Eliot Ness: The Man Behind the Myth
Things started to change rather dramatically for Eliot Ness in 1938 and 1939. His personal life was completely transformed, while his career for the first time had real ups and downs.
After years of sitting at home alone while Eliot was out working, his wife Edna finally realized that she was less important than his career and filed for divorce. Afterwards, she went back to live in Chicago.
Ness, who already had a reputation for partying, was seen more and more at stylish restaurants during the day and much of the evening. The conservative, primarily blue-collar population of Cleveland reacted negatively to his divorce. His approval ratings took a further nosedive when stories of his drinking and womanizing surfaced. His reputation, already damaged by his apparent failure to solve the Kingsbury Run murders and his insensitive attack on the shantytowns, was really suffering.
Ness was able to recoup some of his glory by doing the thing that he did best -catching gangsters. He declared war on the Mayfield Road Mob, the Italian gangsters who ran the city's numbers, drug and prostitution operations.
While none of these gangsters had the stature of an Al Capone, as a group and individually they were a dangerous bunch of criminals. Big Angelo Lonardo, Little Angelo Scirrca, Moe Dalitz, John and George Angersola, and Charles Pollizi were the primary targets, representing most of the city's gang activity.
In October of 1938, Ness and his trusted Minute Men began their assault on the Mayfield Road Mob by raiding a huge numbers operation. Over the next few months, Ness continued his raids and sting operations, finally culminating in an indictment of 23 of the gangsters.
Less flamboyant than his gangland assaults was his impressive program to curb the escalating problem of traffic-related deaths for which Cleveland was ranked second worst in the nation. First of all, he needed to upgrade the image of the traffic bureau. For a long time, the traffic bureau was the graveyard of misfits and incompetents. Routinely, traffic tickets were fixed and fines were often ignored.
With some sweeping personnel changes, Ness signaled the end of the traffic division as a punishment for poor performance. He replaced the incompetents with high caliber officers. Along with the personnel changes, the practice of fixing tickets was sharply curbed and drivers who ignored their court dates went to jail.
Ness initiated a major campaign to promote traffic safety. He created the Accident Prevention Bureau and staffed it with young, enthusiastic officers. He persuaded the city's media to help him carry on a major publicity campaign to educate the population about safe driving.
The Cleveland Police Emergency Mobile Patrol was formed to give emergency paramedic aid to accident victims. This was the beginning of the emergency vehicles that are so common today in every city.
Ness ordered sweeping changes in the ancient equipment the police department had been using. At the end of 1938, he showed off a fleet of thirty-two new squad cars and thirty new Harley-Davidson motorcycles. These new police vehicles carried two-way radios controlled from Central Station. Now the citizens did not have to call an individual police station, but could call one number for either the police or the emergency patrol. Ness also promoted the use of teletypes to keep in touch with other city police forces around the country.
With the national publicity that Ness was getting from these many pioneering and reform efforts, his flagging reputation got a real boost. Much of the publicizing he did himself, writing articles for major magazines and enduring countless speaking engagements.
By the end of 1938, his hard work was showing significant results. In November of 1939, he wrote an article for The American City called "Radio-Directed Mobile Police" in which Ness explained that his programs reduced traffic fatalities 47 % and non-fatal accidents 32% in 1938. And in the first nine months of 1939, fatalities had decreased another 20% and non-fatal accidents decreased another 14 %. "This important achievement is the result of a planned police program of safety education and the active cooperation of motorists, pedestrians and various civic groups." Insurance rates went down and revenue from traffic tickets increased dramatically.
Ness had an opportunity to focus on these new safety programs without having to worry about another serial killing. But even though the Mad Butcher had ended his reign of terror by mid 1938, the search did not end. Sheriff Martin L. O'Donnell, the man who succeeded "Honest" John Sulzman, had decided to take his turn at solving the case. He hired a private detective to investigate the murders.
The private detective focused on a middle-aged alcoholic named Frank Dolezal who frequented the same bars as Flo Polillo. Dolezal was arrested and confessed to the murder of Flo Polillo. However, the case against him quickly unraveled as he kept changing his story every time a discrepancy was pointed out to him. After it was clear that there was something wrong with this man, who had tried to commit suicide in jail, his family got him a lawyer. Shortly afterwards, he retracted his confession and claimed that he was beaten into confessing.
In August of 1939, Dolezal was found hanging in his cell. The family, dismayed to hear that their five-foot-eight relative was found hanging from a hook that was only five feet seven inches from the floor, insisted on an autopsy. Dolezal's body showed that he had suffered several fractured ribs during his stay in the county jail. The newspapers hammered the sheriff, but no charges were ever brought against his people. Once the case against him was thoroughly examined, Dolezal was not seriously considered a suspect in the killing of Flo Polillo or any of the other murders in that series.
Eliot Ness seemed to be getting bored with his role of safety director. In many ways, he had accomplished so much that there were few major challenges left in that job. He began to socialize more and work fewer hours.
While Ness had many girlfriends, most of his attention was focused on an artist named Evaline McAndrew who was more than decade younger than he was. Evaline was a tall, slender, pretty woman with dark hair and a large friendly smile. The Stouffers and other prominent businessmen that Ness had cultivated while investigating the labor racketeers regularly included Ness and Evaline at their many lavish parties. This kind of nightlife became increasingly important to the two of them.
In October of 1939, Ness took a little vacation time and married Evaline. Like Ness, she was born and raised in Chicago. She was a graduate of the Chicago Art Institute and also attended the University of Michigan. Ness claimed that he and his wife had known each other for several years, the bride being a friend of Ness's family in Chicago, where three of his sisters lived.
She fully intended to keep her job as a fashion artist at a major Cleveland department store as well as be a homemaker for the safety director. "I'm lucky in my profession," she told The Cleveland Press, "because it's the sort of work that doesn't interfere with being a housewife too." She also designs furniture and illustrates children's books. They had an apartment on the city's West Side and had some vague plans for a honeymoon.
His life with Evaline started out more balanced than with Edna. Evaline worked hard during the day and socialized with Eliot and his prominent friends into the night. Despite his late nights, Ness was always early to the office after his early morning exercise.
Philip W. Porter in his book Cleveland: Confused City on a Seesaw sums up this period in Ness's life: "Eliot was a gay, convivial soul, who liked nothing better than to sit around till all hours, drinking with friends, or dancing. It seemed to unwind him to visit night clubs and hotel dance spots. He was not a heavy drinker, but he could keep at it for long periods without giving the appearance of being swacked. During his latter days as director, after he had finished his cleanups of the crooked police and racketeering unionists, he was seen more and more at public drinkeries, usually with newsmen. This made him vulnerable to backbiting by his enemies. They spread the word that Ness was a lush; so how could a man who was on the sauce all the time be so all-fired virtuous?"
Ness started 1940 with the January 1 publication of his program to revamp the fire department. He had already requested WPA funds with which he planned to have every firehouse in the city torn down and rebuilt. He also requested a special fund out of the operating levy legislation to replace the most decrepit equipment. He announced the opening that year of a fire training school to provide rookie firemen with training on the most advanced techniques.
In the summer of that year, his good friend and assistant safety director Robert Chamberlin was called to the Ohio National Guard. Tom Clothey, one of Ness' Cleveland Untouchables, was Chamberlin's replacement. A few months later, Mayor Burton ran for and won election to the U.S. Senate, replacing himself with his lackluster law director, Edward J. Blythin.
These changes affected Ness and his interest in his job. Steven Nickel in his book Torso describes the changes: "The final two years that Eliot Ness served as safety director were relatively quiet and, for some, disappointing. Ness was by no means idle, but it was obvious that he no longer possessed the zest and urgency with which he had formerly approached his work It was also apparent that since marrying Evaline, Ness was spending less time on the job; the couple had become part of Cleveland society, hobnobbing with the wealthy, attending numerous social engagements, and entertaining frequently and lavishly at their new Lakewood boat house."
While most of this socializing was invisible to the average Clevelander, an article appeared in the Cleveland Press in May of 1940 from Julian Griffin a reporter worrying about whatever became of Eliot Ness. Griffin claimed that he had not seen Ness in four weeks and sarcastically recommended filing a missing-persons report.
1940 had its bright spots, however. The gangster indictments of 1939 were coming to trial with some results. Big Angelo Leonardo got two years in the Ohio Penitentiary, while Little Angelo Scirrca got five years. Moe Dalitz moved his operations to greener pastures in Las Vegas.
His last major assault on crime was the Albert Ruddy case. Ruddy was the powerful and corrupt head of the carpenters union. With critical information from a former associate of Ruddy, Ness was able to tie Ruddy to the bombing of a laundry and the murder of a rival. The bombing and murder evidence didn't convince the jury, but Ruddy was sentenced to four years for extortion.
Clearly restless with his job as safety director, Ness started casting around for other opportunities. In a masterstroke of poor judgement, he started to work part-time for the Federal Social Protection Program which was established to fight venereal diseases. Unfortunately, this ill-considered consulting job put him on road to Washington and other cities with increasing frequency, jeopardizing his position as safety director and his relationship with Evaline.
Foolish career moves dogged Eliot Ness throughout the rest of his tenure as safety director. The Republicans begged him to run for mayor in the November 1941 election. But Ness made no secret of the fact that he disliked politics and politicians so he declined. At various times, Ness was offered good positions in business by the powerful businessmen with whom he socialized, but these offers were also declined.
Considering Blythin, the unimpressive Republican candidate, the Democrats won easily with Frank J. Lausche. Many wondered if Ness would be reappointed under this new administration since key Lausche supporters were enemies of Ness. However, the unflagging support for Democratic County Prosecutor Frank Cullitan that Ness demonstrated over the years convinced Lausche to keep Ness on.
The Cleveland Press concurred with Lausche's decision. "Mayor Lausche today reappointed Eliot Ness safety director. It is a safe guess that he will never confront a decision more difficult politically, or one in which he will be subjected to greater pressure from opposing sides. Director Ness was obviously the most valuable asset of the Burton administration in its first two terms. His work in helping to convict eight crooked union official and a like number of corrupt police officers deserves the highest praise."
Several months later, at 4:45 in the morning of March 5, 1942, after a night of drinking and dancing at a downtown hotel, Eliot was driving with Evaline and two friends. He skidded on the ice into the path of an oncoming car. Ness described his reaction:
"My first thought was for my wife because I thought she was the most seriously injured. After she regained consciousness, I got out of my car and went over to the other driver and told him who I was." The driver was a 21-year-old machinist named Robert Sims from East Cleveland.
Ness explained that he agreed with Sims to have him follow Ness to the hospital. When he realized that Sims was not following him, Ness returned to the accident scene, but another motorist had already taken Sims to the hospital.
"After I got home, I immediately called the hospital and talked to someone. I wanted to make sure the injured man was all right. I said that I would have my insurance adjusters on the job in the morning.
The accident did serious injury to Ness's reputation. The newspapers had characterized it as a "hit-skip" accident and focused on the fact that Ness had been drinking. It played into the hands of his powerful enemies, particularly the forces of organized labor that enjoyed political support in the Democratic administration of Mayor Lausche. Within a couple of months, Ness resigned as safety director and went to work full time for the federal government.
Clayton Fritchey, his long time friend at the Cleveland Press wrote this as part of his testimonial. "First of all, Cleveland is a different place than it was when Eliot Ness became the safety director in 1935. Most people will agree that it is a much better place now. For instance: policemen no longer have to tip their hats when they pass a gangster on the street. Labor racketeers no longer parade down Euclid Avenue in limousines bearing placards deriding the public and law enforcement in general. Motorist have been taught and tamed into killing only about half as many people as they used to slaughter."
Another newspaperman Philip W. Porter lauded Ness's achievements: " We may never again achieve the heights of law enforcement and competence, which have been built up during his six-year administration. It is so outstanding among American city experiences as to be a little amazing...When he took office, the town was ridden with crooked police and crooked labor bosses. A dozen such were sent to prison and scores of others scared into resignation or inactivity. There were gambling hells in every block and lush casinos in the suburbs. The little joints mostly folded and finally the big joints quit when a couple of Ness' honest cops were put in the sheriff's office. The town reached such a condition of comparative purity that about all the continual critics had to complain about was occasional bingo, strip-teasers and some policy games."