The ‘Real Untouchables’: Pair Discuss Iconic Organized Crime-Busters
While many have seen the 1987 film, “The Untouchables,” law enforcement officers and community members were given an inside look Wednesday into the lives of the real Untouchables.
The Robert H. Jackson Center hosted a presentation on Eliot Ness and the Untouchables that brought down organized crime boss Al Capone, given by Paul Heimel, Eliot Ness Museum director, and Scott Sroka, grandson of an original Untouchable and former federal officer. The two have done in-depth research on the members of the elite crime-busting squad and Eliot Ness, their leader.
Heimel asked the audience to “forget everything you’ve ever heard about Eliot Ness.”
“Yes, the popular characters portrayed by Robert Stack and Kevin Costner has a factual basis,” Heimel said. “Hollywood did what Hollywood has always done … for decades, the real Eliot Ness has been lost in history, obscured by these characters on a TV movie screen. Scott and I are part of a mission to rescue him and set the record straight. In the process, we’ve discovered that in many ways, the real Eliot Ness is more fascinating than the screen version.”
He said Ness was celebrated for his “opening act” as a federal agent in Chicago when he brought down Capone, but also spent seven years in Cleveland where he reformed the police department and continued to battle organized crime.
Later, in the final decade of his life, Ness took up residence in Coudersport, Pa., where Heimel is from.
“In recent years, our community has pulled together to capitalize on the fact that Eliot Ness chose Coudersport as the town where he wanted to spend the rest of his life — he said so himself,” Heimel said. “It all ended in May of 1957 when he walked through the front door of his home, which is still standing on Third Street right in the middle of town, reached for a water glass, and collapsed on the kitchen floor. The glass shattered in the sink and Eliot Ness was dead of a heart attack. He was just 54-years-old.”
Heimel said like Jamestown has Lucille Ball, Roger Tory Peterson and Robert H. Jackson, Coudersport has Eliot Ness. He added that there is a connection between Jamestown and Eliot Ness as well, as Desilu Studios was “largely responsible for making Eliot Ness an international celebrity.”
“It’s a long story, but the short version is that the popular book, ‘The Untouchables’ was largely written right in Coudersport. The literary work caught the attention of Desi Arnaz and the rest is history — or sort of.”
Sroka, former assistant U.S attorney in Washington D.C. and former Western New York District Director for Sen. Chuck Schumer, also spoke regarding Ness and his grandfather, Joe Neeson. Neeson was one of nine of Ness’ Untouchables team.
“I never knew my grandfather — he died in 1944 at the age of 46,” Sroka said. “I was very close to my grandmother.”
Sroka said his story with the Untouchables began in 1987 when the famous Kevin Costner film came out. He said he went to see the movie with his grandmother in Sonoma, California, and his grandma came out chuckling.
“She said ‘You know it was all made up,'” he said. “My mom said something to me that stuck with me. She said It’s true that most of that movie is fiction, but the real story she said is much more interesting. Then I asked her a question that I get asked all the time about the movie — (I asked) ‘Which one was my grandfather?’ And as my mother told me, there were nine untouchables plus Eliot Ness, not three, and none of them were Chicago police officers. They were all federal prohibition officers.”
He said they went back to his grandmother’s home and his mother took him into her bedroom and opened her closet. She reached up to the top shelf and brought down a shoebox.
“Inside was a 38 Detective Special Revolver, a leather shoulder holster and a pair of heavy iron handcuffs that were the tools of my grandfather’s trade when he was investigating,” Sroka said. “So, since then I’ve set out to find out who the grandfather was that I never knew and what his role was in the Capone investigation.”
Sroka’s grandfather, Neeson, worked as an engineer in Gary, Indiana for the railroad.
“At that time, engineers were the people that fixed the trains and he would use acetylene blowtorch to repair these giant locomotives that went across his family’s farm in Indiana, and that skill with the blowtorch came in handy years later in Detroit when he joined the Prohibition Bureau,” he said. “He used that blowtorch to bust up stills and breweries of the Purple Gang in Detroit.”
He showed a photo of men in coveralls and white tank tops with axes, which included his grandfather and other law enforcement officers after a raid.
“My grandfather had a brother in law who was also an agent but he went to work in Chicago, and he worked for Alexander Jamie, Elliot Ness’ brother,” Sroka said. “I think that was the connection; I think that’s how Eliot Ness knew to tap my grandfather to be one of the Untouchables.”
He asked the audience to “go back in time to Chicago in the late 1920s and early ’30s.
“Prohibition had been enacted and of course one of the unintended consequences of prohibition was it basically created organized crime,” Sroka said. “The term organized crime did not exist before Prohibition, and it basically turned gangsters who were small-time bookies and ran prostitution houses, race tracks and gambling dens — it gave them a way to make a lot of money very fast because they could develop the means of production to sell something for which there was a great demand for beer and liquor. A lot of them were immigrants from Europe, they came to the United States and they were not really accepted, they didn’t have good jobs and they found it hard to make a living and raise a family.”
When these individuals began getting into illegal activities, they couldn’t turn to the police or a court of law to seek justice — so justice was served differently, he said.
“Justice had to be meted out in its own way among the gangsters and so, a lot of violence ensued,” Sroka said. “Initially, it was pretty much the gangsters who were shooting at each other, but eventually the stray bullets started to hit citizens in Chicago walking down the streets. Pretty soon, Chicago became a pariah of businesses around the country. Major companies and serious businessmen did not want to do business in Chicago because it was seen as too dangerous.”
He said several businessmen in Chicago then formed a group known as the Chicago Crime Commission also known as the Secret Six, which aimed to take down the syndicated crime in Chicago.
“The straw that broke the camel’s back was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre that happened in 1929, and it got national attention,” Sroka said. “It really shined an ugly light on the serious nasty violence that Capone and his associates were causing … and that caused the White House to take notice.”
He said President Herbert Hoover called up the U.S. Attorney General of Chicago and told him to “get Capone.” However, that order caused an issue as there was no federal police force at the time. There were prohibition agents, but they were corrupt, inept and poorly trained.
“The Untouchables — the real Untouchables — were almost like a pilot project to professionalize federal law enforcement and see if it could be truly effective,” Sroka said.