We all knew we were sitting on a keg of dynamite with no means of determining the length of the fuse.
—Eliot Ness on provoking Al Capone
With a degree in business administration and a year’s experience investigating dull insurance claims, Eliot Ness, 23, signs on with the Treasury Department as a prohibition agent. He swears an oath to “defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” As a prohibition agent in Chicago during the roaring ‘20s, Ness’s priority was to enforce the 18th Amendment to the Constitution (the Volstead Act) that prohibited manufacturing, selling, trading, and transporting intoxicating beverages.
His main nemesis and the focus of his team (known as the Untouchables because they would not be bribed) was gangster Al Capone. Capone had cornered the market on alcohol in Chicago, killing off rival gang members, and making himself immensely rich in the process. By 1929, Capone had become a household name—and President Hoover wanted him taken down. While IRS agents investigated Capone’s ill-gotten gains, Ness and the Untouchables focused on busting his breweries, shuttering his speakeasies, and cutting off his shipments of foreign booze. In 1931, Capone was convicted of income tax evasion and sentenced to 11 years in federal prison. He was never tried for the numerous prohibition violations Ness and his team had racked up against him, but their efforts put a huge dent in his operations.
Check out Eliot Ness’s Oath of Office at the National Archives, http://research.archives.gov/description/597835.