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A Chicago newspaper illustration of Murderess Row, featuring Mrs. Nitti in the top right corner, from Ugly Prey.
Photo: Courtesy of Emilie Lucchesi, Ugly Prey

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In the 1920s, a Makeover Saved This Woman From the Death Penalty

Sabella Nitti was the first woman sentenced to death in Cook County, and she was innocent. And then she got a bob.

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Sabella Nitti was ugly. At least, that’s what the prosecutor said — in fact, he built much of his case around her looks, leaning on sexism, racism, and stereotypes to convince the jury that Nitti was an “ugly animal” capable of killing her husband with their farmhand Peter Crudele, even though the actual evidence was circumstantial and flimsy.

Sabella Nitti, pre-makeover, on the cover of Ugly Prey.
Photo: Courtesy of Emilie Lucchesi, Ugly Prey.

The newspaper stories about her were almost worse. On July 10th, 1923, reporter Genevieve Forbes wrote in the Chicago Daily Tribune that the jury gave the death penalty to “husband killer” Sabella Nitti, a “dumb, crouching, animal-like Italian peasant.” Forbes wrote that when the jury read the verdict, “Mrs. Nitti ran stubby fingers, where the dirt was ingrained into broken nails into her matted hair. She shifted her stocky legs and smoothed out the dark blue skirt, made full and short for work in the field. She hadn’t understood a word. But she twisted up her face in a grotesque angle of fear, and inferiocity, and cruelty and hope.”

Nitti hadn’t understood her own verdict and sentencing because she didn’t speak English. It took until the next day for someone to translate it for her. Nitti spoke Barese, a dialect of Italian. Her translator spoke a different dialect, and it’s likely that Nitti did not understand every word, but she knew the news was bad. When she heard that the state found her guilty and planned to hang her for killing her husband, Francesco Nitti, she fainted.

Sabella Nitti was one of the first women to become part of murderesses row in Chicago in the 1920s, where a spate of women went on trial for murdering their husbands or boyfriends — or murdering for their husbands or boyfriends. The city was captivated by the idea of female killers, who went so against the idealized version of a submissive, nurturing woman. The coverage of their trials turned into a media circus, later inspiring the play Chicago by reporter-turned-playwright Maurine Watkins. The characters Roxie Hart and Velma in the play were based on the very real defendants Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner. Annan and Gaertner were both likely guilty of murdering their boyfriends — but they were acquitted.

No one treated Annan and Gaertner like they were animals. When they were written about in the newspapers, Annan was called “beautiful” and Gaertner “stylish.” Though the evidence in their cases suggested they were guilty of killing their boyfriends, perhaps on purpose, out of anger rather than self-defense, they both were acquitted by the all-male, all-white juries of the time.

“It was kind of understood that Belva would get off because she was this wealthy woman, well dressed, and if you came from high society you were well respected and you couldn’t possibly be doing anything like murder,” says Douglas Perry, author of The Girls of Murder City, a book about the female killers of 1920s Chicago who inspired the play. “And it was understood that Beulah Annan would be acquitted because she was beautiful and she had this lovely, soft Southern accent.”

Accused murderess Belva Gaertner.
Photo: Courtesy of Emilie Lucchesi, Ugly Prey.

Nitti had none of these things. She wasn’t seen as conventionally beautiful by American standards of the 1920s. She was an immigrant woman who worked on a farm. Her hair was long so she could tie it out of her face while she worked, unlike the trendy bobbed haircut of the ’20s, which kept women’s hair short around their chin. Spending most of her time on the farm didn’t require her to keep up with the latest styles of clothing — not that she could afford them anyway.

The prosecution used her looks to support their case: that Nitti was a killer who deserved to hang. “Can you see that woman? No. She isn’t a woman, she is a fiend, she is not a woman,” the prosecutor Milton Smith said during the trial, according to Ugly Prey, a book on Nitti’s trial written by Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi.

In reality, the evidence was circumstantial. The body that was found was never even proven to be Francesco Nitti, who had disappeared from their farm one night in July of 1922, along with the family’s savings of $300.

But Chicago hadn’t been successful at convicting many women murderers. And Cook County had never sentenced a woman to death. The prosecution was hungry for a win, and Nitti became an easy target. “With Sabella Nitti they had someone who not just didn’t meet the American standard of beauty for the 1920s, but she was also subject to the stigma that was affixed to women of her socioeconomic status, as well as her immigration status,” Lucchesi says. (That Nitti’s lawyer, Eugene Moran, was grossly incompetent didn’t help. In fact, the judge warned Moran multiple times that his incompetence was harming his client.)

When Nitti’s appeal process started (Moran at least got that right), a group of lawyers banded together to help Nitti and take over her and Crudele’s defense. One of them was a female lawyer named Helen Cirese.

Attorney Helen Cirese.
Photo: Courtesy of Emilie Lucchesi, Ugly Prey.

Cirese and her colleagues helped Nitti navigate appeals, providing much more competent service than Moran, who later underwent long-term care for mental illness. But perhaps just as importantly, Cirese got Nitti new clothes, dyed her hair, and taught her English. Instead of long gray hair piled on top of her head, Nitti sported a dark brown bob. Instead of hands rough from work, Nitti’s nails were manicured. After this makeover, instead of calling Nitti an animal in the newspapers, Forbes called her a butterfly.

Nitti’s case eventually went to the Illinois Supreme Court, which granted her and Crudele a retrial. When Nitti appeared in court to set a date for her retrial, her transformation was obvious. “It was almost as big of a blow to the state’s case as the Illinois Supreme Court’s decision the previous week,” Lucchesi wrote in Ugly Prey. Nitti was later released on bail. With no new evidence — and with Nitti garnering public support in part based on her new look — her trial date kept being pushed back, until the charges were dropped entirely.

This makeover helped the public, and possibly judges, see her as someone familiar, someone sweet — someone who could be innocent. And other women on murderesses row took note.

Often led by the stylish Gaertner, the women in Cook County jail began talking about what to wear to trial. And the makeup cabinet available to women before they went to court began to see much more use. In her many visits to the jail, Forbes noticed this activity. In a 1927 article with the headline “Jail Can Really Do a Lot for a Woman,” Forbes wrote that the women were running a “jail school,” and that Nitti had been the star pupil. With a sarcastic tone, Forbes wrote that Nitti’s jail cell became a “‘salon de beaute,’ and she worked overtime at this business of making herself fair.”

Sabella Nitti, post-makeover and able to speak English.
Photo: Courtesy of Emilie Lucchesi, Ugly Prey.

But women taking charge of their image at their own trials wasn’t foolish at all. There was a perception that a beautiful woman wouldn’t get convicted in Chicago, and to ignore that was to go into a trial that your life depended on at a disadvantage.

“You have to know what the rules of the game are. And it’s the same thing with dressing,” says Eva Hagberg Fisher, who recently wrote about her own experience dressing for legal proceedings in the New York Times article “How I Learned to Look Believable,” where she described the outfits she wore after she filed a sexual harassment complaint at UC Berkeley. Hagberg Fisher says she needed to look presentable, attractive enough to be considered “harassable” — but not like she was asking for it — and come across as a “poverty stricken, beleaguered grad student” all at the same time. “The nuance of the presentation that I had to do with my clothing was beyond anything that I’d ever thought about,” she says.

Dressing for court isn’t just about appearing put together — though that’s part of it. It’s more about dressing to match the story you’re telling and making yourself and your story familiar to the jury. Jury consultant Inese Neiders says that in one case a woman brought a $600 purse to court, which sounds like it would make her look respectable. But she was accused of embezzlement. “It’s not as easy as it would appear on the surface to dress somebody appropriately,” Neiders says.

Nitti’s appearance when she was first arrested matched the prosecution’s story. After her makeover, her appearance matched her own defense. It took a female lawyer, which was rare at the time, to recognize and address this issue, leading to female defendants having agency and learning to dress the parts they needed to play in court.

It would, of course, be better to do without these stereotypes and role playing at all, which disproportionately hurt poor women or women who don’t fit certain beauty standards, like Nitti. But these women were dealing with the world as it is, rather than as it should be. “Very loving, very supportive friends of mine were like, ‘Fuck that, Eva, the patriarchy shouldn’t be appearing in your closet,’” Hagberg Fisher says. “But it’s already there. It’s already there.”


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