2018-08-04 / Front Page

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(Editor’s Note: Among the presenters at the inaugural Eliot Ness Fest was Scott Sroka, grandson of Joe Leeson, a real Untouchable who served under Eliot Ness. He shared his impressions with Endeavor News in this essay).

I recently told a 20-something friend that my grandfather Joe Leeson was one of Eliot Ness’s ten Untouchables.

He hadn’t heard of them.

For all the just and unjust criticism Kevin Costner’s 1987 “Untouchables” film received, it successfully kept Ness in the lexicon of American heroes and, more importantly, in the minds of the public as the honest and hardworking lawman who brought down Al Capone.

For those of us too young to remember Robert Stack’s famous portrayal of Ness, the movie brought this good-against-evil narrative to a new generation of Americans. Of course, the Untouchables’ story was originally written in Coudersport, in a room at the Hotel Crittenden, where Ness and sportswriter Oscar Fraley penned the tale that would both renew Ness’s fame and start a debate about who really “got Capone” that rages to this day.

Now, Coudersport once again has the opportunity to secure Ness’s place in the American pantheon and tell his true story, and the recent festival held in his honor there was a proud step toward that end.

The lion’s share of credit goes to Potter County Commissioner and Ness biographer Paul Heimel. His vision and sweat made the weekend-long festivities fun, informative, and a fitting tribute to the Ness legacy.

Such a celebration might get buried in Chicago or Cleveland, but Coudersport shined as the site of a wealth of Ness memories, including the last house he lived in and local residents who remember him and knew him personally.

The festival included something for everyone – a gangster shootout in the town square, “pasta with Capone,” games and bounce houses for the kids (my four-year-old son Eliot enjoyed seeing his name around town), and free showings of several Ness-related films, including the Costner classic.

There were also informative presentations by the likes of A. Brad Schwartz, whose upcoming Ness-Capone biography with author Max Allan Collins finally tells the true story of these two giants; and Rebecca McFarland, an expert on Ness’s days as Public Safety Director in Cleveland.

This year’s festival was billed as the “inaugural,” planting seeds of hope that this will become an annual tradition in Coudersport.

And it should. 

Eliot Ness’s life and work have been the subject of countless retellings, many of which are simply dead wrong.

I have spent the past eight years researching and learning about the role that Ness and his squad of agents played in ending Ca­pone’s reign of terror in Chicago.

It turns out that the pages written in the Hotel Crittenden were, for the most part, ac­curate. I hope that in the years to come, writers like Heimel, Collins, Schwartz, and myself can help to put some flesh back on the bones of these lawmen who too often have been made into caricatures of his­tory.

The festival and Cou­dersport could become a living monument and a center where Ness and the Untouchables can be studied, discussed, and celebrated.

In addition to bringing Capone to justice, Ness helped restore the pub­lic’s faith in law enforce­ment, which had been badly damaged during Prohibition.

Some of the more striking items among his papers, which are housed at the West­ern Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, are dozens of letters from or­dinary Americans thank­ing him for his public service.

The annual Eliot Ness Fest in Coudersport should become the place to go to experience his living legacy.

(Scott Leeson Sroka is an alumnus of the University of Notre Dame Law School, has served as counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, and cur­rently serves as a federal prosecutor in the District of Columbia. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not those of any institution, the United States, or the Department of Justice.)

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