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

13 Father's Day Gifts for Geeky Dads

Amazon/Otterbox/Toynk
Amazon/Otterbox/Toynk

When in doubt, you play the hits. Watches, flasks, and ties are all tried-and-true Father’s Day gifts—useful items bought en masse every June as the paternal holiday draws near. Here’s a list of goodies that put a geeky spin on those can’t-fail gifts. We’re talking Zelda flasks, wizard-shaped party mugs, and a timepiece inspired by BBC’s greatest sci-fi series, Doctor Who. Light the “dad” signal ‘cause it’s about to get nerdy!

1. Lord of the Rings Geeki Tikis (Set of Three); $76

'Lord of The Rings' themed tiki cups.
Toynk

If your dad’s equally crazy about outdoor shindigs and Tolkien’s Middle-earth, help him throw his own Lothlórien luau with these Tiki-style ceramic mugs shaped like icons from the Lord of the Rings saga. Gollum and Frodo’s drinkware doppelgängers each hold 14 ounces of liquid, while Gandalf the Grey’s holds 18—but a wizard never brags, right? Star Wars editions are also available.

Buy it: Toynk

2. Space Invaders Cufflinks; $9

'Space Invaders' cufflinks on Amazon
Fifty 50/Amazon

Arcade games come and arcade games go, but Space Invaders has withstood the test of time. Now Pops can bring those pixelated aliens to the boardroom—and look darn stylish doing it.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Legend of Zelda Flask; $18

A 'Legend of Zelda' flask
Toynk

Saving princesses is thirsty work. Shaped like an NES cartridge, this Zelda-themed flask boasts an 8-ounce holding capacity and comes with a reusable straw. Plus, it makes a fun little display item for gamer dads with man caves.

Buy it: Toynk

4. AT-AT Family Vacation Bag Tag; $12

An At-At baggage tag
ShopDisney

Widely considered one of the greatest movie sequels ever made, The Empire Strikes Back throws a powerful new threat at Luke Skywalker and the Rebellion: the AT-AT a.k.a. Imperial Walkers. Now your dad can mark his luggage with a personalized tag bearing the war machine’s likeness.

Buy it: ShopDisney

5. Flash Skinny Tie; $17

A skinny Flash-themed tie
Uyoung/Amazon

We’ll let you know if the Justice League starts selling new memberships, but here’s the next best thing. Available in a rainbow of super-heroic colors, this skinny necktie bears the Flash’s lightning bolt logo. Race on over to Amazon and pick one up today.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Captain America Shield Apron; $20

A Captain America themed apron
Toynk

Why let DC fans have all the fun? Daddy-o can channel his inner Steve Rogers when he flips burgers at your family’s Fourth of July BBQ. Measuring 31.5 inches long by 27.5 inches wide, this apron’s guaranteed to keep the cookout Hydra-free.

Buy it: Toynk

7. Doctor Who Vortex Manipulator LCD Leather Wristwatch; $35

A Doctor Who-themed watch
Toynk

At once classy and geeky, this digital timepiece lovingly recreates one of Doctor Who’s signature props. Unlike some of the gadgets worn on the long-running sci-fi series, it won’t require any fancy chronoplasm fuel.

Buy it: Toynk

8. Wonder Woman 3-Piece Grill Set; $21

Wonder Woman three-piece gill set
Toynk

At one point in her decades-long comic book career, this Amazon Princess found herself working at a fast food restaurant called Taco Whiz. Now grill cooks can pay tribute to the heroine with these high-quality, stainless steel utensils. The set’s comprised of wide-tipped tongs, a BBQ fork, and a spatula, with the latter boasting Wonder Woman’s insignia.

Buy it: Toynk

9. Harry Potter Toon Tumbler; $10

Glassware that's Harry Potter themed
Entertainment Earth

You can never have too many pint glasses—and this Father’s Day, dad can knock one back for the boy who lived. This piece of Potter glassware from PopFun has whimsy to spare. Now who’s up for some butterbeer?

Buy it: EntertainmentEarth

10. House Stark Men’s Wallet; $16

A Game of Thrones themed watch
Toynk

Winter’s no longer coming, but the Stark family's propensity for bold fashion choices can never die. Manufactured with both inside and outside pockets, this direwolf-inspired wallet is the perfect place to store your cards, cash, and ID.

Buy it: Toynk

11. Mr. Incredible “Incredible Dad” Mug, $15

An Incredibles themed mug
ShopDisney

Cue the brass music. Grabbing some coffee with a Pixar superhero sounds like an awesome—or dare we say, incredible?—way for your dad to start his day. Mom can join in the fun, too: Disney also sells a Mrs. Incredible version of the mug.

Buy it: ShopDisney

12. Star Wars phone cases from Otterbox; $46-$56

Star Wars phone cases from OtterBox.
Otterbox

If your dad’s looking for a phone case to show off his love of all things Star Wars, head to Otterbox. Whether he’s into the Dark Side with Darth Vader and Kylo Ren, the droids, Chewbacca, or Boba Fett, you’ll be able to find a phone case to fit his preference. The designs are available for both Samsung and Apple products, and you can check them all out here.

Buy it: Otterbox

13. 3D Puzzles; $50

3D Harry Potter puzzle from Amazon.
Wrebbit 3D

Help dad recreate some of his favorite fictional locations with these 3D puzzles from Wrebbit 3D. The real standouts are the 850-piece model of Hogwarts's Great Hall and the 910-piece version of Winterfell from Game of Thrones. If dad's tastes are more in line with public broadcasting, you could also pick him up an 890-piece Downton Abbey puzzle to bring a little upper-crust elegance to the homestead.

Buy it: Hogwarts (Amazon), Winterfell (Amazon), Downton Abbey (Amazon)

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

When Al Capone Ran a Soup Kitchen During the Great Depression

Al Capone: Public Enemy #1, soup kitchen proprietor
Al Capone: Public Enemy #1, soup kitchen proprietor
The Paris Bureau of The New York Times, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain

Four years after gangster Al Capone took over Chicago’s leading crime syndicate, he had raked in over $40 million—around $550 million today. The money came from illegally selling booze during Prohibition; bottles were distributed to more than 10,000 speakeasies and brothels in a vast bootlegging network across the Midwest.

Capone’s alcohol distribution was unlawful, but to many Americans, the man’s work was heroic. He claimed he was just a businessman giving the people what they wanted—and what the people wanted more than anything in the 1920s was liquor.

But Capone’s role as an Italian-American Robin Hood didn’t stop there. As he orchestrated criminal activities behind the scenes, Capone simultaneously launched a program to provide milk to Chicago school children and donated huge sums to local charities.

It was the stock market crash on October 29, 1929, however, that spurred Capone to his greatest work of philanthropy. Almost overnight, the American economy collapsed into the Great Depression. Banks failed, businesses shuttered, and millions were suddenly unemployed and hungry. Hundreds of soup kitchens popped up around the country. One of them belonged to Al Capone.

No Questions Asked

Men line up at Al Capone's soup kitchen during the Great Depression
Men line up at Al Capone's soup kitchen during the Great Depression.
The Paris Bureau of The New York Times, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain

When Al Capone’s soup kitchen opened at 935 South State Street, in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood, in mid-November 1930, hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans were out of work. By the following year, 624,000 people—or 50 percent of the Chicago workforce—were out of a job.

Capone’s charity had no name, just a sign over the door that advertised “Free Soup, Coffee & Doughnuts for the Unemployed.” Inside, women in white aprons served an average of 2200 people a day with a smile and no questions asked. Breakfast was hot coffee and sweet rolls. Both lunch and dinner consisted of soup and bread. Every 24 hours, diners devoured 350 loaves of bread and 100 dozen rolls. They washed down their meals with 30 pounds of coffee sweetened with 50 pounds of sugar. The whole operation cost $300 per day.

The soup kitchen didn’t advertise its connection to Capone, but the mobster-benefactor’s name was connected to it in stories printed in local newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and The Rock Island Argus. Those who were down on their luck, though, apparently had few qualms about eating from the hand of Chicago’s worst crime boss. Often the line to get in to the kitchen was so long that it wound past the door of the city’s police headquarters, where Capone was considered Public Enemy #1, according to Harper’s Magazine. The line was particularly lengthy when Capone’s soup kitchen hosted a Thanksgiving meal of cranberry sauce and beef stew for 5000 hungry Chicagoans. (Why beef and not turkey? After 1000 turkeys were stolen from a nearby department store, Capone feared he’d be blamed for the theft and made a last-minute menu change.)

Capone's Ulterior Motives

Capone’s efforts to feed Chicago during the darkest days of the Great Depression weren’t entirely altruistic. It wasn’t even originally his idea, but that of his friend and political ally Daniel Serritella, who was elected to the Illinois state senate in 1930. Nor did Capone invest much of his own money into the operation. Instead, Deirdre Bair writes in Capone: His Life, Legacy and Legend, he bribed and extorted other businesses to stock the pantry. In just one example, during Seritella's 1932 trial for conspiring with grocers to cheat customers [PDF], the court discovered that a load of ducks that had been donated to Christmas baskets for the poor ended up in Capone’s soup kitchen instead.

Perhaps more than anything, Capone opened his soup kitchen to get the public back on his side after he was implicated in the 1929 Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. In that murder spree, Capone's associates were believed to have assassinated seven men, five of whom hailed from the rival North Side Gang, inside a Chicago parking garage—though no one was ever prosecuted. Harper’s writer Mary Borden distilled Capone's double-dealing when she described him as “an ambidextrous giant who kills with one hand and feeds with the other.”

Capone’s soup kitchen closed abruptly in April 1932. The proprietors claimed that the kitchen was no longer needed because the economy was picking up, even though the number of unemployed across the country had increased by 4 million between 1931 and 1932. The diners who had attended the kitchen daily were forced to move on to another one.

Two months later, Capone was indicted on 22 counts of income tax evasion; the charges that eventually landed him in San Francisco’s Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. Though Capone vowed to reopen his soup kitchen during his trial, its doors stayed shut. By the time he was released from prison in 1939, a raging case of syphilis had rendered Capone mentally and physically incapable of managing his own life, let alone that of Chicago’s once-dominant crime syndicate and the soup kitchen that softened his gangster image.

Capone died in 1947, but his larger-than-life legacy lives on. His soup kitchen wasn’t so lucky. The building became a flophouse, and in 1955, Chicago authorities deemed it a fire hazard and shut it down permanently. Today, only a parking lot remains at the site of Chicago’s most notorious food pantry.