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 Real Reason Costco Employees Check Receipts at Exits

Tim Boyle, Getty Images
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

If shoppers have one complaint about Costco—the vast discount warehouse chain with a notoriously permissive return policy and speedy checkout lanes—it’s that the employees posted at the exits to take a marker to customers' receipts seem vaguely insulting. Is the premise that everyone is a shoplifter until proven otherwise?

Not exactly. A recent rundown of Costco's policy from The Takeout (via Cheat Sheet) points out that the true motivation of these exit-door sentries isn’t to identify potential thieves. It’s to make sure that Costco isn’t picking the pockets of its customers.

According to employees who have made not-for-attribution comments, Costco is actually examining receipts to make sure a shopper hasn’t been overcharged for their purchases. Someone with three giant bundles of toilet paper in their cart, for example, might have been charged for four. By giving the receipt a cursory glance, the employee can make sure a cashier didn’t inadvertently ring up phantom crates of canned tuna.

Of course, if someone did try to wheel out several big-screen televisions without a receipt, the exit door employee would likely make an issue of it. But they’re not in loss prevention, and the measure isn’t intended to deter thieves. If you do have something in your cart you didn’t pay for, their immediate assumption is that the mistake is almost certainly the result of a cashier not scanning the item.

In fact, hardly any criminals are caught at the door—which isn't to say the store isn't immune to theft. Earlier this year, thieves at a Seattle Costco were busted with armloads of laptops after they barged out of the back entrance. In June, a Costco in Alpharetta, Georgia, was victimized by burglars who smashed the jewelry case at night and made off with $10,000 worth of valuables.

[h/t The Takeout]

8 Dishes Made by Notorious Poisoners

iStock/com/bhofack2
iStock/com/bhofack2

While many poisoners throughout history have stirred their deadly potions and powders into drinks, some of the more culinarily inclined have crafted killer dishes instead. The nurturing image these poisoners often presented—with casseroles and cakes always at the ready—may have even helped distract from their murderous ways.

1. NANNIE DOSS’S APPLE AND PRUNE PIE

Nannie Doss (1905–1965) poisoned as many as 12 family members. She allegedly added poison to both prune cake and an apple-prune pie, soaking the fruit overnight in rat poison. Her reported recipe included sprinkling the top of the crust with sugar when it was fresh from the oven, which probably helped disguise the taste of the poison.

2. ANJETTE LYLES’S BANANA PUDDING

Anjette Donovan Lyles (1925–1977) owned and operated a thriving luncheonette in Macon, Georgia. She was known for simple Southern fare and desserts such as her banana pudding with vanilla wafers (which you can find a recipe for here alongside a selection of her other popular creations). She took frequent breaks from the restaurant to tend to two dying husbands, a mother-in-law, and a daughter, all of whom she killed by adding rat poison to their food—though it's not clear precisely which specific dishes she served them.

3. BLANCHE TAYLOR-MOORE’S PEANUT BUTTER MILKSHAKE

Milkshake in nostalgic glass with whipped cream and cherry on top
iStock.com/sandoclr

Blanche Taylor-Moore (1933-) dispatched of at least three people in a prolonged and agonizing fashion by repeatedly serving them arsenic-laced meals. She then hindered recovery by bringing digestive-friendly foodstuffs laced with poison (including banana pudding) to their hospital beds. Shakes made with vanilla ice cream, milk, and creamy peanut butter were the favorite of her second husband, the Reverend Dwight Moore, who survived despite reportedly having 100 times the normal levels of arsenic in his system.

4. LYDA SOUTHARD’S APPLE PIE

She sprinkled it with cinnamon, a dash of nutmeg too
And sugared it with arsenic, a tasty devil's brew.
That famous apple pie, which ne'er forgot will be,
And for Lyda Southard's apple pie, men lay them down to die.

Idaho folk song

Lyda Trueblood Southard (1892-1958) and her family are said to have moved from their home in Missouri around 1907 after seeing a photo of a man holding a cantaloupe-sized apple grown near the new town of Twin Falls, Idaho. She put these apples to use in pies ... along with arsenic from boiled flypaper, which she reportedly used to poison four husbands, one daughter, and a brother-in-law [PDF]. Although she proclaimed her innocence to the end, it's rumored that her body was hairless, revealing a prolonged exposure to arsenic.

5. LYDIA SHERMAN’S CLAM CHOWDER

Bowl of clam chowder
iStock.com/MSPhotographic

Lydia Sherman (1824-1878) poisoned three husbands and eight children with milk, oatmeal, and New England clam chowder. The standard Civil War recipe involves salt pork, potatoes, shucked clams or quahogs, and plenty of milk and cream. In Lydia's case, it also involved arsenic, which helped earn her $20,000 worth of real estate and $10,000 in cash after one inconvenient husband died. She went the easier route with her next husband by simply adding arsenic to his bottle of brandy.

6. DEBORA GREEN'S HAM AND BEANS

When Debora Green's (1951-) marriage dissolved in the summer of 1995, her husband began suffering from mysterious bouts of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Although he at first blamed the symptoms on a bug picked up during a recent vacation in Peru, investigators grew suspicious after a fire burned down the family home that fall, killing two of the couple's children. Police looking into the blaze soon discovered that Green had burned down her own home in a rage—and that she been poisoning her husband by putting castor beans in his chicken-salad sandwich and ham and beans. Castor oil is commonly used as a laxative, but when crushed, the beans produce the deadly toxin ricin.

7. LOCUSTA'S MUSHROOMS

An Amanita phalloides in the woods
iStock.com/empire331

The Roman emperor Claudius (10 BCE-54 CE) loved mushrooms, a fact that the notorious female poisoner Locusta allegedly used to help finish him off. Locusta was acting on the orders of Agrippina the Younger, Claudius's fourth wife, who wanted to clear the path so that her son Nero (from a previous marriage) could ascend to the throne. Historians debate whether the assassination ever really happened, but some report that Locusta added the juice from death cap mushrooms (Amanita phalloides, known as "the destroying angel") to a dish of Claudius's preferred fungi, Amanita caesarea. The details after that vary—a poisoned feather stuck down Claudius's throat or a poison enema may have also been involved—but either way, the death would have been slow and painful.

8. CAROLINE GRILLS’S TEA CAKES

Caroline Grills (1888–1960) was a prolific baker known for bringing home-baked cakes and cookies to tea with relatives. Unfortunately, Grills was lacing her goodies and tea with thallium, a popular rat poison, and may have killed as many as four family members doing so. The symptoms of thallium poisoning often involve fever, delirium, convulsions, and progressive blindness, followed by death.

Still, Grills's sweets were so delicious that even when she was under suspicion of murder, it didn't stop people from consuming them: One relative given some candied ginger couldn't resist trying it and was rewarded with pains in his neck and chest and numbed toes. Grills was eventually arrested and charged with four murders and one attempted murder, but only convicted on one count. Her case was part of a string of thallium poisonings in post-war Australia, with dozens of cases, several high-profile trials, and 10 deaths.

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