Probably no gangster in American history should be more indebted to television than Frank Nitti. He was introduced to the video-watching public as the great Chicago underworld brain, the foe of the intrepid Eliot Ness and The Untouchables.
The post-Al Capone Outfit has always proved a bit confusing to the law and mob watchers alike. Using “front men” to a far greater extent than other crime families—the conviction of Capone had been a sobering lesson—the boys made it difficult for outsiders to determine the exact power structure. No wonder in later years other syndicate criminals looked at Chicago with unconcealed horror. Informer Vinnie Teresa said, “Chicago is an eat-’em-up-alive outfit . . . everyone is struggling to get on top, and they don’t give a damn who gets it in the back.”In this context Nitti was valuable as a man to take the heat and, for that matter, even assassins’ bullets. In that gem of prairie corruption, even Chicago mayor, Anton Cermak, could dispatch his own police “hit men” to try to knock off Nitti so he could replace him and other Caponeites with his own more subservient gangsters. Yet other mobsters, including Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, when establishing the national crime syndicate in the early 1930s, dealt with Paul “the Waiter” Ricca as the leader of the Capones. They gave no thought to Nitti; he didn’t even know what was going on.
Born in 1884, Nitti started out as a barber with a goodly clientele of petty crooks who came to him to fence their stolen goods. This underworld work put him in touch with the Capones at the start of Prohibition; he had ways of peddling some hijacked booze, no questions asked. Within a few years, Capone tabbed him as an efficient organizer and relied on him to see that his orders were carried out.After Capone went to prison, the newspapers had to have a new Mr. Big. Nitti was very visible. They hailed him as the new head of the Capone mob, and Nitti probably even believed it himself. But it was ludicrous to expect the likes of the Fischetti brothers, Jake Guzik, Tony Accardo, Paul Ricca, Murray Humphreys and others to follow his orders. Only his front-man role made Nitti important. In 1932 two police officers invaded Nitti’s headquarters and shot and severely wounded him. They were acting, later testimony indicated, under orders of the new mayor, Cermak, who was determined to take over from the Capone mob and redistribute its territories to more favored criminals, especially those bossed by Cermak’s favorite gangster, Teddy Newberry. Nitti lingered near death for a time but finally recovered, a feat that added to his legend. When the mob under Willie Bioff and George Browne got into its shakedown rackets against the movie industry, Nitti’s name was used as a terror tactic against the film moguls, who were threatened with his personal vengeance. However, federal investigators succeeded in getting evidence against the Chicago gangsters and with Bioff and Browne both talking, Nitti and Ricca were indicted along with several others. Ricca had by this time more obviously taken charge of the mob, often countermanding a Nitti order by saying, “We’ll do it this way. Now let’s hear no more about it.”
Ricca decided the movie indictments made the time perfect to call in Nitti’s cards as a front man. At a meeting of the top leaders of the mob he ordered Nitti to plead guilty and take the rap for all of them. The thought terrified Nitti who had served 18 months in the early 1930s on an income tax charge. He got the “shakes” at the idea of returning behind bars. That sort of reaction made Nitti a logical candidate to seek mercy from the prosecution by confessing and naming all the others.
“Frank, you’re asking for it,” Ricca raged at him, still demanding he be a “standup guy” and take the rap for all. Nitti recognized Ricca’s words as a death sentence. The next day, March 19, 1943, Nitti was seen walking along some railroad tracks. He drew a pistol from his pocket and put a bullet in his brain.