Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Death of Eliot Ness

Ness married sculptor Elisabeth Andersen Seaver in 1946. She was his third wife. They both drank. Since his failed run for Mayor of Cleveland in 1947, Ness' fortunes had dwindled until by the early 1950s he was accepting jobs as an electronics wholesalers, working as a clerk in a downtown bookstore (remember those?) and selling frozen hamburger patties to restaurants.

In 1949 they adopted a three year-old boy, Robert Warren Ness (July 10, 1946 - August 31, 1976) ... though his gravesite in Lakeview Cemetery reads Robert Eliot Ness. Not much is known about Bobby Ness, except what can be inferred from what we know about Ness. After failing to win the election, his drinking became a serious problem. The family lived in a rented house in Cleveland, Eliot spent too much money on a new car, too much time in hotel bars, and here he began inflating his responsibility in bringing down Al Capone to anyone who would listen.

In the early 1950s Eliot became a shareholder in Guaranty Paper Corporation - without going too much into the details, he was chosen through connections with persons who were trying to make a business out of a new watermarking process to make checks and other legal documents harder to counterfeit. They tagged Ness because of his connections in law enforcement. It was a good, regular job and supported his family.

In 1956 the operations of Guaranty were moved from Cleveland to Coudersport, PA, as a money-saving decision. The Ness' settled into a stable, middle-class existence. Bobby made friends with a boy across the street who had Down Syndrome. Coming home from work Eliot could be relied upon to play ball with the kids in the yard, and be a real sport.

Betty was less than happy to be a sculptor in rural Pennsylvania. They drank, they fought, the boy had to listen to it all.

There is a small cottage industry in Cleveland surrounding the so-called Torso Murderer. The Wikipedia entry for this unsolved murder case posits from time to time (depending on how recently it has been edited) that failure to solve this case destroyed Eliot Ness. He is referred to as "The 14th Victim" or some such nonsense.

The hit-and-run drunk driving accident Ness was involved in 1942 lost him his job as Safety Director. His ill-thought out run for Mayor in 1947 sealed his loss of reputation. He was a good cop, and a lousy businessman. He drank too much. These things happen. It's not as sexy as the myth. But myths are pat and dry and often teach us nothing. Easy, neat solutions make the world seem easy and neat. Learning how to deal with the messiness of real life is hard and unrewarding. Except for that is how we learn to deal with the messiness of real life.

Ness had a heart attack in his kitchen on May 16, 1957. He died at home, which is a fine place to die. He was 54 years old.

Eliot Ness:The Real Story (Paul Heimel)


  1. this is the first i knew that eliot ness died of a heart attack. or did he? what is the truth?

    1. He did indeed die of a heart attack on May 16,1957.

  2. The truth is he died of a heart attack.

  3. how did he son die? he was so young.

  4. A good question, and one I do not have the answer to.

  5. Intriguing "real" story, though sad.

  6. I thought that he shoot himself in head.