2016-10-15 / Front Page

Writer in Potter County tracing Eliot Ness


Matthew Pearl Matthew Pearl A magazine writer from Boston is in Potter County this week trying to track down details of the “The Untouchables,” a largely fictional book, TV series and movie that was created largely in Coudersport.

Matthew Pearl is tracing the activities of famed crime-fighter Eliot Ness after he moved to Coudersport in 1956. During the ensuing 16 months, Ness collaborated with Oscar Fraley, a New York journalist, on a rough manuscript recalling Ness’s aggressive crackdown on organized crime kingpin Al Capone in gangland Chicago.

Ness died before the book was published, while Fraley profited handsomely as “The Untouchables” became a TV series starring Robert Stack, a 1987 Paramount Pictures epic film with Kevin Costner playing Ness, and a syndicated television series of the same name in the 1990s.

“I’m looking for anyone who knew Eliot Ness or remembers meeting Ness or Oscar Fraley,” Pearl told Endeavor News. “If you or a family member of yours knew Ness -- if you had even the briefest interaction -- I’d love to swing by and hear about it, or speak on the phone if that’s preferable to you.”

Pearl is staying at the Westgate Inn until mid-day Sunday. He can be reached during his visit or afterwards by email at matthewpearl@gmail.com.

“The wonderful Paul Heimel, who wrote the definitive biography on Eliot Ness, has been a great help already and I have been impressed with how friendly so many Coudersport area folks have been over the phone,” the writer said. “Thanks so much to those who have helped.”

Eliot Ness in Coudersport

A famous crime-fighter whose name still surfaces today for his attack on crime boss Al “Scarface” Capone, Eliot Ness spent the final months of his life in Coudersport, fighting for the survival of a sinking business enterprise.

Why Potter County? The answer dates back to Ness’s early adulthood, when he embarked on a business career before entering federal service as part of a team charged with ridding Chicago of menacing crime figures epitomized by Capone.

Two decades later, he returned to the business world with mixed results. By the time he arrived in Potter County, the 53-year-old Ness was deeply in debt, desperate to support his wife Elisabeth and their 10-yearold son, Robert. He was fighting what proved to be a losing battle as an officer of the North Ridge Industrial Corporation.

North Ridge was built around a formula for watermarking personal checks and other documents. It was hailed as a solution to the serious forgery and counterfeiting problems that had plagued the business world in the 1950s. The formula left a translucent seal on paper.

Ness was recruited by North Ridge for whatever name recognition and credibility he might bring.

North Ridge was on shaky financial ground and its products far from market-tested when its executives brought the business from a plush office complex in Cleveland to Coudersport in 1956.

They met with the local business community, seeking investors for a production plant and an ambitious marketing plan. Local headlines suggested that North Ridge was the salvation for the area’s stagnant economy.

Two of North Ridge’s executives, Joe Phelps and Frank Shampanore, had previously spent time in Potter County, tending to their financial stakes in the natural gas and mining industries. They called upon those contacts to buy North Ridge stock.

Many community leaders – Drs. George and Herman Mosch, Dr. A. F. Domaleski, Ferd Gunzburger and others -- invested and two local banks issued loans. A production facility opened in late summer 1956 at the corner of South Main and Oak streets (modern site of the Zito Media business office).

Eliot, Elisabeth and Robert Ness moved into a home on Third Street, which still stands today behind Northwest Savings Bank.

The Nesses didn’t take long to work themselves into the community fabric. Elisabeth was a talented sculptor whose works remain on display today at museums. She found others in the community who shared her love of art.

Eliot enjoyed small-town living. He often walked with Robert to the Olympic Restaurant and Confectionary for a fountain soda or handmade chocolate treat. He’d invite colleagues over to chat and listen to Eddie Duchin records.

Ness also frequented several local taverns, particularly the Old Hickory – now closed -- on North Main Street.

North Ridge Industrial Corporation was doomed. As orders for watermarked checks remained few and far between, company executives scaled back operations and began working on an exit strategy.

By that time, Ness was working with professional writer Oscar Fraley on a book that sensationalized his battles against the Capone outfit in Chicago. He was diagnosed by Coudersport physician Dr. George Mosch with a heart condition and advised to avoid stress. He was also prescribed a sedative.

Recognizing the potential gold mine that Ness’s exploits presented, Fraley met with Ness on several occasions at the Hotel Crittenden to review scrapbooks and flesh out more details of the brewery raids and dragnets.

When Ness’s memory failed him, Fraley filled in the blanks with his own vivid imagination for a book to be titled “The Untouchables.”

The premise behind the title was legitimate. Ness had shown incredible courage and determination in battling Al Capone’s forces, refusing bribes and cutting into the crime outfit’s economic lifeblood with his raids.

Late on the afternoon of May 16, 1957, Eliot Ness left his office complaining of a headache and walked home. He went immediately to the kitchen sink, where he opened the cold water faucet, reached for a glass and collapsed on the floor. Dr. Mosch pronounced Eliot Ness dead of a heart attack.

Ness’s estate consisted of an aging automobile, some North Ridge stock, and little else. In fact, the Ness family was insolvent. Within weeks of his death, Elisabeth and Robert moved back to Cleveland.

It wasn’t long before the Ness/Fraley book caught the attention of Hollywood.

Meanwhile, back in Coudersport, North Ridge stock certificates can still be found in attics and garages, worthless on their face, but valuable because of Ness’s autograph.

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