While many saw the 1987 film, “The Untouchables,” On Wednesday, law enforcement officers and community members got a glimpse into the lives of the true Untouchables.
The Robert H. Jackson Center hosted a presentation on Eliot Ness and the Untouchables who brought down organized crime boss Al Capone, given by Paul Heimel, director of the Eliot Ness museum, and Scott Sroka, grandson of an Untouchable original and former federal officer. The two did extensive research on members of the elite anti-crime squad and Eliot Ness, their leader.
Heimel asked the audience to “forget everything you’ve ever heard about Eliot Ness.”
“Yes, the popular characters played by Robert Stack and Kevin Costner have a factual basis,” Heimel said. “Hollywood did what Hollywood always did… for decades the real Eliot Ness has been lost in history, obscured by these characters on a TV movie screen. Scott and I are on a mission to save him and set the record straight. In the process, we found that in many ways the real Eliot Ness is more fascinating than the on-screen version.
He said that 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 fight organized crime.
Later, in the last decade of his life, Ness made his home in Coudersport, Pa., Where Heimel is from.
“In recent years our community has come together to capitalize on the fact that Eliot Ness chose Coudersport as the city he wanted to spend the rest of his life in – he said so himself,” Heimel said. “It all ended in May 1957 when he walked through the front door of his house, which still stands on Third Street in the city center, took a glass of water and collapsed on the floor. kitchen floor. The glass shattered in the sink and Eliot Ness had died of a heart attack. He was only 54 years old.
Heimel said Jamestown has Lucille Ball, Roger Tory Peterson and Robert H. Jackson, Coudersport has Eliot Ness. He added that there is also a connection between Jamestown and Eliot Ness, 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 out of Coudersport. The literary work caught Desi Arnaz’s attention and the rest is history – or sort of. “
Sroka, a former Assistant US Attorney in Washington DC and former District Director for Western New York for Senator Chuck Schumer, also spoke about Ness and his grandfather, Joe Neeson. Neeson was one of nine members of Ness’s 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 was released. He said he went to see the movie with his grandmother in Sonoma, Calif., And his grandmother walked out laughing.
“She said ‘You know it was all made up'” he said. “My mother told me something that stood out for me. She said it’s true that most of this movie is fiction, but the real story she told is much more interesting. Then I asked him a question I get asked all the time about the movie – (I asked) “Which one was my grandfather?” And like my mom told me, there were nine untouchables plus Eliot Ness, not three, and none of them were Chicago cops. They were all federal agents responsible for the ban.
He said they went back to his grandmother and his mother took him to her bedroom and opened her closet. She reached the top shelf and pulled down a shoebox.
“Inside was a 38 Detective Special Revolver, a leather shoulder holster, and a pair of heavy iron handcuffs that were my grandfather’s tools of the trade when he was investigating. Sroka said. “So since then I’ve been looking to find out who the grandfather I never knew was and what his role was in the Capone investigation.”
Sroka’s grandfather, Neeson, worked as an engineer in Gary, Indiana for the railroad.
“Back then, engineers were fixing trains and he was using an acetylene torch to fix those giant locomotives that were going through his family’s farm in Indiana, and this skill with the torch came in handy years later in Detroit when he joined the Prohibition Office ”, he said. “He used that torch to destroy the Purple Gang stills and breweries in Detroit. “
He showed a photo of men in overalls 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’s brother. Sroka said. “I think that was the link; I think that’s how Eliot Ness convinced my grandfather to be part of the Untouchables.
He asked the audience to “step back in time to Chicago in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
“The ban had been enacted and, of course, one of the unintended consequences of the ban was that it essentially created organized crime” Sroka said. “The term organized crime didn’t exist before Prohibition, and it basically turned gangsters who were little bookies and ran brothels, racetracks and gambling dens – it gave them a way to make a lot of money. very quickly because they could develop. the means of production to sell something for which there was a great demand for beer and alcohol. Many of them were immigrants from Europe, they came to the United States and they weren’t really accepted, they didn’t have good jobs and they struggled to make a living and raise a family. .
When these people started engaging in illegal activities, they could not turn to the police or a court to seek justice – so justice was served differently, he said.
“Justice had to be served in its own way among the gangsters and therefore, a lot of violence ensued”, Sroka said. “Initially it was pretty much the gangsters shooting each other, but eventually stray bullets started hitting the citizens of Chicago walking the streets. Very quickly, Chicago became a corporate outcast across the country. Big corporations and serious businessmen didn’t want to do business in Chicago because it was considered too dangerous.
He said several Chicago businessmen then formed a group known as the Chicago Crime Commission, also known as Secret Six, which aimed to eliminate syndicated crime in Chicago.
“The straw that broke the camel’s back was the Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929, and it gained national attention. “ Sroka said. “It really brought to light the serious and unpleasant violence that Capone and his associates were causing… and it made the White House take note.”
He said President Herbert Hoover called the US Attorney General in Chicago and told him to “take Capone.” However, this order caused a problem as there was no federal police force at the time. There were prohibition officers, but they were corrupt, incompetent 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 really effective,” Sroka said.