Available now from Chicago Review Press!

Picked by the New York Times Sunday Book Review as a true-crime thriller for the beach!

 

The true story of an innocent woman, obsessed lawmen, and the death sentence that scandalized a city.

In 1923, Sabella Nitti was emaciated after a long, hard Chicago winter. The year had been a series of surprise misfortunes and planned attacks. First, her husband, Francesco, disappeared the previous July. Then, the local deputy sheriff, Paul Dasso, accused her and a young farmhand of having an affair. Sabella was arrested on fornication and adultery charges and spent the autumn in Cook County jail, waiting for a magistrate to dismiss the charges.

When she returned from jail, she found her eldest son had stolen everything she owned. Sabella’s ragged appearance revealed her hardships. Her cheeks were hollow. Her unwashed hair was streaked with grey. And her torn shoes, made from scraps of carpet, were ready to fall off her feet. To Dasso and the other lawmen, Sabella seemed like a dirty, unpredictable animal.

When a badly decayed corpse was found in a sewer a mile from the Nitti family farm, Dasso was convinced the body was Sabella’s missing husband. The county lawman launched an immediate offensive the prosecutors pursued with vengeance. Within three months, the guilty verdict came down and Sabella was sentenced to hang. A short 95 days separated the verdict from her scheduled death date.

Could anyone save her?


An Untold Story:

Until now, Sabella's story has not been fully told. No book, play, or movie ever told the innocent woman's tragedy.

Why?

Because Sabella was overshadowed by the glamorous women who inspired the 1926 play, "Chicago." 

Sabella was in jail alongside Beulah Annan, who inspired the character Roxy Hart, and Belva Gaertner, the inspiration for Velma Kelly. 

Playwright Maurine Watkins wrote "Chicago" after covering the murder trials for the Chicago Daily Tribune.  The play was an instant success and included "Moonshine Maggie," a character that alluded to Sabella. In 1927, the play was adapted into a silent film. A character resembling Sabella only flashed momentarily on the screen.  Then, in the 1942 version, "Roxy Hart," Sabella was missing completely.

The 1970s Broadway musical, "Chicago" introduced Hunyak, an innocent immigrant awaiting the gallows. Hunyak was Hungarian and sang her parts in Magyar -- perhaps the creators' nod to Sabella's distinct Barese dialect.

In the play, Hunyak met her fate at the gallows.

Did the real life Sabella also hang? Did she languish in jail? Or find redemption?

Ugly Prey -- coming May 2017 from Chicago Review Press.