#BookReview – UGLY PREY: An Innocent Woman and the Death Sentence That Scandalized Jazz Age Chicago

An Italian immigrant who spoke little English and struggled to scrape together a living on her primitive family farm outside Chicago, Sabella Nitti was arrested in 1923 for the murder of her missing husband. Within two months, she was found guilty and became the first woman ever sentenced to hang in Chicago. Journalist Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi leads readers through Sabella’s sensational case, showing how, with no evidence and no witnesses, she was the target of an obsessed deputy sheriff and the victim of a faulty legal system. She was also—to the men who convicted her and the reporters fixated on her—ugly. For that unforgiveable crime, the media painted her as a hideous, dirty, and unpredictable immigrant, almost an animal.

Lucchesi brings to life the sights and sounds of 1920s Chicago—its then-rural outskirts, downtown halls of power, and headline-making crimes and trials, including those of two other women (who would inspire the musical and film Chicago) also accused of killing the men in their lives. But Sabella’s fellow inmates Beulah and Belva were beautiful, charmed the all-male juries, and were quickly acquitted, raising doubts among many Chicagoans about the fairness of the “poor ugly immigrant’s” conviction.

Featuring an ambitious and ruthless journalist who helped demonize Sabella through her reports, and the brilliant, beautiful, twenty-three-year-old lawyer who helped humanize her with a jailhouse makeover, Ugly Prey is not just a page-turning courtroom drama but also a thought-provoking look at the intersection of gender, ethnicity, class, and the American justice system.

Release Date: May 1, 2017

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My Review

While we like to think of Lady Justice with her blindfold and equal scales, the reality is and always has been in complete opposition. Lucchesi takes us back to the Roaring Twenties, an era memorialized by the wealthy white class. Life for the poor, immigrants, and the average women was an altogether different experience.

Until someone translated the verdict, Sabella would not know she was scheduled to hang in just ninety-five days.

The central focus of this book is Sabella Nitti, a poor Italian immigrant who was not a pretty woman and who didn’t speak English. When her husband disappears, she becomes an easy scapegoat for officials to blame. The author brings this case to life, showing us Sabella’s plight as the court system, along with the media and the community, portray her as an ugly monster who murdered her husband.

Forbes might have pretended otherwise, but she wanted to see this woman suffer. It was a great story.

For comparison the author brings in Sabella’s contemporaries, beautiful women also charged with murder. But those women are treated differently, almost reverently, because of their looks and their standing within the community.

Clearly, the author did an immense amount of research, but the story never feels weighed down in facts. The writing here is engaging, often reading more like a legal mystery than nonfiction.

Her version of Sabella was a caricature whose grotesque features communicated evil, even though Forbes knew full well that evil was rarely obvious.

Back in Sabella’s day, women were not treated as equals within society. Prejudice was openly accepted, whether due to race, appearance, ethnicity, or class. Her situation was precarious from the very start. We’d all like to believe these things have changed, and to some degree they have. But prejudice still exists within our court system, though we do a better job of disguising it. Books like this are important because they remind us where we came from, as well as how far we still need to go.

*I received an advance ebook copy from the publisher, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review.*


Thanks for reading. 🙂