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 Sea Waif: A Murder on the Ocean and the Little Girl Who Stayed Alive

iStock.com/jaminwell
iStock.com/jaminwell

It began with a man in a boat and a little girl in a raft. On November 13, 1961, the tanker Gulf Lion was plying the waters of the Northwest Providence Channel in the Bahamas when it crossed paths with a small dinghy towing a life raft. The man in the dinghy shouted up to an officer on the tanker, identifying himself as Julian Harvey, captain of the ketch Bluebelle. The little girl in the raft, he said, was Terry Jo Duperrault, and she was dead.

Harvey, a handsome war hero and charter boat captain, was hauled aboard the tanker, where he told his harrowing tale. He'd been taking the Duperrault family of Green Bay, Wisconsin, back to Florida after a week-long cruise through the Bahamas on the Bluebelle when a squall struck in the middle of the previous night. It damaged the yacht's mainmast so badly the post plunged straight through the cabin and hull of the boat, taking another mast with it and rupturing gas lines in the engine room, which caused a fire to break out. Harvey said his passengers—the five-member Duperrault family and his own wife, Mary Dene—were either caught in the felled rigging or jumped overboard as the Bluebelle went down.

It was the same story he'd tell Coast Guard investigators three days later in even greater detail; he described emptying two fire extinguishers onto the flames with little effect and, once in the dinghy, how he shouted over and over into the squall, trying to locate the other passengers. When he did spot little Terry Jo, she was floating face down in the water in her life jacket, already dead.

It was a horrific tale, to be sure. There was just one problem: At the very moment Harvey was telling his story to the crew of the Gulf Lion, the real Terry Jo was clinging to a small life raft several miles away, slowly withering under a murderous tropical sun.

 

Terry Jo was in many ways your average 11-year-old girl. In the 2010 book Alone: Orphaned on the Ocean, co-authored by psychologist Richard D. Logan and Terry Jo (who now goes by Tere Fassbender), the authors describe a pretty blonde girl who loved animals and her family and enjoyed spending time in the wooded areas around her home in Green Bay, pretending to be Tarzan swinging through the forest. In fact, up until November 12, 1961, her life was the very model of mid-century, middle-class bliss.

The week on the Bluebelle had been a trial run for a months-long, round-the-world voyage Terry Jo's father, Dr. Arthur Duperrault, had planned for the family. The Duperrault patriarch was an accomplished sailor in his own right, having frequently traversed the waters of Green Bay. But he was looking for something more ambitious for his family, which included his wife, Jean, their 14-year-old son, Brian, and daughters Rene, aged 7, and Terry Jo. So he packed them in the car and drove down to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he chartered the ketch Bluebelle from owner Harold Pegg, destination: The Bahamas. Their captain and tour guide would be Julian Harvey, accompanied by his sixth wife, Mary Dene.

Terry Jo had spent the week in the Bahamas snorkeling and spearfishing through crystal waters, exploring tiny, uninhabited islands, and dining on fresh seafood with locals. The vacation seemed like it would be one to remember, even if it was just a prelude to a grander adventure.

As the Bluebelle began its return journey to Florida on Sunday night, November 12, Terry Jo descended into the small cabin she shared with her sister below deck. The rest of the family—including Rene—stayed in the cockpit, the children napping, the adults, including Harvey and his wife, savoring the last dregs of their vacation. At around 11 p.m., something startled Terry Jo from her sleep.

"Help, Daddy, help!"

It was her brother, Brian, screaming. There were sounds of running and stamping. Paralyzed with fear, Terry Jo stayed in her bed for many minutes, finally working up the courage to get out of her berth to see what was happening. What she found just outside the door would be enough to sink the most hardened heart: her mother and brother lying dead, in a pool of blood. As she descended into shock, Terry Jo ascended to the deck, where the lights on the boat illuminated the figure of Julian Harvey walking toward her.

"What happened?" she asked. Harvey angrily shoved her back down the companionway, but the brief exchange had given Terry Jo enough time to notice that nothing else was amiss on the boat: no downed rigging, no splintered masts. Even the weather was calm. Later in life, an interview under sodium amytal would prompt Terry Jo to remember seeing blood and a knife on deck, but in that moment, there was too much to keep track of.

Blue waves and bubbles
iStock.com/borchee

Terry Jo returned to the cabin, where she huddled in her bed. She heard the sounds of sloshing water, and soon, oily bilge water began to creep into her room. Suddenly, Harvey's frame filled up the doorway. He stood for a long time looking at her with what seemed to be a rifle in his hands, while she shrunk against the wall and held her breath. After an agonizing moment, he turned and ascended to the deck. The little girl remained frozen until the water crested the bunk. The Bluebelle was sinking.

As she waded through the foul water quickly filling the cabin, Terry Jo must have prayed she wouldn't bump into what would now be the floating bodies of her mother and brother. Back up on deck, she saw that Harvey had launched the dinghy and life raft, and shouted to him, "Is the ship sinking?" He confirmed it was and shoved the line holding the dinghy into her hands, but it slipped through. When he realized his escape vehicle was drifting away, he dove into the sea, leaving the girl alone to die in the dark on the rapidly capsizing sailboat.

 

Nearly everyone who heard Julian Harvey's story found something off about it. Some crew members of the ship that picked him up found him far too calm and collected for someone who just lost his wife and an entire family of clients and nearly escaped death. The Bluebelle's owner, Harold Pegg, found Harvey's account of the mast failure preposterous, given that the ketch had been recently inspected and cleared. Even Harvey's old friend James Boozer, who heard multiple, varying iterations of Harvey's story, felt there were holes.

Anyone with a birds-eye-view of Julian Harvey's life would have found a few other elements not in his favor. While it was true that Harvey was a skilled WWII bomber pilot, served in the Korean War, and even managed to pull off a dangerous test flight of a modified B-24 bomber, peers in the military periodically noted his propensity for ditching missions due to "engine failure." By the end of his career in the military, even his supporters noted his nerves were shot—a fact apparently made clear by the worsening of a facial tic and stutter.

Anchored sailboat in blue waters, view from drone 
iStock.com/mbbirdy

Then there were the wives. Mary Dene Jordan was the sixth, and until her, Harvey had a habit of wooing, rapidly marrying, and then abruptly dumping his partners, usually with a cursory "I don't love you anymore." His affairs were legend at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, where Harvey was stationed with his second (or possibly third) wife Joan in 1949. They'd soon turn darker. One rainy night, Harvey was driving his wife and mother-in-law back from the movies when, as he described it, his car swerved on a bridge and rolled over the side into the bayou below. The car sank, and Harvey alone survived. As bystanders dove into the water to look for Mrs. Harvey and her mother, the pilot calmly described, perhaps even boasted, about how he'd been able to escape the car while it was mid-air. Not only did evidence at the scene point to that not being the case, but it was apparent that Harvey had made no attempt to save his relatives. Nor did he seem overly broken up about their deaths. He soon cashed in his wife's life insurance policy.

Finally, the Bluebelle wasn't the first boat to sink under Harvey's watch. Twice before Harvey had filed insurance claims for destroyed boats. Both cases, while suspicious, were decided in his favor. Later, friends would admit that in the first wreck, Harvey had probably steered the boat into an obstacle on purpose, and in the case of the second, had flat-out admitted to setting his vessel on fire.

But Harvey's history was largely unknown to the Coast Guard investigators who interviewed him three days post-rescue. He repeated what was broadly the same story he told the crew of the Gulf Lion, but under the questioning of investigators, holes began to appear.

For one, the idea of a mast plunging straight through the deck of a sailboat was unlikely; masts broken by squall winds tilt over, rather than fall straight down. Harvey asserted that after the mast failure, he had asked Dr. Duperrault to steer the Bluebelle while he went to find cable cutters to cut through the downed rigging. As the fire broke out in the engine room and spread up through the cockpit, the course he'd asked Duperrault to follow—into the wind—actually began fanning the flames. Yet, he insisted, Duperrault kept steering in the same direction—an inconceivable move for any person of common sense, let alone a Navy veteran and experienced sailor like Arthur Duperrault.

There was also the fact that no one at the lighthouse on a nearby island saw a fire at sea that night, nor did Harvey try to make it over to that island after he found the body of who he thought was Terry Jo, but was actually 7-year-old Rene, and placed it on the raft. Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, Harvey, the sailboat captain, admitted that at no point during his hours of drifting did he think to look for the flares that were in the dinghy's emergency kit.

In the long run, Harvey's dark history and tortured tale wouldn’t much matter. Just as he was wrapping up his testimony for investigators, a captain of the Coast Guard rushed into the room. In a scene out of a police procedural, he broke the news: They'd found a survivor.

 

Terry Jo had been on the ocean for three and a half days when she was picked up by a Greek freighter. By then, she was hours from death, if not closer—severely dehydrated, badly sunburned, mostly unconscious. The fact that she was alive at all—that she'd managed to find, launch, and hold on to a small cork-and-rope life raft as the Bluebelle sank; that she hadn't fallen off or been attacked by a predator; that she was even able to give her name to the crew of the ship that found her despite her body largely shutting down—it was all a miracle.

Within a month, the image of her tiny frame surrounded by a vast blue expanse, captured by a crewman with a camera on the ship that found her, would be familiar to readers of LIFE magazine the world over; Terry Jo's photo and story was featured in a spread alongside news of the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in New Guinea. By then, she'd be home with her aunt, uncle, cousins, and grandmother in Wisconsin, trying to achieve some kind of normalcy. It would be decades, however, before she'd talk about what happened to anyone other than the Coast Guard investigators who interviewed her in her Miami hospital room.

Motel entrance at night
iStock.com/ImageegamI

"Oh, my God!" is what Harvey said when he found out about Terry Jo's rescue. After a few moments regaining his composure, he commented on how wonderful the news was and then abruptly exited the room, leaving puzzled investigators in his wake.

The next day, the manager at the Sandman Motel in Miami called the police after the maid smelled something funny in the bathroom of Room 17 and couldn’t get the door open. Behind the door was the corpse of Julian Harvey, handsome as ever but covered in self-inflicted slash wounds. He'd left a note addressed to his friend James Boozer: "I'm a nervous wreck and just can't continue. I'm going out now. I guess I either don't like life or don't know what to do with it." The message also arranged for the adoption of Harvey's son, and requested that Harvey's body be buried at sea.

After two interviews, in which her story never deviated, the Coast Guard came to accept Terry Jo's version of events that night on the Bluebelle. In his book on the incident, Richard D. Logan theorized that Harvey had murdered his wife in their cabin on the Bluebelle that night, possibly for insurance money, and intended to tell the Duperraults she'd fallen overboard. She'd put up more of a fight than he expected, alerting Dr. Duperrault, who went to investigate. Harvey stabbed Duperrault with the knife that Terry Jo would later remember seeing on the deck, then killed Mrs. Duperrault and Brian. Little Rene most likely drowned, although it has never been made clear whether she fell, was thrown overboard, or was forcibly held under by Harvey before he dragged her into the lifeboat tied to his dinghy.

Terry Jo received support from all over the world after her story broke. She went on to live a full life; she fell in love, had children and grandchildren, moved around, and found work she loved with Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources as a Water Management Specialist. Call it ironic, call it fate, but Terry found her life's mission protecting bodies of water. In the afterword of the book she co-authored with Logan, she wrote:

What I want to stress to all who read this book is never give up, always have hope, and try to look on the bright side of things. Be positive, be trusting, and try to go with the flow; have compassion, give of yourself to those in need, and be loving and kind. I believe that what you give comes back to you.

Julian Harvey was buried at sea per his wishes.

You Can Explore Al Capone's Newly Recreated Cell at Eastern State Penitentiary

Courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary
Courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary

In 1929, infamous organized crime figure Alphonse “Al” Capone was incarcerated in Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary for possessing an unlicensed and concealed firearm. Capone was released in 1930—though he would famously go to federal prison on tax evasion charges only two years later. Eastern State Penitentiary closed in 1970, reopening in 1994 as a historic site that lets visitors explore prison life (though not prison food, thankfully).

While the prison has always made note of Capone’s cell, the facility has just launched an exhibit that recreates how Capone lived at the prison more accurately than ever before, according to the Associated Press.

A recreation of Al Capone's cell at Eastern State Penitentiary
Courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary

Work began in January 2019 to restore and repaint the plaster walls of Capone's original cell. In the process, further research indicated that certain details of Capone’s stay—like the fact that he had a roommate—would need to be incorporated into the design. A cot was added and some items were removed after it was discovered that the cell was not as luxuriously furnished as some reports had indicated at the time. Rather than boasting of expensive furniture, his cell likely consisted of a prison-made rug, a dresser, a table, a flower vase, and a smoking stand.

The restoration work uncovered more than just Capone’s lack of privacy. While preparing the walls, workers uncovered a considerable amount of paint schemes covering the surface that indicated an attempt to paint artwork or change the color of the walls. Not wanting to cover the evidence of inmate artistry back up, Capone’s recreated cell was moved to the next cell over.

Visitors can view both at Eastern State, which is open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

[h/t PennLive]

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