“He doesn’t wear special clothes, or carry a fancy gun, or limp,” explained actor Robert Stack, “he’s just a guy facing death without heroics.” That’s how most in the 21st century remember the Norwegian-American lawman Eliot Ness, foe of mobster Al Capone and leader of the team of Prohibition-era agents known as The Untouchables, and it was certainly the way Stack portrayed Ness in the first of many cinematic adaptations of his story. But his memoir, The Untouchables (1957), didn’t mention the sadness of Ness’ later life. Instead it focused on what Ness’ friend Joe Phelps described as “‘real gangbuster stuff. Killings, raids, and the works.’”
The Ballad of Eliot Ness
Eliot Ness was born in 1903 to Norwegian-born parents in Chicago, Illinois in the south Chicago neighborhood of Kensington, where his parents owned a bakery. Known for his personal style, in elementary school Ness was nicknamed “Elegant Mess” for his attention to his appearance. Ness graduated from the University of Chicago, where he studied political science and criminology. He began his career as an insurance investigator but soon joined law enforcement as an officer of the growing and powerful Federal Bureau of Prohibition, a federal agency created to enforce the 1919 National Prohibition Act (commonly known as the Volstead Act). In Chicago alone the agency hired 1,000 agents to counter the exploding newly-illegal (and increasingly, more profitable) business of alcohol production, transport, and sales.
The underground economy was, not surprisingly, dominated by underground businessmen. In Chicago, this meant the Mafia. The Chicago Outfit, as it was known, was led by gangster Al Capone, an Italian-American who was born in New York City in 1899 and moved to Chicago in his twenties. Like every other Mafia leader at the time, Capone recognized Prohibition as an incredible money making opportunity, since Americans still wanted to drink, despite its illegality. Benefitting from its proximity to Canada, where alcohol was legal, Capone built a thriving bootlegging business in Chicago. Capone’s operation functioned especially well thanks to the illicit cooperation of Chicago Mayor William Hale Thompson and the Chicago Police Department, both of whom benefited financially from Capone’s trade. Capone was well known to the people of Chicago, regularly appearing in public at Chicago White Sox games and making donations to local charities, cultivating his image as a modern day Robin Hood.
In 1930 the 27-year-old Eliot Ness was selected to create a new task force targeting Capone in an attempt to arrest him on charges of violating the Volstead Act. Due to the extreme level of corruption in Chicago law enforcement, Ness spent weeks interviewing and researching potential candidates for the team, ultimately settling on ten officers to assist him in bringing down Capone. The Chicago Outfit immediately began trying to bribe Ness and his team, offering to leave two $1,000 bills on his desk each week if he agreed to look the other way. Ness refused, thus earning the nickname “The Untouchables” for its incorruptibility.
Ness and his squad began investigating Capone’s network through the use of telephone wiretapping. They soon started targeting illegal bootlegging stills and transport systems all over the Chicago area. Smashing thousands of bottles of gin, whiskey, and cheap grain alcohol in their raids, the efforts of The Untouchables succeeded in depriving Capone of nearly $9 million from his bootlegging business. By 1931 Ness and his team produced evidence of 5,000 violations of the Volstead Act by the Chicago Outfit and were ready to take Capone to court. But Assistant Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt realized the government had a stronger case with Capone’s income tax evasion.
Found guilty of 22 counts of federal tax evasion, Capone was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison and ordered to pay over $250,000 in back taxes and fines. Capone was eventually sent to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, where he was released in 1939 due to eroded mental capabilities, a consequence of syphilis. Capone became one of the first Americans to be treated with penicillin in 1942 and, although he retained only the mental facilities of a 12-year-old, he was able to live on for seven more years in this diminished state, eventually dying at home in Palm Island, Florida, with his wife and family.
After Capone’s sentencing, Ness appeared to be poised for continued success in law enforcement and politics. Appointed Chief Investigator of the Prohibition Bureau for Chicago, even after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 he continued to pursue illegal moonshine operations and continued his “war” on the Mafia. Ness moved to Cleveland, Ohio where he was appointed the city’s Safety Director. His career flourished for a time and he ran unsuccessfully for Mayor of Cleveland in 1947. But eventually he went into private industry and, after a series of business debacles, was left nearly penniless and virtually forgotten by the early 1950s.
It was in 1956 that Oscar Fraley, a syndicated sportswriter for United Press, was introduced by a mutual friend to a printing industry salesman by the name of Eliot Ness. Once hailed nationwide as a crime-fighting hero, Ness was now a diminished man who kept a low profile. After hearing some of Ness’ stories of his Prohibition days, however, Fraley agreed to co-author Ness’ autobiography. Entitled The Untouchables, the Ness-Fraley book sold over a million copies and was soon produced as a TV show for CBS in 1959 starring Robert Stack, the first of three TV series and one feature film based on the Depression-era battle between Ness and Capone.
Fraley filled Ness with visions of success for the book, telling him he could make some real money off his story, to which Ness reportedly replied, “I could use it.” Sadly, Eliot Ness did not live to see even the publication of his autobiography. He died of a heart attack at his home in Coudersport, Pennsylvania in 1957, just after approving the final draft of his book. At the time of his death, his estate was $8,000 in debt. He outlived Al Capone by just ten years.
Sloopers and Other Norwegian Immigrants in America
In 1825, following a 14-week journey from Stavanger, six Norwegian families arrived in the New York harbor aboard a sloop, the Restaurationen. Though in the previous century some adventurous Norwegians had come to America, this was the first group of number, so the sloop was considered the Mayflower moment for Norwegian immigrants arriving in the United States. Seeking religious freedom, the group was taken under the wings of local Quakers and the “sloopers,” as they would come to be called, established a community in upstate New York. Soon thereafter they migrated to Illinois where they set roots in Fox Settlement, known modern day as Norway, Illinois.
Word of the success of the sloopers in the United States reached their Norwegian homeland through letters and publications and by the end of the 1860s, despite the American Civil War, there were 40,000 Norwegians residing in the United States. Two decades later, in the 1880s, 176,000 Norwegians, approximately 11% of the population of Norway, decided to make America their home. The families began establishing themselves in the rural Midwest and into the Dakota. Eventually the urban-dwellers followed in substantial numbers, gravitating to the cities of the Great Lakes and East Coast. The Norwegian immigration trend continued until 1924 when changes to immigration laws curbed the newcomers to a few thousand per year.
If you are one of the slooper descendants who have been able to trace their ancestry back to those six brave families in 1825, the book “The Sloopers: Their Ancestry & Posterity” by J. Hart Rosdail can provide substantial details about them and their ancestors in Norway and is available at numerous libraries across the country.
Though records in the Midwest were scarce in nature, once you are able to trace back to your immigrant ancestors in United States records and can identify an approximate time of arrival, you may be able to locate them in the records of Norway. Fortunately, after 1867, Norwegian emigration records are plentiful and well maintained, as the police began keeping the records. Indexes of these records, as well as other emigration-related records, such as passports and passenger lists for major ports are available on the National Archives of Norway website, Digitalarkivet. Digital images of these records are also available on microfilm and are held by the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, encompassing the following ports: Arendal (1903-1930), Bergen (1874-1930), Fredrikstad (1883-1890) Kristiansund (1882-1930), Larvik (1887-1930), Sandefjord (1904-1921), Trondheim (1867-1930), Kristiansand (1873-1930), Kristiania (1867-1930), Oslo (1867-1930) and Tinn (1837-1907). The emigration registers can include a tremendous amount of genealogically-pertinent information, including occupations, birth dates, places, and even their relationship to other family members. A word of caution — be mindful of unique abbreviations when searching indexes and try shortened versions of names or wildcards.
Once you have located your antecedents in the emigration files, the world is your oyster, as Norwegian records are ample. Best of luck on your quest for expanding ancestral knowledge!
Expert Corner, Tammi
Tammi has been conducting genealogical research for over a decade, specializing in Norwegian and Scandinavian heritage and immigrants to the Upper Midwest in the United States. She is skilled in accessing, transcribing, and translating historical church and census records on both sides of the Atlantic.
Norwegian research in Norwegian records, as well as conducting United States research to identify birth locations in their motherland.
Question: Generally, do Norwegians and those of Norwegian descent traditionally follow any special naming conventions?
Yes, there were many traditional naming practices used in Norway, some of which are detailed below:
Until the late nineteenth century, most Norwegians did not utilize fixed surnames. Instead, they used patronymic naming patterns,in which the children were named after their father, with the suffix -sen for males and -datter for females. For instance, the sons of Anders would go by Anderssen, while daughters by Andersdatter. The patronymic name was followed by a place name – either the person’s birthplace or current residence, which could be the name of the farm or their local parish. When a person moved to a new place (particularly farms), they would be known by the new place name. When women married, they were still known by their patronym, but would take the place name of their married residence. This practice changed during the early 20th century (or when a family emigrated to America.)
During the transition period, many chose to use their patronyms as middle names (dropping the “sen” or “datter”) and used their place name as a surname, while others dropped the place name and used their patronyms as their surname. (This is why so many Norwegian-Americans have last names like Anderson, Hanson, Peterson, etc.)
It was also common practice, during this same time period, to name a first-born son after his paternal grandfather and the second-born son after his maternal grandfather. Thus, family names repeated every-other generation, e.g. grandfather Hans Anderson, father Anders Hanson, and grandson Han Anderson. This is another reason place names were used – to distinguish grandfather from grandson.
Less frequently, the same naming pattern was followed with daughters, e.g. the first-born daughter named after her maternal grandmother, and a second-born daughter after her paternal grandmother.
Siblings with the same name — when a child died, it was common practice to name the next child born of the same gender after their deceased sibling.
Question: When did Norwegians begin immigrating to the United States in great numbers?
The first Norwegian immigrants began arriving in America in the 1820s, however, the first major wave came after the American Civil War (mid-1860s to mid-1870s). A second wave came between 1880 and the early 1890s and the last major wave occurred during the first decade of the twentieth century. The majority settled in the Midwest, due to territories and states being open to settlement at the time and chain migration – family members joining those who settled earlier.
Question: What are the three biggest mistakes commonly made by individuals researching their Norwegian ancestors?
Searching Norwegian records utilizing only the name their ancestor(s) used in America, as names were often changed during or after immigration.
Not searching for alternate spellings of names. (The Norwegian language changed over time, varied by region, and was subject to various record keepers and the indexed transcriptions of difficult-to-read script.)
Stopping research when United States records have seemingly been exhausted. Norway maintained very good records, most of which have been scanned and/or digitized.
Question: Were emigration records maintained in Norway? If so, what languages might one need to know in order to read these records?
Yes, emigration records can be found within Norwegian parish records. Norwegian has many dialects and has changed over time. The country was united with Denmark and then Sweden before gaining independence in 1905. Therefore, a knowledge of Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish are helpful in translating older records.
Question: Were there any Norwegian historical publications (i.e. newsletters, newspapers, journals, directories) which can be beneficial in genealogical research?
Norwegian “Bygdebøk” (plural “Bygdebøker”) are books containing local, farm, and genealogical history. They are veritable treasure troves of historic information. Most include historic maps and photos and many list the residents of each farm or croft within the book’s geographical area. They are printed in Norwegian in large bound volumes. Few have been digitized, but both the University of North Dakota and the University of Minnesota hold many within their special collections.
Question: In regards to records, have there been any new discoveries or upcoming collection releases that we should be aware of?
The National Archives of Norway maintains an online Digital Archive (“Digitalarkivet”) which contains a multitude of historical records and photos. Portions of the site are available in English. Some scanned records have also been transcribed, making them more searchable than others. The digital collections are constantly expanding and improving.
Question: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Norway became a Lutheran nation around the time of the Reformation (early 1500s). As part of the state church, each parish was required by law to keep records by the late 1600s, although many started before that time. An incredible number of records have survived the centuries and most early records have been scanned. The digital archives allow researchers to view copies of these primary resources possible. However, one needs to have some experience with the various forms of the older Norwegian language, terminology, and handwritten script in order to successfully translate and transcribe them.
Internet Archive Wayback Machine (https://web.archive.org/palitmap/bios/Ness__Eliot.html: accessed 20 October 2021), “Ness, Eliot;” citing, Penn State University, Pennsylvania Center for the Book (http://pabook.libraries.psu.edu/ : accessed 20 October 2021), “Ness, Eliot.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (https://vault.fbi.gov/ : accessed 20 October 2021), “Eliot Ness.”
Matthew Pearl, Vanity Fair (https://www.vanityfair.com/ : accessed 20 October 2021), “Behind The Untouchables: The Making of the Memoir That Reclaimed a Prohibition-Era Legend.”
Case Western Reserve University (https://case.edu/ : accessed 20 October 2021), “Ness, Eliot.”
Cleveland Police Museum (https://www.clevelandpolicemuseum.org/: accessed 20 October 2021), “Eliot Ness and his role in Cleveland history.”
Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/ : accessed 20 October 2021), “Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History: The Norwegians.”
Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Capone’s criminal record in 1932.jpg : accessed 20 October 2021), digital image of Al Capone's criminal record from U.S. Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.Department of Justice, FBI, 1931-1939, “File:Capone’s criminal record in 1932.jpg;” image uploaded by user Officer.
Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eliotness.jpg : accessed 20 October 2021), digital image of b&w photograph of Eliot Ness, ca. 1933, “File:Eliotness.jpg;” image uploaded by user Robotico.
National Archives and Records Administration, Textual Records Division, digital images, National Archives (https://catalog.archives.gov/ : accessed 20 October 2021), digital image from original paper document, Official Civilian Personnel Files, 1921-1979, U.S. Civil Service Commission, 1871-2001, “Oath of Office for Eliot Ness,” 1926, Identifier: 597835.