Incorruptible in CoudersportJul 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By Maggie Barnes
You can be forgiven for the double take in the center of Coudersport, Pennsylvania.
The Eliot Ness Museum? Here?
Nothing against Coudersport, which is the quintessential American small town, with a lively business district, unique shopping and dining, vintage housing stock, and a stately courthouse flanked by mature trees. But it seems an odd choice for a museum devoted to “America’s most famous lawman.”
Explaining it all is the mission of Steve Green, the museum’s president and CEO. “A lot of people think they know the story of Eliot Ness,” Steve says. “But some of what they know is myth, or just factually inaccurate.”
Steve has a crop of wavy white hair and the sparkling eyes of a man on a mission. The museum is his creation—he’s assisted by a band of volunteers and donors. It’s a storefront on a corner in the heart of downtown. You can spot it by the cutouts of flapper girls in the windows.
“Ness had three distinct phases of his career,” says Steve, in the happy cadence of a tour guide. “Chicago and Cleveland are the spots a lot of people know. And in those cities he was charged with fighting corruption and cleaning the bad guys out.”
Ness was not an FBI agent, as is popularly believed. It was his aspiration, according to Steve, but he was actually an agent of the Treasury Department’s Prohibition Division. This agency would eventually morph into the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives that we know now as the ATF. Treasury doesn’t sound nearly as glamorous, but that money angle was what nabbed Ness’s most famous collar—gangster Al Capone who, despite being a murderer, went to prison for tax evasion rather than for shooting people.
Both men feature prominently in the museum, which displays memorabilia and vehicles from the time and places their lives intersected. It features a 1925 Stutz touring car representative of Al Capone’s car, a 1929 Chrysler sedan similar to Ness’s car, a 1928 Ford Model AA bootleg booze-running truck like Capone used, and a 1950 Hudson Commodore convertible reflective of what would have been driven during Ness’s time in Coudersport. The open concept museum even has a replica of the Al Capone Soup Kitchen—the gangster’s futile effort to redeem his criminal name.
Vintage furniture makes it look like Ness just walked out of the room, maybe to “let this jamoke [thug] get his stories straight!” Photographs, police and court documents, clothing, and firearms are laid out in a comfortable space that encourages you to linger. The more you read, the more you say, “I didn’t know that!”
Case in point—there is a connection between Ness and Stouffer’s frozen food.
But back to Coudersport. The final phase of Ness’s life saw him leave the public eye and make a foray into the business world, although he did not stray far from law enforcement. He was recruited by the North Guaranty Paper Corporation as the company was developing a watermark to secure legal documents and protect against forgery. The invitation brought Ness to Coudersport. The business did not succeed, and that might have been the end of his story.
Luckily for history, Ness spent a lot of time in Coudersport meeting with a writer named Oscar Fraley at the Crittenden Hotel (which is still standing across the street from the museum). Fraley interviewed Ness about his career; the meetings resulted in the book The Untouchables. That, in turn, became a hit television series and a 1987 movie starring Kevin Costner as the lawman.
After only about a year in the community (as best the museum can determine), Ness perished tragically at age fifty-four, and in a relatively ordinary way, in a house in Coudersport that you can see from the museum. He collapsed and died at the kitchen sink while getting a glass of water. He would never know that his work, his approach to law enforcement, his very name would become synonymous with integrity.
“He was incorruptible,” Steve says. “Honest as the day is long. He was the perfect lawman.”
Current ATF agents even make the pilgrimage to the museum to learn more about Ness, and the agency participates in the festival.
Ah, the festival! Ness is celebrated in the annual gathering that bears his name. The third weekend of July sees downtown Coudersport transported back to the roaring twenties. Costumes abound, the businesses decorate, and, in less than three days, the essence of the relationship between Ness and nemesis Al Capone comes to life in the streets. Capone and his band of baddies take over the town on Friday complete with shootouts. Ness rides to the rescue on Saturday, and Capone is tried in the courthouse on Sunday. The music and cars are historically accurate. There is even a speakeasy to illegally quench your thirst.
The museum also includes a lot of local history that may even surprise the locals. Steve manages to combine entertainment and education in such a way that you learn some history and are utterly delighted at the same time. Sometimes, a wedding party pops in to have their pictures taken amongst the collection of vehicles, which includes a police paddy wagon. Above all, the museum salutes a man who could not be bought, bribed, or bullied.
The Eliot Ness Museum is located at 1014 Southwoods Road, right in the center of the borough. It is a 501(c)(3) charity and doesn’t charge admission, but donations are gratefully accepted. It is open by appointment and for special events like the festival. Call (814) 647-8508 to make arrangements. Check it out on Facebook and eliotnessmuseum.org.