The real Frank Nitti was not quite the dashing figure portrayed in the movies … nor did he die by being tossed off a rooftop by Eliot Ness. He did, however, fill hospitals in Illinois with his workmanship.
Francesco Raffaele Nitto – aka Frank (The Enforcer) Nitti – was born in Sicily in 1883 and emigrated to the U.S. where he settled in Chicago and opened a barber shop. He was a small time jewelry thief and fence, and went to work for crime boss Johnny (the Fox) Torrio. Torrio was succeeded by Al Capone, who took Nitti on as his bodyguard and later appointed Nitti to run Capone’s liquor smuggling and distributing racket. Whiskey was imported from Canada and bootlegged, and sold through speakeasies in and around Chicago. Nitti was Capone’s right-hand man, a skilled leader and businessman. When in 1929 Capone was briefly sentenced to prison, he made Nitti head of business operations; Jake (Greasy Thumb) Guzik was operations head, and Tony (Big Tuna) Accardo headed enforcement. Although nicknamed “The Enforcer”, in fact Nitti didn’t send as many victims to the Illinois hospital as did Accardo. Nitti was a shrewd businessman and loyal Capone lieutenant.
Both Nitti and Capone were convicted in 1931 for evasion of income taxes. Nitti, however, was only sentenced for eighteen months, whereas Capone was put away for eleven years. Nitti was a claustrophobic who found his confinement horrifying. When he was released he became the Capone gang’s new boss. Under Nitti’s leadership the Chicago Outfit expanded from gambling and prostitution into other rackets such as controlling labor unions with the resulting extortion of businesses such as hospitals in Il. In December 1932 Chicago police under Detective Sergeant Harry Lang raided Nitti’s offices and shot Nitti 3 times in the back and neck. He then shot himself to make the shooting appear to be self-defense. In court testimony was given that this attempt to assassinate Nitti was ordered by Anton Cermak, Chicago’s newly elected mayor. Cermak was being financed by gangsters who were rivals of the Capone organization. Nitti survived the murder attempt and was acquitted of the charges against him in February 1933. In April 1933 Cermak was assassinated while conversing with president elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Some historians are of the opinion that the assassin – an Italian immigrant – was trying to murder FDR but shot Cermak by mistake. Other historians believe that it was Frank Nitti who ordered the hit on Mayor Cermak, pointing to the fact that the Italian immigrant assassin had been the best marksman in the Italian army before emigrating to the U.S., and it was unlikely that he missed his intended target.