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Presumed Guilty

by Fred Gardaphe

“Ugly Prey: An Innocent Woman and the Death Sentence that Scandalized Jazz Age Chicago,” is an exciting account of the true-life crime story that led to the first death sentence handed down by a Chicago jury to a woman. Journalist Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi combines the investigative skills of her newspaper career with the voice of a seasoned storyteller to bring this amazing case to life.  Sabella’s story is one of a hardworking immigrant woman suffering abuse, first in her home and then by the very institutions she encounters in her attempts to find out what happened to her husband, Frank, who left the house one night and never came home.

The couple lived on a truck farm in Stickney, Ill., raising their family in the traditional way of hard work and tough discipline.  Their boys shun work in favor of the wild life offered
by the Roaring ’20s, so Frank hires Pietro Crudele to help out. One night, after a very physical fight over money with his son Michael, Frank disappears. Three months later, Pietro moves in with Sabella. The Cook County Sheriff arrests the two on charges of fornication and adultery, set up by Sabella’s son Michael. Sheriff Dasso, an unsavory fellow himself, concocts a story of a love triangle, and tries to implicate them in Frank’s murder. A grand jury dismisses the case for lack of evidence, but that’s not the end of it.  Six months later, Peter and Sabella get married to avoid any more accusations of adultery. When a badly decomposed body turns up in a drainage catch basin, Dasso believes he’s got what he needs to charge Peter, Sabella and her 16 year-old son Charley with Frank’s murder. The case goes to trial, and in the hands of an inept defense attorney they never hired, Peter and Sabella are found guilty.

What makes this story so compelling is not simply what happens to these poor immigrants, but the way Le Beau Lucchesi tells it. The author has created a pageturning mystery  that artistically weaves criminal and social history with the plight of the accused to tell a story that says as much about gender and ethnicity as it does about injustice. Sabella  happens to be the first of a number of women who are accused of murdering men in a time when women are challenging American traditions more than ever before.

Le Beau deftly reveals why Sabella’s case is pursued solely on circumstantial evidence. Sabella is a simple, hardworking peasant who doesn’t even understand the charges against her. She neither combs nor dyes her hair. She has no change of clothes and grunts. While waiting for death by hanging she encounters other women, similarly accused, who come and go, and she comforts them. You might know this story from the musical “Chicago,” in which Sabella’s character was transformed into a Hungarian.  All seems lost until a female attorney, Helen Cirese, calls on the newly formed Justinian Society of Lawyers, who take over her case and give her a much needed makeover. They work hard but when the original judge denies their motion for a new trial, the team of Italian lawyers has just months to save her from the gallows.

Did they succeed? Now that’s a mystery worth solving through your reading.