Pictures of disguises in Dosi’s scrapbook via Getty Images
Pictures of disguises in Dosi’s scrapbook via Getty Images

Giuseppe Dosi, Italy's Famed Detective and Master of Disguise

Pictures of disguises in Dosi’s scrapbook via Getty Images
Pictures of disguises in Dosi’s scrapbook via Getty Images

Giuseppe Dosi has gone down in history as one of Italy's greatest detectives, a master of disguise who went undercover to solve the thorniest of crimes. Famous in Italian police circles for his pioneering efforts, Dosi has been getting wider attention recently thanks to the publication of a biography, the airing of a new documentary about him, and the digitization of some his papers, now in the Museum of the Liberation of Rome.

Born in 1891, Dosi’s first love was for the theater. He acted for two years and worked briefly behind the scenes, but he failed to make his career on the stage a success. Instead, he poured his love of performance into his job as a detective. His enthusiastic embrace of disguises became known as fregolismo detectivistico ("detectival transformism”) after the late 19th/early 20th century stage actor and quick-change artist Leopoldo Fregoli. Dosi himself had at least 17 confirmed disguises, including a femme fatale, two priests (one foreign, one Italian), a Galician banker, a German doctor, a Yugoslavian merchant, a nihilist, and a Czech World War I veteran with a bum leg. Five of them were fully fleshed-out identities complete with fake identity documents, background stories, and even their own penmanship.

Dosi’s impersonation of a Czech veteran completely fooled poet and would-be dictator Gabriele D'Annunzio, who in August of 1922 had mysteriously “fallen” out of a window and cracked his skull. Dosi went undercover to find out what had really happened—a politically sensitive investigation since D'Annunzio's greatest rival was one Benito Mussolini, who two months later would march on Rome with his Blackshirts and secure an appointment as the new Prime Minister of Italy.

Dosi discovered that D'Annunzio had been pushed, not by a political assassin, but by his volatile mistress. The case was quietly closed. D'Annunzio, who had dubbed his limping Czech guest the “liberator of butterflies and smiling rhymes” while unknowingly being investigated, called Dosi a "dirty cop" when he found out he was really a nimble Roman.

Actually, Dosi was the opposite of a dirty cop as we mean the phrase today. He was a man of resolute integrity, fearless in pursuit of the truth even when his bosses would have preferred he look the other way—and he paid a high price for it. In 1927, he took on a case that had bedeviled Rome for the previous three years. It was a horrific series of crimes, the rape of seven little girls and the murder of five of them, the youngest just three years old. The atrocities had been breathlessly reported in the national and local press, and the city was in turmoil. Mussolini saw the failure to solve the crimes as a major embarrassment because it made it seem like his law-and-order party could not deliver on its promises. He pressured Chief of Police Arturo Bocchini to arrest someone, and quickly.

So the police found someone. Sure, photographer Gino Girolimoni didn't match the description of a tall, middle-aged man with a bristling mustache and an imperfect command of the Italian language—he was average height, in his 30s, clean-shaven and Roman-born and raised—but he was a warm body, and between riled up public opinion and Mussolini breathing down their necks, that was enough for the police. They ginned up some blatantly fake evidence and arrested Girolimoni in 1927.

Dosi knew the evidence against Girolimoni was flimsy, and was convinced the real murderer was still out there. He reopened the case over the objections of his superiors, and quickly zeroed in on a more likely suspect: a British Anglican priest named Ralph Lyonel Brydges who had been caught in the act molesting a girl in Canada before decamping to Rome. In April of 1928, Dosi got a search warrant for Brydges’s room and found a note in a diary referencing the location of one of the murders, newspaper clippings about the crimes, and handkerchiefs identical to the ones used to strangle the little girls. Brydges had friends in high places, however, and diplomatic interference from Britain and Canada (his wife was the daughter of a very prominent Toronto politician) kept him out of jail. He was briefly committed for observation to the insane asylum Santa Maria della Pietà, only to be released and flee the country.

With the case against Girolimoni in shambles, the police quietly dropped the charges against him. But every newspaper in the country had splashed his name and face on their front pages as the "Monster of Rome" when he was arrested, while his release was covered only in cursory articles in the middle sections of just a few papers. He could no longer make a decent living because everyone thought he was a child rapist and murderer. He died in 1961, penniless and alone. Only a handful of friends showed up to his funeral. Dosi was one of them.

But when Dosi cleared Girolimoni's name, the authorities no longer had their patsy, and the only other suspect was far out of reach. Mussolini, who several years earlier had praised Dosi and recommended him for a promotion after the detective foiled an assassination plot against him, was deeply displeased by Dosi's dogged persistence. (A memoir Dosi wrote in the 1930s, which was critical of his superiors, didn’t help matters.) Dosi's police bosses, already antsy about him exposing their corruption and lies in setting up poor Girolimoni, again felt the pressure from the top to curb their man's hubris.

First they fired him. Then they just cut to the chase and arrested him. He was imprisoned in 1939 in Regina Coeli, a truly scary jail in Rome that during the Fascist period was packed with political prisoners. Apparently that wasn’t severe enough, because they moved him to Santa Maria della Pietà, where the police detective spent 17 months forcibly detained in the same psychiatric facility where Brydges—a certain child molester and possible serial child murderer—had spent only a few nights. Dosi was finally released in January 1941.

Before the end of the war, Dosi’s great courage and initiative would perform another historic service. On June 4, 1944, Allied troops under General Mark Clark liberated Rome. The Nazi occupiers beat a hasty retreat. A mob assembled at the notorious SS torture prison on Via Tasso to free the political prisoners and Jews who hadn't been murdered by the retreating Nazis. On the way out the door, the SS had set their papers on fire in the attempt to cover their tracks, and when the mob freed the prisoners, they tossed bunches of records out the window in a sort of riot of de-Nazifying the place.

Dosi, who lived on a neighboring street, showed up with a cart and took it upon himself to enter the burning building and save all the surviving records. He turned them over to the Allied Command, who appointed him a special investigator for two years. His testimony and the records he single-handedly saved from the flames, including the list of 75 Jews taken from Regina Coeli to their deaths in the monstrous Ardeatine massacre, would be crucial in the prosecution of numerous Nazi war criminals. In November of 1946, he rejoined the Italian police force as director of the Central Office of International Police.

Over the course of his long and storied career, Dosi applied his great energy and dedication to areas of police work that are now standard but were then considered newfangled. He wrote essays on scientific policing, was a vocal advocate for women police officers, promoted photographing and fingerprinting arrestees, and encouraged the preservation of cultural patrimony as well as cross-border law enforcement. He retired in 1956 with the title of Chief Inspector General. He also wrote several books about his detective work and lived a long life, dying in 1981 at the age of 90. He lived as he worked, pouring his tenacity, discernment, endless intellectual curiosity, and vision into everything he did. As he wrote [PDF in Italian ] in an article on police work in 1929:

In a sense, each of us is a born cop, for our own inherited psychophysiological constitution has at its disposal infinite new sources of knowledge. The difficult part can be to evaluate them precisely, to find them, link them, associate them, integrate them, to be able in the end to repeat in triumph the motto that a medieval sage wore engraved on an amulet: "Nil occultum quod non scietur." That is, we may not know something, but there is nothing truly hidden; with hard work, everything can be known.

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Peter Elliott
Authorities Have Cracked a Bizarre Cold Case That Could Have Ties to the Zodiac Killer
Peter Elliott
Peter Elliott

One of the strangest cold cases in Ohio, if not the United States, has now been solved—but pieces of the puzzle remain.

In 2002, a man known as Joseph Newton Chandler III fatally shot himself in the bathroom of his tiny apartment in Eastlake, Ohio. His body wasn't found for a week, by which point it was badly decomposed, and police were unable to obtain fingerprints. He hadn't left a note, and police found more than $80,000 in his bank account. A private investigator, hired by a probate judge to find surviving family members, soon discovered that the man known as Chandler wasn't Chandler at all—he'd stolen the identity of an 8-year-old boy from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who died in a car crash in Texas in 1945.

Since then, rumors have been building. Police felt the man was most likely a fugitive on the run—who else leaves $80,000 in a bank account and hides behind a stolen identity? Some said he might have been a Nazi war criminal. Others thought that he could be the Zodiac Killer, based on his likeness to a police sketch of the infamous murderer who left a trail of terror through Northern California in the 1960s and 1970s. (And, in fact, Chandler was in California at the time of the crimes.) But after the initial round of research following the suicide, the case went cold.

Today, U.S. Marshal Peter Elliott announced that his office and a team of forensic genealogists had cracked the case. Yet they've only solved the first part of the mystery‚ and are appealing to the public for help connecting the rest of the dots.

Their research shows that the man known as Chandler was actually Robert Ivan Nichols of New Albany, Indiana. A Purple Heart Navy veteran who served in World War II, Nichols had disappeared from his family in 1965. He had left his wife and sons the year prior, telling her, "In due time, you'll know why," according to Elliott. In March 1965, he wrote to his parents, saying he was "well and happy" and asking them not to worry about him. The same month, he mailed an envelope to his son Phillip, which contained only a penny. There was no note. It was the last his family would ever hear of him.

According to family lore, the war had taken a heavy toll on Nichols, and he burned his uniforms in the backyard after returning from service. He had no criminal history. Associates who worked with him as "Chandler" described him as a loner, someone who refused to let others get close. Co-workers said he would frequently disappear for days, and even weeks, at a time. He kept a bag packed and ready in his apartment at all times.

After disappearing from his family, he traveled to Dearborn, Michigan, and then to the San Francisco and Richmond, California areas. He assumed the Chandler identity in Rapid City, South Dakota, in 1978, when he applied for a Social Security card using personal information (including the birthdate) of the boy who died in 1945. At the time, such frauds were easier to pull off, since Social Security cards were rarely given to children, and so the real Joseph Newton Chandler III had never been given a Social Security number.

Robert Ivan Nichols circa 1992
Robert Ivan Nichols circa 1992
Peter Elliott

The break in the case came only after painstaking detective work that involved both sophisticated DNA techniques and pounding the pavement. When Elliott took on the case in 2014 at the request of the Eastlake police, he discovered Chandler had had colon cancer surgery in 2000. He sent tissue samples taken at that time to the local medical examiner, who obtained a DNA profile. Unfortunately, there were no matches between the profile and various national criminal databases.

Stumped, in 2016 Elliott turned to forensic genealogists Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick and Dr. Margaret Press of California-based IdentiFinders and the DNA Doe Project, a non-profit humanitarian initiative created to help identify Jane and John Does and return them to their families. (Fitzpatrick also helped crack the case of identity thief Lori Erica Ruff in 2016.) Despite a badly degraded sample, they used Y chromosome genealogy to trace a family line that indicated the dead man's last name was likely Nichols or some variation. In March 2018, authorities tracked down a Phillip Nichols in Ohio, who provided a DNA sample. The sample matched with that of the dead man, indicating the pair were father and son. Phillip said at a news conference today that he instantly recognized photos of "Chandler" as his father.

Although the cold case has been solved, mystery remains. Why did Nichols abandon his family? Why did he end his life? What accounts for the rest of his odd behavior? Although it's clear he wasn't a Nazi war criminal, there's still a chance—however slight—that he could be connected to crimes in California, given his residence at the time of the Zodiac Killer's activities. "There has to be a reason he assumed the name of a deceased 8-year-old boy and went into hiding for so many years," Elliott says. When asked about the potential Zodiac Killer connection, Elliott responded, "I can't say for sure that he is, and I cannot say for sure that he's not [the killer]. We have been working with San Francisco, [and the] Department of Justice, but that's a question for them, that's their investigation."

Elliott says he is appealing for the public's help in tracing the rest of Nichols' life and mystery. Tips can be sent to the U.S. Marshals at 216-522-4482.

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iStock
What’s the Difference Between Prison and Jail?
iStock
iStock

Many people use the terms jail and prison interchangeably, and while both terms refer to areas where people are held, there's a substantial difference between the two methods of incarceration. Where a person who is accused of a crime is held, and for how long, is a factor in determining the difference between the two—and whether a person is held in a jail or a prison is largely determined by the severity of the crime they have committed.

A jail (or, for our British friends, a gaol) refers to a small, temporary holding facility—run by local governments and supervised by county sheriff departments—that is designed to detain recently arrested people who have committed a minor offense or misdemeanor. A person can also be held in jail for an extended period of time if the sentence for their offense is less than a year. There are currently 3163 local jail facilities in the United States.

A jail is different from the similarly temporary “lockup”—sort of like “pre-jail”—which is located in local police departments and holds offenders unable to post bail, people arrested for public drunkenness who are kept until they are sober, or, most importantly, offenders waiting to be processed into the jail system.

A prison, on the other hand, is usually a large state- or federal-run facility meant to house people convicted of a serious crime or felony, and whose sentences for those crimes surpass 365 days. A prison could also be called a “penitentiary,” among other names.

To be put in a state prison, a person must be convicted of breaking a state law. To be put in a federal prison, a person must be convicted of breaking federal law. Basic amenities in a prison are more extensive than in a jail because, obviously, an inmate is likely to spend more than a year of his or her life confined inside a prison. As of 2012, there were 4575 operating prisons in the U.S.—the most in the world. The country with the second highest number of operating prisons is Russia, which has just 1029 facilities.

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