Join us as we welcome journalist and educator Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi to the museum to discuss her book, Ugly Prey: An Innocent Woman and the Death Sentence that Scandalized Jazz Age Chicago. Recounting an almost forgotten chapter in Cook County’s history and the two very different women who were its central figures, Ugly Prey is a thought-provoking look at the intersection of gender, ethnicity, class, and the American justice system.
In 1923 an Italian immigrant named Sabella Nitti became the first woman sentenced to death in Cook County. She had been convicted for the murder of her missing husband. There was no direct evidence. There was no motive. There was no positive identification of the badly decayed corpse fished from a Berwyn sewer. But prosecutors needed a win and Sabella Nitti was an easy target. She could not speak English, she was a recent immigrant, and she was a member of an ethnic minority feared by Chicagoans in the early 1920s. The media painted her as a monster–– ugly, depraved, dangerous, barely human–– and the public applauded her conviction.
Nitti’s appeal was handled by a team of Italian American attorneys spearheaded by Helen Cirese, a brilliant and beautiful young woman from Oak Park. An alumnus of OPRF High School, Cirese graduated from DePaul University and became the youngest woman to pass the Illinois Bar Exam, 10 months before her 21st birthday. Now, just 24 years old, she would risk her own future fighting for the life of Sabella Nitti.
Author Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi holds a PhD in communication from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She began her career as a journalist, writing more than 800 stories for the Chicago Tribune. Her work has appeared in dozens of nationally known newspapers including New York Times, Detroit Free Press, Los Angeles Times, and Miami Herald, as well as periodicals like Discover Magazine and The Atlantic. In addition to Ugly Prey, Lucchesi is also the author of This Is Really War: The Incredible True Story of a Navy Nurse POW in the Phillipines, published in May 2019 by Chicago Review Press. She currently is Visiting Assistant Professor of Communication at North Central College in Naperville.