The Last Untouchable
updated 07/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 07/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Raised on Chicago's West Side, Wolff was a tough, 6'2", 220-lb. rookie federal agent when he was assigned to Ness's newly formed crime team in 1929. Nicknamed "Wallpaper," he says, because he used to "confiscate everything but" during raids on speakeasies, he worked with Ness until 1933, went on to hold a variety of law-enforcement jobs and eventually opened his own restaurant and cocktail lounge. Tracked down by the producers of The Untouchables, Wolff helped coach actor Kevin Costner in his role as Ness. Now that he is "out of the woodwork," he agreed to talk about his crime-fighting days of more than half a century ago.
We were all tough guys, I guess. Eliot Ness was young like me when I first met him. He became a tough guy, but a tough guy with class. He was naive when he started, but he learned. He got a little rougher 'cause it got a little dangerous.
The bosses in Washington had told him to get Capone. Ness recruited a beat policeman named Malone, the guy Sean Connery played in the movie. Malone wasn't on the take. That's why Ness got him assigned to the squad. Malone knew all the places and got Ness all the information. When they killed Malone, they butchered him up pretty good. They not only shot him up, they cut him up too. They wanted to make a real specimen of him.
I was working in the hills of Kentucky trying to close down the open-air beer stills when I asked to be transferred back to Chicago. I went to work for Ness shortly after his group started. I didn't meet all of the men on his squad, and they didn't meet me. I worked undercover, so after I met Ness I didn't go to the office no more. He had my phone number, and I had a number to call him. I wasn't buddy-buddy with him. I wasn't buddy-buddy with nobody. I was just doing my job.
I used to follow the malt trucks and report in about the guys who were selling the sugar for the stills. Then one day Ness talked to me and said he heard about a boat on the Chicago River that was a floating saloon. So I went over and made a buy and had a drink on this boat. Then I seized the boat, put everyone under arrest and confiscated everything, boat and all. I took it by myself. I always worked by myself. I took one big speakeasy where all the big shots and actors and actresses used to hang out. I took another one, a beautiful place with carpeting and everything, that was owned by a union official. He later went to jail and became an informer. Once they gave me seven places to take in two weeks' time and I took six.
Naturally I'd make a few buys in each place so I had solid evidence. I used to take a syringe and take some whiskey out of the glass and put it in a little glass tube that I kept in my pocket. Then I took it to the chemist 'cause he had to analyze what proof it was. But in a small joint I'd make one buy and take the joint right away. In the little junky places along Madison Street—the kind of small joints where they used to sell canned heat and a lot of people got poisoned—I'd go from one to another a few blocks away and make three, four busts a day. Sometimes it was hard, believe me, but there were some funny things too. Once I busted a place that had what was called sacramental wine. It wasn't. They got their permits from the rabbis by tricking them.
I never had to kill anyone. And no one ever threatened me. They had respect for agents. One time on the street I met a guy I closed down. I says, "How are ya?" He said, "How can I be? You put me out of business." I says, "That was my job." He said, "I understand that." After Prohibition he had a beautiful restaurant in the same place, and I would go there to have dinner. I always paid for my meals, and we became friendly.
Ness used to call me at my home in the middle of the night sometimes and say, "Get ready, we're going someplace." It was a 24-hour detail. Government agents at that time never got overtime. So he'd call, and we'd drive over to Indiana or up to Wisconsin to take a roadhouse or still.
I never pulled a gun unless I was going to use it. I had to pull it once on a South Side raid. We were after a fella delivering a truckload of booze. We got a tip from an informant. I never liked informants, but I had to use them. Anyway, we got a tip, so we moved in near the warehouse and we saw a policeman driving one of the trucks. As soon as we went in on them, the policeman started shooting. He was the son-in-law of the guy who owned the whiskey. One of our agents got shot in the leg, but we seized all the whiskey. It was a good raid. And the rookie cop son-in-law of the whiskey owner got three and a half years.
Those days were better than they are today. There's more crime today. You could leave a door open then and walk away, and nobody'd bother you. The gangs were fighting amongst themselves, but they didn't bother the public. There were gangs in all parts of the city, but I don't want to mention no names 'cause they have children and grandchildren and I don't want to put a tag on them.
I met Capone only once, in Hot Springs, Ark. I was still working for Ness at the time, but I was on vacation. I had already blown my cover by going to testify in court. Capone came over to me, and he says, "Oh, so you're Wolff. I heard nice things about ya." See, I was a maverick agent. I would never take a place without a warrant. I never violated a law to enforce one. So Capone says, "I understand you never framed anybody. You let them make bond. You're a nice fella. I wish I had guys like you working for me." I said, "You can't have me; I'll live longer."
The papers used to write him up all the time. They called him a Robin Hood, and everybody knew he used to give baskets to poor people at Christmas time. I never saw him kill anybody. Forget about the movie; the movie is Hollywood. Personally, Capone seemed all right with me. But when I met him, I said I didn't condone what he was doing. I got my thing to do, and he got his thing to do.
They wanted me to be an adviser the time they did the Untouchables TV series, but I didn't want to do the TV show because I knew it would be phony. So I'd watch the TV series and laugh to myself. Robert Stack was nowhere near as good as Kevin Costner in acting like Ness. He was rough from the start. When the movie people took me out of the closet to show Costner how to act like Ness, I told him Ness was passive. I told him how to walk. Ness walked slowly. And I showed Costner how to use the gun. I said, "When you take a gun out, be ready to use it, because it's your life or their life." Parts of this movie was pretty real, but there was also a lot of Hollywood that they had to put in. But I enjoyed the movie. Costner did a good job. I was a good teacher.