Starting out as a prohibition agent, Eliot Ness became famous for bringing down Al Capone and the mobsters of Chicago. While that made him a household name and even the focus of a tv show and movie (The Untouchables) it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Meet another Eliot Ness, who became an eponym for our escape room in Cleveland because of the way he revolutionised crime fighting and established modern law enforcement as we know it.
Eliot Ness was born in 1903 into a family of Norwegian immigrants in Chicago (in fact, there was just a Ness celebration month this April!). He attended primary education in the city and later completed his studies at the University of Chicago, where he got a master’s degree in criminology that took his life in a different direction. Although Ness started his career as an investigator for a credit company, at the age of 24, he turned to law enforcement by joining the Bureau of Prohibition in Chicago.
In the 1920’s illegal breweries were flourishing in the United States and it was the golden era for Al Capone. All of a sudden, Eliot Ness found himself in the middle of the hunt for the famed mobster. By using wiretapping, unexpected raids and undercover investigations the team of Eliot Ness gathered enough evidence to successfully prosecute Al Capone and his mob. Authorities worried though that they might find it difficult to find twelve jurors willing to convict a bootlegger, whom much of the populace felt were providing a public service. Nobody like a tax cheat though, so the IRS was brought in and Capone was ultimately nailed for tax evasion and put behind bars for good. Aside from organized crime, Ness had to face an even greater challenge, which was rampant corruption amongst police officers. He had the idea to create an elite an unshakable squad of officers – known as the Untouchables – who rooted out moles in the police force.
After his success, Ness was appointed as Chief Investigator of the Prohibition Bureau of Chicago and later in Ohio, which he fulfilled until the end of Prohibition in 1933. When Ness was hired in Cleveland as Public Safety Director, it was the 6th largest city in the US and arguably the most corrupt. He declared war on organized crime, bringing down some of the biggest mobsters of the era, names like Moe Dalitz, “Big” Angelo Lonardo, John Angerola, and stamping out corruption in the police force.
Although famous for cutting down crime rates on the streets, Ness got into the attention of the press because of his divorce and drinking issues, and an unsolved case cast a shadow on his otherwise storied career. In the 1930s a serial killer murdered and dismembered at least 12 victims in an area of Cleveland known as Kingsbury Run. While officially a cold case to this day, Ness believed that the killer was actually the nephew of a prominent Cleveland judge, making it very difficult to proceed without enough evidence to guarantee a conviction.
In the 1940’s, Eliot Ness moved to Washington, DC to work for the Federal Government in an effort to tackle prostitution, followed by some corporate jobs in his later years. He even ran – unsuccessfully – for mayor of Cleveland in 1947. From there on, it went downhill for Ness with severe drinking problems and little money to spend. He died almost bankrupt at the age of 54, but shortly afterwards, he became a legend and the story of the Untouchables became his legacy. Eliot Ness is buried in Cleveland’s Lakeview Cemetery.
As Ness is known for nabbing Al Capone, most people never heard of his genius inventions that revolutionized detective work and crime fighting. For instance, if you think of police, probably the first thing that comes to your mind is the iconic squad cars. Bright in color and armed with a deterring presence, these vehicles were the product of Ness’s ingenuity when facing severe budget cuts at the Cleveland police. Officers walking the beat can only rely on their own strength – and good physical condition was not an entry requirement at that time – and their swiftness in calling reinforcements as soon as they are aware of something bad going on. So Ness decided to lease 32 cars, fitted them with radios, gave them bright colors and sent them on a 24 hour patrol around the worst neighborhoods to make police presence felt. His invention was not welcome amongst officers at first, but the serious drop in crime rates proved him right.
Another forgotten aspect of Ness’s heritage was the introduction of a scientific approach to crime fighting and detective work. His officers used the results of forensic and ballistics analysis to determine the cause of death or the angle of a shot when investigating a murder. His reforms also included the skidmark investigation to determine the circumstances of a car crash and the use of new gadgets like the lie detector. Ness also put his brilliant mind to crime prevention and developed youth athletic leagues to deter juvenile crime, something still done today by police departments across the country.
This was a true golden age of detective work, with famous murders, robberies and mobster families controlling entire cities. The Prohibition era sparked the interest of filmmakers, writers and even our escape rooms in Cleveland. Film noir style has never gone out of fashion and it sees a new revival today.
After reading about Ness’s great achievements we decided to honor his memory by creating an escape room in Cleveland called the Eliot Ness Investigation. With a cool film noir style and undercover mystery to solve, you’ll get the chance to be one of the Untouchables and find the evidence to prosecute a corrupt city commissioner. Time is of the essence, so you have to make the most of it before the mob gets you!
Make sure you check out our Eliot Ness themed escape room!