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Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi
Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi

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
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Jennifer Boyer, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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The Mysterious Murder Case That's Captivated Iceland for Nearly 200 Years
Rock formations at Illugastaðir farm in Iceland.
Rock formations at Illugastaðir farm in Iceland.
Jennifer Boyer, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

For centuries, a cluster of small farms near the water on Iceland's Vatnsnes peninsula have eked out an existence among the grassy fields and rocky hills, more or less content to be surviving at the edge of the world. The peninsula is known for a black basalt rock formation that's said to be a petrified troll, and for the colonies of seals that come to sun themselves on the beach.

It's still almost as peaceful—and lonely—as it was the night in March 1828 when Agnes Magnúsdóttir ran from Illugastaðir, the farm where she worked, to the house at Stapakot farm to report a fire. The situation, she said, was dire: Two people were trapped inside the rapidly burning building.

When the rescuers arrived and extinguished the blaze, the scene was even worse than they expected. Inside, they discovered the bodies of Natan Ketilsson, the farm’s owner, and his guest, Pétur Jónsson. Though the two were badly burned, the rescuers could see it wasn't the fire that had caused their deaths: They'd been murdered. The men had been stabbed 12 times and bludgeoned with a hammer before the fire had been set with shark oil.

The authorities quickly arrested both Agnes and Illugastaðir’s other maid, Sigríður Guðmundsdóttir, as well as a young man named Friðrik Sigurdsson. Although the trio's motives were murky, local gossips suspected the crime had something to do with their romantic entanglements.

DANGEROUS LIAISONS

Agnes was born in northern Iceland on October 27, 1795. Her parents, Ingveldur Rafnsdóttir and Magnús Magnússon, were unmarried farmers; her father quickly left the picture, and at age 6 Agnes was fostered out to a pair of tenant farmers elsewhere in northern Iceland. Little about her early life is known, save that it was steeped in toil and poverty. But everything changed when she met Natan Ketilsson.

Agnes fell head over heels for Natan, a self-taught doctor and herbalist. Though she was his maid, he encouraged her intellect and gave her a glimpse of life beyond poverty and drudgery. The two seem to have had a brief affair, but Natan was in love with Skáld-Rósa, a well-known local poet. Though Rósa was married, her long-standing relationship with Natan was known in the area; the two even had children together. To make matters more complicated, Natan had also recently been intimate with 16-year-old Sigríður.

No one has ever been able to figure out how, exactly, these intertwined passions may have led to murder. Had Agnes grown jealous of Natan's recent attentions to Sigríður? Or had Friðrik? The trial documents focused more on the idea that the group was conspiring to steal from a wealthy landowner, saying that Friðrik "came to commit this evil through hatred of Natan, and a desire to steal." The women named Friðrik as the mastermind of the crime, although they were short on details about why he was to blame.

The few available facts, together with a fear of rebellious servants, encouraged the idea of Agnes as a sort of villainess, and it was enough to condemn her. Author Hannah Kent, who in 2013 wrote a "speculative biography" about Agnes called Burial Rites—soon to be made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence—said in an interview that while translating local documents she found that “words such as 'devil,' 'witch' and 'spider' were frequently used to describe [Agnes]. Where I looked to find something of her life story, or acknowledgement of social or cultural factors that may have contributed to her crime, I found only the belief that she was unequivocally evil—a monster.”

EXECUTION DAY

The church in Tjörn, Iceland, where Agnes Magnusdottír is buried
The church in Tjörn, Iceland where Agnes Magnusdottír is buried.

After a long trial that went all the way to the Supreme Court in Copenhagen—Iceland was then still under Danish rule—Agnes, 33, and Friðrik, 19, were sentenced to be executed. Sigríður was also sentenced to death, but her punishment was eventually commuted to life in prison, which she would serve in Denmark. The reasons for the commutation aren’t entirely clear, except that by then the public had seized on Agnes as the real evil-doer. Since jail space wasn’t available in rural Iceland, the convicted were sent to local farms to await their fate; Agnes was held at Kornsá, the very same farm where she had lived with a foster family, although by then the house had different inhabitants.

Execution day arrived on January 12, 1830. The beheading was a spectacle: 150 male representatives from all of the district's farms attended, and a special ax was imported from Denmark. Guðmundur Ketilsson, Natan’s brother, carried out the deed in the middle of three hillocks in Húnavatnssýsla; Friðrik went first, then Agnes. It was the last time anyone was executed in Iceland. (You can still see the ax head, and chopping block, at Iceland's National Museum.)

They were forbidden Christian burial rites, and their heads were impaled onto sticks and displayed publicly, facing the road. But the heads wouldn't be there for long: They were stolen within 24 hours of going on display—and would stay missing for close to 100 years.

Sometime around 1930, a local woman who claimed to have been visited by Agnes’s spirit came forward with their location. The identity of the thieves remains a mystery, although legend has it that a kind-hearted housewife felt moved to bury them herself. Bizarrely, the heads were found just where the informant said they would be, “‘in the direction of the setting sun at high summer’ and not far from the execution mound,” according to crime writer Quentin Bates.

The bodies of Agnes and Friðrik, which had been buried near the site of their execution, were reburied with their heads in a churchyard in Tjörn, not far from where Illugastaðir farm once stood.

A NEW CHANCE AT JUSTICE

On September 9, 2017, Agnes got a second day in court. A mock trial arranged by the Icelandic Legal Society retried the case under modern rules, with the result that Agnes was sentenced to 14 years in prison instead of death.

According to David Þór, one of the mock court’s three judges and a real former judge at the European Court of Human Rights, the original trial didn’t attempt to answer why the murders occurred. "No one cared about the motivation behind the murders—that wouldn't happen in a modern court," he told the Associated Press. "Today we would try to understand the motivation behind the murders and particularly how the two women, who had no other place to live, were treated by their master."

Agnes’s story has captivated Iceland for the last 200 years. Was she a woman whose hard-won happiness was being threatened, and she was out for revenge? Or was there something even darker at work? Though the 1828 trial records are preserved in Iceland’s National Library, little evidence remains of Agnes’s life.

“There isn’t a lot to go on,” Bates writes. “But it can be imagined how the relationships between these people had developed and the pressure increased over the course of the dark winter in a farmhouse the size of a small apartment today, and with a healthy walk to reach the nearest neighbors. It’s the stuff of a psychological thriller.”

And indeed, nine books have been written on the subject in Iceland, with a 10th on the way; the murderess is even the subject of an Icelandic pop song. With the renewed interest, the events at Illugastaðir will likely captivate us for years to come—even if we may never know exactly what happened that March evening.

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Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock
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The Pom-Pom Hit: When Texas Was Struck By a Cheerleader Mom's Murder Plot
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock

On a January morning in 1991, Wanda Holloway was faced with a decision: Realizing that she couldn't afford two murders, the 36-year-old married mother of two had to decide whether to order the killing of her rival, Verna Heath, or Verna’s 13-year-old daughter, Amber.

It was a toss-up as to who presented the bigger problem to Holloway. Amber was an eighth-grader who had the talent and poise to consistently knock out Holloway’s daughter, Shanna, from a spot on their school’s cheerleading squad in Channelview, Texas; yet Verna was the one who pushed Amber, getting her into gymnastics and even being so bold as to let Amber try out for the junior high cheerleading squad before she had even formally enrolled in school.

Killing Amber would guarantee Shanna a berth to cheerleading stardom. But there was a problem: Holloway's ex-brother-in-law, Terry Harper—whom she enlisted to help her carry out her plan—said the man he knew who would accept the assignment wanted $5000 to kill a minor. Bumping off Verna would be a comparatively reasonable $2500.

In a perfect world, $7500 would get rid of them both, but Holloway simply didn’t have the money. So she decided it would be Verna. In addition to being cheaper, she figured Amber would be so devastated by her mother’s death that she couldn’t possibly get through cheerleader tryouts that March.

On January 28th, after dropping Shanna off at church, Wanda met with Harper to give him her diamond earrings as a down payment. Within a matter of days, she would make national headlines as the mother who would do anything for her daughter. Even if it meant life in prison.

 
 

A suburb of Houston, Holloway's hometown of Channelview, Texas sits in a state where football fields are considered holy ground and small town players are revered for their athletic prowess. Boys were expected to suit up if they wanted social status; girls could obtain a measure of popularity along the sidelines as cheerleaders. In both cases, the fitness and discipline required could help provide a foundation for a transition out of adolescence.

As a young woman, Wanda Holloway wanted to join that clique. Her father, a conservative Baptist, vetoed the idea. The costumes were too revealing, he said, too sexualized. Reporters would later seize on this detail and use it to craft a kind of super-villain origin story for Holloway—a woman who was determined to see her own daughter succeed where she hadn’t.

Holloway remained in Channelview and, in 1972, married railroad warehouse employee Tony Harper. They had two children: Shane in 1973 and Shanna in 1977. She divorced Harper in 1980, remarrying twice and retaining custody of the kids.

As Shanna grew older and grade school activities increased, Holloway was determined that her daughter would enjoy some of the opportunities her own father had denied her. She urged Shanna to try out for the seventh-grade cheerleading squad; though Shanna didn’t feel as passionately about the team as her mother did, she tried her best but didn’t make the cut as three girls were vying for two open slots. It was apparently vexing to Holloway that one of the girls who made the team didn’t even attend Alice Johnson Junior High during tryouts: She was still transitioning from a private school. That student was Amber Heath.

Amber and Shanna had purportedly been friends, even having sleepovers at each other’s homes. But Holloway perceived both Amber and her ambitious mother, Verna, as obstacles to Shanna’s progress in cheerleading. Verna had printed flyers and handed out candy during that seventh-grade coup. The next year, Holloway decided to make an offensive move and passed out rulers and pencils that urged Shanna’s classmates to vote her into the squad: “Vote for Shanna Harper for Cheerleader.”

The vice principal intervened, saying such campaigning was against school rules. (Verna's flyers had somehow skirted any penalty.) When Holloway ignored him, parents of other cheerleader candidates—Verna included—held a meeting and voted to disqualify Shanna from being in the running. Shanna was now 0-2, and Verna had made it personal.

As tryouts loomed for ninth grade in 1991, Holloway decided she couldn’t take any more chances with the Heaths. She approached Terry Harper, her first husband’s brother, the one man she knew with some slightly delinquent criminal tendencies. Harper had been arrested a few times on misdemeanor charges. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, he didn’t travel in the kinds of circles where he might know any hitmen. But Holloway seemed convinced that Harper had the connections to make Verna and Amber go away.

Harper would later tell police that he brushed off Holloway’s solicitations but she was persistent. Realizing she was serious, he went to the sheriff’s department, where officers expressed the same initial skepticism. Murder-for-hires didn’t happen in Channelview. When Harper insisted, they wired him with a microphone so he could continue his dialogue with Holloway.

In six separate recorded conversations, Harper found Holloway hard to pin down when it came to an explicit admission of her desire to have Verna murdered.

“You want her dead?” Harper asked.

“I don’t care what you do with her,” Holloway replied. “You can keep her in Cuba for 15 years. I want her gone.”

Semantics aside, Holloway’s intent was clear. Days after she handed over her down payment to Harper for the (fictional) assassin, police arrested Holloway for solicitation of capital murder. Investigators would later remark that Holloway seemed unfazed by the charge.

Out on bail, she told Shanna what she was facing: a potential verdict of life in prison. Although Shanna knew her mother wanted desperately to see her on the team—much more than Shanna herself cared to—she had no idea the rivalry with Verna had escalated to potential homicide. And despite the wishes of her biological father, Shanna remained at Alice Johnson High, avoiding eye contact with Amber Heath practically every day.

 
 

Holloway was arraigned in February 1991, and pled not guilty. Her defense was that the plot had been cooked up by her ex-husband, Tony Harper, and his brother in order for Tony to secure custody of their kids. Her desire to see Verna “gone,” she argued, was simply a joke.

The jury wasn’t laughing. In September 1991, it took them just two and a half hours to find Holloway guilty and sentence her to 15 years in prison—“poetic justice,” as one juror later put it, for wishing Verna would be exiled to Cuba for the same length of time.

Poetic or not, Holloway didn’t do 15 years—or even 15 months. She was granted a new trial in November of that year and the verdict was overturned on appeal in 1996 after it was discovered one of the jurors had been on probation for a drug possession charge and shouldn’t have been serving. Rather than fund another trial, Harris County prosecutors allowed Holloway a plea bargain where she received 10 years but ultimately served only six months in a work camp pulling weeds before being released on probation.

The last time a journalist caught up with Shanna was in 2012, when the then-34-year-old teacher discussed raising her own two children and having an infamous mother with a reporter from People. Living in Humble, Texas, she said she still saw Wanda on a regular basis, although the two rarely discussed the murder plot. Shanna asked about it back in 2010. Holloway called the entire incident a “mistake” and said that she was “sorry.”

When Wanda's future as a free woman was still up in the air, Alice Johnson High went ahead with cheerleader tryouts on March 22, 1991. Amber appeared and made the cut. Shanna did not. She was too distraught to show up.

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