We all know the story of Prohibition-era Chicago, of how Al ‘Scarface’ Capone was brought down by a few good men in the form of Eliot Ness and his squad of ‘Untouchables,’ Right? Wrong. The original book by Oscar Fraley (renowned for his lack of historical accuracy), the eponymous TV series and the Hollywood movie would have you believe that ‘Scarface’ and his nemesis squared off in primetime gun battles on a weekly basis. They didn’t. Granted, it took nerve and great strength of character to have been an ‘Untouchable’ and they did play their part in the Capone story, but not the one you might think from the media’s popular version. The people who did more than anybody to bring down Al Capone, including the ‘Untouchables, were a group of highly-influential local business and civic leaders known as the ‘Secret Six.’
The ‘Secret Six’ were formed in response to the shooting of construction supervisor Philip Meagher in February, 1930, almost a year after the notorious St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929. Disgusted by the continuing gang violence and the authorities having completely failed to curb crime and gang warfare in Chicago, Meagher’s boss, Harrison Barnard, demanded action. No longer were gangsters to run riot through Chicago, robbing the local people, killing each other, killing honest citizens, even law enforcement officers who got in their way. It was time for action.
Barnard had a persuasive line in conversation and it wasn’t long before Colonel Robert Randolph, President of the Chicago Association of Commerce, decided to make it happen. If the city’s forces of 3000 police officers and some 300 Federal Prohibition agents couldn’t do the job, then it was time to bring in outsiders untainted by Chicago’s already-legendary corruption and intimidation. With five other senior local figures he decided to approach Alexander Jamie, formerly Chief Special Agent for the Department of Justice, and Jamie persuaded Randolph to seek an audience with US District Attorney George Johnson. Johnson recommended a Treasury agent by the name of Eliot Ness who just happened to be Alexander Jamie’s brother-in-law. A law enforcement legend was soon born.
Ness quickly got to work. He recruited men who were hard-nosed, but intelligent, wise in life’s darker side but not open to bribes or scared by threats. Men like Samuel Seager, a former Death Row guard at New York’s notorious Sing Sing Prison, for example. One of the principle qualities needed to become an ‘Untouchable’ was a refusal to give in to threats and the strength to character to refuse bribes even while most of Chicago law enforcement happily took envelopes full of cash instead of making arrests. With the immense profits made from bootlegging there was always enough cash for greasing palms and Capone was well-known for being lavish with both bribes and brutality.
Outsiders were needed, so the ‘Untouchables’ were formed. They are still often seen as having smashed the Capone organisation while the ‘Secret Six’ are seldom acknowledged. As Ness himself put it: “These six men were gambling with their lives, unarmed, to accomplish what three thousand police and three hundred Prohibition agents had failed miserably to accomplish.” In the end they succeeded, but they seldom get their due share of credit.
Aside from Colonel Randolph the remaining members of the ‘Secret Six’ Julius Rosenwald (President of Sears, Roebuck), Frank Loesch (heavily involved with the Chicago Crime Commission), utilities magnate Samuel Insull, Edward Gore and George Paddock. Harrison Barnard also claimed membership of the ‘Secret Six’ many years after Capone’s enforced exile to Alcatraz by way of the US Penitentiary at Atlanta in 1931.
Their activities remained a closely-guarded secret at the time and relatively little remains to confirm their successes. What we do know is that they operated their own speakeasy, the ‘Garage Café’ as a front to gather information on gangland activities. They also engaged an undercover agent to infiltrate Capone’s gang and gather high-level information from the inside which he did with considerable success. They funded the investigation of Capone’s income and tax affairs, evidence leading directly to his conviction in 1931 for tax evasion. After that trial they also funded the temporary exile to South America of a former cashier at one of Capone’s betting parlors, the infamous Hawthorne Club, when he opted to turn State’s evidence and testify against his former boss.
There were other gains, too. The ‘Secret Six’ handled 595 cases, gained 55 convictions with sentences totalling 428 years, secured payment of fines totalling $11.525, recovered $605,000 of stocks and bonds and $52,280 worth of bootleggers merchandise. They also handled 25 kidnappings and extortion cases, securing an additional 9 convictions. As even Capone himself was forced to admit, just after his conviction in 1931: “They’ve licked me. They’ve made it so there’s no money in the game.” A startling admission of defeat with the so-called ‘King of the Underworld’ who, ironically, probably thought that he himself was the only person in Chicago to be untouchable.
And what of the ‘Untouchables’ themselves? They were far from being simply a showpiece program designed to be merely seen to tackle the gangland violence plaguing Chicago at that time. Some of the evidence used against Capone came from raids by Ness and his men. Ness was also a master at needling Capone, keeping him angry, nervous and uncertain. Capone constantly feared the overt activities of Ness and his ‘Untouchables’ even while overlooking the quiet, discreet spadework of the ‘Secret Six’ as they slowly unearthed enough evidence to see Capone jailed for eleven years.
A typical example of Ness’s talent for annoying and distracting Capone came when, at Ness’s orders, a phone call told Capone to look out of the window of his plush suite at the Lexington Hotel at a certain time. Perhaps foolishly for a man constantly at risk of assassination, Capone did so, albeit from behind bulletproof windows. What he saw probably enraged him more than if he’d been shot at. Passing his hotel at walking pace, with Ness in the lead, were no less than 25 of his own beer trucks previously confiscated during raids by Ness’s men. Money was confiscated, breweries and distilleries were destroyed and Ness saw to it that footage of smashed beer barrels and burning liquor trucks made regular appearances on Chicago’s newsreels. Capone was so utterly irate at Ness that the activities of the ‘Secret Six’ barely registered until it was too late.
And what of Ness himself? He went on the slide after the Capone case. After a stint as Commissioner of Public Safety in Cleveland, Ohio and a failed attempt to run for Mayor, he drifted into a succession of lower and lower jobs, spending as much time on barstools as in any workplace. A bitter irony for a major public figure of the Prohibition era. After many years of progressive decline he died on May 16, 1957 from a massive heart attack brought on partly by his by-now chronic alcoholism.
Capone’s gang flourished without him. Today what’s known as the Chicago ‘Outfit’ has an iron grip on Chicago crime. Even the toughest and most reckless of Chicago’s ‘independent’ criminals dare not cross the Mob, fearing swift and brutal reprisals if they do. Leadership passed first to Frank ‘The Enforcer’ Nitti, then to Paul ‘The Waiter’ Ricca, then Tony Accardo, then Sam ‘Momo’ Giancana, back to Accardo and so on. Unlike New York where the ‘Five Families’ are often at war with rival families all squabbling for increased shares of the same rackets, the ‘Outfit’s’ control of Chicago crime is monolithic. It’s also more discreet, and considerably more cunning, than ‘Scarface’ Al Capone’s leadership ever was.