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

When Pablo Picasso Was Suspected of Stealing the Mona Lisa

On August 21, 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from Paris’s Louvre Museum. It was a Monday—the museum was closed and security was minimal—and the thief had reportedly spent the weekend plotting the heist while hiding in one of the museum’s closets.

At the time, security at the Louvre was abysmal. There were less than 150 security personnel in charge of guarding 250,000 artifacts, and none of the paintings were bolted to the walls. (The Mona Lisa, for example, hung from four measly hooks.) According to Ian Shank at Artsy, “Months before the heist, one French reporter had spent the night in a Louvre sarcophagus to expose the museum’s paltry surveillance.”

After the painting's disappearance, France’s borders were effectively closed, with officials examining every vehicle crossing the country's eastern border. Media coverage of the heist spread across the globe, turning the little-known painting into a household name. The Paris-Journal offered 50,000 francs for the painting’s return. Soon, a tip from an art thief would cause police to turn their attention toward one of the country’s most promising young artists: Pablo Picasso.

Picasso, who had moved to Paris a decade earlier, lived with a gaggle of Bohemians dubbed la bande de Picasso. Among this crew was the poet and writer Guillaume Apollinaire, whose former secretary was Honore-Joseph Géry Pieret, a Belgian man of questionable morals. Shortly after the Mona Lisa was stolen, Pieret—lured by the possibility of a cash reward—stepped into the Paris-Journal's office and claimed that he had lifted art from the Louvre before and had given the works to "friends."

Pieret was telling the truth. In 1907, he had stolen at least two Iberian sculptures made in the 3rd or 4th century BCE and sold them to Picasso, who paid him 50 francs per piece. (Picasso used these artifacts to inspire his work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. [PDF]) That wasn't all. According to Nick Mafi at The Daily Beast, Pieret also stole a similar piece from the Louvre in 1911 and placed it on Apollinaire’s mantel.

The police read about Pieret's exploits with great interest. They believed that the people who were in possession of these sculptures might also have the Mona Lisa. And they didn’t have much trouble piecing together who, exactly, the thief's friends were.

Realizing that they were in deep trouble, Picasso and Apollinaire packed the Iberian sculptures into a suitcase and ran off in the middle of the night with plans of throwing the artworks into the river Seine. But when the two artists reached the water, they could not will themselves to dump the statues. Instead, Apollinaire visited the Paris-Journal the next morning, deposited the statues, and demanded that the newspaper give him anonymity. The newspaper agreed ... until the authorities stepped in.

Within days of Apollinaire's visit to the newspaper, the police had detained him. In early September, Picasso was ordered to appear before a magistrate. When asked if he knew Apollinaire, the terrified painter lied. “I have never seen this man,” he replied.

Recalling the events, Picasso said, “I saw Guillaume’s expression changed. The blood ebbed from his face. I am still ashamed.” As the proceedings continued, Picasso wept.

Although both men were indeed in possession of stolen art, the judge determined that the situation had nothing to do with the Mona Lisa’s disappearance and decided to throw the case out. Two years later, both men would be cleared of any possible connection to the crime when police discovered the painting had been stolen by Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian artist who had been working at the Louvre.

10 Exceptionally Clever Female Con Artists

Ann O'Delia Diss Debar (a.k.a. Swami Laura Horos)
Ann O'Delia Diss Debar (a.k.a. Swami Laura Horos)
Bain News Service, Library of Congress // No known restrictions

You've heard of "con men"—short for confidence men—but what about the con women of the world? Some deceitful dames used their wits and well-laced lies to achieve great wealth, fame, and even the advantages of the aristocracy.

1. Aurora Florentina Magnusson (a.k.a. Helga de la Brache)

Back before blood tests were readily available, it was pretty easy to con your way into a wealthy family line. One Swedish orphan proved all you need is a grandiose backstory. In the mid-19th century, Aurora Florentina Magnusson declared herself Helga de la Brache, the secret daughter of King Gustav IV of Sweden and Queen Frederica of Baden.

She concocted an elaborate tale of the divorced royals reuniting in a German convent and leaving her to live with her "aunt" Princess Sophia Albertine of Sweden. Following Sophia's death—Magnusson's story goes—she was forced into an asylum, where her claims of noble parentage were sure to be ignored. After her "escape," Magnusson petitioned Sweden for a royal pension deserving of her claimed lineage. However, a trial in 1876 proved all of the above to be pure fiction. Magnusson faced fines, but no jail time. From there, she lived quietly with her female co-conspirator, Henrika Aspegren, for the rest of her days.

2. Mary Carleton (a.k.a. Princess van Wolway)

The old orphaned princess line was also employed by this 17th century Englishwoman. After two failed and simultaneous marriages, a resulting bigamy trial, and a fling with a wealthy nobleman, Mary Carleton fled England for the Netherlands. It was upon her return that she used her posh presents and romantic fantasies to remake herself as Princess van Wolway from Cologne.

With this ruse, she seduced and sometimes wed a string of men, playing each only to rob them. It's believed many of her victims were too embarrassed to reveal her deceit. But enough spurned lovers spoke up that her crimes did catch up with her, earning Carleton a death sentence by hanging at age 30.

3. Ann O'Delia Diss Debar (a.k.a. Swami Laura Horos)

Having taken on a slew of aliases in the course of her criminal career, little can be nailed down about this American con woman, including her real name. As enterprising as she was infamous, Ann O'Delia Diss Debar conned countless people through various scams that capitalized on 19th-century spiritualism. This earned her an enemy in dedicated debunker Harry Houdini, who denounced her in his book A Magician Among The Spirits, along with the whole Spiritualism movement, for “mothering this immoral woman.”

The New York Times described her as a “wonderful crook who without personal charm or attraction has set nations agog with her crimes since her girlhood.” After repeated convictions for fraud in the U.S.—and one for rape and fraud in London—Debar vanished from the spotlight and the police blotter. She was last spotted in Cincinnati in 1909.

4. Big Bertha Heyman (a.k.a. The Confidence Queen)

Cigarette card depicting notorious 19th century American criminal Bertha Heyman
Cigarette card depicting notorious 19th-century American criminal Bertha Heyman
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After coming to America in 1878, this Prussian con artist followed in the criminal footsteps of her forger father, regularly ending up in jail. Arrest record aside, Bertha Heyman was considered one of the sharpest con artists of her day. She often played on people's hubris, greed, and ambition to her own ends, offering them the promise of wealth later in exchange for a fat load of cash now.

Even behind bars, she managed to bend people to her will. Not only did she swindle more victims while in jail, but she also convinced prison officials to allow her breaks from confinement to take carriage rides around Manhattan and visits to the theater. It's little wonder she earned the title "The Confidence Queen."

5. Barbara Erni (a.k.a. The Golden Boos)

Born to a homeless couple in 18th century Liechtenstein, Erni concocted an unusual way to make a living, and it earned her the nickname "The Golden Boos." She'd travel the countryside with a trunk she claimed was full of treasure. Wherever she'd stop, she'd ask her hosts to lock it up somewhere safe—like where they kept their valuables. The next day, both the trunk and her host's valuables would be gone.

But how did it work? Erni had a person with dwarfism as an accomplice who'd lie in wait within the trunk. Left alone, he'd emerge to rob the place before both would make their getaway. While her accomplice's fate is lost to history, Erni was eventually caught. After confessing to 17 robberies, she was beheaded in 1785. Erni has the dubious distinction of being the last person executed in Liechtenstein before its death penalty was abolished.

6. Mary Baker (a.k.a. Princess Caraboo)

An image of Princess Caraboo from "Devonshire characters and strange events" by S. Baring-Gould
An image of Princess Caraboo from Devonshire Characters and Strange Events by S. Baring-Gould (1908)
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

One of the most famous princess cons ever perpetrated was the brainchild of an English servant with a big imagination. In 1817, a striking woman in exotic garb appeared in a small English village, speaking in an indecipherable tongue. A Portuguese sailor conveniently popped up, claiming he could translate. She claimed to be Princess Caraboo of the island Javasu. Hers was a story of tragedy and danger that had her escaping pirate captors by jumping overboard and swimming through a storm to the safe shores of the English Channel.

This tall tale launched her to near-instant fame, and earned her fans in the wealthy Worrall family who feted and cared for her with lavish attention. Even when a former employer revealed Baker's true identity, the Worrall family stood by the charming impostor. They paid for her passage to Philadelphia, where her fame—despite its fraudulent claims—only grew. She later returned to her true homeland (England, not Javasu), occasionally donning her Caraboo costume for public performances.

7. Cassie Chadwick (a.k.a. The Lost Carnegie)

Born Elizabeth Bigley, this Canadian con artist took the princess routine in a distinctly American direction by claiming to be the heiress of a massively wealthy industrialist. Her cons started small in Cleveland, with Chadwick dabbling in fortune-telling and forgery. After some jail time served for the latter, the forty-something grifter began her biggest con, claiming to be the illegitimate daughter of steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie.

She said he sent her substantial payments to keep her silent, and this was enough for many to give Chadwick hefty loans. One bank lent her a quarter of a million dollars based on her claims, and later went out of business because of it. Carnegie himself attended her eventual trial, which earned Chadwick 10 years in prison. She died in jail in 1907 at the age of 50.

8. Linda Taylor (a.k.a.. The Welfare Queen)

She wasn't just a con artist, but a galvanizing element of Ronald Reagan's 1976 campaign, where the future president declared, "She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.”

Reagan's depiction of "The Welfare Queen" has since been decried as hyperbolic and worse. But Taylor did exploit the welfare system to great lengths through setting up aliases, and spinning her ill-gotten gains into jewelry, furs, and a Cadillac that she'd proudly drive to the public aid office. Taylor eventually did serve time for these offenses. She has also been accused of kidnapping and murder, although never convicted.

9. Jeanne of Valois-Saint-Rémy (a.k.a. Comtesse De La Motte)

A portrait of Jeanne de Saint-Rémy, 1786
A portrait of Jeanne de Saint-Rémy, 1786
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A Frenchwoman of the 18th century with dubious noble ties, Valois-Saint-Rémy spawned a con so big that it's said to have helped incite the French Revolution by irreparably damaging the reputation of Queen Marie Antoinette. The Affair of The Diamond Necklace involved the conning comtesse convincing the out-of-favor Cardinal de Rohan to procure a fabulous necklace for the queen. Desperate to get in the queen's good graces once more, Cardinal de Rohan wrote the royal letters, for which Valois-Saint-Rémy forged responses. She even employed a Marie Antoinette lookalike for this scam, which ended with de Rohan handing over the hefty piece of jewelry valued at 1,600,000 livres.

When its makers demanded payment from the queen, Valois-Saint-Rémy was arrested and her deception revealed. But in the subsequent trial, the forged letters convinced many that the queen was actually carrying on an affair with the cardinal, further damaging her public persona. The necklace vanished, presumably disassembled for the sale of its many diamonds. Valois-Saint-Rémy served time, but managed to escape and fled to London. In 1789, she published her memoir, wherein she boldly blamed the late Marie Antoinette for the whole ordeal.

10. Sarah Rachel Russell (a.k.a. The Beautician From Hell)

This Victorian-era hustler exploited vanity for profit, promising clients at her upscale London salon everlasting youth courtesy of her special products, such as Rejuvenating Jordan Water, Circassian Golden Hair Wash, Magnetic Rock Dew for Removing Wrinkles, Royal Arabian Face Cream, and Honey of Mount Hymettus wash—all of which were essentially snake oil.

She also dealt in blackmail, and lured women into an Arabian bath that was rumored to have a secret spy hole where men could pay for the privilege to peep. Her trial in 1868 caused a massive stir, not just for her crimes, but also because it revealed that the women of London were paying far more (in money and attention) on make-up and beauty treatments than social mores suggested. Yet her three years in prison did little to change Russell, who, a decade after her original conviction, faced fraud charges once more. This time, the Beautician from Hell died in prison.

A version of this story first ran in 2015.

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