30 FRANK NITTO
He is remembered as Frank Nitti but was christened Francesco Raffaele Nitto. Compared to others, the Americanisation of his name was simpler and less transformative. The much used Nitti surname was an error from journalists that stuck. In this instance the name Nitto will be used. He was thirteen years older than Capone but his number two. After Big Al was sentenced to eleven years in prison for tax evasion, Frank Nitto became the number one. Well before that and on October 18 1917 a thirty-three-year-old Frank Nitto married Rosa Levitt. No one has ever confirmed the age of Levitt, and the people that knew her were just as vague about her Russian origins. Levitt was older than Nitto, at least a year. The couple married in Texas. Marrying in Texas is not what a Chicago gangster does. Francesco Raffaele Nitto is unique, though, because he is the only Chicago gangster to have taken his own life.
He was born in Angri on January 27 1886. Angri is in Naples and less than five miles away from where the father of Al Capone was born. Frank Nitto died on March 19 1943. He was fifty-seven-years-old. In New York the Nitto family lived in the Navy Street area and again in close proximity to the family of Al Capone. Somehow the two families did not meet. Nitto learned English easily and appears to have valued education. Later he demonstrated a talent for bookkeeping. Nitto did part-time jobs while he was at school. After leaving school he learned to become a barber. When required he would claim that this was his profession. He was not the toughest guy on the New York Streets. He was five foot six inches and weighed less than ten and a half stone. Frank Nitto, nevertheless, was not averse to violence. His face had a broken nose and battle scars. Willing to sanction violence if required, he has been credited with initiating the famous roadhouse assassination of Joseph Guinta. Albert Anselmi and John Scalise.
When young the neighbourhood gangs offered him protection from Irish aggressors and also a way of earning extra money. Nitto left Brooklyn around 1910 and when he was twenty-four-years-old. What happened for the next decade is not known. Although he married in Texas in 1917 he probably spent most of the decade in Chicago. The reasons for Nitto being in Texas remain a mystery. It has been claimed that he joined a Galveston crime syndicate but the evidence for this is thin. What is likely is that, while in Texas, he explored criminal business opportunities In 1914 the mental health of his mother declined. She was admitted to King’s Park Hospital. The frenzied attacks of hysteria drained her physically, and she died in 1915. There has been little speculation as to whether this memory persuaded Nitto to take his life in 1943. Frank Nitto settled in the Italian community south of downtown Chicago, in the area today that is known as the South Loop and back then was part of the area called the Levee. He cut hair and, probably because he was not a licensed barber, moved from barbershop to barbershop. He made contacts in the Italian community. Louis Greenberg was one of those important contacts. He might have been the intermediary that led to the marriage between Nitto and Rose Levitt, and she might have boarded at the home of Greenberg before she married.
Greenberg owned saloons that sold both legal and illegal booze. After prohibition, Greenberg not only supplied liquor to his own saloons but to other bootleggers. Greenberg regarded Nitto as trustworthy and reliable. Nitto fenced stolen jewellery on behalf of Greenberg and managed the accounts and distribution of illegal liquor. In his Frank Nitto biography, author Mars Eghigian Jr. disputes that Nitto had an exceptional talent for bookkeeping. Nitto was scrupulous and industrious rather than gifted. He was respected because he was focussed on business and economic opportunities. Nitto also had survival skills. He paid respect to the various gang leaders and avoided confrontation. Nitto joined the Torrio-Capone gang, possibly because of a recommendation from Louis Greenberg. Because he entered the Capone organisation at a high level, he was employed collecting money and keeping records. His work and perhaps temperament and demeanour enabled him to progress through the organisation. Frank Nitto became the number two to Al Capone. Jake Guzik had similar accountancy skills to Nitto and was also close to Capone but Nitto had presence that the obese and dishevelled Guzik lacked. Nitto was also more suitable as a number two than Ralph Capone, the hot headed brother of Big Al.
The drinking of Nitto was moderate. He avoided parties and relaxed at home. The marriage to Rose Leavitt ended in 1927 and creaked before then. Nitto married Anna Theresa Ronga two days after the St Valentine’s Day massacre in 1929. Anna liked to visit casinos and gamble. Rather than raising his fists, as he had in his first marriage, Nitto persuaded Anna to adopt a child. Whatever the friction between the couple, after he was sentenced to prison for income tax evasion Anna worked hard to obtain early parole for Nitto, albeit without success. On November 17 1940, Anna died of acute ulcerative colitis. She was thirty-eight years old. A week after her death, Frank Nitto appeared in court to face charges of racketeering. Nitto had diversified into wide scale management of labour unions including those in Hollywood. He profited by both pilfering union funds and taking payments from employers to avoid strikes. Nitto married Annette Caravetta on May 14 1942. There has been speculation about the motives of the couple. Nitto needed a substitute mother for his adopted son, and Caravetta was offered two cash payments prior to the marriage. Yet Caravetta remained loyal to the memory of Nitto throughout her life.
After the wedding, the couple moved into a new home. They celebrated by having a large party and inviting most of the neighbours. One of those invited remembers that Nitto did not drink alcohol. Nitto was a heavy smoker but he was able to work while he smoked. Nitto had to ensure that 20,000 speakeasies received their supply of alcohol. This meant dealing with external suppliers including some from outside Chicago. He also managed booze stills and money collections in Cicero, Little Italy, the Valley, Stickney, Burnham and Melrose Park. He must have also eaten because he recruited waiter Paul Ricca to the Capone organisation. Paul Ricca succeeded Nitto as boss of the Chicago outfit after Nitto had committed suicide. Frank Nitto was convicted of income tax evasion in late 1930. Unlike Capone, who in 1931 was sentenced for eleven years in prison, the lawyers of Nitto secured a deal with state attorney George Johnson. The offer to Johnson insisted upon Nitto paying his full tax liability plus a $10,000 fine, serving eighteen months in prison and Nitto promising to leave Chicago and live a ‘useful life’ after the sentence was completed. The prison sentence began on January 10 1931. Nitto was released from prison on March 25 1932. He returned to Chicago and became head of the Capone organisation.
The day he committed suicide Nitto wandered into the Chicago rail yards. Rail yard workers saw a man stumble and wander under the influence of alcohol. He then fired three shots at his head. The first shot only blew off his hat but the other two killed him. Numbers should be important to a man like Frank Nitto. He was an accountant and, because of his death, unique. The number of shots, three, has significance because of what had happened on December 19 1932. Less than a year after his release from prison the office of Nitto was raided by a group of Chicago detectives. In the raid Detective Sergeant Lang fired three shots into the body of Frank Nitto. The first entered the side of the neck, the second nicked his lung and the third punctured the kidney. Nitto was taken to Bridewell hospital. The initial prognosis was gloomy but somehow he survived. Three days after the incident the Herald and Examiner had a headline in which Mayor Anton Cermak promised a war that would finish the gangs that marred Chicago life. In his New Year message for 1933, Cermak expressed the hope that there would be more shootings. Cermak added that he wanted the shootings to be by policemen and the victims to be gangsters. Lang was given an award for meritorious service. In the raid, Detective Lang had been shot in the arm by Nitto. Or that was what Detective Lang had said.
Frank Nitto was charged with attempted murder. In court the case against Nitto unravelled. Witnesses confirmed that Nitto neither had a gun nor wounded Detective Lang. The gunshot wound of Detective Lang had been self-inflicted. Nitto was acquitted. Lang was subsequently put on trial and convicted of a misdemeanour. In a retrial the case against Lang was dismissed by a sympathetic judge. Perhaps the judge held the Mayor to be more responsible for what had happened in the office of Frank Nitto. A police trial board dismissed Detective Lang from the police force. Mayor Cermak was assassinated in Florida on February 15 1933. The moment Cermak was killed, he was either shaking hands with President Roosevelt or merely standing next to him. Majority opinion subscribes to the view that the intended victim was the President. Others have claimed it was a revenge mob killing for the attack on Frank Nitto. The assassin Giuseppe Zangara stated that Roosevelt was the intended victim. He revealed that he had no personal animosity to the President but he hated all rich and powerful people. He said, ‘I have the gun in my hand. I kill kings and presidents first and next all capitalists.’ Neither the method of killing nor the words of Zangara suggest mob invention.
The ultimate mystery is the suicide of Frank Nitto. He left behind a young son and wife. Some insist that his earlier spell in prison had left him claustrophobic. Nitto might have also feared torture and killing from rivals that blamed him for not taking action against underlings that were prepared to talk to the police. He had seen how the health of both his mother and Capone had deteriorated when incarcerated. Perhaps Frank Nitto imagined the same would happen to him. Nitto might have believed that he was not fit enough to withstand a prison sentence. He had prospered because of his compulsive work ethic. Workaholics often need work to keep a neurotic disposition under control. Whatever the reason, Frank Nitto kept it under his hat.
Howard Jackson has had thirteen books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest book BORIS JOHNSON PFEFFELS AND PIFFLES is now available here.