The Tragic Real-Life Story Behind the Musical 'Chicago'

Photo credit: Getty
Photo credit: Getty

From Woman's Day

The movie version of the Broadway hit Chicago finally came to came to Netflix streaming this spring, but not many people know that several of the characters in the famed musical were based on real women who were jailed together in Chicago in 1924. Roxy Hart was a version of the auburn beauty who shot her secret boyfriend while her husband was at work. Velma Kelly was inspired by a former showgirl turned gunwoman. And the innocent, Hungarian ballerina was inspired by an Italian immigrant accused of murdering her missing husband.

We know what happened to Roxy and Velma-they charmed their way into acquittals just like their real-life counter parts. But what happened to the woman who inspired the ballerina? Her story is now being told in a new book, Ugly Prey: An Innocent Woman and the Death Sentence that Scandalized Jazz Age City. In the early 1920s, Sabella Nitti was a recent Italian immigrant on trial for the murder of her missing husband. There was no evidence, no motive, and no proof the decayed corpse found in a drainage ditch was Francesco Nitti. But prosecutors wanted a win. Lovely defendants were almost always acquitted after batting their eyelashes at the all-male juries. Sabella was easy, "ugly" prey. What follows is an excerpt from the book:

From the audience, reporter Genevieve Forbes studied the defendants, paying attention to every detail about the woman. If it were up to Forbes, she would find Sabella Nitti guilty and hang the old woman that very night. Forbes was disgusted by Sabella.

To Forbes, Sabella was a peasant who looked – and smelled – like she had just walked out of a field. 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 secured with pins and comb. Several times, Forbes wrote the word "greasy" in her notebook as a description of this little woman's appearance.

The judge peered down at the packed courtroom. The gallery was crowded with spectators who had read about the murder trial in the newspapers and wanted to be there for the big moment. "Has the jury reached a verdict," the judge asked.

The foreman stood. "We, the jury, find the defendant Isabella Nitti, otherwise known as Sabella Nitti, guilty of murder… and we fix her punishment at death."

The stunned courtroom sat in silence. Sabella patted her hair and looked hopefully around the room. She hadn't understood a word. Forbes inspected her from across the room. Stubby fingers, she wrote, ingrained dirt in the finger nails.

Until someone translated the verdict, Sabella would not know she was scheduled to hang in just ninety-five days.

The Cook County criminal courthouse connected to the jail through a covered walkway. In the courthouse, the secretary typed the day's verdict, and it was further processed with signatures and official stamps. Across the way, Sabella sat in her jail cell, unaware that her fate was sealed with the ding of a typewriter and the squish of a rubber stamp.

"Sabella," someone should have said, passing her a cookie or a wedge of cheese to fill her empty stomach. "The jury reached a verdict this afternoon. I regret I have bad news… the sentence is death. They will hang you in early October. You will stay here until your execution date."

But what were her fellow inmates supposed to do? Have someone gently hold her hand while another woman acted out choking noises? There needed to be a translator. Someone to calm her down with hope – her lawyer was working on an appeal, there was a chance.

The reporters lingered in the hallway, walking past Sabella's barred cell as if she were on display at Lincoln Park Zoo. Some of the more opportunistic reporters probably wouldn't have hesitated to tell Sabella the verdict if only they knew how to speak Barese. Hell, they would tell her in Italian if they were able. Instead, they looked at her face for signs. Did she know she was going to hang? No, not yet.

In Chicago, two sides emerged. One side viewed the verdict suspiciously. The scales of justice tipped by Sabella's lack of beauty. In the past – and perhaps in the future – a woman only needed fashionable attire, a powder puff, and an air of vulnerability to earn an acquittal. "Can beauty be convicted?" several newspapers questioned.

The other side embraced the verdict, and saw it as a form of equal rights. If women wanted the vote, if they wanted to have jobs and compete with men, then they had to accept the same penalties men faced. Never mind that juries were devoid of women, and the law was written by men. Or the police, coroner, and coroner's physicians were all men.

Attorney Helen Cirese read about the case in papers. She sensed something was wrong. The original trial attorney seemed terribly incompetent. He was confused at times and overwhelmed by the prosecution. At one point, the defense attorney wanted to know why the corpse wasn't wearing underwear. Where did the underwear go-did the prosecution steal it?

Cirese felt sympathetic toward the doomed woman. Sabella cried when she heard the verdict and tried to commit suicide by ramming her head against the wall. She was alone and terrified.

Cirese had too much time to read about the case in the papers. At twenty-three, she was a young and capable lawyer who was struggling to prove herself. Cirese had two strikes against her. She was female and she was beautiful. For traditionalists, it made no sense that Cirese was ignoring marriage opportunities in favor of a law career. No law firm would hire her.

Cirese shared an office with several other Italian American attorneys. They talked about the Nitti case. They saw possibilities in overturning the verdict. There were risks, however, to taking on such a case. If all their efforts failed and Sabella swung, their names would be attached to the failure. It was a fear that prevented other attorneys in Chicago from offering their services.

Five Italian American attorneys decided to team together and take the case. Did Cirese want in?

Cirese thought about the case and the risks. She had nothing to lose. The men of the Chicago legal community didn't accept her anyway.

When Cirese stood outside Sabella's cell in late July, Sabella saw a tall and slender woman smiling through the bars. The two women likely started with a careful mixture of Italian, Sicilian, and Barese that was supplemented by hand motions, facial expressions, and long pauses to see if the intended message was correctly understood. Even if Sabella understood little of what Cirese said, the young attorney's presence was reassuring. It was the most time anyone had spent with her since she was incarcerated.

After their first meeting, Cirese made it a point to visit Sabella each week. At times, Cirese brought along Margaret Bonelli, the wife of attorney and defense team member Nuncio Bonelli. Sabella seemed to find Margaret comforting. She reached out to Sabella with a compassion the condemned woman had rarely experienced in her life.

When Cirese wasn't sitting with Sabella at Cook County Jail, she helped the defense team on the appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court. The paperwork was sent down to Springfield, a distance of a little more than two hundred miles. And then they waited.

The decision came back in September-just a few weeks before the execution. The execution was suspended until the Illinois Supreme Court had a chance to review the case. That was the good news.

The bad news was the high court still had the option to side with the trial judge and allow the execution to proceed. And they had a lengthy list of other cases to consider. Sabella would not know her fate until the spring.

Sabella was still at risk, but Cirese was feeling confident. She even saw the six-month wait as an advantage. With the help of Margaret Bonelli, Cirese planned to transform Sabella over the winter from a disheveled and foreign woman into a comely American mother. The makeover was one part of the plan. Cirese had other goals for helping Sabella appear more refined. Sabella was tasked with learning English and practicing American mannerisms. No more grunting in court or staring at the floor when asked a question.

The high court's decision came as the weather began to soften. Cirese entered the jail and headed to the woman's block to deliver the good news to Sabella. The court ordered a new trial and the nonsense evidence used by the prosecution in the first trial was deemed inadmissible.

The prosecution prepared for battle. Someone in Cook County needed to pay for their crimes, and Sabella was ugly prey the attorneys could target. They weren't giving up.

Neither was Helen Cirese.

From UGLY PREY by Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi. Copyright © 2017 by Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi. Reprinted with permission from Chicago Review Press.

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