's Day in 1929, when five members of the North Side gang and two Affiliates were executed at point-blank Tommy Guns and other high-powered firearms

Ness dedicated her life to law enforcement during the Prohibition, when the Chicago police were notoriously corrupt and the gangsters fought each other with violence like Valentine's Day in 1929, when five members of the North Side gang and two Affiliates were executed at point-blank Tommy Guns and other high-powered firearms

Ness dedicated her life to law enforcement during the Prohibition, when the Chicago police were notoriously corrupt and the gangsters fought each other with violence like Valentine's Day in 1929, when five members of the North Side gang and two Affiliates were executed at point-blank Tommy Guns and other high-powered firearms

Ness grew up in Chicago, the son of Norwegians who ran a bakery, and his brother-in-law urged him to join the police; In the photo are your credentials from the Treasury Department. Chicago was plagued with corruption during the Prohibition, so Ness formed a band of close-knit officers who he considered reliable and who became known as The Untouchables.

Ness grew up in Chicago, the son of Norwegians who ran a bakery, and his brother-in-law urged him to join the police; In the photo are your credentials from the Treasury Department. Chicago was plagued with corruption during the Prohibition, so Ness formed a band of close-knit officers who he considered reliable and who became known as The Untouchables.

Ness grew up in Chicago, the son of Norwegians who ran a bakery, and his brother-in-law urged him to join the police; In the photo are your credentials from the Treasury Department. Chicago was plagued with corruption during the Prohibition, so Ness formed a band of close-knit officers who he considered reliable and who became known as The Untouchables.

Capone appears in his police photo since November 1930; he had offered Ness a bribe of two $ 1,000 bills per week, which the legislator rejected

Capone appears in his police photo since November 1930; he had offered Ness a bribe of two $ 1,000 bills per week, which the legislator rejected

Capone appears in his police photo since November 1930; he had offered Ness a bribe of two $ 1,000 bills per week, which the legislator rejected

"There are all these great little anecdotes that I think explain someone's character perfectly, and I think that – how Capone made the soup kitchen – I think it's a perfect synthesis of what his true character was".

He adds: "He's a charming character, I think a lot of people who have written about him expecting the kind of grumpy figure that you see in the movies are surprised at how charming and charismatic he is, even through the newspaper accounts, He was good at offering his kind of moral justifications for everything he did, and there had been a tendency to leave him more comfortable as an individual than I think he deserved.

The stories of cops and robbers are well known, at least on the surface. Capone, the son of Italian immigrants born in Brooklyn, began a criminal life at an early age in New York before moving to Chicago, where he soon rose to the ranks of gangsters and earned a reputation for eliminating competition. Ness, also the son of immigrants, grew up in Chicago, where his Norwegian parents had a bakery, before his brother-in-law helped him convince him to become an officer of the law.

He fit in with the personality of Ness, quiet and collegiate, and was very direct, refusing to accept bribes at a time when almost all law enforcement agencies in Chicago were corrupt (Capone's people even offered him $ 2,000 per week, about $ 29,000 at present) but he was not influenced). Ness surrounded himself with a small group of like-minded agents when he took charge of cracking down on the gangs that ruled the city during the Prohibition, and became known as the Untouchables.

Schwartz and co-author Max Allan Collins initially considered doing an in-depth book on Ness's life, from cradle to grave, but it soon became clear that they had enough material to deepen the lives and minds of both the officer and his nemesis, Capone, especially because their lives were diametrically opposed and inextricably linked. They also wanted to incorporate new facts they had gathered through their investigation and refute previous accounts.

& # 39; One of the types of false perceptions that we try to correct in the book [is Capone is ] forced to the criminal life because he has to support his family, and that is not true at all. He chooses to be a thief. He could never have foreseen, in 1919, when he goes to Chicago, that Prohibition will come and [he would] They end up being immensely powerful and a celebrity. So, in that sense, it's like you're looking for a drink of water and they give you a fire hose.

"Then he finds himself in a situation where, just to stay alive, to stay on top, he's very reactive." He is fighting in this war on multiple fronts; he has to do things that, for him, he would always argue that they are self-defense, self-preservation. But he finds himself being dragged deeper and deeper.

"I certainly think, when he said he wished he could retire to a quiet life and get out of it, but he did not think he could, I think he's telling the truth, I also think he's someone who has the ability to rationalize almost anything, so I am inclined to take all their negatives to the letter ".

The roots of the new book, Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness and Battle for Chicago, written by novelist Collins and historian Schwartz, were formed more than a decade ago, when a teenager Schwartz met Collins in a book. signed by the latter in Chicago. Schwartz was a fan of Collins' work and appeared wearing an Eliot Ness t-shirt from a work the author had written, and the two quickly joined in their fascination with Capone, Ness and the fictional character modeled after the law enforcement officer. Dick Tracy

Capone, the son of Italian immigrants born in Brooklyn, began his life of delinquency early and quickly moved to the ranks of the underworld after moving to Chicago; he earned the nickname of Scarface by the marks on his cheek and tried to hide his scars from the press during the 1920s

Capone, the son of Italian immigrants born in Brooklyn, began his life of delinquency early and quickly moved to the ranks of the underworld after moving to Chicago; he earned the nickname of Scarface by the marks on his cheek and tried to hide his scars from the press during the 1920s

Capone, the son of Italian immigrants born in Brooklyn, began his life of delinquency early and quickly moved to the ranks of the underworld after moving to Chicago; he earned the nickname of Scarface by the marks on his cheek and tried to hide his scars from the press during the 1920s

Capone learned to woo the media, giving interviews, appearing handsome and attracting the common man. Stories were passed down through the Mafia years opening a series of soup kitchens during the Depression, but historian / author A. Brad Schwartz tells DailyMail.com that it was just a soup kitchen and that Capone was heavily armed with local stores to deliver them. food, which happened as charity. Here, Capone and his son receive a baseball signed by Barry Hartnett of the Chicago Cubs in 1931

Capone learned to woo the media, giving interviews, appearing handsome and attracting the common man. Stories were passed down through the Mafia years opening a series of soup kitchens during the Depression, but historian / author A. Brad Schwartz tells DailyMail.com that it was just a soup kitchen and that Capone was heavily armed with local stores to deliver them. food, which happened as charity. Here, Capone and his son receive a baseball signed by Barry Hartnett of the Chicago Cubs in 1931

Capone learned to woo the media, giving interviews, appearing handsome and attracting the common man. Stories were passed down through the Mafia years opening a series of soup kitchens during the Depression, but historian / author A. Brad Schwartz tells DailyMail.com that it was just a soup kitchen and that Capone was heavily armed with local stores to deliver them. food, which happened as charity. Here, Capone and his son receive a baseball signed by Barry Hartnett of the Chicago Cubs in 1931

Capone, center, with boxer Jack Sharkey, to the right, in Miami, about a week after the Valentine's Day massacre; although he was in Florida at the time of the atrocity, it was supposedly carried out for the benefit of his gang, which had a particularly brutal reputation

Capone, center, with boxer Jack Sharkey, to the right, in Miami, about a week after the Valentine's Day massacre; although he was in Florida at the time of the atrocity, it was supposedly carried out for the benefit of his gang, which had a particularly brutal reputation

Capone, center, with boxer Jack Sharkey, to the right, in Miami, about a week after the Valentine's Day massacre; although he was in Florida at the time of the atrocity, it was supposedly carried out for the benefit of his gang, which had a particularly brutal reputation

The novelist Max Allan Collins, left, and the historian A. Brad Schwartz, on the right, both nurtured a childhood love of Dick Tracy, which was based on Eliot Ness; first they played the base when Schwartz, a fan of Collins books, went to one of the books signed by the author when he was just a teenager. They finally agreed to collaborate on a new book on Ness and Capone, Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness and the Battle for Chicago.

The novelist Max Allan Collins, left, and the historian A. Brad Schwartz, on the right, both nurtured a childhood love of Dick Tracy, which was based on Eliot Ness; first they played the base when Schwartz, a fan of Collins books, went to one of the books signed by the author when he was just a teenager. They finally agreed to collaborate on a new book on Ness and Capone, Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness and the Battle for Chicago.

The novelist Max Allan Collins, left, and the historian A. Brad Schwartz, on the right, both nurtured a childhood love of Dick Tracy, which was based on Eliot Ness; first they played the base when Schwartz, a fan of Collins books, went to one of the books signed by the author when he was just a teenager. They finally agreed to collaborate on a new book on Ness and Capone, Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness and the Battle for Chicago.

"When I was 12 years old, my mother suggested that I take a look at the movie The Untouchables, because, and her exact words were:" It's like Dick Tracy, but real life, "says Schwartz about the film that chronicles the battle between Capone and Ness … "I did not know how correct it was, but when I saw that movie at a very impressionable age, I somehow connected it to Dick Tracy at once. I knew it was based on a true story, but that somehow this comic strip that I loved as a child had really happened in real life, and I wanted to know more. "

He adds: "Indeed, I found the way for the work of my future co-author, the books I had written about Eliot Ness and other novels with Ness and Capone, and I knew him very well, his work already by Dick Tracy. realization at a certain point where: this type of Iowa, whose name was Max Allan Collins, would be interested in all the things that interested me.

Collins also developed a childlike interest in Dick Tracy and later landed a job as a writer in the Dick Tracy cartoon in Chicago, pushing the creator Chester Gould about the similarities that Collins observed between the real law agent and the cartoon character .

"He told me that when he created the strip in 1931, the newspapers were full of things about Capone, also about these federal agents who took Capone," Collins tells DailyMail.com. "And I said," Well, that really sounds like you're talking about Eliot Ness and the Untouchables. "And he confirmed that yes, that was right, that was a very little known fact, even today, that Dick Tracy was based on Eliot. Ness.

The couple meticulously investigated Capone and Ness, including visiting the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, where Ness moved after Chicago, where they keep the court's scrapbooks and memoirs. Ness had collaborated with the writer Oscar Fraley in the book The Untouchables, which became very popular, especially when it became a series of television and movies, but that account was written decades after the rise of Ness, when he was overwhelmed by debts and alcoholism. His memories were not usually correct, so, on his own, Schwartz and Collins went directly to primary sources: their scrapbooks, writings, newspaper reports of the time and even friends who were still living.

"One of the things that was wrong with many previous books, the Untouchables, the memories that Ness wrote … the chronology is a mess," Schwartz tells DailyMail.com. "And a lot of people say," Well, he said he was fighting the Mafia in 1929, then you look at the newspapers, and there are no records … so he obviously invented it. "

– Well, it was not; The Untouchables did not begin until 1930, and then, if we look at 1931, & # 39; 32, & # 33; 33, all the events described in the book are covered in the press at that time. Changing the chronology a bit and correcting it, according to what we know from newspaper articles, you see that a lot of what is described in the book really happened, but not when they say it happened. "

Collins explains: "For all the fantastic things you see in, for example, the movie The Untouchables, which is a good entertaining movie, does not have much to do with the story, there's a bit of precision there, like Ness who rejects a bribery, a big bribe … There's also a scene where he throws Capone's successor, Frank Nitti, out of a building, which is very different from what actually happened, it's so different from everything Eliot Ness would have done.

Schwartz and Collins say their book aims to paint more nuanced gangster and lawmaker portraits and corrects previous misinformation about their two lives

Schwartz and Collins say their book aims to paint more nuanced gangster and lawmaker portraits and corrects previous misinformation about their two lives

The authors argue that other books and films about Ness and Capone, such as the 1987 movie The Untouchables starring Kevin Costner, right, contain incorrect or fictional information.

The authors argue that other books and films about Ness and Capone, such as the 1987 movie The Untouchables starring Kevin Costner, right, contain incorrect or fictional information.

Schwartz and Collins say their book, left, aims to paint more nuanced portraits of both gangsters and law enforcement and corrects previous misinformation about their lives; they argue that other books and movies about Ness and Capone, like the 1987 movie The Untouchables starring Kevin Costner, right, contain incorrect or fictitious information

"So we started trying to correct the record and also correct the reaction, because people were a bit lazy about how they portrayed Ness … and this happens so often in the story, actually, the writers are a little vague, frankly, they write what they read in someone else's book, they look at the secondary sources, they do not look at the main sources.

He thought it was a "gross oversimplification" of the research and writing process, says Schwartz, focused on Ness while Collins focused on Capone.

"I came to the point with Eliot Ness that I came up with a way to understand his character, just this idea that came to mind, which is: he has this strange naivety," Schwartz tells DailyMail.com. "It took me a while to realize what was happening, but I started to think:" Well, if he knows you're a gangster, if he thinks you're a criminal, you're not going to get anything from the past. "He, but if he thinks that you are his friend, you could almost literally run away from the murder. "

& # 39; He would cut you a pass, and that took me a while to solve it. But that notion came naturally from the research he was doing. And then, I found an unpublished interview, it was not something I could have seen and forgotten, with one of Ness's friends, who said: "Yes … I had two baskets". You were in the criminal basket or you were in the basket OK. And if you were in the basket OK, you know, he did not look at you as critically as he should have. "

"I had had his character in my head who was able to perceive that, without someone explaining it to me, so yes, it's strange." You really know them; Somehow you know what they will do in a situation, and then, in the investigation, when those judgments begin to unfold … that's when you know you're discovering something. "

Despite the hero-versus-villain nature of the entire Ness / Capone story, the lives of both men ended sadly. The law finally met with Capone, who was sentenced in 1931 to 11 years in prison for tax evasion and fined $ 80,000. He was first incarcerated at the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta, but was later transferred to maximum security at Alcatraz; He left in 1939 for good behavior and finally died at home at the age of 48 in Florida after suffering from syphilis and complications for years.

Ness and the Untouchables were praised for their relentless pursuit of Capone and his gang, and the mafia's imprisonment was obviously a triumph. However, things should not remain pink for the untouchables. While trying to obtain political connections and advance his career, he learned of an illegal one still run by a Polish immigrant named Joe Kulak, a member of a senator with whom he was trying to win the favor, Collins and Schwartz write in the new book . Ness did not do anything about it, and was raided by other agents, who found a note that told everyone who attacked the still to contact the senator's secretary or with "E. Ness," explains the book.

An investigation was initiated and Ness never faced disciplinary measures, but within a month, he was transferred to Ohio.

Eventually, Ness was implicated in looking the other way in case a politician still could not ingratiate herself, says the new book; was transferred to Ohio, where his career plummeted, and he died of a heart attack at the age of 54, an alcoholic almost broken

Eventually, Ness was implicated in looking the other way in case a politician still could not ingratiate herself, says the new book; was transferred to Ohio, where his career plummeted, and he died of a heart attack at the age of 54, an alcoholic almost broken

Eventually, Ness was implicated in looking the other way in case a politician still could not ingratiate herself, says the new book; was transferred to Ohio, where his career plummeted, and he died of a heart attack at the age of 54, an alcoholic almost broken

Capone arrives at the federal building to plead guilty in June 1931; He was sentenced to 11 years in prison for tax evasion and fined $ 80,000, serving his sentence in the US penitentiary in Atlanta but with maximum security in Alcatraz

Capone arrives at the federal building to plead guilty in June 1931; He was sentenced to 11 years in prison for tax evasion and fined $ 80,000, serving his sentence in the US penitentiary in Atlanta but with maximum security in Alcatraz

Capone arrives at the federal building to plead guilty in June 1931; He was sentenced to 11 years in prison for tax evasion and fined $ 80,000, serving his sentence in the US penitentiary in Atlanta but with maximum security in Alcatraz

Capone finally came out of prison in 1939 for good behavior; he appears in the photo the day of his release from jail

Capone finally came out of prison in 1939 for good behavior; he appears in the photo the day of his release from jail

Capone finally came out of prison in 1939 for good behavior; he appears in the photo the day of his release from jail

Capone spent the rest of her life in Florida, in the photo, and died at home at the age of 48 after suffering from syphilis and complications for years. The author Collins tells DailyMail.com that the gangster was a "visionary" in the sense of how he realized the criminal opportunities presented by the Prohibition and how he handled his criminal enterprises with professionalism.

Capone spent the rest of her life in Florida, in the photo, and died at home at the age of 48 after suffering from syphilis and complications for years. The author Collins tells DailyMail.com that the gangster was a "visionary" in the sense of how he realized the criminal opportunities presented by the Prohibition and how he handled his criminal enterprises with professionalism.

Capone spent the rest of her life in Florida, in the photo, and died at home at the age of 48 after suffering from syphilis and complications for years. The author Collins tells DailyMail.com that the gangster was a "visionary" in the sense of how he realized the criminal opportunities presented by the Prohibition and how he handled his criminal enterprises with professionalism.

"This may well have been penance," the book explains. "If Ness had not crossed a line exactly, he had come dangerously close, diverted by his own ambition." In his determination to move up the federal ladder, Ness had stumbled, trying to get the Chicago politicking brand he had always rejected, only to have a negative effect. "

"The man who stimulated Capone's offer of $ 2,000 per week would still not accept a bribe to protect anyone, but he would reluctantly let in a small player like Kulak, who was breaking a law that would soon be defunct if that meant staying in the good graces of a powerful friend.

Ness eventually became Cleveland's director of public safety, in charge of the police and fire departments. But a series of bad decisions, such as setting fire to a homeless camp and trying to get out of a DUI, tarnished his reputation. Without success he ran for mayor, financing his own campaign and, basically, bankruptcy in the process, as his worsening alcoholism forced him to take occasional jobs. He died at the age of 54 after a massive heart attack, and not a single Chicago newspaper mentioned the passing of the untouchable who worked so hard to clean the City of Winds.

However, both he and Capone had a lasting impact on both Chicago and the nature of American crime and law enforcement, say the authors of the new book.

"This is a key thing: both Capone and Ness revolutionized their profession, let's say their business, providing a professional point of view," Collins tells DailyMail.com. "So you have Ness looking at law enforcement not in the same way," we carry sticks at night and give traffic tickets. "No, I saw it as a profession, as a lawyer or a doctor.

"Capone looked at Prohibition – it comes in and, instead of being another outbreak like prostitution or gambling, he sees," Oh, this is something that's going to attract a lot of the American population. People are going to want to continue drinking, even though it's supposedly illegal. "

He adds: & # 39; He saw the potential – [that it] it was an industry, essentially, that this was much bigger than the criminal companies that preceded it. And, of course, generated organized crime, really modern organized crime arises from Prohibition.

& # 39; Capone was a visionary & # 39;

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