by Daniel Stashower
You helped bring down Al Capone before you turned thirty. What do you do for an encore?
When we think of Eliot Ness, we think of his storied career as leader of the Untouchables—crashing through the doors of Al Capone’s breweries in his famous battering-ram truck. All of that ended, however, when the repeal of Prohibition sent the Untouchables into early retirement. Ness landed on his feet, he believed, as director of public safety in Cleveland, continuing his battle against organized crime and rooting out corruption in his own police department. “Apparently,” one journalist wrote, “he will not rest until every enemy of the people has been brought to justice.”
One enemy of the people presented Ness with a challenge unlike any he’d ever faced. Beginning in 1934, and continuing on Ness’s watch, a string of brutal murders staggered the city, attributed to a killer who came to be known as the Butcher of Kingsbury Run. Fifty years earlier the entire world had recoiled at the horrific murders in London’s Whitechapel district. Now, it seemed, a chillingly similar note of terror had been struck in America. “Cleveland’s Torso Killer,” read one national headline, “Slays in Same Manner as Jack the Ripper.” For Ness, it would be a case that redefined his career. “I want to see this psycho caught,” he declared, but this was a problem that couldn’t be solved with a battering-ram truck.
I grew up in Cleveland in the 1960s and 70s, at a time when people still spoke of Kingsbury Run in hushed tones, as if afraid of summoning a demon. By that time the story had taken on the hazy outlines of an urban legend—I remember hearing tales of the butcher while roasting s’mores around a campfire with my cub scout troop. There’s a monster out there, we were told, and he’s gonna get you if you wander into the woods. You didn’t have to embellish much to turn the story into the stuff of nightmares—I don’t think I slept at all that night.
The story has been rattling around in my head for more than fifty years now. When I began work on American Demon, I wanted to dig for the truth in a tangle of rumors and contradictions, and tell the extraordinary story of an unprecedented manhunt that gripped the nation during the depths of the Great Depression. At the same time, I wanted to throw light on an obscure chapter in the career of Eliot Ness, whose camera-ready exploits in Chicago have been celebrated time and again in movies and on television—perhaps to excess—while the miracle he wrought in Cleveland remains largely unknown.
The story is full of surprises. The biggest one—at least for me—was the cameo from my grandfather, of all people. To my great surprise and delight, his face can be seen peering up from the pages of Ness’s personal scrapbooks at Cleveland’s Western Reserve Historical Society. Ness and my grandfather, it seems, crossed paths at least once a year at a political roast called the “Anvil Revue,” modeled along the lines of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner or the Gridiron Club. My grandfather, I came to learn, was a perennial cast member, singing and dancing along with other amateur performers from the City Club, an otherwise sober-minded group of local businessmen. Ness was a frequent target of their japes and jibes—one of the “goats,” as they were known. One year, an Anvil Revue performer took the stage wearing a child’s Buster Brown uniform, with short pants and a Peter Pan collar, to parody Ness’s youth and gee-whiz enthusiasm. “I’m the youngest safety director in the United States!” he exclaimed. “The G-Man who got Al Capone single-handed! I’d like to tell you in a few words how to rid the county of crime and corruption, jaundice, pyorrhea, toothache and body odor!” On another occasion, an actor portrayed Ness with a pair of fluttering angel wings clipped to the back of his jacket, while a chorus of police captains joined in a dance number celebrating the safety director’s charm and virtuosity:
Good Ness, gracious
Boy, but I’m couracious
Handsome and audacious
Take a lot of time;
The Junior League
You’ll agree, man,
I’m a regular he-man
“Some can take it,” one cast member declared. “Others can’t.” Eliot Ness could take it. He pasted a caricature of the performers into his scrapbook, including my grandfather, along with an audience photo of himself pressing a hand to his forehead, all but doubled over with laughter.
He may have been “untouchable,” but once a year, at least, he happily took it on the chin.
Daniel Stashower is an acclaimed biographer and narrative historian and winner of the Edgar, Agatha, and Anthony awards, as well as the Raymond Chandler Fulbright Fellowship in Detective Fiction. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Smithsonian Magazine, AARP: The Magazine, National Geographic Traveler, and American History as well as other publications. His books include American Demon, The Hour of Peril, Teller of Tales, and The Beautiful Cigar Girl.