Say it ain’t so, Eliot.
Oh, heck, I’ll say it for him: It ain’t so.
Or so I’ve decided to believe.
The reputation of Eliot Ness, the famous Prohibition agent, has taken a lot of hits over the years. Everybody knows by now he didn’t really take down Al Capone — a tax accountant did — and he was a shameless media hotdog who later, ironically, developed a drinking problem.
But Ness’ reputation as a straight arrow who could not be bought — the most untouchable of the Untouchables — has never seriously been challenged.
In an article in the October issue of Smithsonian magazine, based on a newly released 100-page FBI file on Ness, the writer Erick Trickey tells the story of the time Ness may have tried — just possibly — to protect an illegal basement moonshine operation on the South Side.
The allegation was detailed in an internal report written by another Prohibition Bureau agent. It goes like this:
On Aug. 25, 1933, a team of agents raided the South Side home of Joe Kulak, who ran a 200-gallon still in his basement. Kulak handed the agents two notes that, he said, gave his still protection.
The first note, typewritten, read “This place is O.K.’d by the United States Senator’s Office” and was signed by an aide to Sen. J. Hamilton Lewis of Illinois. The second note, written in pencil, carried the same message but added Sen. Lewis’ Chicago office address and the words: “Or see E. Ness.”
When the Prohibition Bureau later called Kulak in for questioning about this, he brought along a friend, Walter Nowicki, an elevator operator in the building where Sen. Lewis kept an office. Nowicki explained that he’d gotten to know the aide to Lewis while giving him elevator rides and eventually paid the aide $25 to $30 to protect Kulak’s still.
On one occasion, Nowicki the elevator operator said, Eliot Ness was standing right there and listening when he asked the aide to Lewis to put Kulak’s still “in a safe position.”
The aide “patted Mr. Ness on the back and told him to give the boys a break,” Nowicki recalled. Then Nowicki wrote down the still’s address and gave it to Ness, who tucked it in his coat pocket.
What did Ness say?
“He said that would be OK,” Nowicki said.
Later, Nowicki said, he approached Ness in the building’s lobby and asked about Kulak’s still. Ness replied, “If the police bothered Joe, there will be no case on it.”
Did Nowicki offer Ness protection money?