Alternate History: The Eliot Ness You Never Got to Know
Alternate history is irresistible. History buffs can’t help but wonder what would have happened if our world had zigged rather than zagged at crucial moments. What if the 1861 conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln—the so-called Baltimore Plot—had been successful? What if Japan’s military leaders had decided against bombing Pearl Harbor? Yet the questions don’t have to be grand to be fascinating.
On Labor Day in 1943, as the Congressional Limited rolled into the curve just outside the Frankfort Junction, Pennsylvania, train station, Hubert Holloway decided he should eat something. His travelling companion, Eliot Ness of “Untouchables” fame, wasn’t hungry, so Holloway walked through to the dining car alone. Holloway was waiting to be seated when a “peculiar crunch” made everyone look up. Another man turned to peer out the window when something heavy slammed into his head. It was the ceiling. He fell backward—and kept falling.
Up ahead, the train’s seventh car had shot up into the air, as if doing a wheelie. The 52-ton car now crashed down on its side. It rolled down the rail embankment until it smashed into the base of a signal tower. The tower’s steel tore through the car’s roof “like a giant can opener,” the New York Times would report the next day. This decapitated nearly a score of passengers with a single slice. Another six cars leapt off the tracks before the coupling broke, splaying the cars “like match sticks.” This would prove to be one of the worst train disasters in American history. The early counting toted up 78 corpses. At least 115 passengers had been seriously injured.
Both Holloway and Ness somehow survived the crash of the Congressional Limited without any injuries. Ness, in fact, had inadvertently saved Holloway’s life—and his own. Holloway had been seated in the seventh car, the one that took the brunt of the damage, when Ness had come upon his old friend as the train prepared to depart. Holloway invited the former Prohibition agent to join him, but Ness suggested they decamp to the club car further back.
But what if Ness had taken a seat in that doomed car and, at just 41 years old, had died in the wreck? How would he be remembered today? Would he be remembered? Let’s consider a few well-known American lawmen and criminals from Ness’ era —Ness included—whose reputations would be very different if they’d experienced an alternate ending to a key deadly event in their lives.
Al Capone is famous the world over, featured in movies, books, and documentaries that just keep coming. For a while, he even had an entire museum—“Capone’s Chicago” in the Second City—devoted to his life.
All of that glory, such as it is, might have been Dean O’Banion’s—if the Irish-American gangster had been a little more circumspect.
Back in the early 1920s, when the Chicago newspapers were still misspelling Capone’s name, they were calling O’Banion the city’s “arch criminal.” The Northside’s underworld king had everything necessary for outsize fame: He was tough, smart, personable, and daring. Florist by day, bootlegger and heist man by night, he cut a dashing figure in the city. But he was also an unpredictable hothead. He had a penchant for driving his sedan at top speed along downtown Chicago’s sidewalks at night, his version of the Running of the Bulls. This kind of behavior made his bootleg competitors nervous.
In November 1924, rival gangsters gunned down the 32-year-old O’Banion in his flower shop. The resulting funeral was a huge, traffic-stopping affair attended by hundreds of Chicagoans, many of whom wept as if the dead man were a war hero. To some, he was. If O’Banion had managed to avoid the assassins in his flower shop and had remained one of the most visible gangsters in town for a few more years, our collective view of both him and Capone surely would be very different today. Maybe Robert De Niro would have wielded a shillelagh rather than a baseball bat in the movie version of The Untouchables.
On November 27, 1934, Sam Cowley hung up the phone and strode through the FBI’s Chicago offices, heading for the exit. On the way, J. Edgar Hoover’s man on the ground popped his head through an open door. He told Melvin Purvis, the special agent in charge, that Baby Face Nelson was on the move.
“Let’s get going,” Purvis responded, jumping to his feet.
Cowley shook him off. He said he and fellow agent Ed Hollis were going out to see if they could spot the fugitive on the road, and that they’d call Purvis when they knew better what needed to be done. About an hour later, Cowley lay dead on the side of a highway, a good man struck down in Hoover’s War on Crime.
But what if Purvis, instead of Cowley, had taken the call about Nelson, rushed out of the office, and ended up with a bullet in the stomach? He likely would have had the kind of enduring fame through the years that Ness has had. Instead, he was quickly forgotten. The reason? He had basked in the media attention after the killing of John Dillinger four months before. “He Got His Man,” the Chicago Daily Times had announced on page one, beneath a photograph of the dashing Purvis. Such coverage rankled Hoover, the FBI’s powerful young director. He hated that Purvis suddenly was one of the best-known men in the country. And so, the less photogenic Cowley began receiving the prime assignments, while Purvis cooled his jets in the office. Hoover would eventually run Purvis out of the agency and write him out of the FBI’s official history.
To be sure, Purvis in time would make a comeback. Played by Christian Bale, he was featured in 2009’s Public Enemies, though of course the movie was really all about Johnny Depp’s Dillinger. Besides, it was too little and too late: Purvis had died nearly half a century earlier, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 56.
Do you know who this is? Few people do these days, and that’s because he managed to avoid being killed in a shootout like the heavily mythologized gun battles that took down his contemporaries Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd.
The clever leader of the Karpis-Barker gang was inarguably the most successful of the Depression era’s “public enemies.” In 1933, the gang kidnapped brewer William Hamm and scored $100,000 in ransom. Over the next couple of years, there would be more kidnappings, as well as bank robberies and even a train robbery. The FBI finally ran Karpis down the following year in New Orleans, but there was no gunfight that later could be reimagined on TV and movie screens. Sentenced to life in prison, Karpis spent decades at Alcatraz and was paroled in 1969. He died quietly a decade later at 72 years of age.
Here things get complicated. Ness was still near his career peak in 1943 when he boarded the Congressional Limited for New York. After aggressively harassing Al Capone in Chicago during the waning days of Prohibition, he’d spent six remarkable years as public safety director in Cleveland, where he reformed a notoriously corrupt police department, smashed the city’s Mob, and stopped entrenched labor racketeering. Local newspapers and political leaders heralded him as a great American, and there was real truth in the hero worship. He had proved intrepid and incorruptible, and along the way he’d helped invent the modern American police force. But in spite of the unprecedented success—and the attention that came with it—the years of hard work and stress wore him down. Also, the frustrating hunt for a brutal serial killer in Cleveland had taken him to the brink of despair.
By 1943, when he was serving as the federal social protection director during World War II, Ness had begun a long slide into alcoholism. The former Prohibition Bureau star soon dropped out of the headlines, and his old Capone-chasing days disappeared from the country’s collective memory. If he hadn’t walked away from the train crash in Frankfort Junction, his bestselling memoir, The Untouchables, never would have been written. But that doesn’t mean Ness’ name would have fallen into obscurity. Some writer or film producer inevitably would have rediscovered Ness’ career. The Untouchables’ wild, guns-blazing exploits and Ness’ adventure-filled tenure in Cleveland were too good to be overlooked by a popular culture enthralled by gangster stories.
It’s the backlash that would have changed. Ever since the 1960s’ Untouchables TV series became a smash hit, debunkers have worked hard—too hard—to downplay Ness’ historical role in corralling Capone. Looking for ammunition, they’ve often made the most of his final, coming-apart years. If Ness had died in that horrific train accident, still ambitious and focused, his critics would have been hard-pressed to find a means of attack. Ness forever would be the razor-sharp young gang-buster, the James Dean of law enforcement—a reputation he earned.
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