Untouchables (law enforcement)

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The Untouchables were a group of nine U.S. federal law-enforcement agents led by Eliot Ness, who, from 1929 to 1931, worked to end Al Capone's illegal activities by aggressively enforcing Prohibition laws against Capone and his organization. In their conduct, they became legendary for being fearless and incorruptible, earning the nickname "The Untouchables". Due to its significant success and enduring legacy, the unit has subsequently had a significant impact on the techniques and methods of modern organized-crime-based law enforcement units.


Upon taking office in 1929, the 31st President of the United States, Herbert Hoover, charged his Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, with bringing down Al Capone. The federal government approached the problem by attacking Capone's organization on two fronts. The first front was mounted by criminal investigators of the Treasury's Bureau of Internal Revenue, who would examine the financial records of Capone and his subordinates to see if they could be prosecuted for tax evasion. This unit of IRS agents was headed by Frank J. Wilson under the close supervision of Elmer Irey.

The second front would consist of a special unit of the Bureau of Prohibition, a branch of the United States Department of the Treasury and later the Department of Justice, who would attack Capone's beer and liquor empire by raiding speakeasies, stills, and, particularly, breweries. The unit's main purpose was twofold: to make it apparent that law enforcement was indeed still active against Capone, whose opulent lifestyle was turning many people against him as the Great Depression progressed, and to deprive Capone of his sources of the income he needed to pay the corrupting graft that was his greatest protection against prosecution. Eliot Ness was chosen to head this elite squad.

Raids against stills and breweries began immediately, and within six months, Ness claimed to have seized breweries worth over one million dollars (the equivalent of US$13,600,000 today).[1] An extensive wire-tapping operation was the main source of information for the raids.

An attempt by Capone to bribe Ness's agents was seized on by Ness for publicity, leading to the media nickname "The Untouchables."[2]

With the conclusion of the Capone case, "The Untouchables" were disbanded and Ness, in recognition of his work, was promoted to Chief Investigator of the Prohibition Bureau for Chicago.


Because corruption was endemic among law-enforcement agents, Ness combed records of all Prohibition Agents to create a reliable team, initially of 50, later reduced to 15, and finally to just 11 men.

Initial members[edit]

The initial nine, aside from Ness himself, were:

  • William Gardner, Native American member of the squad, an expert at undercover work, former athlete, former soldier, and lawyer; he was the oldest member, at age 50.
  • Lyle Chapman, a former Colgate University football player, tactician, and investigator.
  • Barney Cloonan, a muscular Irish agent known for his strength.
  • Martin J. Lahart, another muscular Irish boxer and sports enthusiast.
  • Thomas J. Friel, a former Pennsylvania state trooper.
  • Mike King, a deceptively ordinary looking analyst and tactician.
  • Joseph Dickenson Leeson, an expert driver with the specialty of tailing.
  • Paul W. Robsky, a short and unobtrusive wire-tapping expert. (He later collaborated with Oscar Fraley, as Ness had on The Untouchables before him, on The Last Of The Untouchables, a companion book to Ness's own chronicles.[citation needed])
  • Samuel M. Seager, a former Sing Sing death row Corrections Officer.

Subsequent members[edit]

They were followed by:

Also deserving of mention is:

  • Frank Basile, a former convict whom Ness reformed, but who was killed in action.[3] Basile, who was Ness's friend, sometime assistant, and driver, was often present at the brewery raids,[2][4] even though technically he was not an agent.[5]


External links[edit]