14th Ward Alderman Ed Burke wants the Chicago City Council to go on record Wednesday in opposition to an effort by Senators Mark Kirk and Dick Durbin to name an Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Federal Building in DC after the famous Chicago prohibition agent Eliot Ness.
Burke has appointed himself as the guardian of accurate Chicago history. A few years ago Burke did once correctly absolve Catherine O'Leary's cow from blame for starting the Great Fire of 1871. But this time Burke is wrong on both the facts and spirit of the Kirk-Durbin bill.
Eliot Ness was the son of Norwegian immigrants who was born in Chicago in 1903 and who graduated from Fenger High School. Ness graduated from the University of Chicago 1925 and two years later earned his master's degree in criminology also at the U of C.
Ed Burke is right when he says there are many myths about Eliot Ness and the Untouchables due to the heavy need for fiction in the 1950s TV series starring Robert Stack. But so what? Even if you set aside all the fictional parts of the Ness legend, the real heroic story of Ness and his team of only 15 prohibition agents in collecting evidence against Al Capone is still very impressive and worthy of naming a federal building in DC for Ness to honor his memory.
They could not trust the Chicago Police Department of that era, so they asked President Herbert Hoover for special help. Hoover gave the job ot taking down Capone to his Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon who in turn gave the job to Treasury employee Eliot Ness and his special team. The team was called The Untouchables because they could not be bribed as other officers were in those days.
I share Ed Burke's objections to some legends about the Untouchables that were generated by both the 1957 TV series and the 1987 movie starring Kevin Costner that was directed by Brian DePalma and written by Cook County native David Mamet. The awful fictional moments in the movie invent a police officer played by Sean Connery who never existed at all and far worse, accuse Ness of the personal murder of Frank Nitti by throwing him off the roof of the Criminal Courts Building just so the movie could have a dramatic ending.
The real Frank "The Enforcer" Nitti killed himself on March 19, 1943 near the railroad tracks on Cicero Avenue not far from his home in Riverside. Ness was in Washington, DC at the time.
So yes I agree with Ed Burke that there are often legends about Chicago history that TV and movies get very wrong. But City Council members would be foolish not to support Senators Kirk and Durbin in their effort to honor the real life of Eliot Ness who served Chicago and his nation well with both honorable and courageous public service.