Federal agent Eliot Ness received wide acclaim for his efforts to put Prohibition-era gangster Al Capone in prison. The acclaim has included portrayals of Ness by Robert Stack on television and Kevin Costner in a movie.
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Federal agent Eliot Ness received wide acclaim for his efforts to put Prohibition-era gangster Al Capone in prison. The acclaim has included portrayals of Ness by Robert Stack on television and Kevin Costner in a movie.

Eliot Ness: Hero or hyped?

By Don Babwin

The Associated Press

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CHICAGO – In the pantheon of Chicago crime fighters, nobody has the worldwide reputation of Eliot Ness.

He’s the prohibition agent who brought down Al Capone, the principled lawman in a city awash in corruption, the relentless investigator portrayed by actors Robert Stack and Kevin Costner and the legend who is said to have inspired comic-strip detective Dick Tracy.

Almost six decades after his death, Ness is still so admired that Illinois’ two U.S. senators want to name a federal building after him in Washington, D.C.

But a Chicago alderman, citing a recent Capone biography, concludes that Ness had about as much to do with putting the gangster behind bars as Mrs. O’Leary’s cow had to do with starting the Great Chicago Fire. He also is trying to convince the senators to drop the whole idea.

“There are literally hundreds of heroic law enforcement officials” who would be deserving of the honor, “but Eliot Ness is simply not one of them,” said Ed Burke, who hopes the senators will abandon the proposal much the way the council formally cleared Mrs. O’Leary’s cow at Burke’s urging.

Ness’ career has always been imbued with a mix of fact and fiction. He did go after Capone, but his role probably was less heroic than many Americans imagine.

Ness, Burke said, “is a Hollywood myth,” and to honor him would be a disservice to others.

There are no signs the senators are considering backing down from a resolution to put Ness’ name on the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives headquarters.

Capone “believed that every man had his price,” U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said in January in a statement with fellow U.S. Sens. Mark Kirk of Illinois and Sherrod Brown of Ohio. But for Ness and his law-enforcement team known as “The Untouchables,” “no amount of money could buy their loyalty or sway their dedication to Chicago’s safety.”

The ATF declined to comment on the issue. Judging by the agency’s website, where Ness is the first entry in the “history” section, its support of Ness remains unwavering.