Allan May, Crime Historian
Allan May is an organized crime historian, writer and lecturer. He also writes a monthly column for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
The First Shooting of Frank Nitti
By Allan May
Frank "The Enforcer" Nitti was a survivor. He survived the bullets of Robert Stack in the television series "The Untouchables," where the only character more inflated than Eliot Ness was Nitti himself. He then survived being pushed off a courthouse roof by Kevin Costner in the movie "The Untouchables," in which the only historically accurate details were the names Ness, Capone and Nitti. However, on December 19, 1932, Nitti would face his biggest challenge in trying to survive after he was shot three times by a Chicago police detective.
In April 1931, Anton J. Cermak was elected mayor of Chicago. According to Virgil W. Peterson, who headed the Chicago Crime Commission, Cermak's "powerful political organization which now controlled the city, derived much of its strength from the lucrative gambling business," which meant a strong alliance with organized crime in Chicago. Peterson described Cermak as the "master of detail," and as mayor he would "give his attention to gambling as a source of political power."
On Chicago's North Side, Ted Newberry, a former associate of George "Bugs" Moran, who had changed sides in the wake of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, was in the process of branching out on his own to become the gambling boss of the North Side. Peterson states that Newberry, "was in high favor with the new political regime," and with these new connections planned on becoming "one of the most feared gang leaders in the city." One of Newberry's roadblocks was Frank Nitti. To clear this obstacle, it was rumored that Newberry had offered $15,000 to have Nitti eliminated.
On the afternoon of December 19, 1932, Mayor Cermak's special police detail, headed by Detective Sergeants Harry Lang and Harry Miller, descended on Nitti's headquarters in the La Salle-Wacker Building on La Salle Street. When they arrived they found Nitti and six others including Louis "Little New York" Campagna, who the newspapers described as Nitti's bodyguard.
According to the detectives, the men were ordered to raise their hands. Nitti was the last to do so, and as he did he stuffed a piece of paper in his mouth and began to chew it. Sergeant Lang grabbed Nitti in an effort to retrieve the paper believing it might contain "underworld secrets." Lang reported that Nitti drew a pistol from his pocket and fired, wounding him in the left hand. Lang responded by firing back five times, hitting Nitti with three shots. The bullets struck Nitti in the right side of his neck, in the right chest, and the third bullet entered his back near the spinal cord.
Nitti was rushed to Bridewell Hospital. In the operating room he cried out, "Oh God, save me this time." He asked for his father-in-law, Dr. Gaetano Rongo, to be summoned to assist. Late in the afternoon, at Nitti's request, a priest, Father John Peterson of St Casimir's parish, was called to the hospital to administer the last rites.
The newspapers reported Nitti's condition as "weakening" and "near death." The next day, although still listed as critical, he was transferred to Jefferson Park Hospital where Dr. Rongo was a member of the staff. Rongo was the father of Nitti's first wife, Anna.
The other six hoodlums had been taken in for questioning. Besides Campagna, they were Louis Schiavone, John Yario, Charles McGee, Martin Sanders, and Joseph Parrillo. They denied there had been any guns in the office and that Nitti had been shot without putting up any resistance. As far as their presence in the office was concerned, some stated that they had stopped by to place a bet, while others said they went there to collect winnings. McGee claimed to be the chauffeur for Nitti's wife. One of the law enforcement people to question the hoodlums was Eliot Ness of the prohibition bureau. After the questioning, a statement was prepared regarding the shooting and Campagna, as a routine matter, was asked to sign it. "I never sign papers." Campagna growled. The day after the shooting, all six men were charged with vagrancy and disorderly conduct. After posting bonds of $1,100 each, they were ordered to appear in court the following day.
As for the piece of paper Nitti was chewing, the police sent it to the Northwestern University School of Crime Detection, where experts worked on it with ultra violet rays. A good portion of the note was decipherable but there was nothing on it that the police could determine was important enough to cause Nitti to try to destroy it.
Nitti slowly recovered from his wounds. He was charged with assault with intent to kill Police Sergeant Harry Lang. Before Nitti went to trial, Mayor Cermak traveled to Miami where a reception had been planned for President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Cermak had played an important role in getting Roosevelt the Democratic nomination when the convention was held in Chicago, and was looking forward to the political celebration. On February 15, 1933, as Roosevelt drove into the waterfront park, Cermak approached the automobile and was shot by Giuseppe Zangara, who jumped out of the crowd and fires several shots at the car. Cermak was in the hospital for three weeks before he succumbed to his wounds on March 6.
Zangara, who was shooting at Roosevelt, would be convicted and executed for the killing of Cermak. Years later there were rumors that he had been hired by the mob to kill Cermak in exchange for his family to be taken care of.
In April 1933, Nitti went on trial for the attempted murder of Sergeant Lang. Police Officer Chris Callahan, a member of the mayor's special squad who participated in the La Salle Street raid, was called to testify. He admitted on the witness stand that Nitti had been searched twice and that no gun had been found on him. When asked how Lang was wounded, Callahan told a stunned courtroom that, "There was only one gun fired up there. Lang must have shot himself." Lang was then called to the witness stand where he refused to answer questions saying that his testimony might incriminate him.
Lang had gained hero status in the department for his shooting of the gang boss. He received a cash reward of $300 for meritorious service. Lang was now indicted on a charge of assault with a deadly weapon. In September 1933, Nitti testified that while Callahan held him by the wrists, Lang shot him three times. Callahan corroborated the story and Lang was found guilty. Lang was granted a new trial and the case was eventually dismissed, but not before Lang lost his job as a Chicago police officer.
Whether Mayor Cermak had anything to do with the shooting will never be known. Sergeant Harry Miller, during an investigation before Lang's trial, reported that he heard Lang was offered $15,000 to kill Nitti. Miller was also fired from the department.
As for the man who was rumored to have offered the $15,000 bounty on Nitti, Ted Newberry was found in a ditch near Bailey Town, Indiana on January 7, 1933. His body had been riddled by shotgun blasts.
Nitti continued his criminal career until 1943 when he was shot again. This time though, he made sure himself that he wouldn't survive.
Copyright © A. R. May 1999