One of the biggest myths in Chicago history relates to Eliot Ness, who is often credited with being the man who brought down the notorious Chicago gangster, Al Capone. The public perception of Ness is largely based on fictional accounts of his life and perpetrated by various television programs as well as films based on the book The Untouchables by Oscar Fraley. The truth of the matter is that Ness faded into obscurity and poverty by the time he met Fraley, at a New York bar, and was using what we often refer to today as a fish story to garner attention to himself.
Eliot Ness grew up on the south side of Chicago, the youngest of five siblings. He was adored by his mother, Emma and his sisters, although sought out the attention from his father, who was often absent. According to Lawrence Bregman’s biography of Capone, Ness, who was a good looking, six footer, received inordinate female attention throughout his life. As his needs became more intimate, he sought out girlfriends, settling on Edna Staley, who became his first wife in 1929.
None of his three marriages produced any biological children for Eliot Ness, although he and his third wife adopted a son in 1948. Although he gained some fame in Chicago during the Capone days, he made a name for himself in Cleveland as the youngest safety director in the city. In 1938 his marriage to Edna ended in divorce. She filed on the grounds of abandonment and extreme cruelty. Ness garnered negative publicity due to his high profile dating prior to the divorce announcement. He soon married Evaline McAndrews who worked in Cleveland, although Ness claimed, according to his biography, that he met her on a train going to Minneapolis.
Friends of Ness quoted in biographical accounts speak of him being flirtatious when he was drinking and it has been speculated that this may have contributed to the downfall of his marriages. He divorced his second wife in 1945 after she left him and moved to New York citing gross neglect and extreme cruelty. Shortly after the divorce was final, he married his third wife, Betty Anderson.
Ness ran for mayor of Cleveland in 1947 but was soundly defeated. By this time, he was a heavy drinker and spent a great deal of his time in bars recalling his life as well as his mistakes. It was at this time when he began to speak about Al Capone.
What began as a way for Ness to draw attention to himself in bars from women ended up in a book written by Oscar Fraley. Fraley was an Associated Press reporter and believed Ness, who now gave himself the starring role of bringing down Capone. Fraley persuaded Ness, who at this time was destitute, to sell his story, giving it further embellishment to sell the story.
Ness died six months before The Untouchables book was released. The television series starring Robert Stack came out two years later and shocked the members of his team who were still alive. It is most probable that those who were the most shocked at the book and the series were his first two wives, who Ness never mentioned to Fraley and were written out of his life in his autobiography, The Untouchables.
None of the evidence that Ness produced brought down Al Capone. Frank Wilson, an accountant for the Treasury Department, was the man who went over the books and nabbed the gangster with tax evasion. The myth of Eliot Ness, who according to his biography often violated the Volstead Act while it was active, as being the paragon of virtue is most likely the result of what began as a pick up line in bars from a man who still needed female attention despite the fact that his good looks had faded and middle age set in.