January 4th, 2007 06:50 EST
Elliot Ness and the FBI
It’s a question we get from time to time: was Elliot Ness of “Untouchables” fame an FBI special agent?
No, it’s entirely a myth: Ness never served as one of our agents. But…he did work for Director J. Edgar Hoover for nearly six weeks. Confused? Here’s the story—and it’s an interesting one, involving the bootlegging days of Prohibition.
It begins in January 1920—86 years ago this month—when Prohibition became the law of the land, thanks to the 18th amendment to the Constitution and congressional action banning the sale and manufacture of alcohol. Enforcement was given largely to the Treasury Department and its Internal Revenue Service, or IRS, with the Bureau of Investigation (our forerunner), the Coast Guard, and several other agencies playing only bit parts.
The law, of course, was hugely unpopular. Many Americans were willing to break the law to have a drink…and an entire criminal industry of bootleggers rose up to meet the nation’s seemingly unquenchable thirst. Mobsters like Al Capone became rich and powerful from the illegal profits and bought off many public officials along the way—so much so that corruption became nearly synonymous with prohibition agents.
Elliott Ness entered the picture in August 1926, when he was appointed a prohibition agent in the IRS. He handpicked a small band of agents who later became known as the “Untouchables” because of their reputation for integrity. It’s said that some of Ness’ agents actually threw back the bribes offered by Capone’s men.
In 1929, to stem the ongoing tide of corruption, the Treasury’s Bureau of Prohibition was transferred to the Department of Justice yet stayed separate from Hoover’s Bureau of Investigation. On June 10, 1933, President Roosevelt ordered the creation of a “Division of Investigation” that could consolidate both “Bureaus” inside Justice. Hoover argued against the merger, fearing that combining his 340 carefully picked agents with 1,200 prohibition agents would undercut his hard fought reforms over the previous decade. He suggested keeping the Bureau of Prohibition a separate, parallel entity.
Hoover’s argument prevailed, and the arrangement began on July 1, 1930, with Hoover in charge of both agencies. In December 1933, the 21st amendment repealed prohibition for good, and the Bureau of Prohibition was eventually disbanded. Ness had worked under Hoover just over a month—from July 1 until August 10, 1933, when the IRS named him a senior prohibition investigator in Cincinnati. He later became the Director of Public Safety for the city of Cleveland. Ness passed away in 1957 in Pennsylvania.
A footnote to the story. In 1933, Ness actually applied to become an FBI agent but was turned down, in part over salary differences and his strong ties to the press.
If you want to read more about Ness and the FBI, mostly during his stint in Cleveland, take a look at our Freedom of Information Act webpage on Elliot Ness. And see our History webpage and Bytes out of History for more interesting stories from our past.