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

The Man Who Forgot Himself: How Presumed-Dead Lawrence Bader Invented a New Life

AlexLinch/iStock via Getty Images
AlexLinch/iStock via Getty Images

Suzanne Peika could not quite believe what she was seeing. It was February 2, 1965, and Peika was standing in front of an archery booth at a sporting goods convention in Chicago. A man with brown hair, a thin mustache, and an eyepatch was holding court for retailers. Aside from the patch and the facial hair, he looked exactly like her uncle Lawrence Bader.

There was just one problem: Her uncle was supposed to be dead.

In 1957, Coast Guard authorities had discovered Bader's rented boat washed ashore on Lake Erie after a storm. There was no sign of Bader, and no clues as to what had happened to him. Bader’s wife, Mary Lou, was effectively widowed, and his four children were left without a father. Eventually, he was declared legally dead.

Now, nearly eight years later, Peika had been summoned by a man from Akron, who told her to rush over to the sports convention. He had seen something there she would not believe.

After staring at a man who was almost certainly her uncle, she approached the booth. "Aren't you my Uncle Larry?" she asked.

The man laughed and seemed confused. No, he was not anyone’s Uncle Larry. His name was John Johnson, though he went by the nickname “Fritz.” He lived in Omaha, Nebraska, where he was a sports director for a local television station. He was polite but firm. It was nothing more, he said, than a misunderstanding.

Peika rushed to a phone and called her family. Lawrence’s two brothers jumped on a plane from Ohio to Chicago, where Johnson was again confronted. No, he said. He was not their brother, this man named Larry Joseph Bader, who had disappeared in 1957. Finally, he agreed to accompany them to a police station to be fingerprinted. The brothers explained that Bader had been in the Navy and his fingerprints would be on file. That would settle the matter once and for all.

The next day, they all received a call from police. The fingerprints matched: The man known as Fritz was Lawrence Bader. After disappearing during a storm on on Lake Erie, he wound up over 700 miles away, with a new job, a new face, a new wife, new children, and a completely different set of memories about the first 30 years of his life.

 

Bader was born December 2, 1926, in Akron, Ohio. His father, Stephen, was a dentist, and Bader considered following him into the practice. After a stint in the Navy from 1944 to 1946, Bader enrolled at the University of Akron, but his grades were mediocre, and he flunked out after just one semester. During his brief enrollment, Bader met Mary Lou Knapp, and the two were married on April 19, 1952.

To support their growing brood of children, Bader took on a job as a cookware salesman for Lifetime Distributors. Though he was an affable man and well-liked by colleagues and clients, the earning potential of the job was limited. He carried debts and fell behind on his taxes. It was later estimated that Bader failed to file tax returns from 1951 to 1957.

A wooden oar is pictured in the water
Jurgute/iStock via Getty Images

On May 15, 1957, Bader announced to Mary Lou that he needed to drive to Cleveland on business. Afterward, he planned on going fishing and would be late. Mary Lou, pregnant with their fourth child, suggested that he might want to come directly home instead.

“Maybe I will and maybe I won’t,” Bader said, and left.

Bader did drive to Cleveland. He also cashed a check for $400 and paid some outstanding bills, including an installment premium for his life insurance policy. Then he headed for Eddie’s Boat House, a boat rental operation on the Rocky River, which empties into Lake Erie. It was late afternoon, and the proprietor, a man named Lawrence Cotleur, warned him that a storm was coming. Bader seemed unconcerned. He paid a $15 deposit and asked for the boat to be equipped with lights. When Cotleur told him it wouldn’t get dark for hours, he insisted. Cotleur noticed he was carrying a suitcase.

Bader went out on the motorboat, which was also equipped with oars, and began making his way along the water. The Coast Guard spotted him and reiterated Cotleur’s warning, advising him it wouldn’t be safe when the storm hit.

That was almost certainly the last time anyone interacted with a man answering to the name Lawrence Bader.

The next morning, the boat was found washed up on shore at Perkins Beach in Lakewood, more than five miles away from Eddie’s Boat House. One of the propellers on the motor was bent and the hull was scratched, but there was no sign the boat itself had capsized or had tipped over. A single oar was missing. The life jackets were accounted for. The gas can was empty. Bader and his suitcase were nowhere to be found.

The Coast Guard made a thorough search of the water but discovered nothing. It was impossible, they said, to survive the choppy current without a life jacket, and certainly not for hours at a stretch. After two months, law enforcement had little choice but to effectively give up hope Bader would ever be found, alive or dead.

Obviously, no one thought to look in Omaha.

 

It was between three and five days later, depending on the account, when a man named John Johnson materialized at a restaurant and bar named Ross’s Steak House in Omaha. He was there looking for a bartending job, a drink guide stuffed under his arm. He carried a suitcase and a heavy canvas bag along with a Navy-issued driver’s license. He explained to his would-be employer, Mike Chiodo, that he had just gotten out of the Navy after a 14-year stretch. A bad back had led to his discharge, and he decided to travel the country a little. He was staying at the Farnam Hotel near the bus station. He’d be a good hire, he told Chiodo, because he used to tend bar at clubs in the service.

He got the job and was soon holding court among the regulars. When people remarked on his unusual name, he said he was originally reared at an orphanage in Boston. Of the 22 babies found on doorsteps, they were given the same generic name but a different nickname. His was Fritz, he explained, because he reminded people of a character in the Katzenjammer Kids comic strip popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Sometimes, that story would change, and he would say the nickname came from a short haircut he got in the service that made him look like a German soldier.

Two glasses filled with ice are pictured
Igor Vershinsky/iStock via Getty Images

He insisted on being called Fritz and used his full name infrequently. Checks were signed Fritz. He had his bills made out to Fritz. He also had the curious habit of dating his checks by season, not month, day, and year. If a bill came due in July, he would write “summer” on it.

Yet no one seemed to think he was unusual at all. They found Fritz to be a joy to be around, and Fritz found joy in virtually everything. He was a determined bachelor who went out on frequent dates, sometimes playfully showing up in an old hearse that had a place to lounge in the back. He listened to classical music and proved to be adept at archery, winning several regional championships. It was a life, one Akron resident later said, that would never have been welcome in a more conservative town like the one back in Ohio.

He also had ambitions beyond bartending. After his shift and late at night, he would visit local radio station KBON to use the recording equipment and practice his broadcasting skills. In 1959, he was hired by the station and became something of a local celebrity. Fritz was game for stunts like sitting in a box on top of a 50-foot flagpole to raise money and awareness for polio. He didn’t come down for 15 days, an endurance challenge that added to his local legend.

Around 1961, he met and married a former model named Nancy Zimmer. Nancy had been married once before and had a daughter. Soon, they’d welcome a son and he would begin a prosperous career on KETV, a local television affiliate.

Between his social life, marriage, and career, Fritz was very much alive. Back in Akron, Lawrence Joseph Bader had been declared legally dead.

 

When he was discovered by his niece in 1965, Fritz was a broadcaster working part-time as an advisor for archery companies. The eyepatch was from the excision of a malignant tumor, which had taken his eye in 1964. Now cornered by his family, the new life he had built for himself began to crumble.

Though he insisted he had no memory of being Bader, whom he called “that other fellow,” his reappearance led to a number of legal and ethical quandaries. There were the insurance policies worth roughly $40,000, which had been paid out to Mary Lou and which now seemed to be null and void. Social Security payments sent to Mary Lou and calculated based on his demise would have to be addressed. Even Cotleur, the boat house owner, was looking for restitution. Bader had left behind a damaged rental that needed replacement. “He owes us a boat,” Cotleur said.

There was also the matter of the marriage. Because Bader was alive, he was still legally married to Mary Lou and could be considered a bigamist. At minimum, he had a financial responsibility to the family he had left behind in Akron. Fritz hired a lawyer, Harry Farnham, who recommended he undergo a battery of psychological testing at an area hospital. After several days of intense evaluation, doctors could not say he was willfully deceiving anyone. It truly appeared as though he had no recollection of ever being Lawrence Bader.

“I am John (Fritz) Johnson and I have never heard of this Bader man until this matter came up,” he told the Akron Beacon Journal. He seemed more bemused than upset by the situation, admitting that, yes, he did look like Bader and that both shared a love of archery. Beyond that, he didn’t care to explore his memories with anyone, citing doctors who told him that examining his past could be psychologically damaging.

A white mask is pictured
francescoch/iStock via Getty Images

“My God, don’t you understand?” he told a reporter. “All of a sudden, I find out that 30 years of my life never happened. You see, I really do have 30 years of memory as Fritz Johnson. What am I supposed to do with those 30 years? Throw them out the door?”

For a time, the situation seemed precarious. If it could be proven Bader committed fraud, he was looking at legal consequences. But no one could prove that. Instead, his lawyer argued the surgery to remove a cancerous lesion may have affected his memory. Perhaps he once knew why Bader disappeared and Fritz appeared, but there was little hope of finding answers now.

Struck by the peculiar nature of their employee’s double life, KETV terminated him. Nancy left him, their marriage essentially erased in light of the fact that he was already married. She seemed bewildered. "I just don't know what to think," she told a reporter.

Quickly, Fritz found himself back to work as a bartender, earning $100 a week. Of that, $50 went to Mary Lou for child support and $20 went to Nancy. He was left with $30 and moved into an Omaha YMCA.

 

Mary Lou spent several months in seclusion, shying away from curious reporters and from Fritz. Eventually, she decided to meet him in Chicago, with their four children in tow. That meeting, which took place in August 1965, was described as amicable, though Fritz insisted he had no recollection of meeting, marrying, or having a family with her. Because he insisted they were strangers, there was little choice but to consider him a stranger, as well. Mary Lou voiced hope that maybe one day he would come around.

"I am hopeful he will eventually remember," she said. "He's convinced himself that he doesn't recognize anybody." Learning he was alive was "unreal," she said. "It was sort of like a numbness. It wasn't like an emptiness when I thought he was drowned."

It turned out that there would be no time for Fritz to come around. In 1966, his cancer reappeared, this time in his liver. He died on September 16 of that year.

His passing posed the question of how to pay respects to a man who appeared to have lived two distinctly different lives. In Omaha, a service was held at First Methodist Church for John “Fritz” Johnson. The next day, his body was transported to Akron so he could be buried in a family plot at Holy Cross Cemetery as Lawrence Joseph Bader.

The question of whether Bader suffered some kind of injury during the storm or had some kind of neurological disorder has never been fully answered. Given the circumstances of his disappearance—his timely insurance premium payment, his mounting debts, and his wildly different and unencumbered lifestyle in Omaha—it seems likely that Lawrence Bader decided he was trapped in the life he was leading and saw only one way out.

If he was telling the truth about having 30 years of memories as Fritz, then it’s possible Bader experienced dissociative amnesia, a rare condition where a person has no memory of their life owing to trauma or stress. In a dissociative fugue state, they have an urge to travel and may invent a new personality, settling in a new area with no recollection of how they got there.

In one such case, in 2005, a lawyer and father of two in New York disappeared. He was found six months later living in a homeless shelter in Chicago under a new name. Once discovered, his wife revealed he had been overcome by stress relating to his experience in Vietnam as well as being near the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Only neuropsychological tests can sift out cases of true dissociative fugue from people simply hiding from their problems. It’s unlikely, however, that Bader would have suffered from amnesia for nearly a decade. In such cases, memories are not lost but are misplaced. They eventually return.

If he did experience a total erasure of his previous existence, at least some remnants lingered. He managed to retain his ability in archery. And while he may have believed his nickname came from an orphanage his psyche invented out of whole cloth, it’s far more plausible that a conscious memory of his previous life had inspired it. As a cookware salesman, his boss was a man named Mr. Zepht. His first name was Fritz.

10 of the Best True Crime Documentaries You Can Stream Right Now

HBO
HBO

Is the true crime genre going anywhere? Probably not. Since Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line premiered in 1988 and helped free an innocent man accused of murder, filmmakers and viewers have developed a bottomless appetite for movies based on true stories that shed light on some of the darker sides of the human condition. Check out 10 of the best true crime documentaries you can stream right now on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and other platforms.

1. The Seven Five (2014)

Crooked New York Police Department cops get a filmed perp walk in this examination of the city’s infamous 75th precinct, which was a hive of corruption in the 1980s. Ringleader Michael Dowd talks about how taking money from drug dealers to offset his salary woes led to an increasingly complex and dangerous web of deceit.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. Amanda Knox (2016)

College student Amanda Knox grabbed headlines in 2007 and beyond when her roommate, Meredith Kercher, was found dead in the apartment the two shared in Italy. What follows is a grueling path through an often-impenetrable Italian justice system.

Find It: Netflix

3. The Central Park Five (2013)

Director Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us limited series on Netflix has brought renewed attention to the Central Park Five case, which saw five minors wrongly convicted of attacking a jogger in New York’s Central Park in 1989. This feature documentary co-directed by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns, and her husband David McMahon examines the case, from the coerced confessions of the boys to their attempts to clear their names.

Find It: Amazon Prime

4. Long Shot (2017)

Though it’s more of a short film than a feature, this examination of Juan Catalan’s fight to be recognized as innocent of committing murder is notable for his attorney’s methodology: Catalan couldn’t have done it because he was at a baseball game. How they go about proving that turns into one of the biggest left-field twists you’re ever likely to see.

Find It: Netflix

5. Killing for Love (2016)

When married couple Derek and Nancy Haysom are found dead in their Virginia home in 1985, suspicion falls on their daughter, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s boyfriend, Jens Söring. Was Jens a co-conspirator, or just a pawn in Elizabeth’s game? Watch and find out.

Find It: Hulu

6. Brother’s Keeper (1992)

Before garnering acclaim for their Paradise Lost documentaries, filmmakers Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger captured this portrait of four elderly brothers living in rural Munnsville, New York. When one of them turns up dead, police believe it could have been murder. As one brother goes on trial, the others close ranks and try to keep family secrets from leaking out.

Find It: Netflix

7. Without Charity (2013)

In 2000, police discover a trio of construction workers have been murdered at an expensive home in Indiana. As police dig deeper, they discover the puzzling presence of Charity Payne, a woman who might have helped a group of robbers to break in and commit the murders.

Find It: Amazon Prime

8. Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee (2016)

Antivirus pioneer John McAfee reinvents himself in Belize, becoming an armed leader of a makeshift militia before later being implicated in the death of his neighbor.

Find It: Netflix

9. I Love You, Now Die (2019)

Teenagers in love Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy nourished their long-distance relationship via text messaging. But as Conrad’s mood grew darker, Michelle believed the best way to help her boyfriend would be to encourage him to take his own life. That dynamic sets the stage for a dramatic trial in Massachusetts that ponders the question of whether it's possible to be responsible for taking someone’s life via text.

Find It: HBO

10. Out of Thin Air (2017)

In 1974, two men in Iceland disappeared. A police investigation led to six men, who were all eventually sent to prison after confessing to murder. Decades later, new evidence casts doubt on their version of events—and whether they killed anyone at all. 

Find It: Netflix

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