Two years after detailing the efforts of Prohibition agent Eliot Ness to put Al Capone out of business in their book Scarface and the Untouchable, (review here) authors Max Allan Collins & A. Brad Schwartz follow up with what happened after Ness left Chicago. Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher: Hunting America’s Deadliest Unidentified Serial Killer at the Dawn of Modern Criminology chronicles the last decades of the G-Man’s life, when, after a brief period going after bootleggers, he was appointed Public Safety Director of the City of Cleveland in 1935.
As Safety Director, Ness basically ran the city’s police department until 1941, where in addition to instituting innovative traffic reforms, he’d also combat illegal gambling clubs, corrupt cops, and youth crime. The quality of life in Cleveland improved dramatically under Ness’s tour of duty.
But at the same time a series of gruesome “torso murders” began terrorizing the city. The so-called “Mad Butcher” liked to mutilate his various victims, and despite Ness putting together a squad to hunt down the killer (who may have been related to a politician critical of Ness), the Butcher was never brought to justice, at least officially. The murders did eventually end though.
Then things began to unravel. Conflicts with Cleveland’s homeless population and labor unions came up. Bad business ventures, an abortive run for Mayor of Cleveland and two failed marriages followed. On his third (already rocky) marriage, alcoholic, with nearly no money, Ness died of a heart attack in 1957, just months before Oscar Fraley’s book The Untouchables (an account of Ness’s war against the Capone Mob, which Ness had contributed details to Fraley) was published and subsequently made into a popular (if often inaccurate) TV series.
But despite Ness’s tragic fall, Collins & Schwartz make a good case for Ness’s accomplishments in law enforcement, traffic safety and reducing juvenile delinquency. As with the previous book, the authors debunk the inaccurate public image of Ness as a glory hound and inept lawman who took credit for others’ work via citations of official reports, newspaper accounts and their own investigations. Despite the downbeat ending, Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher is recommended for fans of compelling true crime accounts.
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