Special guest Cody Wheat from the Shots of History podcast joins me this week as we compare history with The Untouchables.

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Transcript

Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

The movie begins with some text on screen setting up the situation. The year is 1930 and, according to the film, Prohibition has caused war in the streets of Chicago. On one side you have law enforcement, and on the other you have organized crime led by the infamous Al Capone, who’s played by Robert De Niro in the movie.

Specific scenery, of course, is made up, but this whole setup is true.

In October of 1919, and after years of petitioning and lobbying by anti-liquor groups around the nation, the U.S. Congress added the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and officially made the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages illegal. As you can probably guess, it was a law that wasn’t loved by everyone.

While legal production of alcohol was prohibited, that only served to create a black market for the production and sale of liquor.

With a lot of money to be made free of taxes and government oversight, it was the perfect scenario for a crime boss by the name of Johnny Torrio to add bootlegging illegal liquor alongside his already profitable prostitution and gambling rings.

The perfect opportunity presented itself in 1920 when, after hearing of the death of his friend’s father, Johnny invited the young Al Capone to come to Chicago to help run his new bootlegging operations.

Within five years, Johnny Torrio had a close call when rival gangsters almost killed him. Not tempting fate, Johnny decided to move back to Italy and handed over his entire operation in Chicago to Al Capone.

Back in the movie, after the introduction to Robert De Niro’s version of Al Capone we meet the man on the other side. It’s Kevin Costner’s character, a man by the name of Eliot Ness. According to the movie, Eliot works for the Treasury Department, and he’s been tasked with enforcing prohibition and taking down Al Capone’s illegal liquor sales.

Again, the basic plot is true.

Unlike Al Capone, who was born in Brooklyn, New York, Eliot Ness was a native Chicagoan. He joined the Treasury Department at the age of 23 on August 26th, 1926, shortly after prohibition started. At the time, the Treasury Department had six different law enforcement agencies underneath it. One of these was the newly formed Prohibition Unit, which was tasked with hunting down and finding bootleggers.

As a quick little side note here, this agency under the Treasury Department would go on to become what we now know as the ATF, or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

In the movie, the first raid we see Eliot Ness lead a team of law enforcement officers on turns out to be a bust. Instead of rum, Kevin Costner’s version of Eliot Ness pulls out a pretty green umbrella from wooden crates.

All of this is fictionalized for the film, but it’s based on the fact that the real Eliot Ness didn’t form the Untouchables right away. If you recall, Eliot joined the Treasury Department in August of 1926. It wasn’t until three years later that the special team that we now know of as the Untouchables was formed in August of 1929.

In those three years, Eliot did indeed try to pull off some raids with varying degrees of success. Although Al Capone’s group was probably the largest outfit in Chicago at the time, prohibition agents raided bootleggers both large and small.

To give you an idea of what some of the raids were like, there was one in April of 1927 when Eliot Ness and another Treasury Department agent named Frank Wilson went undercover to a horse racing track.

Their cover led to information that 14 other agents used to raid nearby storehouses, seizing a wide range of whiskey, gin, rum and beer.

Oh, and to complete their cover, both Eliot and Frank dressed up like stallion-owning colonels from Kentucky. There’s a mental image for you.

Or there was another time when prohibition agents led by Eliot captured a truck with a fictitious name on the side. Checking the contents of the truck, they found it filled with kegs of beer. That name on the side of the truck? Acme Scamless Tube Company.

So Eliot did led many types of raids. Instead of sticking to historical accuracy for the first raid we see in the movie, though, it uses this one raid as a plot point to help build the idea that perhaps Al Capone was tipped off of the raid and Eliot can’t be successful working with the larger, and often corrupt, police force.

It’s easy to see why most Prohibition agents took brides. When Prohibition went into effect, the federal government on provide enough funding for 1,500 agents, and those 1,500 men were supposed to cover the entire country. They were given guns and vehicles, but most of them has little or no training.

Their job quickly became one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, and they paid about as much as a school teacher currently makes in the US. So when someone like Capione comes to you, offering a level of money that you probably never thought you would see, and also eliminate the needs for you to put yourself in harms way….it would be hard not to at least consider that deal. Okay, back to the movie.

It’s after this raid, in the film, we see Kevin Costner’s version of Eliot Ness come across an Irish-American beat cop named Jimmy Malone. Jimmy’s played by Sean Connery in the movie. In fact, it was for his role as Jimmy Malone that earned Sean Connery his one and only Oscar win.

After Jimmy, the others in the Untouchables in the movie are Andy Garcia’s character, Agent George Stone, and Charles Martin Smith’s portray of Agent Oscar Wallace.

 

All of these, including Jimmy Malone, are fictional characters. In truth there were ten men, including Eliot Ness, who were in the Untouchables.

Of course, in a movie it’s tough to have an ensemble cast of ten characters, so perhaps that’s why the filmmakers slimmed down the number in the movie to four.

While there’s no one to one match for the men we see in the movie and their real counterparts, as is often the case the characters on the screen take bits and pieces of truth from the real people.

For example, Sean Connery’s character of Jimmy Malone was an Irish-American who served as Kevin Costner’s unofficial second in command on the small task force.

In reality, the man who served as the unofficial second in command to Eliot Ness was another Irish-American named Martin Lahart, or Marty as he was called. Although, in the film, Jimmy Malone was also a beat cop of nearly four decades before using his experience to help guide Kevin Costner’s version of Eliot Ness. To contrast that, the real Marty Lahart was 30 years old when he joined Eliot’s team in 1929.

In addition to Marty and Eliot, the other members of the real Untouchables were Lyle Chapman, Barney Cloonan, Thomas Friel, Bill Gardner, Mike King, Joseph Leeson, Paul Robsky and Samuel Seager.

Oh, and as a quick side note, that’s the initial ten members of Eliot’s team. Others, such as Jim Seeley and Al Wolff would help the team out later.

Despite having an abundance of people to base their characters on, one of the Untouchables we see in the film wasn’t based on any of these real people.

The relatively meek character of the accountant Oscar Wallace was very loosely based on a man we learned about earlier, Frank Wilson.

Although Frank had performed raids with Eliot and worked closely with him, he wasn’t a part of the Untouchables team. His primary focus was to work with yet another government agency, the IRS, to try to pin tax evasion on Al Capone.

As a little fun fact, later in his career, Frank Wilson would go on to become the chief of the Secret Service and even become a part of the team investigating the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh, Jr.

Back in the movie, after forming a team of people he can trust, Eliot leads his Untouchables team to an immediate success when they raid a warehouse of Al Capone’s liquor in a local post office.

While this specific event was made up for the movie, the truth is that Eliot Ness and the Untouchables team did have a number of successful raids that brought his team’s work to the attention of the real Al Capone.

After hearing of the raid, Robert De Niro’s version of Al Capone in the film reacts by bludgeoning the guy who was in charge of the warehouse with a baseball bat. This happened at a rather swanky dinner and much to the surprise of everyone there.

Again, this was made up for the movie, but again it’s based on some bits of fact. Although we don’t really know the reaction Al Capone had after learning of the successful raids by the Untouchables team, we do know of at least a few occasions where Al Capone beat someone to death with a baseball bat. Those weren’t necessarily tied to the liquor raids, but then again there’s a lot we don’t know about what really happened behind closed doors.

If you’re starting to catch a theme with many of the scenes here, you’re not alone.

Another plot point that’s largely fictional but based loosely on something that actually happened is the scene where Kevin Costner’s version of Eliot Ness is visited by actor Del Close’s character. In the movie he’s billed as Alderman, but that’s a fictional name. An alderman is an elected councilman, so when this character named Alderman comes to visit Eliot and offer him a bribe, it’s the filmmaker’s way of showcasing how Eliot’s team was untouchable.

In fact, Del Close’s version of Alderman even poses that question when he indignantly asks if Eliot thinks his team is untouchable. Hence the nickname.

But that’s not how the nickname came to be.

That whole scene is made up, but it seems to be an amalgamation of a few different realities coupled with a healthy dose of creative freedom.

 

Like many other law enforcement officials in Chicago, Eliot Ness and his team were approached with bribes on numerous occasions.

The movie even depicts some of the things Eliot’s crew actually did. For example, the part where Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness calls in the rest of his team to witness him throwing the bundle of bribe money back at Alderman was based on multiple reports of different members of the Untouchables team physically throwing the bribe money back at people trying to pay them off.

Probably the closest one that resembles what we saw on screen happened in April of 1930. We don’t know the name of the person who approached Eliot Ness, but he was obviously on Al Capone’s payroll and offered Eliot $2,000 up front and an additional $2,000 per week if he stopped digging into Capone’s affairs.

That $2,000 in 1930 is about the same as $29,255 today. That’s the kind of money Al Capone offered Eliot Ness every week to do what would mostly amount to doing nothing. It’s easy to see how Capone was able to turn so many cops and other law enforcement officials with that kind of money.

Anyway, this unnamed man’s bribe was so offensive to Eliot Ness that he ordered the man out immediately. No sooner had the man left than Eliot called the press into his office to make a statement that neither he nor any of his men were for sale. Al Capone may have had many agents in his employ, but Eliot Ness would not be one of them.

As for the name “Untouchables”, that’s a nickname given to Eliot’s team by one of the reporters who took the story that day. The story they wrote explained in no uncertain terms that while “Scarface” Al Capone might’ve been able to buy off others, Eliot Ness and his team were untouchables.

There were a couple indirect things that came out of this specific incident. One was that Eliot started to realize the power of the press. Part of this may have been ego, but I can’t help but wonder if it was a sort of security blanket. How do you stay safe when tracking a man who has paid off the cops and law enforcement that’s supposed to keep you safe? Make it painfully obvious to everyone when you disappear. A great way to do that is to keep your name in the papers.

Since the names of those on Eliot’s team were kept secret—only Eliot’s name was publicized as the face of the effort—a catchy nickname like “Untouchables” didn’t take long to spread. Although, in all honesty, the term wasn’t used as much as you might think. More on that later.

After Alderman’s attempted bribery of Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness in the film, the very next scene starts to put the whole untouchable thing to the test. It happens when we see Eliot walking in front of his home. Calling out from his car is one of Capone’s mobsters by the name of Frank Nitti. In the movie, Frank is played by Billy Drago.

Frank Nitti gets Eliot’s attention and makes veiled, yet very obvious threats against Eliot’s life and the life of his family.

In truth, Capone’s men threatened to kill Eliot multiple times. Although it’s probably worth pointing out that the family-focused man Eliot Ness we see in the movie is riddled with inaccuracies. Those start with his wife, a character named Catherine Ness played by Patricia Clarkson.

In 1930, the real Eliot Ness had been married to his first wife, Edna, for about a year. Yes, I said first wife. Eliot and Edna would remain married for nine years until getting divorced in 1938. Then he married a woman named Evaline from 1939 to 1945. His third and last wife was named Elisabeth, whom he married the year after divorcing Evaline and remained married until he passed away in 1957.

Some historians have also found evidence that perhaps Eliot was quite the womanizer, although most of that is circumstantial and not something we can prove. Still, it gives one potential theory as to why the end of Eliot’s first two marriages were followed up by marrying a new woman only a year later.

So as a quick recap, there was no Catherine Ness. Eliot Ness had three wives: Edna, Evaline and Elisabeth. That’s a lot of E-names.

Oh, and in the movie Eliot and Catherine have a daughter named—well, she doesn’t have a name. Actress Kaitlin Montgomery plays their daughter and the character is billed as “Ness’ Daughter”. She probably didn’t get a name in the movie because she didn’t exist in real life. In fact, Eliot only had one son and he was adopted during his third marriage with Elisabeth, or Betty as she was called.

That means during the timeline of the film, Eliot would’ve been married to Edna and without children.

The next big scene in the film comes when the Untouchables head to Montana and work with the Canadian law enforcement to try to catch some of Al Capone’s henchmen as they cross the border with alcohol.

That whole scene? Fiction. That includes the catching of one of Al Capone’s bookkeepers and trying to scare him into cooperation.

As is often the case when there’s more and more inaccuracies in a film, sometimes how that film resolves the storyline ends up being more inaccurate than the beginning of the movie. That’s true in this case, too.

In the movie, two of the four men on Eliot’s team are killed. The first is the accountant, Oscar Wallace. Then Sean Connery’s character, Jimmy Malone, gets murdered in his home.

As you can probably guess, since there was no real Oscar Wallace or Jimmy Malone, none of that happened.

Even the real people that Oscar and Jimmy were modeled on weren’t killed. We know this because Oscar Wallace was based primarily on Frank Wilson, who wasn’t even a part of Eliot’s team and as we learned earlier went on to have a successful career after prohibition.

A similar story is true for the character Jimmy Malone was based on, Marty Lahart. Although Marty didn’t have quite the illustrious career as Frank Wilson, he lived until 1975 when he passed away peacefully on July 2nd, 1975 at the age of 76. At the time of his passing, Marty was the very last of the original Untouchables team.

Quite opposite from being one of the first to die, as the movie shows.

In the movie, as Sean Connery’s version of Jimmy Malone is dying, he tells Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness that Al Capone’s bookkeeper will be at the train station.

At the train station, there’s a scene where Eliot sees a woman trying to carry her baby’s stroller up the stairs. When he goes to help, he’s seen by one of Capone’s henchmen and a bloody shootout begins.

All of this is made up for the film, but it’s something worth pointing out because it’s based on something that’s based on a true story.

The staircase shootout scene was director Brian De Palma’s homage to a 1925 Soviet film called Battleship Potemkin. In that movie there’s a staircase scene with mass hysteria going on as the cinematography focuses on a baby in a carriage rolling down the stairs.

A lot like what we saw in The Untouchables.

If the name Battleship Potemkin rings a bell it’s because we learned about that in The Hunt for Red October episode.

As a quick refresher, Battleship Potemkin was based on a true story of a…well, a battleship named Potemkin in 1905 whose crew mutinied.

That’s the movie Valery Sablin showed to the crew of his ship as he led the mutiny. A little ironic since the real person of Valery was the basis for Sean Connery’s character in that movie, Marko Ramius.

Anyway, that’s just a fun little side note.

Back in The Untouchables movie, after Eliot gets Al Capone’s bookkeeper to cooperate, Robert De Niro’s Al Capone is pulled into the court room to stand trial.

The trial isn’t for any of the murders, extortion, bootlegging, gambling, prostitution rings or anything like that. It’s for tax evasion.

Although pretty much everything we see in the movie is made up, the overall plot point of Al Capone being put on trial for tax evasion is true.

This brings up an important point, though.

Even though Eliot Ness and his Untouchables were a massive pain in the backside for Al Capone’s operations, just like the movie implies, no one could tie the gangster to any crimes. Everyone knew his empire was massive—some estimated he was raking in about $60 million a year.

That’s about $877.6 million in today’s dollars.

But when law enforcement agencies dug into the paper trails, as it turns out nothing had Al Capone’s name on it. Legally, he didn’t own anything and he didn’t earn a salary.

While Eliot Ness’ team annoyed and put a dent in the gang’s operations, it was Frank Wilson’s team who reviewed literally millions and millions of documents until they came across just a few documents that had Al Capone’s name on it. Legally, those documents proved that Al Capone made an income and he never reported that income to the IRS.

In June of 1931, Al Capone was officially indicted for federal tax income evasion.

Although the movie makes it seem like the trial was a rather quick one, in truth it lasted for about four months. In fact, it wasn’t until October 17th, 1931 that Al Capone was found guilty.

As the movie comes to an end, we see a newspaper that says Capone was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

That’s true, although the paper doesn’t mention he was also ordered to pay about $80,000, or about $1.3 million today, in fines and legal fees.

This is the end of the movie, but not the end of the story for Al Capone and Eliot Ness.

It was, however, the end of Al Capone’s reign of terror in Chicago as the infamous mob boss was sent off to serve time in Georgia and then Alcatraz.

While Capone was in prison, Prohibition was overturned. That happened on March 23rd, 1933 when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Cullen Harrison Act, officially allowing the manufacture and sale of alcohol. Well, not all alcohol. (Absinthe wouldn’t be made legal in the US until 2007, just so you know.) It was a start. A few months later, on December 5th, the 21st Amendment was ratified, becoming the first Amendment in the Constitution to repeal an earlier Amendment—that being the 18th Amendment that set up Prohibition.

Al Capone would serve eight of his 11 years in prison, and was released to a mental hospital in 1939 where he served the final three years. After being released, Capone lived quietly in Miami until he died of a heart attack on January 25th, 1947.

As for Eliot Ness, after Prohibition was repealed in 1933 there wasn’t a lot of use for an agent to enforce it. He was reassigned to a new unit with a very similar purpose: the Alcohol Tax Unit. With this new unit, he spent two years in the mountains of Ohio, Tennessee and Kentucky looking for illegal bootleggers.

It wasn’t quite as exciting as Eliot’s previous role. So in December of 1935, he resigned and moved to Cleveland, Ohio where he took a position as the Public Safety Director for Cleveland. In this new role, he worked directly for the mayor of Cleveland and rooted out corruption in the police as well as any organized crime in Cleveland.

Eliot thrived in this new role at first.

During his time as Public Safety Director in Cleveland, Eliot was hot on the trail of yet another mastermind criminal. This one wasn’t a gangster hiding in the open like Al Capone. Instead, this one was a serial killer who earned the nickname the “Cleveland Torso Killer” on account of the dismemberment of anywhere from 12 to 20 victims.

Eliot’s brilliant investigative work on the case led to plenty of great theories. If you listened to The Black Dahlia episode, you’ll know there’s a theory that Eliot believed it was the Cleveland Torso Killer who relocated to California and killed Elizabeth Short—The Black Dahlia. And there’s even a theory that suggests the Zodiac Killer might have ties to the Cleveland Torso Killer.

Unlike Al Capone, Eliot Ness was never able to see the Cleveland Torso Killer brought to justice. That’s one serial killer who was never found.

As the years passed and Eliot wasn’t able to resolve the case of the Cleveland Torso Killer, more and more people began to criticize him.

Quite ironically this led to a nasty drinking habit and an increasing obsession with work. That, coupled with long hours and perhaps some unconfirmed womanizing in there might have been the reason for his failed marriages; Edna leaving him in 1938 and then Evaline in 1945.

Under public pressure, Eliot resigned his role as Public Safety Director.

 

After this, Eliot ran a rather interesting gamut of roles as he tried to find his next big success. First he rooted out prostitution as National Director of the Social Protection Program. Then he left and was appointed Chairman of the Board at Diebold, a company just south of Cleveland in Canton, Ohio, that makes vaults.

He even set up an import/export company along with the famous leader of the Flying Tigers, General Claire Lee Chennault.

In 1947, he ran for Mayor of Cleveland but failed to attain that position. His final grasp at something solid was as a business executive of a Cleveland-based company called North Ridge Industrial Corporation. By the time 1956 rolled around, North Ridge was nearly bankrupt and forced to move to the tiny town of Coudersport, Pennsylvania. It was a move Eliot would make with the company.

On May 16th, 1957, Eliot Ness passed away in the same manner as Al Capone, a heart attack. Like the infamous gangster, Eliot’s life was completely ruined at the time of his death. He was depressed and in an incredible amount of debt.

Later that same year, Eliot’s name would come back into the public’s eye when an author named Oscar Fraley published an autobiography he co-wrote with Eliot Ness before he passed. The book was named simply The Untouchables and its publication would cement the name of Eliot’s team in the minds of people around the world.

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