Portfolio: Idea of honoring Eliot Ness is debatable


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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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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."


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