ShareAt dawn on April 11, 1931, a ten-ton truck with a steel bumper rammed through the double doors. Alarm bells clanged as Prohibition agents rushed inside and nabbed five brewery workers. Then they set about blowtorching the brewing equipment, upending vats, hacking barrels open. They sent a cascade of beer worth the modern equivalent of $1.5 million into the sewer.
Eliot Ness had struck again. “It’s funny, I think, when you back up a truck to a brewery door and smash it in,” Ness told a reporter. No one had so brazenly challenged Capone before, but then, the Prohibition Bureau had few agents like Ness. In a force known for corruption and ineptitude, he was known for turning down bribes bigger than his annual salary. He was 28, a college graduate, with blue-gray eyes, slicked-back dark hair and a square-set jaw, and he had a way with the press. When he took to calling his men “the Untouchables,” because the abuse they took from Capone’s men reminded Ness of India’s lowest caste, reporters adopted the nickname as a metaphor for the squad’s refusal to take bribes. Soon newspapers across the country were celebrating Ness as Capone’s nemesis.
But two years later, Ness’ flood of raids, arrests and indictments was running dry. Capone was in prison, the Untouchables had been disbanded and the last days of Prohibition were ticking away. Ness had been reassigned to Cincinnati, where he chased moonshiners across Appalachian foothills. Hoping for another chance at glory, he applied for a job with J. Edgar Hoover’s budding Division of Investigation—the future FBI.
A former U.S. attorney in Chicago wrote to recommend Ness. Hoover expedited a background investigation. One of his agents crisscrossed the Windy City and collected testimonials to the applicant’s courage, intelligence and honesty. The current U.S. attorney told the agent Ness was “above reproach in every way.” (Read more.)