Francesco Raffaele Nitto, better known as, "Frank 'The Enforcer' Nitti" (January 27, 1888 – March 19, 1943) was an Italian-American gangster, who was a top lieutenant for Al Capone and later the front man for the mob Capone created, the Chicago Outfit.
Early life and Prohibition
Frank Nitti was born in the 1880s; his gravestone lists his birth year as 1888, but his US immigration documents say 1883. He emigrated to New York City after the end of World War I, and later moved to Chicago, where he set up business as a barber, with a profitable line as a small-time jewel thief and fence on the side. Nitti built an extensive network of associates in the Chicago underworld, and eventually came to the attention of Chicago crime boss John "Johnny The Fox" Torrio.
Under Torrio's successor, Al Capone, Nitti's reputation soared. Nitti ran Capone's Prohibition-busting liquor smuggling and distribution operation, importing whiskey from Canada and selling it through a network of speakeasies around Chicago. Nitti was one of Capone's top lieutenants, trusted for his leadership skills and business acumen. In fact, Capone thought enough of Nitti that when he briefly went to prison in 1929, he named Nitti as a member of a triumvirate that ran the mob in his place. Nitti was head of operations, with "Greasy Thumb" Guzik as head of administration and Charlie Fischetti as head of enforcement.
Despite his nickname "The Enforcer", Nitti used Mafia "soldiers" and other underlings to commit violence rather than do it himself. Not that Nitti was averse to using firearms - he had, in earlier days, been one of Capone's most trusted personal bodyguards - but as he rose in the organization, his business instinct dictated that he must personally avoid the "dirty work" - that was what the hitmen were paid for.
The Outfit under Nitti
In 1931, both Frank Nitti and Al Capone were convicted of income tax evasion and sent to prison. However, Nitti only received an 18-month sentence while Capone was sent away for 11 years. Nitti was not a troublesome prisoner, but he found the year-and-a-half confinement in a cell horrifying because of the closed-in space. When Nitti was released in 1932, the media hailed him as the new boss of the Capone Gang.
In truth, however, Nitti was only a front man. According to crime reporter and Mafia expert Carl Sifakis, "it was ludicrous" to expect people such as Paul "The Waiter" Ricca DeLucia, Tony Accardo, Jake Guzik and Murray "The Camel" Humphreys to take orders from Nitti. By all accounts, Ricca had the real power by at least 1932 and was clearly the de facto boss by 1939, even though he was technically Nitti's underboss. Ricca frequently overruled Nitti's orders by saying, "We'll do it this way. Now let's hear no more about it!" When Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky organized the National Crime Syndicate that year, they considered Nitti a human cipher. Lansky and Luciano dealt with Ricca, not Nitti, as the boss of the Capones.
With Nitti as the front man, the Chicago Outfit branched out from prostitution and gambling into other areas, including the control of labor unions (which led to the extortion of many businesses). The mob became more streamlined at this time, and earned huge amounts of profit.
On December 19, 1932, a team of Chicago police headed by Detective Sergeants Harry Lang and Harry Miller, raided Nitti's office, in Room 554, at 221 N. LaSalle (Blvd.). Lang shot Nitti three times in the back and neck. He then shot himself (a minor flesh wound) to make the shooting look like self-defense, claiming that Nitti had shot him first. Court testimony later revealed that the murder attempt was personally ordered by newly-elected Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. Cermak wanted to push out the Capones in favor of gangsters who answered to him.
Unfortunately for Cermak, Nitti survived the shooting. In February 1933, Nitti was acquitted of attempted murder. During that same trial, Miller testified that Lang received $15,000 to kill Nitti. Another uniformed officer who was present at the shooting testified that Nitti was gunned down unarmed. Harry Lang and Harry Miller were both fired from the police force and each fined $100 for simple assault.
Two months later, Cermak was shot and killed by Giuseppe Zangara, a Calabrian immigrant. At the time, Cermak was talking to President-elect Franklin Roosevelt. Most historians believe that Zangara intended to kill FDR, but missed and hit Cermak instead. However, others believe that Nitti ordered a hit on Cermak, and the contract eventually went to Zangara. Zangara had been known as one of the Italian Army's best marksmen before coming to the United States, leading to speculation that Cermak had been the intended target after all. On November 8, 1939 Capone's former lawyer Edward J. O'Hare - who had co-operated in bring about Capone's downfall - was shot and killed. Nitti married Ursula Sue Granata, O'Hare's fiancée.
In 1943, many top members of the Chicago Outfit were indicted for extorting the Hollywood film industry. These individuals included Nitti, Ricca, Louis Campagna, Ralph Pierce, Johnny Roselli, Nick Circella, Phil D'Andrea, and Charles Gioe. The Outfit was accused of trying to strong arm some of the largest Hollywood movie studios, including MGM Studios, Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Columbia Pictures, and RKO Radio Pictures. The studios had cooperated with The Outfit to avoid union trouble stirred up by the mob.
At a meeting of Outfit leaders at Nitti's home, Nitti underboss Ricca angrily blamed Nitti for the indictments. Ricca said that since this had been Nitti's scheme and that the FBI informant, Willie Bioff, had been Nitti's trusted associate, Nitti should take the fall for the Outfit and go to prison. A severe claustrophobic as a result of his first prison term, Nitti dreaded the idea of another prison confinement. It was also rumored that he was suffering from terminal cancer at this time. For these or other reasons, he ultimately decided to take his own life.
The day before his scheduled grand jury appearance, Nitti shared breakfast with his wife in their Riverside, Illinois home at 712 Selborne Road. As his wife was leaving for church, Nitti told her he planned to take a walk. After his wife left, Nitti began to drink heavily. He then loaded a .32 caliber revolver, put it in his coat pocket, and walked five blocks to a local railroad yard. Two railroad workers (William F. Sebauer and Lowell M. Barnett) spotted Nitti walking on the track of an oncoming train and shouted a warning. They thought the train hit him, but Nitti had managed to jump out of the way in time. Then two shots rang out. The trainmen first thought Nitti was shooting at them, but then realized he was trying to shoot himself in the head. The two bullets went through his hat. Nitti finally sat on the ground against a fence and, with the railroad workers watching from a distance, shot himself in the head. Frank Nitti died on an Illinois Central railroad branch line in North Riverside, Illinois on March 19, 1943.
The Nitto name
While the name Frank Nitti has become infamous in American criminal history, the man himself never at any point in his life referred to himself as anything other than his birth name of Frank Nitto; only the police, media, and fringe mobsters called him Nitti.
In Popular Culture
- In 1959 he was portrayed by |Bruce Gordon in many episodes of the original ABC television series The Untouchables, based on Eliot Ness' memoirs, which ran from 1959 to 1963.
- In 1967 he was portrayed by Harold J. Stone in the Roger Corman film The St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
- He was portrayed by Sylvester Stallone in the 1975 film Capone.
- He was portrayed by Billy Drago, playing a fictionalized version of Nitti in the 1987 film The Untouchables.
- He was portrayed by Anthony LaPaglia in the 1988 biopic Nitti: The Enforcer.
- He was portrayed by Alan Rosenberg in the 1989 film The Revenge of Al Capone.
- By Paul Regina in the 1993 TV show The Untouchables.
- By Stanley Tucci in the 2002 film Road to Perdition.
- by Bill Camp in the 2009 film Public Enemies.
- In 2013 he was portrayed by Will Sasso in the Comedy Central series Drunk History.