Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Frank Nitti's Last Walk

The Death of the Man Dubbed “Capone’s Enforcer”

On the evening of March 19, 1943, a lone figure walked out of his home in Riverside, Illinois, and began strolling along the streets of the quiet neighborhood. It was a cool, early spring night and the man seemed to have not a care in the world as he walked along, his hands tucked into his pockets and a soft whistle on his lips. His casual manner gave no hint to the turmoil he felt inside. Or that he had a loaded handgun weighting down the pocket of his coat.

The man left the street and began walking along the Illinois Central Railroad tracks that ran west of Harlem Avenue and around Cermak Avenue. He carefully picked his way over the railroad ties and walked along until the shadows seemed to envelope him. Darkness was just beginning to fall and this seemed as good a time as any for one last look at the world. The man took the gun from his pocket and raised it to his head. His hand began to tremble as he squeezed the trigger and then a deafening roar filled his ears and echoed in the stillness of the city around him.

When the first shot was fired, railroad workers who were doing routine maintenance a little father up the line, looked up to see the walking man. His hands shook as he held the pistol and a thin ribbon of smoke curled from its barrel. The gun had been aimed at his head but the first shot had somehow missed. One of the railroad men started to call out to the man as he saw him calmly lift the gun again. Before the words could leave the railroader's lips, the man pulled the trigger again. This time, when the gun went off, the bullet did not miss. It blew apart the top of the man's head and he stumbled over the railroad ties and collapsed against the fence that ran next to the tracks. Blood began to seep into the grass, looking black in the fading light.

Frank Nitti, once thought of as one of the most powerful men in Chicago and an enforcer for Al Capone, lay dead on the ground, slain by his own hand.

Frank Nitti
Frank Nitti (or Nitto, which was the preferred family spelling) was a man of mystery. Intensely private and quiet, he is only scarcely remembered today as being part of the legendary Capone gang. If not for the television series based on the exploits of Eliot Ness and his "Untouchables," it's possible that he would only be known to the most dedicated gangster buffs and researchers and not to the general public at all. Nitti was a small man but one with incredible will. He maintained discipline in the ranks and acted as Capone's enforcer and troubleshooter. He was also one of the only gangsters in the organization who never used an assumed name, which got him into trouble when investigators discovered a check he had endorsed. This put him into prison for eighteen months in the early 1930s, an experience that had a lasting effect on him.

Nitti was born on January 27, 1881 in the small town of Angri, in the province of Salerno, Campania, Italy. He was the second child of Luigi and Rosina Nitto. His father died when Frank was very young and a year later his mother married Francesco Dolendo. In July 1890, Dolendo emigrated to American and the rest of the family followed in June 1893 when Nitti was 12. They settled at 113 Navy Street in Brooklyn and Frank worked numerous odd jobs to help support the family. He left school in the seventh grade and worked as a bowling alley pinsetter, a factory worker and a barber. Al Capone’s family lived nearby but the Capone brothers were much too young to be known to Nitti.

Frank left home at age 19, unhappy with his stepfather, and wanting to make it on his own. Starting in 1900, he worked in a number of factories and finally, in 1910, he left Brooklyn. Little is known about his life over the course of the next few years but he probably moved to Chicago around 1913, working as a barber and making the acquaintance of gangsters Alex Louis Greenberg and Dion O'Banion.

He married a woman from Chicago, Rosa Levitt, in Dallas, Texas, on October 18, 1917. The couple's movements after their marriage remain uncertain. He is known to have become a partner in the Galveston crime syndicate run by "Johnny" Jack Nounes and is reported to have stolen a large sum of money from Nounes and mobster Dutch Voight, after which Nitti returned to Chicago. By 1918, he had moved into an apartment at 914 South Halsted Street. He soon renewed his contact with Greenberg and O'Banion, becoming a jewel thief, liquor smuggler, and fence. Through his liquor smuggling activities, Nitti came to the attention of Chicago crime boss John Torrio and, later, to his successor, Al Capone. 

Under Capone, Nitti gained a fearsome reputation as an enforcer. Originally working as a bodyguard, Capone began tasking Nitti with the planning and execution of some of the gang’s most notable assassinations, like that of Hymie Weiss in 1926. He also ran Capone's liquor smuggling and distribution operation, importing whisky from Canada and selling it through a network of speakeasies around Chicago. Known as one of Capone’s top captains, he was trusted for his leadership and business skills but he never wanted leadership of the gang.

However, after Capone went to prison, newspaper reporters began looking for a new face for the head of the organization and somehow, Nitti ended up as that man. While an efficient organizer under Capone, it had been his job to make sure that Capone's orders had been carried out, not to give them himself. Nitti was only supposed to be a member of the board of directors of the new Outfit, not the man in charge. When Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky established their national crime syndicate, they dealt with Paul "The Waiter" Ricca as the leader of the Chicago mob and not with Nitti.

However, Ricca and the others used Nitti's high profile with the press to keep the heat off the real inner workings of the Outfit. He became a valuable man to take the heat. Chicago mayor Anton Cermak even dispatched his own police "hit men" to try and take out Nitti so that he could replace him with other gangsters who kept him on the payroll.

On December 19, 1932, a team of Chicago police, headed by Detective Sergeants Harry Lang and Harry Miller, raided Nitti's office in Room 554 of the LaSalle Building. Lang shot Nitti three times in the back and neck. He then shot himself in the finger to make the shooting look like self-defense, claiming that Nitti had shot him first. Nitti was badly wounded during the attempt on his life. He lingered near death for a time, but recovered only to end up standing trial for the shooting of one of the cops during the gun battle. Court testimony claimed that the murder attempt was personally ordered by newly elected Mayor Anton Cermak, who supposedly wanted to eliminate the Outfit in favor of Ted Newberry, who had taken over the remnants of the O’Banion/Moran mob, and redistribute the Capone territories. During the trial, Miller testified that Lang received $15,000 to kill Nitti. Another uniformed officer who was present at the shooting testified that Nitti was shot while unarmed. Nitti’s trial ended with a hung jury. Harry Lang and Harry Miller were both fired from the police force and each fined $100 for assault. This was not the end of story, though. Most believe that Nitti managed to get his revenge on Cermak a few months later.

On February 15, 1932, Cermak was shot in Bayfront Park in Miami. Cermak was on the reviewing stand and, after President-elect Franklin Roosevelt made a short speech from an open car, he waved over Cermak to join him. As Roosevelt's car was about to start, shots rang out and Cermak and four others were hit. They were shot by a man named Giuseppe Zangara, whose intention had been to kill the president.

Cermak was rushed to the hospital, where he died a short time later. As he was taken away by ambulance, Cermak was supposed to have said to the president, "I am glad that it was me instead of you." They became the most famous words that Cermak ever uttered -- or they would have been, if he had really said them. A reporter who was there that day, Ed Gilbreth, stated that the phrase was created by William Randolph Hearst’s Chicago Herald-American to make a good headline and sell papers. Cermak never said anything before he died.

Although some words uttered by another reporter who was standing nearby might have provided more of a clue in the shooting than officials would admit. Just as the shots rang out, a reporter who was nearby allegedly joked to Cermak, "Just like Chicago, eh Mayor?" Rumors have persisted ever since the shooting that Cermak had not been an accidental target that day.

As the IRS began cracking down on the mob, Nitti served prison time for an income tax charge related to a check that was discovered bearing his name. In spite of this, he stayed out of the newspapers until November 1940, when he was indicted for influencing the Chicago Bartenders and Beverage Dispensers’ Local of the AFL. Nitti was accused of putting mob members into positions of power in the union and then forcing the sale of beer from mob-owned breweries. The trial rested on the testimony of one man, George McLane, the president of the union. He allegedly was forced to follow Nitti's orders but the pressure got to him and he went to the authorities and explained what the mob was doing. McLane was all set to testify until two mob soldiers showed up at his door and told him that if he talked in court, his wife would be mailed to him in small pieces. When the day came, McLane pleaded for his right to remain silent under the Fifth Amendment and the case was dropped.

The heat was on Nitti again in 1943 during what came to be called the "Hollywood Extortion case." After Bioff and Browne decided to talk, indictments were brought against Nitti, Paul Ricca and several others. A meeting was called at Nitti's home in Riverside and Ricca decided that it was the perfect time to take advantage of Nitti's perceived top position in the mob. He ordered Nitti to plead guilty in the extortion case and to take the rap for everyone. He would be taken care of when he got out, as long as he kept his mouth shut while he was inside.

But there was no "inside" for Nitti. He refused to go back to prison. His earlier jail time had so traumatized the gangster that he now had a terrible fear of small, confined spaces. He urged Ricca to come up with another plan or to allow some of the others to share the responsibility with him. Ricca was enraged and demanded that Nitti be a "stand-up guy." When Nitti still refused, Ricca told him that, "he was asking for it." Nitti took these words to mean his death sentence but he simply couldn't face another stretch in prison. He made a last-ditch effort to try and bribe the prosecutor in the case, M.F. Correa, but his attempt was coldly rebuffed.

Frank Nitti’s last photo – dead along the railroad tracks, slain by his own hand. 

So, on March 19, the day after the meeting, Frank Nitti placed a gun in his pocket and went for one last stroll through his neighborhood. When he made it as far as the Illinois Central Railroad tracks, his journey came to an end -- or did it?

Nitti was laid to rest in Mount Carmel Cemetery, not far from the grave of Al Capone. The stone is marked with his family name of “Nitto” and bears a direct and ominous inscription: "There is no life except by death." Many believe that Nitti does not rest there in peace.

For years, it has been a local legend in the North Riverside and Forest Park areas that the ghost of Frank Nitti still walks along the railroad tracks where he committed suicide back in 1943. There are many who claim to have not only sensed his last anguished moments but who also state that they have seen the eerie figure of a man here, as well. The figure often appears along the railroad tracks at Cermak Avenue and begins walking west, plainly visible under the harsh lights of a nearby shopping center.

The lonely tracks, isolated from the nearby toy store, restaurants and shopping centers, remain as mute testament to the place where a once powerful man’s life was finally broken. There is no question that Frank Nitti deserved to be brought to justice for the lives that he ruined and ended before their time – but we also have to wonder what demons could drive a man to take his own life when his religious beliefs would surely condemn him to hell. If such demons could push a man to suicide, then perhaps they might also keep him on this earth, doomed to relive his final moments over and over again.

The story of Frank Nitti – and other Chicago mobsters and ghost stories – can be found in my book BLOOD, GUNS & VALENTINES, which is available in print from the website or as a Kindle edition. 

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