The Lawyer Who Fought to Free the First Woman Sentenced to Death in Chicago

Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi
Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi

In 1923, Italian immigrant Sabella Nitti became the first woman sentenced to hang in Chicago. There was no evidence she had committed the crime she was charged with, but prosecutors needed an easy win. Too many beautiful but guilty women had recently charmed their way into acquittals. In Sabella, prosecutors saw easy, ugly prey. She was haggard, poor, and unrefined. They swiftly convinced a jury that she had murdered her missing husband.

While Sabella waited to see if the high court would review her case, she was jailed with the scandalous women who inspired Roxy and Velma in the play Chicago. The musical version also had an innocent immigrant—the doomed Hungarian ballerina. A recent book, Ugly Prey: An Innocent Woman and the Death Sentence that Scandalized Jazz Age Chicago, is the first to tell the story of the woman who inspired the ballerina from the famed musical—and the young lawyer who rushed to pick up her case on appeal.

Helen Cirese waited for the elevators on the 11th floor. Her law firm, Bonelli, Quilici, & Cirese, was located in the City Hall Square Building on Clark Street in Chicago’s Loop. It was a brisk 10-minute walk to the Cook County Courthouse and Jail. Cirese crossed the Clark Street Bridge, glancing at the Chicago River below. At 23, she was a young and capable lawyer struggling to prove herself. Women did not serve on juries at the time, and the typical spot for a woman in the courtroom was in the gallery or on the witness stand. She found law firms unwelcoming to a young, female attorney.

Cirese had two strikes against her. She was female and she was beautiful. Her prospects for marrying a prominent man were immense. For traditionalists, it made no sense that Cirese was ignoring such opportunities in favor of a law career. But Cirese sensed what she could do and plowed ahead, regardless of the limitations other people set.

She surrounded herself with ambitious people and shared an office with several other Italian-American attorneys. They had talked about the murder trial dominating headlines. Sabella Nitti, a recent immigrant from Bari, was sentenced to hang for the murder of her missing husband.

The attorneys studied the newspaper stories. A few sat in on the trial. Sabella did not seem to be the cold-blooded killer the prosecutors described. She was a scared immigrant who spoke Barese, a distinct dialect of Italian that was difficult to translate. She didn’t understand what was happening to her in the courtroom.

What had happened was a miscarriage of justice. There was no evidence, no motive, and no positive identification on the decayed corpse found in a Berwyn drainage ditch. But prosecutors wanted an easy win. In the past few years, several beautiful but guilty women had charmed their way into acquittals.

Cirese dissected the discrimination she read about in Sabella’s trial. Was Sabella being sent to the gallows because she was guilty? Or because she was Italian? Or because Americans perceived her as ugly? Cirese wanted to know. Others in her office wanted answers, too. Five other Italian-American attorneys stepped forward, ready to join Cirese in defending Sabella on appeal.

It was a risk. If their efforts failed and Sabella swung, then Cirese and the other attorneys’ names would be attached to the failure. But what did Cirese have to lose? The men of the Chicago legal community didn’t accept her anyway.

Young attorney Helen Cirese in the 1920s
Young attorney Helen Cirese
Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi

Cirese did not speak Barese. No one on the team of six spoke Barese. When Cirese stood outside Sabella’s cell in late July, Sabella saw a tall and slender woman smiling through the bars. Cirese saw a scared immigrant who didn’t understand why a jury wanted her dead.

Sabella was a compact woman with a muscular frame built during a lifetime of work. Her olive skin had deepened like tanned leather after years of toiling in the Mediterranean sun. She had long, thick black and gray hair that she piled onto her head in a messy bun and secured with pins and combs.

If Sabella had been born under different circumstances, it would have been easy to describe her as pretty. She had fine, arched eyebrows and round, close-set eyes. She had a slender nose, a wide mouth, and a defined jawline. In another life shaped by school or cotillion, a young Sabella might have charmed men by looking up at them with a wide smile and long, fluttering eyelashes. But a lifetime of desperation and work under the sun made her an easy target for newspaper reporters’ ridicule. Genevieve Forbes with the Chicago Daily Tribune called Sabella “grotesque.” She also described her as a “crouching animal” and “a monkey” for readers.

Cirese evaluated her client. Sabella’s arms were muscular from years of hard labor and she was painfully thin. To Americans, Sabella lay outside the standards of beauty. But Cirese saw Sabella’s potential.

Cirese brought a hairdresser to the jail and shared her vision for how to make Sabella beautiful. The hairdresser fussed with Sabella’s hair and then applied color to turn her graying strands into a deep, rich brown. She combed through Sabella’s long locks and picked up the scissors. Sabella needed a modern haircut in order to resemble a modern woman.

Cirese also made efforts to apply cosmetics to Sabella and clean her hardened hands. It was a transformation Sabella readily accepted. She was aware of how juries reacted to attractive women, and she knew American men did not find her good-looking.

The newspapers took note of Sabella’s makeover, and Cirese never hid her attempt to make her client more beautiful. Admitting her efforts was a smart move. It avoided any appearance that the defense was trying to be underhanded or manipulative. And it allowed critics to chastise the Cook County legal system for acquitting beautiful women while a homely but innocent woman was subjected to a trial so faulty that the Illinois Supreme Court had to intervene.

While the case waited among the backlog for the high court’s review, Cirese polished her client. Although the makeover efforts were never concealed, Cirese was far more discreet about her efforts to feed and fatten her client. Cirese never admitted as much, but she was Sabella’s most consistent visitor and advocate. It was likely Cirese who supplied Sabella with additional food items to supplement her sparse prison meals.

The makeover was one part of the plan. Cirese had other goals for helping Sabella appear more refined. Sabella’s English progressed during the winter and she was learning American mannerisms. Grunting, for example, was not becoming of a woman. Sabella was learning to keep in the sounds that made Americans cringe but felt so natural to her. She was also advised to refrain from the rocking she had a tendency to do when she was nervous.

The papers made mention of the “jail school” and the Chicago Daily Tribune’s Genevieve Forbes commented on how “jail can do a lot for a woman.” The comment was directed toward not only Sabella but the other women who were beginning to doll up before the court and ask for access to the cosmetics cabinet.

The makeup cabinet was about to see plenty of use. A new cohort of lady killers was headed to Cook County jail, each one determined to woo the all-male juries with their femininity.

A newspaper illustration of Sabella Nitti and several women she was in jail with
Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi

By mid-April, the weather in Chicago had softened. Cirese strode across the Clark Street Bridge, headed to Cook County Jail with good news. The Illinois Supreme Court had ordered a new trial. Sabella would not hang. She would face a new judge and jury and have her case represented—this time by a competent defense team. Cirese delivered the good news to her client, and two weeks later, Sabella was ready for her first hearing.

The court had a full schedule. Two new lady killers had been recently arrested for shooting their secret boyfriends. Socialite Belva Gardner was the first in front of the judge. Belva shot her married boyfriend as he sat in her car. She claimed she was too drunk at the time to remember anything. She sat bundled in both a jacket and a wrap and wore a hat that slid low past her ears. She was quiet and reserved, and wore a pained expression. The full process had been quite irritating to her.

The newspapers took full note of what the fashionable socialite wore in court. Her attorney announced he was not ready to proceed and a continuance was ordered. The next case on the docket was called up. Beulah Annan, "Chicago’s prettiest slayer," was charged with shooting her secret boyfriend while her husband was at work. The redheaded beauty had confessed to the shooting, but later tried to change her story with reporters. Her attorney also wasn’t ready to proceed and a new date was scheduled for the following week.

Sabella Nitti was next and the prosecutor came to attention, noting the new woman sitting at the defense table by her pack of attorneys. The prosecutor looked across the room at Sabella. She wore a stylish black dress and high heels. Her hair was freshly colored, curled, and tucked under a light gray hat. She had a stack of papers in front of her and held a pen in her right hand. She looked as though she belonged at a ladies’ luncheon or country club event. Her entire demeanor had changed. Sabella sat quietly, folded into herself. She seemed optimistic about her day in court and had broken into a smile that spread cheerfully across her face. That was a terrible problem for the state—Sabella Nitti seemed sweet.

The prosecutor knew Helen Cirese was fixing her up—everyone knew it. Cirese wasn’t hiding her clean-up effort from anyone. In fact, she seemed to be using it against the state’s attorney’s office to insinuate that pretty women were rarely charged with murder, and that the lawmen were deeply biased. It was a disaster for the prosecution.

The state’s attorney’s office had the option to agree to dismiss the charges. But a dismissal would feel like an admission of wrongdoing. A new trial was set for the next month. Someone in Cook County needed to pay for their crimes, and Sabella was ugly prey the attorneys could target. They weren’t giving up. She'd see them in court.

The cover for the book "Ugly Prey: An Innocent Woman and the Death Sentence that Scandalized Jazz Age Chicago"
Chicago Review Press

Cold Case: Revisiting Houston's Infamous Ice Box Murders

lisa_I/iStock via Getty Images
lisa_I/iStock via Getty Images

The first thing Houston police captain Charles Bullock noticed as he entered 1815 Driscoll Street on the evening of June 23, 1965, was that someone didn’t want him using the back door. Flower pots had been stacked against the entrance, forcing Bullock and his partner, L.M. Barta, to push their way inside. While Barta moved through the rest of the home, Bullock headed for the kitchen.

The two were there to perform a welfare check on the house's occupants, an elderly couple named Fred and Edwina Rogers. Their nephew, Marvin Martin, had grown concerned when he failed to reach them by telephone, and became further alarmed after knocking on their door with no answer. So he had called the police.

As he walked into the kitchen, something nagged at Bullock. He would later recall that the scene “just didn’t feel right.” There are contradictory accounts of what happened next. Some say he saw food stacked on top of—rather than inside—the refrigerator, prompting his curiosity. Others say he was thirsty for a beer on a hot summer evening and wanted to see if there was anything to drink. Bullock himself would say he peered inside the fridge for no particular reason. “I don’t know why I looked in the refrigerator,” he said. “For some reason I just opened it.”

He took a quick inventory of its contents, which appeared to be nothing but shelf after shelf of hog meat. He concluded the Rogers family must have been to the butcher recently. But with the house empty, it looked like it would spoil.

This is a shame, Bullock thought. Someone is letting a whole bunch of good meat go to waste.

He started to close the door when something caught his attention. Inside the vegetable drawer was what appeared to be a woman’s head, her eyes fixed in Bullock’s direction. Bullock froze, then slammed the door shut. When he opened it, the head was still there.

The hog meat would turn out to be flesh of a different sort—the dismembered remains of Fred and Edwina Rogers, drained of blood and missing their entrails. Fred’s head was in the other crisper. His eyes had been gouged out.

The gruesomeness of the crime scene would have been disturbing no matter what. Making it slightly worse was the fact that the autopsies showed the murders had been committed on Father’s Day, and the person most likely to know something about the horrific act was the elderly couple's son, Charles.

Charles, unfortunately, was nowhere to be found.

 

Fred Rogers, 81, was a retired real estate salesman. His wife, Edwina, 79, was a sales representative. Their Houston home and their activities appeared unremarkable to neighbors. But there was an element to their lives that came as something of a surprise to local residents who would later be questioned by police. The surprise was that Charles lived with them. In fact, he owned the house.

A vintage refrigerator is pictured
bizoo_n/iStock via Getty Images

Charles was 43 and a veteran of World War II. After getting a bachelor’s degree in nuclear physics from the University of Houston, he had enlisted in the Navy and learned to fly planes. He became a seismologist and later spent nine years working for the Shell Oil Company. At the time of his parents’ death, it was not clear whether he was employed.

What was clear was that Charles was a peculiar individual. He would rise before dawn, leaving the house to tend to unknown business before his parents woke up, and then come back after dark, after they went to bed. His travels were so subtle that the next door neighbor was not even aware he lived there.

When he was home, he went out of his way to avoid his parents, purportedly slipping notes under doors when he needed to communicate with them. The family maid would later state that it was possible Edwina had not even seen Charles face-to-face for roughly five years prior to her death.

No one was sure what led to this unusually frigid living arrangement. It’s possible Charles wanted to provide for his elderly parents in spite of either not getting along with them or wishing not to be disturbed by the outside world. Either way, it was now imperative that he answer questions about their gruesome fates.

When Bullock discovered the corpses, he and his partner Barta practically sprinted out of the house, calling investigators to the scene. They found the house had mostly been scrubbed clean, save for some blood in the bathroom—where they believed the bodies had been cut up—and Charles’s attic bedroom, where there were trace amounts of blood as well as a hand saw they believed had been used to perform the dismemberment. The heads, torsos, and limbs were in the refrigerator; the entrails were found in the sewer system, apparently having been flushed down the toilet. Other body parts were missing and never found.

Owing to the labor involved in draining the bodies, carving up the corpses, and cleaning the home, police believed the killer had taken his or her time and had a working knowledge of human anatomy. Autopsies revealed that Edwina had died as a result of a single gunshot to the head, though that weapon was never found. Fred had gotten the worst of it. He had been beaten to death with a claw hammer, his eyes plucked out and his genitals severed from his torso in what was seemingly a vindictive mutilation. The claw hammer was found on the premises, though police would not confirm whether any fingerprints were retrieved.

If there was evidence, authorities wanted to discuss it with Charles. They issued an all-points bulletin and launched a nationwide search. As the only presumably-living member of the household, his insight—if not his confession—would prove invaluable. Because he knew how to fly, authorities checked nearby airfields to see if anyone matching his description had left the area by plane. Nothing turned up. In being so reclusive, Charles left virtually no trail for them to follow.

A man in silhouette is pictured
AlexLinch/iStock via Getty Images

“The habits and manners of the missing son are major mysteries,” Captain L.D. Morrison, head of the local homicide bureau, told reporters a few days after the bodies had been found.

It was an understatement. Police never located Charles—not in the weeks, months, or years that followed. In 1975, in an effort to probate the Rogers estate, he was declared legally dead.

 

One of Houston’s goriest murders would become one of its most notorious unsolved cases. But that hasn’t stopped others from stepping forward and offering their theories about what may have transpired.

Some are outlandish, using the blank canvas of the crime scene to try and attach deeper meaning to Charles’s life. The 1992 book The Man on the Grassy Knoll, by authors John R. Craig and Philip A. Rogers, offered that Charles was actually a CIA operative involved in the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. When his parents discovered incriminating diary entries, Charles killed them.

The Ice Box Murders, a 2003 book written by forensic accountants and amateur sleuths Hugh and Martha Gardenier, made an attempt to present a more plausible theory. They agreed Charles was indeed the killer, but his motive was not the result of any CIA involvement. Instead, the Gardeniers argued that Fred and Edwina were abusive and manipulative parents, doing everything from taking loans out against their son’s home to forging his signature on deeds to other property he owned. After years of being browbeaten and financially ripped off, Charles lashed out in an orgy of violence, smashing his father’s head in. (That his mother got a comparatively compassionate execution-style killing may point to most of the abuse coming from Fred.)

The Gardeniers asserted that a few days after the murders, someone matching Charles’s physical description was overheard asking about a job overseas, using an alias. They claimed that Charles utilized his contacts in the oil and mining industries to land in Mexico. The book also asserts that Charles met a violent end of his own, when a wage dispute involving some miners in Honduras ended with a pickaxe lodged in his head.

The Houston Press labeled the Gardeniers’ book a work of “fact-based fiction and supposition,” leaving its conclusions up in the air. No concrete evidence appears to point to Charles winding up in Central America, though he did at one point own his own plane. Fleeing Houston via aircraft seems plausible, and with the Shell Oil job taking him to Canada and Alaska, it’s also possible he had contacts in another country that could have made setting up a new life easier.

Decades later, it's unlikely the case will ever find resolution. If Charles Rogers did not commit the crime, his disappearance is inexplicable. No one else appeared to have motive to kill his parents. If he was killed by an unknown third party, the perpetrator did an excellent job removing all trace of him. Whether he ended up in Central America or somewhere else, the most likely explanation is that he spent the rest of his days doing what he'd so often practiced at 1815 Driscoll—disappearing into the shadows, unnoticed by the rest of the world.

Wizard Rock, a One-Ton Boulder, Disappears From Prescott National Forest in Arizona

Like any public place, national parks deal with their share of vandalism. Normally it's limited to littering, graffiti, or the disturbance of important structures. A recent crime that took place in Prescott National Forest in Arizona is more unusual. As Newsweek reports, a one-ton boulder known as "Wizard Rock" has been missing from the site for about two weeks.

Forest officials suspect that a thief—or thieves—must be responsible for the rock's disappearance. Heavy machinery such as a backhoe was likely used to lift the boulder and transport it away from its home beside State Route 89. Due to its roadside location, the criminals had a high chance of being spotted, but officials say they may have passed for park employees if they were using special equipment.

Wizard Rock is a Prescott National Forest landmark. In addition to being huge, it's also visually striking with veins of white quartz streaking the black stone. Passing drivers often stopped to snap pictures with the rock.

If the thieves succeed in selling Wizard Rock, they may only get $100 to $200 for their haul. The consequences facing them if they get caught are a maximum fine of $5000, six months of jail time, or both.

It wouldn't be the first time a person has been punished for bringing harm to a National Park's natural resources. In 2016, a graffiti artist pled guilty to tagging rock formations in seven national parks; she was sentenced to 200 community service hours and two years of probation.

If anyone has information about Wizard Rock's whereabouts or its potential rock-nappers, they're encouraged to contact the U.S. Forest Service Law Enforcement at 928-443-8110.

[h/t Newsweek]

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