The scene at Chicago’s Dearborn Station on May 3, 1932, was not unlike that observed on most days. As a particular train readied to pull out of the station, bound for Nashville, Atlanta and ultimately Miami, a crowd of onlookers had gathered to bid goodbye to passengers on board. But on this occasion the departure was different in at least one sense. The scene included two men who, while enormously famous due in large part to each other, had just met in person for the first and only time.

Aboard the train, headed for the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, was the gangster Al Capone. Watching from the station was the U.S. Treasury agent who had put him there: Eliot Ness.

For this act Ness would become nationally famous and remain well known into the 21st century, his enduring fame due to the many movies and television shows which retold parts of his story following his death.

Eliot Ness was born in Chicago on April 19, 1903, and grew up in the city’s Kensington neighborhood. He went to Fenger Academy High School in Roseland and then graduated from the University of Chicago where he studied political science and business administration. His career as an investigator started not in law enforcement, but with a credit agency.

He soon put his skills to use in the service of Uncle Sam, joining the Treasury Department at the age of 24. The 1920s were the era of Prohibition and Capone was on the rise as the king of Chicago’s bootleggers and gangsters. As Ness worked with the Prohibition Bureau to catch practitioners of this growing, illegal business, the two men’s paths grew ever closer to a collision.

Soon the violence was spiraling out of control and the city’s 3000-strong police force seemed unable to do anything about it. Members of rival gangs murdered each other and any innocent civilian who got in the way. The violence drew national headlines in 1929 with the St. Valentine’s Day massacre in which seven members of Bugs Moran’s gang were murdered in a north side garage. The evidence pointed to Capone.

A recently-formed group of business leaders concerned about violence and public corruption, the Chicago Crime Commission (CCC), appealed to President Herbert Hoover and his Attorney General William Mitchell for federal assistance. One of the most serious impediments to law enforcement in the pursuit of Capone was the gangster’s unfathomable wealth and ability to buy protection from the law. The CCC pled with Hoover and Mitchell to send the city someone who would be able to resist the temptations of bribery and the fear of violent reprisals.

The Attorney General began putting together a team of agents to do the job. The U.S. Attorney in Chicago, George E.Q. Johnson, assisted by a team of prosecutors including Dwight Green, had an open investigation into Capone. Now the department saw an opportunity to try out a new strategy for dealing with organized crime. They would deploy a small but dedicated team of Treasury officers to attack gangsters’ finances. One of these teams had already scored a success against Capone’s brother, Ralph, in a tax fraud case involving bootlegging. Ness had led this team in its investigation and he was now chosen by Johnson to take on Capone himself.

Ness brought in investigators from outside of Chicago to make it harder for Capone’s organization to target them. He started by raiding the underground breweries which supplied Capone with his product. In the first six months of his operation in 1931, Ness and his agents hit more than two dozen such sites and cost Capone more than $1 million. His strategy was to bleed Capone’s wallet dry, eliminating the gangster’s ability to pay for protection and intimidation. Meanwhile, IRS agents Elmer Irey and Frank Wilson went to work on Capone’s tax records and his money laundering empire.

To fight back, Capone’s organization employed their familiar tactic of offering bribes to the Treasury agents, including $2000 a week to Ness himself. They failed. They then turned to threats. This, too, failed. Noting the relentlessness of Ness’ team and their invulnerability to the temptations which had crippled so many previous investigations, Charles Schwartz, a Chicago Daily News writer, coined the term “Untouchables” to describe them. Johnson seized on the name and trumpeted it to the press as a boast about his team’s integrity and doggedness in pursuit of justice. It stuck.

Capone himself was indicted for tax evasion and violations of the Volstead Act, the enforcement mechanism of the Prohibition law in 1931. Prosecutors decided to go after him on the income tax charges and hold the Prohibition violations.

“Prohibition was extremely unpopular, and there was an enormous risk that jurors would be sympathetic toward a bootlegging defendant,” the Department of the Treasury’s historical account of Ness’ career reads. “On the other hand, no honest taxpayer liked a cheat; U.S. Attorney Johnson took the tax case to trial and secured a conviction on those charges.”

Capone was convicted on the tax evasion charges and sentenced to 11 years in federal prison. Under heavy guard, he boarded the train for Atlanta the following spring. Capone was never prosecuted for bootlegging or murder, though prosecutors had the complaints ready to be moved if the tax conviction had been overturned on appeal.

“We did our part, of course,” Ness said later. “But the real work of sending Capone to prison was done by the tax investigators. Our job was more spectacular, that was all.”

Meanwhile, Ness’ work had only just begun. His team of about a dozen investigators continued to pursue leads and bring members of the Capone organization and other bootleggers to justice. By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the Untouchables had seized or destroyed more than $9 million from Chicago bootleggers. Ness was promoted to lead the Chicago office of the Prohibition Bureau in 1932.

The end of Prohibition did not bring about the end of the federal government’s clash with alcohol distributors. Its repeal left a void: while a legal liquor industry sought to re-establish itself, criminal syndicates continued to control the market. Ness was assigned to the Treasury’s Cincinnati office to chase down moonshiners and bootleggers in the Appalachians. He left the Treasury Department in 1936 after ten years to become the public safety director for the city of Cleveland, then the nation’s 10th-largest city.

In his new job, he found himself enmeshed in efforts to clean up the city, which had encountered the era’s familiar problems of corruption on its police department. Ness secured the indictments of 15 police officials and drove another 200 officers out of the department. He sought to professionalize the department in order to better serve the citizens. Ness made progress in the field of traffic safety, establishing a traffic court in Cleveland and cracking down on drunk driving. He was among the first to require immediate arrests of those caught driving while intoxicated. His efforts saw much success: in 1939 the National Safety Council named Cleveland the safest city in the country.

But Ness soon began to be the subject of unflattering headlines.

His 1939 divorce, and reports about his drinking (after the repeal of Prohibition) stained his public image. His aggressive search for a suspected serial killer in Cleveland got out of hand: he ordered the burning of an entire campsite used by the city’s homeless in an effort to flush out the suspect. Not long after, he was involved in a car accident in which he was suspected of driving drunk. He fell short in a run for mayor of Cleveland in 1947. Leaving government work, Ness sought success in the business world throughout the 1940s and 1950s, but failed. In May 1957, he suffered a heart attack and died at his home in Pennsylvania at the age of 54.

Following his death, Ness’ public image began a rebound. The posthumous publication of his memoirs, The Untouchables, reminded many of the important successes of his early career. The book was adapted into a TV series in 1959 starring Robert Stack as Ness. The Untouchables hit the big screen in 1987 when director Brian de Palma made the story into a blockbuster film starring Kevin Costner and Robert DeNiro.

The Untouchables
In 2014 the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the successor agency to Ness’ Bureau of Prohibition, opened its new headquarters building in Washington DC. A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators from Illinois and Ohio introduced legislation to name the building for Ness. Some raised objections, arguing that the Hollywood portrayal of Ness was more glamorous and favorable than reality, and that his late-career controversies largely offset his earlier achievements. Ness’ biographer, Max Allan Collins, came to his defense, arguing that, “If Hollywood has given Eliot Ness too much credit for getting Capone, he has received too little credit anywhere else for helping professionalize law enforcement in the mid-20th Century.”

The Senate never acted on the bill and the building was not named in Ness’ honor, but the ATF remains intensely proud of one of its most famous agents. The atrium lobby of the building was itself named for Ness and today it includes an exhibit showcasing the work of the untouchable Treasury agent who couldn’t be bought and who helped to bring down the most famous gangster in Illinois history.