This month in western Pennsylvania, life will imitate art imitating life.
Back in 2015, comedians Fred Armisen and Seth Meyers penned an episode of the IFC parody series Documentary Now! that imagined a small Icelandic town celebrating an annual festival dedicated to Chicago gangster Al Capone. The mockumentary chronicles the Icelanders honoring the infamous crime lord with a costume contest, Chicago-style jazz, deep-dish pizza, and a parade of Prohibition-era cars and cops chasing gangsters with toy Tommy guns.
But while Iceland’s “Al Capone Festival” exists only in the minds of these SNL alums, the Pennsylvania town of Coudersport will soon counter with a festival of their own, dedicated to Capone’s famous nemesis: Eliot Ness.
From July 20-22, the first annual “Eliot Ness Fest” will explore the multi-faceted career of the lawman who led the Prohibition agents known as “The Untouchables.” Among several talks and film screenings are events echoing Armisen and Meyers’s fictional fest—a costume contest, Roaring ’20s music, reenacted liquor raids, an antique car show, and a local pizzeria offering “Pasta with Capone.”
Since Ness is most often associated with Chicago (and with Cleveland, where he served seven years as Director of Public Safety), honoring his life in Coudersport may seem as incongruous as an Icelandic commemoration of Capone. But this small town nestled away among the Alleghenies can also lay claim to being “touched by the Untouchable.”
A quarter century after helping send Capone to prison, Ness spent his final months in Coudersport, working with sportswriter Oscar Fraley on a memoir intended to rescue the Ness family from debt. But on May 16, 1957, Ness died there at the age of fifty-four, just months before the publication of The Untouchables. He did not live to see the television shows and films spinning his recollections into Hollywood myth and making him an American icon. Instead, he died broke and all but forgotten.
And forgotten is how he would stay, if some latter-day chroniclers of the Prohibition era had their way. The hit 1950s TV series and the 1987 film based on Ness’s book twisted history into outrageous melodrama, sending a Capone squad of self-appointed revisionists to dismiss Ness as a Hollywood fabrication. Four years ago, when three U.S. senators proposed renaming the Washington headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (modern successor to the Prohibition Bureau) in Ness’s honor, the revisionist outcry quashed the effort.
“The movies are allowed to have their fun,” author Jonathan Eig told The Washington Post, “but we shouldn’t go naming buildings after them.”
Eig paints the Untouchable as an ineffectual glory hound and “little more than a nuisance to Capone.” His dubious expertise flows from his 2010 book Get Capone, panned by informed observers for its shoddy research and ignorant speculation, such as the claim that Capone had nothing to do with the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. This risible opinion is soundly debunked in John J. Binder’s recent book, Al Capone’s Beer Wars: A Complete History of Organized Crime in Chicago During Prohibition.
Yet even respected documentarian Ken Burns accepted Eig at face value for the 2011 film Prohibition. In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Burns echoed Eig’s discredited St. Valentine’s Day Massacre theory and called Ness “a PR invention.” Eig and the doubters always point to the book Ness co-wrote in Coudersport more than sixty years ago. Nearly broke and dying of a heart condition, Ness struggled to recollect his gangbusting days, eventually penning a short memoir of his efforts to break up Capone’s gang. Fraley traveled to Coudersport to work with Ness in fleshing out the narrative, prodding him to recollect long-forgotten incidents. The result was a thrilling 250-page account of Ness assembling a handpicked team of Prohibition agents and leading them in a series of raids on Capone’s illicit breweries, refusing enormous bribes all along the way. Unlike the films and TV shows that would follow, the book does not give Ness sole credit for building the tax evasion case that sent Capone to prison. But it does claim they crippled the gang financially by targeting its biggest moneymaker—beer.
As Fraley wrote in the foreword: “One group, more than any other, broke the stranglehold which Capone and his mob had on Chicago and the nation.”
Get Capone dismisses The Untouchables as “utter bull,” saying “almost nothing in Fraley’s book checks out.” Eig instead celebrates the men responsible for Capone’s tax conviction: investigators Elmer Irey and Frank Wilson, whose own ghostwritten memoirs boast of smashing the Chicago syndicate, leaving Ness out.
But just like his St. Valentine’s Day theory, Eig’s assault on the Ness-Fraley book collapses under scrutiny. In researching our own dual biography of Capone and Ness, we’ve spent years attempting to verify the events described in The Untouchables, finding that it compares much more favorably to the historical record than the doubters would have you believe. Apart from Fraley’s fanciful chronology and a few incidents (such as two attempts on Ness’s life) apparently added for dramatic purposes, the book consistently draws from Ness’s recollections, contemporary newspaper articles, and other primary sources. It even corrects multiple mistakes found in Ness’s earlier, shorter document.
Like many nonfiction writers of his day, Fraley felt free to invent some dialogue (Irey and Wilson’s ghostwriters did the same), but little was made up out of whole cloth. The raids, the wiretaps, the spurned bribes, even the time Ness’s men paraded the trucks they’d confiscated past Capone’s headquarters (after Ness called his nemesis to warn him beforehand) can all be independently verified.
The Untouchables ends with Ness bringing Capone to Dearborn Station, where a train will take the gangster to federal prison. This, according to Get Capone, is pure fiction. Although he admits newspapers named Ness among the men tasked with guarding Capone, Eig maintains these legendary adversaries probably “never met: not on that day, not ever.”
Yet a photo published in the Chicago Tribune of May 4, 1932, accompanying an article placing Ness at the scene, clearly shows him next to Capone as they march through Dearborn Station. And what of the damage Ness supposedly inflicted on Capone’s empire? Near the end of The Untouchables, Fraley quotes Bert Delaney, one of the top men in Capone’s bootleg business, complaining to police in the early 1930s:
“One time I was in the bucks. Now the racket is done. Eliot Ness of the feds has put Capone out of the beer and alky business and everybody else has just about folded up, too. There’s no more money in anything crooked.”
An extraordinary statement—and a dubious one, if you believe the doubters. Yet Delaney’s words appear, almost verbatim, in the January 10, 1933 issue of the Chicago Tribune.
While raiding Capone’s breweries and distilleries, the Untouchables mounted a massive conspiracy case linking Capone, Delaney, and dozens of their allies in the beer business. Going to trial, it could have taken a significant bite out of the Chicago syndicate, tying up both its leadership and the hired hands behind the scenes who made it rich. But federal officials—most especially Judge James Wilkerson, who had his eye on ascending to a higher court—wanted the public relations payoff of sending Public Enemy Number One to prison for a good long time. The tax case seemed a surer thing and carried a much stiffer penalty, so it took precedence over Ness’s indictment.
For that reason, Irey, Wilson, and the tax investigators could rightfully claim Capone’s scalp. But chopping off a hydra’s head only makes it grow two more, and that’s exactly what happened to the Capone gang. Those gangsters who remained at large (or served short stretches for tax evasion) picked up right where Scarface left off, keeping the syndicate alive and well for decades.
Long after the taxmen left Chicago to chase headlines elsewhere, Ness stayed behind, working to topple Capone’s organization. His efforts, combined with the economic damage wrought by the Great Depression, pushed the gang to its breaking point. But the repeal of Prohibition prevented Ness from completing his mission. Yet the Untouchables strategy—of attacking criminal gangs as organizations, not just prosecuting their leaders—endures to this day. Congress finally caught up with Ness in 1970 with the passage of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, which was used to crush what remained of Capone’s gang in 2007.
The real Eliot Ness was no Robert Stack or Kevin Costner, yet they and Oscar Fraley captured his character much more accurately than Eig. On the strength of his Chicago work alone, Ness earned his place in American legend—but his impressive career as Cleveland’s top cop placed him at the forefront of modern policing in the United States.
While his name belongs on a building in our nation’s capital, Eliot Ness for now will have to settle for a celebration in a tiny town of 2,500. The people of Coudersport—including some of the last who knew him—remember the man as he truly was. We hope their festival will keep that memory alive for a long time to come.
Max Allan Collins is a novelist, screenwriter, graphic novelist, and comic creator. His graphic novels include Road to Perdition, which became a major motion picture starring Tom Hanks, and his “Quarry” novels were made into a series on Cinemax. In 2017 he was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America.
A. Brad Schwartz holds a B.A. in History and Screen Arts & Cultures from the University of Michigan, and is a doctoral student in American history at Princeton University. He is the author of Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News, and co-wrote an episode of the acclaimed PBS series American Experience about the War of the Worlds broadcast.