This week’s blog post deals with the 1923 murder trial of Sabella Nitti. It’s slightly related to last week’s post about Beulah Annan but in the opposite way. Annan, you may recall, was an attractive woman who charmed a Chicago jury into acquitting her of murdering her lover. Nitti had no similar ability.
Isabella “Sabella” Nitti was almost the complete opposite of the young early-twentieth-century flapper. She was an Italian immigrant from Bari, a region near the “heel” of Italy’s boot. She did not understand English but spoke Barese, a dialect of Italian that even most Italians didn’t understand. Furthermore, the hard life of working on farms left her looking worn.
In 1923, authorities charged Sabella and her new husband, Peter Crudele, with murdering her first husband, Francesco Nitti. The prosecution argued that the pair had done away with Nitti so they could be together. They had no significant evidence, only a theory. But stinging from a series of cases where guilty but attractive women charmed their way to acquittals, they were eager for a win.
Sabella Nitti on Trial
Unlike with Beulah Annan the following year, the press was not kind to Sabella Nitti. Writing for the Chicago Daily Tribune, Genevieve Forbs described her as “grotesque” and called her “a monkey.”
Judge Joseph David presided over the trial. According to prosecutor Milton Smith, Sabella Nitti was ugly. He built much of his case around her looks, leaning on sexism, racism, and stereotypes to convince the jury she was an “ugly animal” capable of killing her husband with Crudele. It didn’t help that Sabella’s defense attorney, Eugene A. Moran, suffered from mental problems and offered a less-than-competent defense.
The prosecution evidence was flimsy, but it didn’t matter in the end. The jury returned a guilty verdict and fixed her punishment at death. She was the first woman sentenced to hang in Chicago. Sabella, ignorant of English, didn’t understand what had happened until later.
Sabella Nitti Gets a New Champion
Enter Helen Cirese. Cirese was young, intelligent, pretty—and an attorney. The male attorneys of Chicago in the 1920s were not interested in having a woman join them. Instead, she shared an office with other Italian-American attorneys, all female. Where the rest of Chicago saw a monster, Cirese and her colleagues saw a frightened immigrant, worn down by years of child-bearing and farm work.
Cirese agreed to represent Sabella during her appeal. She immediately saw the problem. Sabella’s appearance didn’t inspire empathy with either juries or the public. Consequently, Helen set out to reinvent her client. She had Sabella cut the long hair that she usually wore in a messy bun and touched up the gray. In addition, Helen had her client start using makeup and helped her choose more stylish clothes. She also taught Sabella English. It was a makeover in the truest sense of the word.
Prosecutors realized they had a problem when Sabella was granted a new trial. At her first trial, they were able to use prejudice and character assassination to hand-wave over flimsy evidence. This time, they realized they had a completely new defendant.
Sabella Nitti was released on bail. With no new evidence and with public support for the defendant building, prosecutors eventually dropped the charges Don’tely.
Sabella’s story inspired the doomed Hungarian ballerina character in the musical version of Chicago.
You can read about the Sabella Nitti case in Ugly Prey by Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi.
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