The 1929 graduating class of Cleveland’s Cathedral Latin School faced a bleak economic outlook during the year of the famous stock market crash.
Some took any work they could. John J. Sullivan and a friend hopped a train west and got as far as New Mexico. John stayed there
for a year while attending The University of New Mexico before returning to Cleveland.
Like many young men with little or no means, John joined the US Army for three years. On May 25, 1934, he received an
honorable discharge. Someone evidently convinced him to apply for a police position. Seven months later, in a December 27, 1934
letter from C. Garton Swain, Secretary, Civil Service Commission. John, now residing at 1314 E 86t St., was notified that after a
review of his papers submitted in the examination for Patrolman, they had decided that his grade should be changed from 87.4% to 87.8%.
On June 27, 1936, John was appointed as a Patrolman on the Cleveland Police Department. He was immediately assigned
to “Police School”, the precursor of the present-day Cleveland Police Academy. John was 26 years old at the time and residing at 1425 E 88th St.
Within a short period of time he took the Civil Service test for Cleveland Police Sergeant. The Commission reported that he
passed the examination with a final grade of 74.308%. He was ranked 198th on the list.
With the appointment of Eliott Ness as Safety Director came a style that was successful in putting notorious
Chicago mobsters in prison. During the years of 1936 and 1938 his hand-picked squad of “Untouchable Men quickly
gained the favor of Safety Director Elliot Ness. Newspaper accounts of the years between 1936 and 1938 are full of the
exploits of these men, directed by Ness and lead by Lt. Ernest Molnar. They raided gamblers, prostitutes and bookies.
A prime target of Ness’ men were the gambling rackets in Cleveland with an initial squad of five,
he targeted the 15th Precinct; Frank Milota, Richard Scherry, Ralph Taylor, John Sullivan and Robert Feingold. William Schuller,
Sergeant Peter Allen, William Powers and Pete Merlyo later joined the "team.”
These appointments took place after Ness personally led a raid in the Eight Precinct on a “large West Side gambling joint” located at 2077 W. 25th St.,
reputedly operated by Tom McGinty. It had apparently operated freely for, as some accounts said, for ten years.
Ness deduced that somebody was being paid off. The raid caused the resignation of Captain Thomas Lenahan and the
temporary suspension of Deputy Inspector Timothy Costello.
In her cyber-book, 'Eliott Ness, the man and the myth,’ Marilyn Bardsley stated that Ness was quoted as
saying that when offices are bought with what in those days were large sums of money that the office holder was
not going to be particular about how he gets the money back. “Ness's investigation showed that new patrolmen
had only two courses to follow: "If he chose to remain honest and rigidly enforce the laws, he was 'sent to the woods' and
given the most unpleasant details, he was denied the easy money his fellow patrolmen were making and, finally,
he was repeatedly passed over for promotion. 'If, on the other hand, he 'played ball' - he enriched himself,
got the best details and won swift promotion." She continues. “The honest men on the police force took courage from
Ness's relentless pursuit of corruption. January 9, 1937, two rookie policemen, John Sullivan and William Schuler,
quietly conducted a successful gambling raid. Ness seized the opportunity to order a major campaign against gambling,
holding up the rookies as examples of activity he wanted on a continuous basis in every precinct.” A January 12, 1937
newspaper account reports gamblers moving to the Thomas Club on Dunham Rd.,
south of Broadway in Maple Hts., and the Harvard Cub, at E 42nd & Harvard Ave., in Cuyahoga Hts.
On December 4, 1938 John was formally assigned to Vice and three days later detailed to the Detective Bureau.
On December 16th he was formally appointed a Detective.
The work of the rookies, and Elliot Ness, apparently caused consternation in Cleveland. Heads rolled in the
Cleveland Police Department but when Ness departed the city, that was the end of it.
During the war years of the early 40s a housing project had been constructed on Rocky River Drive on
land south of Sheldon Road. A 1940 Individual Income and Defense Tax Return shows an income of $2,860.73.
A daughter, Marilyn was two years old and his first son, Rodger, was on. John took advantage of low rents being
offered for government workers who were laboring at the “bomber plant,” which at this writing is the International
Exposition Center on the southern fringe of Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. His children were sent to
Saint Mary’s Catholic Grade School.While living there, a fire broke out in an adjacent apartment unit.
The fearless and courageous athlete, with a passion for doing the right thing, crawled into the unit and was able
to get the family out. Unfortunately, the mother died from her injuries suffered in the fire. As memory recalls,
her husband was in the US Navy. An oil painting hung in our living room for years. Wherever we moved it always went
back up on the wall. Today, J.C. Sullivan is in possession of it. Oh, it’s not a masterpiece, sought by those who would
possesses the work of a great master. It’s not that kind of masterpiece. It’s the kind that is painted by young girls,
grateful for an act of kindness and courage – the kind that saves ones life. The incident act was reported in the local
newspaper at the time. John’s name was misspelled and his proud wife, Mary, was reportedly furious at the faux pas.
For the remainder of his career John signed in his log as working on the Torso murders. He was detailed to “Hotels”
for a number of years, which was considered as “gravy” duty. Well, he’d earned it! He once approached a woman
walking on a downtown street in the wee hours of the morning. It turned out she was not a “street-walker” but the
actress Martha Raye. She was performing in Cleveland and was out looking for a late-night or early-morning cup of coffee.
Another time actor Pat O’Brien was in town and had toured the Cleveland Police Department. Upon entering
Central Police Station that day another officer, who John did not know, thought he was the actor and shouted
as he waved, “Hi, Pat.” The two bore a strong resemblance. While on official business, John entered the office
of Acorn Chemical Company on Franklin Ave., Cleveland. The receptionist said, “Good morning, Mr. Sullivan.” John,
perplexed about how she would know his name, saw a sudden look of astonishment come over her face as
she looked over his shoulder. John turned and saw a man coming out of the office behind him. He later described the incident as
“looking into a mirror.” The “double” was a man also named Sullivan. The genetic links were obviously there but to this day
we don’t know where the family of Frank Sullivan, later President of RPM Industries, fits in.
In his later, pre-retirement years of the late 50s and early 60s, John worked Pawn Shop detail. He remained in this
capacity until he retired after 25 years in 1961. During his police career John was pretty much a loner. He had only
one partner that his family remembers knowing - Frank Plank, who used to visit the family with his own family,
wife Rene, and daughters Margaret and Mary. John knew the Cleveland Prosecutors on a personal basis, namely
Frank Collation and John T. Corrigan, the latter paying his respects at John’s funeral at Chambers Funeral Home.
In his earlier years he was successful in Judge Lillian Westropp’s court. In other courtrooms he wasn’t so lucky
the reader can make his own judgment. After he retired, more than one author sought him out for his recollections
of the Torso Murder investigations. Dad came to believe that Dr. Frank Sweeney, who had suffered a serious head injury
overseas during World War I, was the man. Elliot Ness reportedly died broke. John, while not leaving a financial legacy,
nonetheless left a legacy of nine children and numerous descendants. The latter are his wealth. He left his children a
legacy of independence and respect for the individual. He had a strong sense of fair play and was a moral and spiritual man.
He bequeathed to his children his sense of humor, which served to disarm his opponents. His children have experienced
hardship but, through the struggle, have learned the meaning of endurance and the gift it brings – accomplishment despite
odds stacked against them. We all knew he loved us. From that we have learned to tell our family members we love them.
In 1997, on a warm and colorful autumn day, I was present at Cleveland’s Lake View Cemetery for a colorful,
sun-splashed ceremony. Hundreds of people greeted the return of Eliott Ness and witnessed his ashes being spread over
the waters of a peaceful lake. Dad would’ve been there. I was there in his place.
Bibliography: Eliott Ness, the man behind the myth” by Marilyn Bardsley http://www.crimelibrary.com/ness/nessmain.htm