Frank 'The Enforcer' Nitti has been portrayed by Hollywood as a
vicious gang land thug, Capone trigger man and smooth talking cocky gangster.
In Brian DePalmers 1987 movie "The Untouchables", the cinema going and
video watching public were introduced to Nitti as the nemesis of Elliot
Ness and his band of federal agents. The movie even goes as far to show
Nitti dying at the hands of Ness, falling from the roof of the Chicago
court house where Capone was being tried.
This is all complete nonsense.
Frank Nitti began his criminal career as a barber with a rather
shady clientele. His customers would come to him to fence various items
of stolen merchandise. It was while in this role that he came to the attention
of John Torrio and Al Capone since he had a proven network of underworld
characters able to peddle illegal booze. Nitti became a whiz at smuggling
Canadian whiskey into Chicago and to the various distribution points throughout
the City. By the mid twenties, he was a high ranking member of the Capone
With the conviction of Al Capone in 1929, Nitti became the boss
of the Chicago Mob. At least that is what the press and law enforcement
agencies were believing. So high profile was the coverage of the Mob in
those days, that Nitti was a natural choice for the press. Nitti probably
believed it himself. In fact, it was Paul 'The Waiter' Ricca who carried
the flame of the Mob after Capone. Ricca was quite happy to let Nitti think
he had control, but there were often times when Ricca would countermand
a Nitti decision with a quick "We'll do it this way and let's say no more
about it". Nitti was never made a member of the Commission (a board of
directors of all the Mafioso families) but Ricca was, secretly, without
Nitti's knowledge. It was only the presses spotlight on Nitti that made
him important. This would draw attention away from the real workings of
the Chicago Outfit.
On December 19th, 1932, Nitti had a run in with the O'Banion/Moran
crew, now run by Ted Newberry. Newberry had the Mayor of Chicago, Anton
Cermak, on his payroll and used his influence to have police sent to one
of Nitti's hangouts, at 221 N. LaSalle, to have him arrested. A gun fight
erupted and Nitti was badly wounded. He lingered at deaths door for a time
but eventually recovered only to face trial for allegedly shooting Police
Sergeant Lang during the gun fight engineered by Newberry. Mayor Cermak
put Nitti on trial for the shooting of Lang but the jury at the trial became
convinced that Lang had shot himself in order to look like a hero. The
trial ended in a hung jury, Nitti walked and Lang got fired from the force.
During the trial Cermak was shot by a fanatic in Miami when he went to
congratulate President elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. He died 3 weeks later.
Newberry was taken out about 3 weeks after the Lang and Nitti shoot out.
Newberry was blown away with shotguns and .45s on Lake Shore Drive and
his body was buried in a ditch in Porter County, Indiana.
The Outfit continued to carry on business as usual with the Nitti
& Ricca leadership in to the 1940's. It was on November 29th, 1940,
that Nitti was indicted with other Mob figures for influencing the Chicago
Bartenders and Beverage Dispensers Union of the AFL (Local 278). Nitti
was accused of installing Mob members in positions of power in the union
and forcing the sale of beverages from Mob run breweries. The whole trial
rested on the testimony of one man, George McLane. McLane was the president
of this union and he followed the orders from Nitti and others under pain
of death. The pressure eventually got to McLane and he went to the authorities.
However, before McLane could repeat his allegations under oath in court,
the Mob had a quiet word with him.
He was promised that if he went through with his testimony,
his wife would be mailed to him in small pieces, bit by bit.
The day came and McLane was called to testify. His answer to every
"I must refuse to answer on the grounds that to do so might incriminate
The case was dropped.
Nitti got into trouble again in 1943 when he was indicted for extorting
the major movie studios in Hollywood in what came to be called the Hollywood
Extortion Case. Nitti masterminded a plot with several other mobsters where
they gained control of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.
Then, the heat was turned on the Hollywood movie studios. If they didn't
pay up, their stage hands and other workers could be used against them
to ruin them. Warner Bros paid, RKO paid, MGM and Fox paid. Everyone was
paying up and the whole set up looked set to be a big money earner for
the Mob. That was until a Chicago news reporter began asking questions
when he saw Willie Bioff, one of the Mobs men in the union, at a big Hollywood
party. The reporter was Westbrook Pegler, a nationally syndicated reporter.
He recognized Bioff as a one time pimp from Chicago and wondered why he
was moving in such high society circles. When he found out what a big man
Bioff had become, he began to look into it. It was soon discovered that
Bioff still owed Illinois state for a conviction for pandering. He was
arrested and jailed for six months. After his release, he was indicted
again along with the other Mob man in the plot, George E. Browne, for the
extortion of the movie theaters. They had to appear before a Federal Grand
Jury in New York and were questioned about their association with the Mob.
Bioff and Browne were both found guilty but rather than do hard
time, they decided to rat on their Mob controllers. As a result, indictments
were brought against Frank Nitti, Paul Ricca and others.
They were all called to stand trial later that year in New York.
A meeting was called at Frank Nitti's house in Riverside after
the arraignment and Nitti was attacked by the other indicted members of
the case about his bad handling of the whole affair. Bioff and Browne should
never have been allowed to testify. He was told by Paul Ricca to be a 'stand
up guy' and take the rap for all of them since Bioff and Browne were his
guys and so his responsibility. Nitti disagreed with Ricca and argued back
that they all shared the responsibility for the whole fiasco and then ordered
them all to leave.
Essentially, Nitti had now broken the Mafia code of honor by not
taking the heat for his failures.
Nitti had previously done 18 months in jail on an income tax evasion
charge and did not want to spend another day in a 9 by 6 cell. He was acutely
claustrophobic and the thought made him unstable. The day after the argument
with Ricca, on March 19th, 1943, Nitti went for a walk near the railway
tracks near his home, across from the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium,
and blew his brains out with a pistol.
The resulting trial in New York found all the defendants guilty
and sentenced them all to ten years.