Seventy-nine years ago this spring, Eliot Ness’ squad of “Untouchables” bashed down the doors of Al Capone’s brewery in Cicero, Ill. and took an axe to 14 vats filled with thousands of gallons of Capone’s beer. This Friday, Jonathan Eig will pay a much more polite visit to Cleveland’s Great Lakes Brewery. Over lunch and some Eliot Ness Amber Lagers, the author from Chicago will talk about his new book, Get Capone, and its portrayals of the famed Prohibition agent and history’s ultimate gangster.
Eig’s vivid, fast-paced account of the rakish crime boss’ rise to power reveals how federal officials struggled to find some way – any way -- to put Capone in prison. Ness, who spent seven years crusading as Cleveland’s safety director, appears on only about 15 pages.
“I was struck by his intelligence and his honesty,” Eig says -- but he argues that during the Capone investigation, Ness “was well-meaning but mostly ineffective.” His brewery raids didn’t contribute to the tax charges that did Capone in. Ness’ early investigations of Chicago Heights bootleggers didn’t impress the author either. “He didn’t really have the character for undercover work,” Eig says. “He was better at public jobs: getting interviews, getting attention.”
Even in Cleveland, where Ness fought police corruption, racketeers, gamblers and the Mob, “He was a troubled man in many ways,” Eig says. “He had very high standards for himself as public figure, but his personal life often got in the way.” He’s referencing Ness’ failure to solve the Torso Murders, his public drinking, and his two divorces, which eroded his reputation.
Cleveland knows the real Ness: Complex, sometimes tragic, and more interesting than the squeaky-clean mythic hero. Clevelanders “knew him in the mature years of his career,” Eig says. “They saw him at times as a flawed person. In Chicago, nobody really knew him until he was gone.”
Eig will include Ness in his noontime Friday talk at the brewery and his more sober appearance Thursday night at Joseph-Beth Booksellers. But he’ll focus on Capone, whose voice leaps off the pages of his book, his wit as quick and piercing as tommy-gun bullets.
“He was a jovial guy,” says Eig. “People enjoyed his company. He was a man’s man. He liked going hunting and fishing and going to the track. People really enjoyed being with him.”
Capone still fascinates us because he pursued the American Dream, Eig says. “He did it with machine guns, which isn’t the traditional way, but he was an immigrant kid with an amazing opportunity to rise from mediocrity to greatness.
“He does this with a certain flair. He doesn’t just want to be the meanest, toughest gangster. He wanted to have style, wanted to dress elegantly. That makes him intriguing.”
(Photo from Cleveland State University's Cleveland Press collection.)