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Chippewa football star from North Dakota was one of the Untouchables sent to bring down Al Capone

InForum history columnist Curt Eriksmoen concludes the story of William Jennings Gardner, a North Dakota-born football player who crossed paths with Jim Thorpe and helped take down Al Capone.

A sepia-toned historical photo of a young man in a football uniform
Williams Jennings Gardner, pictured here wearing a football uniform in an undated photo in his student file from his time at Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
(Courtesy / Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center / National Archives and Records Administration)
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Editor's note: This is the second and final story from InForum columnist Curt Eriksmoen on the life of William Jennings Gardner. To catch up, read Curt's first story on Gardner's early years as a star football player.

InForum history columnist Curt Eriksmoen begins the story of William "Birdie" Jennings Gardner, an All-American football player who later became a crime-fighter tasked with taking down Al Capone.

During the 1920s and early 1930s, gangster and bootlegger Al Capone was able to carry out his criminal activities in Chicago with impunity, either through intimidation or bribery of prohibition agents. In 1931, prohibition agent Eliot Ness was directed to put together a team of honest and fearless agents who could take down Capone and enforce Prohibition in the city. Ness started with six men, and one of the first he chose was William Jennings Gardner, a Chippewa man from the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. Because these agents could not be intimidated or bribed, they became known as the Untouchables.

Prior to becoming a Prohibition agent, Gardner had established a reputation as an All-American football player, a college football, basketball, and baseball coach, and a lawyer who was nominated to be a North Dakota county judge. On Aug. 15, 1917, Gardner enlisted in the U.S. Army at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, and was assigned to the 338th Infantry Division. He was promoted to captain and sent to Camp Custer, Michigan, to train new recruits to become skilled soldiers before being sent to Europe to fight the Nazis.

Curt Eriksmoen online column signature
Photo by Michael Vosburg, Forum Photo Editor. Artwork by Troy Becker.

The company of soldiers that Gardner was ordered to train was from a Polish community in Detroit and many of the soldiers could not speak English. Gardner spoke English and was likely familiar with French and Algonquian, the language of the Chippewa, but not Polish. Gardner tasked one of his lieutenants with learning Polish. The lieutenant learned Polish commands, which he would dictate in Polish after Gardner gave the commands in English. The Polish soldiers appreciated Gardner's work to bridge the language barrier.

After the men were trained, Gardner said, “My company won’t take a back seat for any company in the new army, even if they did have to learn soldering through an interpreter. They are the best-drilled men in camp today.” While at Camp Custer, Gardner also put together a football team and played end on the team. His feats on the field were so spectacular that Walter Camp, later selected Gardner as a member of his “All-American Service Eleven.”

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Captain Gardner along with other members of the 338th were sent to Europe on July 14, 1918, and “billeted in the cities of Nevers and Cosne” in central France. Although he reportedly was involved in limited action, Gardner was gassed and suffered life-long complications. Gardner returned to the U.S. on March 28, 1919, married Alene French on July 8, and was discharged at Fort Sheridan on Oct. 11.

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In an article about Gardner in the July 17, 1921, edition of the Waco News Tribune, there was a sentence that jumped out at me: “Following the close of the war he became one of the coaches at the University of North Dakota.” I was unable to confirm this, so I sent a request to Curt Hanson, head of special collections at the UND’s Chester Fritz Library. He checked “the Dakota Student newspaper, the Dacotah annual, the UND directory, the Grand Forks city directory, the University Archives,” and other possible sources and “found no mention of Gardner in 1919.”

Paul Davis was the head coach in 1919 and Reinhold Jacobi was an assistant coach. Since the first UND game was played at the University of Minnesota on Oct. 4, one week before Gardner’s discharge, he obviously was not with the team at the start of the season. Gardner may have offered some assistance to Davis later in the year.

Gardner and his wife moved to Devils Lake where he began practicing law. He apparently had a following because, in 1920, he was nominated to run for Ramsey County Judge against the incumbent, George Griffin. However, sports remained Gardner’s primary passion and when he received an offer to coach all athletics at St. Edwards College (now St. Edward’s University) in Austin, Texas, he withdrew his candidacy for county judge.

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In 1907, the Carlisle Indians football team finished with a 10-1 record and outscored their opponents 244 to 70. Among the players featuring on the squad were George Gardner, front row, second from left; Jim Thorpe, second row, second from left; and William "Birdie" Jennings Gardner, second row, third from left.
Contributed / Cumberland County Historical Society, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Prior to relocating to Austin, Gardner made a stop in Ohio because his good friend and former teammate at Carlisle, Jim Thorpe, was the head coach and star player for the Canton Bulldogs in the American Professional Football Association, which would become the National Football League in 1922. Thorpe inserted Gardner into the lineup for one game and he, and Marshall Jones, who played for the Detroit Heralds and Hammond Pros in 1920, became the first two athletes from North Dakota to play professional football at the highest level. At the age of 36, Gardner also became one of the oldest rookies to ever play professional football. Most record books list 35-year-old Otis Douglas, a quarterback for the 1946 Philadelphia Eagles, as the oldest rookie in NFL history.

As the head football coach at St. Edward’s in 1920, Gardner’s team ended the season with a 7-7 record. He also resurrected a baseball program that had not fielded a team since 1908, and the new team posted a 7-2 record in 1921. Thirty miles north of Austin is the city of Georgetown, where Southwestern University is located. Football teams from both colleges were major rivals in the Texas Intercollegiate Athletic Association and Southwestern needed an athletic director and head football coach and hired Gardner. In 1921, Gardner’s Southwestern Pirates finished the season with an 0-6 record with one tie. The team improved to 4-6 in 1922, fell back to 2-5 in 1923, and bounced back to 4-5 in 1924. Frustrated at not being able to come up with a winning season, Gardner turned in his resignation at Southwestern in 1925.

In 1926, Gardner went to work for the Treasury Department and was assigned as an agent in the Bureau of Prohibition. He soon developed a reputation as being skilled in undercover work. When Ness was directed to put together a team of Prohibition agents to investigate Capone's operation, one of the first agents he recruited was Gardner. Ness not only appreciated Gardner for his undercover work but also knew that he could not be bribed or intimidated. Because all the agents employed by Ness had those qualities, Charles Schwarz, a reporter for the Chicago Daily News began calling them the “untouchables.” This became the unofficial title of the Ness-led Prohibition squad.

In 1931 the Chicago Outfit was broken up and Capone was arrested. Instead of charging him for his Prohibition violations, Capone was charged and convicted of tax evasion. One of the jurors explained, “People love to drink, but they hate people who cheat on their taxes.” With the repeal of Prohibition on Dec. 5, 1933, Gardner worked for other agencies within the Treasury Department for a couple of years.

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This publicity photo for The Untouchables featured, from left, Abel Fernandez, Paul Picerni, Nicholas Georgiade and Robert Stack (seated). Fernandez's character was inspired by William "Birdie" Jennings Gardner, originally a Chippewa man from North Dakota.
Contributed / ABC Television, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

According to Chris Serb in his book War Football, “After his stint with the Treasury Office, Gardner’s life sank into a downward spiral of alcohol, gambling, and a broken marriage.” He and his wife, Alene, divorced in 1943 and Gardner spent much of his time with friends and relatives on the Turtle Mountain Reservation. William “Birdie” Jennings Gardner died on June 15, 1965 of heart disease and he was also suffering from cirrhosis of the liver. Gardner was the real-life inspiration behind Abel Fernandez’s character of Agent William Youngfellow on the television series, “The Untouchables,” which ran on ABC from 1959 to 1963.

More history columns from Curt Eriksmoen
In this week's installment of Curtis Eriksmoen's "Did You Know That?" column, readers learn about George Shannon, the youngest member of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.

Curt Eriksmoen has been writing a weekly history column for The Forum since 2004. He has taught at both the high school and college level and served as social studies coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction for 13 years. He is the author of nine books and is know for inventing barroom team trivia in 1974. Reach him at cjeriksmoen@gmail.com or calling 701-793-8508.
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