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This Famous Chicago 'Murderess' Didn't Kill Anyone, And New Book Proves It

By Justin Breen | May 12, 2017 1:31pm | Updated on May 15, 2017 4:51am
"Sabella Nitti" with her daughter Mary on her lap. Date unknown (Likely May 1923).
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CHICAGO — Author Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi said she's exonerated a Chicago woman convicted of murdering her husband nearly 100 years ago through the reporting of her new book, "Ugly Prey."

Lucchesi in deep detail documents the case of Sabella Nitti, who in 1923 was sentenced to hang for the murder of her first husband, Francesco. Nitti was accused of beating her husband to death with a hammer and chopping him into pieces.

Nitti would have been the first woman to hang in Cook County, but her sentence was later commuted to life in prison. Nitti's case was highlighted in the Broadway hit musical (and movie) "Chicago." The Hungarian ballerina who is hanged in the musical is really innocent, but language barriers and an unsympathetic press make her an easy target for a broken criminal justice system. 

In her book, which was released this month, Lucchesi details how Nitti was convicted despite the fact that there was no motive, no evidence and no proof that the decayed corpse found in a Berwyn drainage ditch was Francesco Nitti.

Lucchesi first read about Nitti in the book "Girls of Murder City" and noted "I didn’t see a dirty or dangerous murderer. I saw a scared immigrant who didn’t understand what was happening to her."

After requesting a 700-page trial transcript from the state archives in Springfield, Lucchesi started analyzing the trail and putting the pieces together. Lucchesi said the more she realized Nitti was an innocent woman, the more she wanted the story to be fully told.

Lucchesi said Nitti's trial was "as logical as a medieval trial by ordeal."

"The prosecution had no actual evidence or proof a crime was committed against the unidentifiable corpse," Lucchesi said. "They relied on hearsay testimony and the deputy sheriff’s theories.

"Sabella’s attorney was struggling with mental illness and unable to properly defend her. He was quite confused at times, and he obsessed over bizarre details. He kept bringing up how the corpse wasn’t wearing any underpants — as if that was a detail that mattered. At one point, he was so confused that he defended the prosecuting attorney against an overruled objection. At first, the judge tried to help the defense attorney. Then, he just gave up and began believing the case against Sabella."

"Ugly Prey" is the first book for Lucchesi, a veteran Chicago freelance writer who has a master's degree from DePaul and a doctorate from University of Illinois at Chicago. 

She said a highlight of the research and writing of the book was meeting Nitti's granddaughter.

"She told me the book completely exonerated her grandmother," Lucchesi said. "The family had kept the story a secret and the granddaughter only learned of it in recent years. She tried to research the case but found it difficult and she wondered if her grandmother truly did kill her grandfather. ... It felt great to tell her that her grandmother was not only innocent, but she was a good woman. She was cheerful, industrious and intelligent."

"Ugly Prey" is available at local bookshops and online at Target.com, Barnesandnoble.com; iTunes and Amazon.com. The Chicago Public Library also has 32 copies. For more information, click here.