Eliot Ness was born on April 19, 1903 in Chicago, Illinois. His father and mother both worked in a bakery.
Eliot studied business and law at the University of Chicago, graduating with a degree in 1925. His professional job had him working for the Retail Credit Co. of Atlanta as an investigator. His job was to perform background checks on potential clients to verify their credit information. He eventually returned to the University of Chicago and graduated with a master's degree in criminology.
His brother-in-law, Alexander Jamie, was an FBI agent and encouraged Ness to start a career in law enforcement. Ness applied for a job at the Treasury Department and was hired in 1927. He was assigned to the Bureau of Prohibition in Chicago, whose job was to find and seize shipments of illegal alcohol.
After President Hoover was elected, he called on law enforcement agencies to bring down Al Capone in any way possible. Ness was placed in charge of investigations that Capone had violated the Volstead Act, the law that made alcoholic beverages illegal. In order to succeed, he had to find illegal breweries owned by Capone and somehow prove that he was behind them.
This proved to be a very difficult challenge, particularly with the corruption of law enforcement officials at the time. Capone's Chicago Outfit was huge and owned lawyers, judges, police officers, and other important officials. Ness thoroughly examined the records of all the treasury agents in Chicago to find the people that he thought would be most reliable.
Ness began with a team of fifty agents, but information leaks led to embarrassing failures to bust shipments and he finally carved the team down to only nine agents. They immediately began hunting for Capone's breweries and reportedly seized over one million dollars worth of alcohol and contraband over a six month period.
To find out where the alcohol was, the team of agents employed extensive surveillance and wiretapping. Phone calls were listened to and bugs were placed in rooms where smugglers were known to meet. This information proved invaluable since they would have otherwise been unable to locate the alcohol.
Investigations and seizures by Ness proved to be a big thorn in Capone's side and Capone sent a courier to bribe Ness. The ever honorable Ness showed his integrity by refusing the massive bribe and reported the attempt to the media. The resulting attention caused Ness and his crack team of agents to be nicknamed "The Untouchables".
After the failed attempt at bribery, Capone resorted to even less glamorous methods to remove the nuisance. There were numerous assassination attempts to kill Ness, but all of them failed. Capone did succeed in killing a close friend of Ness', however.
The pressure on Capone was building and eventually the Treasury department managed to get a hold of Capone's accounting books. They showed that Capone was receiving millions of dollars in income from illegal sales of alcohol and failing to report the income to the IRS. He was charged with 22 counts of tax evasion and five thousand violations of the Volstead Act in 1931. On October 17, 1931, Capone was sentenced to eleven years in prison and shipped to Alcatraz.
As a result of his efforts Eliot Ness was given a big promotion to Chief Investigator of the Prohibition Bureau for Chicago in 1935. After prohibition was repealed, Ness got a job as Director of Public Safety for the city of Cleveland. His first action on the job was to clean up the corrupt police department and crack down on illegal gambling dens.
In 1942, Ness resigned from his position after a scandal in which he got into a car accident while intoxicated. Following his resignation, he relocated to Washington D.C. and served a short stint with the federal government. In 1944, he moved back to Ohio, where he was elected chairman of Diebold Corporation.
Ness ran for mayor of Cleveland in 1947, but failed and was also fired from his job at Diebold. After extensive job searching, he accepted a position with North Ridge Industrial in Coudersport, Pennsylvania. He spent the next decade writing a book about his life, entitled "The Untouchables" and it was published in 1957.
On May 16, 1957, Eliot Ness died of a heart attack.