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Was Eliot Ness a hero or Hollywood-inspired myth?

Tuesday - 1/28/2014, 6:50pm  ET

DON BABWIN
Associated Press

CHICAGO (AP) -- In the pantheon of Chicago crime fighters, nobody has the worldwide reputation of Eliot Ness.

He's the Prohibition agent who brought down Al Capone, the principled lawman in a city awash in corruption, the relentless investigator portrayed by actors Robert Stack and Kevin Costner and the legend who is said to have inspired comic-strip detective Dick Tracy.

Nearly six decades after his death, Ness is still so admired that Illinois' two U.S. senators want to name a federal building after him in Washington, D.C.

But a Chicago alderman, citing a recent Capone biography, concludes that Ness had about as much to do with putting the gangster behind bars as Mrs. O'Leary's cow had to do with starting the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, when the animal supposedly knocked over a lantern. And he's trying to persuade the senators to drop the whole idea.

"There are literally hundreds of heroic law enforcement officials" who would be deserving of the honor, "but Eliot Ness is simply not one of them," said Ed Burke, who hopes the senators will abandon the proposal much the way the council formally cleared Mrs. O'Leary's cow in 1997 at Burke's urging.

Ness' career has always been imbued with a mix of fact and fiction. He did go after Capone, but his role was probably less heroic than many Americans imagine.

Ness, Burke said, "is a Hollywood myth," and to honor him would be a disservice to others.

There are no signs the senators are considering backing down from a resolution to put Ness' name on the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives headquarters.

Capone "believed that every man had his price," Sen. Dick Durbin said earlier this month in a statement with fellow Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk and Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio. But for Ness and his law-enforcement team known as "The Untouchables," ''no amount of money could buy their loyalty or sway their dedication to Chicago's safety."

The ATF declined to comment on the issue. Judging by the agency's website, where Ness is the first entry in the "history" section, its support of Ness remains unwavering.

"Against all odds, he and his Untouchables broke the back of organized crime in Chicago," reads the agency's short biography of Ness.

The author of an upcoming Ness biography has also weighed in, saying while Ness was not involved with the income tax case that sent Capone to prison, he was a key figure in the broader battle against Capone in Chicago, and his contribution to law enforcement has been misunderstood and discounted for too long.

"Ness never claimed to have anything to do with the tax case on Capone," said Doug Perry, the author. "The Untouchables' job was to harass Capone's operations and squeeze his income stream, and they did that."

These facts are undisputed: After graduating from the University of Chicago, Ness was barely into his 20s when he took a job as a temporary Prohibition agent in 1926. He quickly climbed through the ranks until, according to the ATF website, he put together a squad in 1930 to go after Capone's bootlegging operation. But prosecutors chose to pursue the gangster on tax charges instead.

A few years later, Ness' law enforcement career took him to Cincinnati and Cleveland, where in 1933 he left his job to become, at just 33, the city's public safety director. He was widely praised for cleaning up Cleveland corruption.

Ness ran unsuccessfully for Cleveland mayor in 1947. He died a decade later but not before co-writing a book about his exploits titled "The Untouchables," a "highly fictionalized" account that "made him uncomfortable," according to Perry.

The problem, it seems, is that much of what we think we know about Ness comes from that book, the television show starring Stack a half-century ago and Costner's portrayal of Ness in the 1987 movie.

There is even suspicion that the virtuous character the public knows may not be Ness at all because Ness's co-author, Oscar Fraley, took the qualities ascribed to Ness from Elmer Irey, another famous lawman who played a key role in sending Capone to prison.

"My guess is that Oscar Fraley stole all that from Elmer, his makeup, and gave it to Ness," said Paul Camacho, an IRS special agent in Las Vegas who has made it his mission to rescue Irey's name from obscurity. "He was a real American hero."

By the time, the story got to Hollywood, the goal was to tell a good story, not give a history lesson.

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