One of the most nationally famous monuments in Lake View Cemetery is for Eliot Ness. When I first spotted it, I made a mental note of how new it looked, wondering why. It wasn’t until later that I found out that Eliot Ness didn’t come to Lake View until about 40 years after his death.
I admit that the image of Eliot Ness I grew up with was Kevin Costner in The Untouchables. For my mother’s generation, he was linked with Robert Stack, kicking ass and taking names of gangsters on tv. Eliot Ness was larger than life, heroic.
But in Cleveland, Ness’ legacy is more complicated. After his victory (or at least his association with the conviction of Al Capone), Ness ended up in Cleveland as the Public Safety Director. He cleaned up the police and fire departments and shut down many of the notorious illegal gambling venues and gangs. He even improved traffic safety. But he wasn’t able to solve the most famous case of his Cleveland career – the Kingsbury Run murders. Someone in Cleveland was murdering and butchering people and leaving their remains in a poor section of town frequented by vagrants. Only two of the dozen or so victims (there are debates about exactly whether some murders should be included) were ever identified. As the number of killings attributed to the mysterious murderer increased, Cleveland’s citizens demanded that Ness and his police force do something – but what? With incomplete and mutilated corpses that often couldn’t be identified and forensic investigation still young, the police didn’t have a lot of leads. Serial killing like this wasn’t well understood They tried, but Ness ended up resorting to ineffective strategies like arresting the homeless and then burning the shanties that lined Kingsbury Run. The actions may have deterred the killer temporarily, but they didn’t lead the police any closer to figuring out who he actually was. It does appear that Ness and his men finally identified a possible suspect in one Dr. Frank Sweeney, but there was only circumstantial evidence, the doctor was too well-connected, or both. Officially, the murders remain unsolved. After a period of time, the bodies stopped turning up, and the “Mad Butcher” appeared to have moved on or stopped.
Ness eventually resigned as Public Safety Director. His life began a slow decline – he tried his hand and business, but he did not have the knack for it that he had for law enforcement. He ran for mayor of Cleveland as an independent but lost to the popular Democratic incumbent and spent most of his savings on the campaign. The one bright spot was his marriage to third wife, Betty, and their adoption of a son, Robert. Ness died of a heart attack at home in Coudersport, Pennsylvania, in 1957.
This brings us to the travels of Eliot Ness after death. Ness was cremated, his ashes provided to his wife and son, and for forty years he had no monument or grave marker. Son Robert died of leukemia at a relatively young age in 1976 and wife Betty passed away 1977. For the next twenty years, the ashes of one of the most famous Treasury Department agents in history, his wife, and son passed from relative to relative. No one seemed to know what to do with the earthly remains of the Nesses. Eventually, someone doing research found out about this situation, and a local monument company paid to erect a monument to Ness and his family. In 1997, Ness received a full police funeral and his and his family’s ashes were spread over the pond in Lake View Cemetery, an honor not generally permitted.