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 CireseEmilie 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.

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.

Chicago Review Press

The New Apple Watch SE Is Now Available on Amazon

Apple/Amazon
Apple/Amazon

Apple products are notorious for their high price tags. From AirPods to iPads to MacBooks, it can be difficult to find the perfect piece of tech on sale when you are ready to buy. Luckily, for those who have had their eye on a new Apple Watch, the Apple Watch SE is designed with all the features users want but at a lower starting price of $279— and they're available on Amazon right now.

The SE exists as a more affordable option when compared to Apple's new Series 6 line of watches. This less expensive version has many of the same functions of its pricier brethren, except for certain features like the blood oxygen sensor and electrical heart sensor. To make up for the truncated bells and whistles, the SE comes in at least $120 cheaper than the Series 6, which starts at $400 and goes up to $800. The SE comes with technical improvements on previous models as well, such as the fall detection, a faster processor, a larger screen, water resistance, and more.

Now available in 40mm ($279) and 44mm ($309), both SE models offer a variety of colors to choose from, such as sliver, space gray, and pink. If you want cellular connection, you’ll have to pay a bit more for the 40mm ($329) and the 44mm ($359).

For more, head to Amazon to see the full list of offerings from Apple.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Take Two: When Kim Jong-il Raised North Korea's World Cinema Profile By Kidnapping Two South Korean Stars

Kim Jong-Il, Choi Eun-hie, and Shin Sang-ok in a scene from Ross Adam and Robert Cannan's The Lovers & the Despot (2016).
Kim Jong-Il, Choi Eun-hie, and Shin Sang-ok in a scene from Ross Adam and Robert Cannan's The Lovers & the Despot (2016).
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Choi Eun-hee knew there was trouble even before the needle sent her into unconsciousness.

It was 1978, and Choi, one of South Korea’s most prominent actresses, was struggling to regain the success she had achieved earlier in her career. A promise of a possible film partnership by a man claiming to be from Hong Kong had lured her to Repulse Bay, a waterfront locale in the southern part of Hong Kong Island, where she exited a vehicle and noticed a group of men standing near a boat. Choi sensed something wasn't quite right, but before she could consider it any further, she was grabbed, sedated, and thrown onboard.

When she awoke, Choi found herself in the captain’s quarters. Above her was a portrait of Kim Jong-il, then the chief of North Korea’s Propaganda and Agitation Department. Kim’s father, Kim Il-sung, was the leader of the country, a communist regime that had now seemingly absconded with Choi—for reasons the actress couldn't imagine.

Roughly eight days after being kidnapped, Choi found herself in Pyongyang, where Kim greeted her not as someone who had been forcibly subdued and delivered to him, but as an honored guest. In a way, she was. In Kim’s mind, Choi and her ex-husband, award-winning film director Shin Sang-ok (who would soon join them, also involuntarily) were the very people the country needed to spearhead a new era in North Korean filmmaking, one that would make the entire world sit up and take notice.

That both Choi and Shin would be captives of the state was of little concern to those in charge. Regardless of how their guests got there, they were there. And Kim had no intention of letting them leave.

 

Kim, who eventually succeeded his father as leader of North Korea and ruled from 1994 until his death in 2011, was a movie buff. He reportedly owned more than 30,000 films—including a great deal of pornography—and ordered traveling diplomats to bring back copies of international films for his enjoyment. Kim even authored a book, 1973’s On the Art of Cinema, that was intended as an instructional guide for filmmakers in the country. He preached a devotion to a singular, unified vision and bemoaned that North Korean films had too much ideology and crying in them. All but ignored by the rest of the film world, Kim wanted the North producing features that would be embraced by film festivals.

Kim Jong-il loved movies so much he decided to abduct some talent.Getty Images (Kim Jong-il) // JurgaR/iStock via Getty Images (Movie Theater). Photo composite by Mental Floss.

At the time, it was not uncommon for North Korea to fill a need for trained workers simply by kidnapping them. It had worked for the country when they wanted to learn more about South Korea; between 1977 and 1978, they abducted five South Korean high school students who became instructors for future undercover Northern operatives. They also once attempted to kidnap a concert pianist, who grew wise to the situation when he arrived for his private appointment and heard several people speaking with North Korean accents. (He fled.) Even so, Kim used a similar strategy when he decided that kidnapping an actor and director would be the most effective way to achieve his movie aspirations.

Choi was only one part of the plan. Once she was grabbed, Shin began a desperate search for her. The two, who had once been considered a “golden couple” in South Korea, had divorced in 1976 following Shin's affair with a younger actress, but they remained close.

Of course, Shin was a cinematic superstar in his own right. Though his career had also recently cooled off, he was a celebrated director who had once been referred to as "the Orson Welles of South Korea." Though there are different stories as to how Shin ended up in North Korea, the official version is that he wanted to help locate his missing ex. And when that trail eventually led him to Hong Kong, Shin, too, soon found himself with a bag over his head, being hustled to Pyongyang. While Choi had resigned herself to some acceptance of her fate—she was living in a luxurious villa surrounded by guards—Shin was more combative. After numerous escape attempts, he was sent to prison.

For four years, Shin subsisted on a diet of grass, salt, and rice, never once seeing Choi or getting any update about her safety. As far as Shin knew, she was dead. Finally, in 1983, Shin was released and “invited” to a reception. To their mutual shock, the former couple was reunited, neither one knowing the other had been there the entire time.

Kim apologized for the delayed meeting, saying he had been busy. On the subject of Shin being imprisoned for four years, he dismissed it as a misunderstanding. It was only then that Kim explained why the two were there: North Korean filmmakers had no new ideas, he explained, so he wanted Shin and Choi to make films that would establish North Korea in the movie business.

None of it was presented as a choice. That same year, the couple remarried—also reportedly at Kim's suggestion.

The filmmakers spent years trapped in North Korea.NatanaelGinting/iStock via Getty Images

There was discussion of escape, particularly when the couple was allowed to travel to Berlin to scout locations for productions, but Shin dismissed it.

"What's the matter with you?" Shin recalled telling Choi in his 1988 memoir, Kingdom of Kim. "I will not make an attempt unless it's 100 percent certain. If they caught us, we'd be dead."

Instead, Shin pondered the opportunity. Kim gave him the equivalent of $3 million as an annual salary, for both personal and professional use. His production offices grew to more than 700 employees. Aside from some firm edicts—Kim wanted to project an image of North Korea as a political titan, while somehow softening its image as a totalitarian terror—Shin had a large degree of creative freedom. He filmed North Korea’s first onscreen kiss. He made Runaway, a 1984 film about a wandering Korean family in 1920s Manchuria, that Shin believed was the best film of his career.

Most famously, he directed Pulgasari, a monster movie clearly inspired by Godzilla that featured an oversized monster aiding an army of farmers looking to overthrow a cruel king. Kim even convinced several filmmakers who worked on the Godzilla films to come to North Korea to assist with the production by guaranteeing their safety. Kenpachiro Satsuma, who was the second person to wear the Godzilla suit, performed as Pulgasari. Thousands of North Korean soldiers were used as extras.

 

Kim was very happy with the work Shin and Choi were producing, which grew to seven films. Some had even made it to festivals in the Eastern Bloc. Gradually, he gave them more and more freedom to travel, eventually allowing them to take an escorted trip to Vienna in 1986 to help stir up a possible European distributor that would make a North Korean film easier to circulate. As they were preparing to leave for Austria, the two decided to act.

"To be in Korea living a good life ourselves and enjoying movies while everyone else was not free was not happiness, but agony," Shin wrote.

Choi Eun-hee and Shin Sang-ok in The Lovers & the Despot (2016).Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The two got in touch with a Japanese film critic they knew and met him for lunch. With North Korean guards in pursuit, Shin and Choi took a taxi to the American embassy and explained their eight-year ordeal as creative captives of Kim. Within a week, they were telling their story to reporters in Baltimore, Maryland, as well as the CIA.

North Korea denied that the two had been there against their will, arguing that they simply wanted to escape the restrictive nature of South Korean filmmaking. But Choi had seen to it that they came back with evidence. She had snuck an audio cassette recorder into her handbag during one meeting with Kim, who advised that if they were ever asked what they were doing in North Korea, to say that they were there voluntarily. She had even managed to have the tape smuggled out of the country before escaping, a stunt that could have resulted in her death if the betrayal had been discovered. For those in the U.S. government gathering intelligence on North Korea, it was the first time Kim’s voice had ever been heard.

Shin and Choi remained in the United States, where they had been granted political asylum. Shin even directed the 1995 film Three Ninjas Knuckle Up and produced several more movies under the pseudonym Simon Sheen. They eventually returned to South Korea in 1999, though some South Koreans believed Shin had gone to the North and pledged allegiance to communism voluntarily and treated him with suspicion.

"I could not dare return [to South Korea] without evidence that I had been kidnapped to the North," Shin said in an interview. "If [the Seoul government] charged me with entering the North on my own and cooperating with the North Koreans, I would have had no evidence to deny it."

Shin and Choi's story was explored in depth in Ross Adam and Robert Cannan's documentary The Lovers & the Despot, which was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Shin died in 2006, Choi in 2018. In a 2015 interview with Korea JoongAng Daily, Choi said that she still had nightmares about being pursued by North Korean agents. "Even though [Kim Jong-il] did not use the right means to get what he wanted, I understood his desire to develop the North Korean movie industry," she said. "He mentioned that he wanted to bring about change to North Korean movies, all of which were similar in terms of directing and acting. But please don't misunderstand that my forgiveness of him means that I agree with the North Korean system, because I don't."

Though North Korea never did admit to abducting the pair, in 2002 Kim Jong-il did come clean about snatching several Japanese tourists in the late 1970s and 1980s, and issued a formal apology.

When it finally received a wider release, Pulgasari was dismissed as silly. Now under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, North Korea has yet to make any impact on the international film scene.