The Formation of the Myth

Al Capone is a legendary criminal on his own accord. The Brooklyn-born gangster from a large Italian family entered the crime world during prohibition and cultivated a business out of illegally transporting and selling alcohol to those willing and even unwilling to buy.[1] Capone had his finger on the pulse of the bootlegging business and thrived during prohibition. However, Capone never went down for his illegal sale of alcohol, and instead was pursued by the federal government for not paying his taxes throughout the 20s.[2] Ness’s role in the capture of Al Capone was much more low-key and instead, Ness mainly resorted to busting breweries and beer distributors in Chicago.[3] After Capone went to jail in 1932, Ness relished the attention and spoke to every reporter he could to get his name in the papers. Eliot Ness had spent years as a prohibition buster desperately trying to get his name in the paper and now was his chance; as long as he had a good story and told it well, he could be famous. The federal government was fine with Ness volunteering his story about the case since fame was not an issue for it.

However, after the fame from “getting Capone” faded, Ness fell into a deep depression and drank most of his money away. He tried running for public office and failed and attempted to make a name for himself again in the crime-fighting industry.[4] Failure followed him and at one of his lowest moments, Ness sold his story to Oscar Fraley for $300 in 1957. Ness typed twenty-one pages for Fraley who spun his story into a massive fable that was an instant success selling over a million copies in the first year.[5] In fact, Ness did not even live long enough to see the outcome of “his story”.

While Fraley’s modified story of Ness was a massive lie, the twenty-one pages that Ness wrote for Fraley for his foundation of the book was modest and less adventure oriented than Ness suggested. And although Ness publically talked up his role with Al Capone immediately after his indictment, Ness barely mentions Capone and instead focuses on Joe Martino, another bootlegger in the Chicago area (who Ness never actually caught).[6]

From Ness’s work, Fraley composed a narrative that made Ness that main protagonist who was assigned by the leader of the Capone case, George Johnson, to help gather evidence against Capone. While Johnson may have met with Ness, and may have helped in the case in some manner, the case from the government was framed around his tax information; an area that was of no interest to Ness. Johnathan Eig comments on Johnson and Ness’s involvement in the case:

“…nothing in the prosecutor’s comments to the press or in his voluminous personal files suggest that Ness’s work was a priority to the federal government.” [7]

In short, Ness’s story was built on fable. The facts did not make a good story but the time period, America’s infatuation with gangsters and criminals, and Fraley’s nuanced illustration of Ness as a hero allowed for the story to permeate and get picked up by the fledgling television industry in 1959.[8] Desi Arnez, star of I Love Lucy loosely adapted the story and turned it into a violent show that was described by National Association for Better Radio and Television as “not fit for the television screen”.[9] Despite the violence depicted in the show, and the issues surrounding Ness’s heroism that was historically non-existent, the show was popular and won 4 Emmys and got 7 nominations.[10] It ran until 1963 and would not return to the screen in 1987 when David De Palma directed The Untouchables in 1987. Director, De Palma based the movie off of the book but because of his attraction to violence, likely took some pointers from the show.

 

[1] Jonathan Eig, Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster, (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc.), 2010, 8.

[2] Eig, 385.

[3] Paul W. Heimel, Elliot Ness: The Real Story,(Nashville, TN: Cumberland House Publishing Inc.), 2000.

[4] Heimel, 112.

[5]Eig, 136.

[6]Ibid.

[7] Eig, 10.

[8] Boddy, William Boddy, “Approaching “The Untouchables”: Social Science and Moral Panics in Early Sixties Television,” Cinema Journal Vol. 35, No. 4 (Summer, 1996), 70-87.

[9] Ibid.

[10″The Untouchables Awards.” IMDb. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0094226/awards.