Detective John W. Norton: From H.H. Holmes to Al Capone

norton4Back when Franklin D. Roosevelt was in his second term as president, an old pickpocket named George Summers spoke to the Tribune about the old days. “You know what’s the matter with the cannon (pocket picking) racket today?” he asked. “Stickups! These young punks ain’t willing to go through a long apprenticeship anymore, like we had to. You had to be good to be a dip…. In my time tailors made mens’ pockets so deep it took 15 seconds for a good man to pinch a poke. Nowadays they’re so shallow it can be done easy in five.”

The first time Summers was arrested was during the 1893 World’s Fair. The detective who’d arrested him, John W. Norton, was still active when Summers made his statement in 1939. When asked why he’d become a detective in the first place, Norton said, “I was a damned fool. Like all kids, I thought it would be grand to be a policeman.”

Though his name comes up in a lot of works on Chicago crimes of the 1920s, none of them seem to realize just how far back the man’s career went. Back in 1895, he was one of two detectives who were in charge of investigating the the “Holmes Castle” on Sixty-Third Street. Later recaps of his career only really talked about the last half of it, so it took me a while to realize that the “Lt. John Norton” mentioned in so many cases of the 1910s and 20s, and who became Chief of Detectives from 1930-32, was the same “Detective Norton” papers were always talking about during the Holmes case!

To say Norton had a long and fruitful career barely hints at things.  Just a brief overview:

In 1889, Norton made the news for the first time after arresting a member of a coal-burning gang who’d been on the run for nine months. Not yet with the police, he was working as a private detective for a railroad company at the time.

Detective Norton

Norton in 1895

In 1892, now with the Chicago Police, Norton was involved in a fierce battle with pickpockets at Clark and Madison. Having caught one, another pointed a gun at Norton’s head and said “let the fellow go, or I’ll blow your brains out.” Norton knocked the gun aside and managed to draw his own, wounding the would-be killer (and getting smashed on the head in the process). This was the first of many wounds he sustained on the job.

In 1893, he made national news for his attempt to capture Barney Burch, a notable pickpocket, who escaped by throwing red pepper in Norton’s eyes.

In 1895, Detective Sgt. Norton and Inspector Fitzpatrick supervised the explorations of the HH Holmes “murder castle.” Of the two, he comes off better; Fitzpatrick was far more apt to see a rope and assuming there must have been hangings. Norton seems a bit more cautious.

In 1920, when Big Jim Colosimo was killed, Norton was the one sent to interview the widow, Dale Winter.

Also in 1920, he was instrumental in getting Carl Wanderer to confess that he’d set up the whole “ragged stranger” case.

And that same year, he was on the squad that took down the Cardinella Gang. 

In 1926, when asst. state’s attorney William McSwiggin was shot to death in a drive-by (along with members of the O’Donnell gang, with whom he was hanging out for reasons never entirely clear), police raided all sorts of known Capone hideouts. Norton was on the raid at Capone’s brother’s place that uncovered a whole arsenal full of weapons. Rifles were disguised as curtain rods.

Detective Norton at right. When he found all the guns in hidden compartments at Ralph Capone's house, did he think back to digging through the hidden compartments at the HH Holmes "murder castle" more than 30 years before?

Detective Norton at right in 1926. When he found all the guns in hidden compartments at Ralph Capone’s house, did he think back to digging through the hidden compartments at the HH Holmes “murder castle” more than 30 years before?

1930, he was made chief of detectives (replacing a man J. Edgar Hoover said was getting give grand a month from Capone), in in 1931 was in charge of such duties as controlling the crowds outside of Capone’s trial.

In 1940, when he retired after more than 50 years as a detective, with over 100 citations for bravery to his name, he’d been serving as  commander of the Maxwell Street Police Station.

Now, I don’t want to go overboard with calling the guy a “hero.”  The 50 years that Norton was with the force are not exactly 50 proud years in Chicago police history; it was a long era of corruption, incompetence, and police brutality. The Maxwell Street Station he commanded, in fact, has a particularly grim repuation. And Norton was sort of an old-fasioned detective – a bit more likely to use his billy club than his magnifying glass.  “I am not of the Sherlock Holmes type,” he once said. “(But) I consider myself a close student of crime. I have made the running down of criminals my business. Then, too, it is a pleasure to me. It is almost my whole enjoyment, and to work overtime is no hardship… I do not want it understood that I have no faith in the theory of deduction; I have the greatest faith in it, but I consider it secondary to the plain methods of police work.”

But Norton was only rarely accused of forcing a confession out of anyone (which, in context, is a pretty good record), and I’ve never found anything about him being on the take during prohibition, or any other charges of corruption, which is almost a miracle, given his era. It just amazes me that the same man worked against both H.H. Holmes and Al Capone!

 

The Resurrection of Nicholas Viana

Il Diavolo

The guards at the old prison on Dearborn and Illinois weren’t afraid of much, but one prisoner really freaked them out: Sam “Il Diavolo” Cardinella, the head of a high insular, secretive gang that operated out of his pool room on 22nd Place. Their whole story was in a previous post: The Strange Tale of the Cardinella Gang.  The thing people remember about him the most is that he tried to have his body brought back to life after he was hanged: he’d lost a lot of weight and had a breakdown that forced the guards to tie him to a chair to hang him; a shorter drop with less weight meant a better chance he would strangle instead of having his neck broken. Cops caught his friends trying to bring him back in an ambulance out back.

And word among the prisoners was that he thought he’d pull it off because they’d already tested it, successfully, one of his underlings: Nicholas “The Choir Singer” Viana, who had been hanged a few months before on his 19th birthday. In 1936, jail physician Frank McNamara told of stories that had gone around “the grapevine” about “magic” used at a nearby undertaking parlor, which, after an hour, had gotten Viana’s heart beating again, and even gotten him to start moaning, at which point someone gave a signal and the “magicians” backed off, letting him die again (for having been a traitor to the gang).

Some newly-uncovered data suggests that maybe, just maybe, it was more than just a rumor.

These are the facts: Nicholas Viana was, by all accounts, a good kid until the day that he walked into Cardinella’s pool room on the way to choir practice. A week later he committed his first murder. He was eventually sentenced to be hanged, along with Cardinella and a couple of other members of the gang.

Viana

I’ve always suspected that his story served as the inspiration for Nicholas Romano, the altar boy-turned-killer in Willard Motley’s Knock On Any Door who coined the phrase “Live fast, die young, have a good looking corpse.” Motley wrote the book while serving as a writer-in-residence at Hull House; Jane Addams attempted to get clemency for Viana. She was unsuccessful, though – they only thing that would have saved him was turning state’s evidence. And Viana  was still so afraid of Cardinella that he refused to give over evidence that might have saved his neck, fearing that Sam would “beat this yet” and take revenge on his mother and sisters.

Viana sang “Misere” from Il Trovatore on the way to “death cell” where the condemned spent their last nights (“beat any show you ever saw,” one witness later said), then shouted “Good bye, boys. Good bye to all but Sam Cardinella. May his soul be damned.” Cardinella heard, but did not respond. Sam had just asked Viana to write him a letter that would clear him. “Kind of a joke, isn’t it?” he asked. “Cardinella got me when I was a boy. He is responsible for what will happen to me tomorrow.”

 Reporters hoped Viana would sing on the scaffold the next day; he didn’t, but he seemed to be in remarkably good humor, repeatedly calling the event a “birthday party.”  “It is no disgrace,” he said “to die for my father, mother and sisters. I forgive everyone in the world…I thank the guards for the kindness they have shown me.”

The Chicago Herald Examiner of
Dec 10, 1920. Papers went back and forth
between spellings “Viana” and “Viani,”
as well as “Cardinella” vs “Cardinelli,”
and continued to talk about Al Caponi well into
the early 1930s. Records go both ways (and a
few others besides).

At this point, Sheriff Peters had the noose attached – it was a new knot method, using 7 turns of the rope instead of 4. The Evening Post said that it had broken his neck instantly. The Herald Examiner, though, said physicians fingered his pulse and found that it had taken him nine minutes to die (the death certificate says the neck was broken) Herald also noted that at the moment he died, a mirror in the courtroom where he had been sentenced fell from the wall and shattered.

Four months later the cops caught Cardinella’s friends trying to revive Cardinella after his own hanging, and stories about Viana began to circulate. They made it to the press that July, when Sheriff Peters announced that from now on, hanged men’s bodies would guarded for at least an hour before being turned over in order to block resuscitation attempts. I saw mention of this in a couple of regional papers on genealogy sites, but the microfilm room yielded some quotes from defunct papers with prison officials – and the undertaker himself – that shed much more light on the story:

“Such an effort was made after the hanging of Nick Viana last December,” he told the Post, ” and doctors with a resuscitating apparatus succeeded in getting a flicker of life back into the body, I am told, though they failed in the end.” This came from an unnamed informant, and the sheriff further noted that it was possible that the informant had lied, and Viana was brought fully back to life and was now up and walking around. He further told the Evening Journal that the body had been brought to the undertaker, according to his source, and an attempt had been made to revive him with a pulmotor, and cited assistant jailer Lorenz Meisterheim as the one who brought it to his attention.  Meisterheim had heard it from friends and relatives of Viana. Both were satisfied that it was true, with Meisterheim saying that the heart had started to beat when some “unforseen circumstance” brought the procedure to a halt.

Chicago Evening Post, June 24, 1921

James Marzano ran the undertaking parlor at 951 W. Polk Street where Viana’s body was taken, and local reporters tracked him down at once. He gave the Journal a flat denial. “I personally had charge of Viana’s body, and embalmed it immediately upon its arrival here,” he said. “There is absolutely nothing to reports that relatives and friends attempted to bring him back to life with the aid of a pulmotor. It is possible some of his friends would have liked to have tried it, but they had no chance.” He went on to say that reviving a strangled man was “barely possible,” but possible.

When he spoke to the Herald Examiner, though, he admitted that it had at least been discussed, and that it could have been done. “There is no doubt but that we would have had some success,” he said. “His temperature had dropped only two points when we got the body, but we were afraid of running afoul of the law.”

Sheriff Peters wasn’t having any of this. “I’m satisfied that the tale is true,” he said. “I do not say that the undertaker had anything to do with it. But the evidence given to us tends to show that the operation took place in his morgue.”

However true the story might have been, it does seem quite likely that Cardinella thought was true. Dr. McNamara remembered that when he met with his family for the last time before his own hanging, he was saying the word “Viana” over and over.

This wouldn’t have been the first time that there’d been an attempted resurrection: a more official had been made a generation earlier, when doctors genuinely experimented with bringing murderer James Tracy back to life. See our post: The Chicago Frankenstein Case.

And for more on these cases, see our ebook Fatal Drop: True Tales of the Chicago Gallows.

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Hangman’s Death Certificates

My, the things one finds on genealogy sites! More and more records come online all the time. Death certificates have never been THAT hard to get, but you normally have to pay to get them from the state archives, and I’m pretty cheap. In cases of hangings, I already know the cause of death, after all. But it’s still interesting to see the records on some of these:

Here’s one for Nicholas “The Choir Singer” Viana, who was on his way to choir practice when he first wandered into Sam Cardinella’s pool hall and committed his first murder a week later. He was hanged on his 19th birthday, and, according to legend, was briefly revived after being taken down. Cardinella was a guy who seems to have read Oliver Twist and thought it was a how-to manual. He’d lure kids into his pool hall, then teach them to commit crimes and send them out to rob and kill.



Cardinella himself was hanged sometime later. he had lost a ton of weight, and collapsed on the scaffold – they had to hang him tied to a chair. All this was a part of his own grand plan to escape! Low weight and a shorter drop meant it was less likely that he’d break his neck, meaning that, in theory, they COULD bring him back to life. His friends took possession of the body and loaded it into an ambulance, where authorities found a team of doctors trying to resuscitate him. A similar ambulance carrying Viana had been allowed to drive away, though how successful they were in attempts to wake him are strictly the stuff of rumor. The certificate above indicates that they couldn’t have gotten THAT far, but the story was always that they’d simply gotten him to start groaning a bit before stepping back and letting him die.



Fun fact: no two records I’ve seen spell Cardinella’s name the same way! Some go with Cardenelli, or Cardanella. This one goes with Cardinale.


Read more about it here:

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Carl Wanderer and Sam Cardinella: BFF?

It’s always interesting when two crime stories intersect – and in a real way, not another case of the newspapers making wild stabs at a game of “connect the dots” with criminals (like the attempts to connect Johann Hoch to HH Holmes, Louis Thombs, and every other criminal of the day).

In 1920, Carl Wanderer was jailed for murdering his wife and trying to blame it all on a drifter (whom he’d also killed). Whether he was trying to get away from his wife to rejoin the army, be with a 16 year old girl, or with an army buddy with whom he was in love depends greatly on who’s telling the story, but one clue is how he behaved in prison.

While in jail, he grew bored with the monotony of prison life and the lack of opportunities for exercise. Hence, he asked for (and received) permission to raise an army of convicts and drill them in military formations. His seven men would perform drills at his command, using brooms instead of guns. Two others asked to join, but they were black (this army was not integrated), and, having killed only one man each, seen as unsuitable material for this particular army, which was made up of multi-murderers (the papers listed the average murder per soldier as three).

One of the soldiers was Sam “Il Diavolo” Cardinella, the leader of the “murder clique”that had terrorized the city. He may have joined the ranks to help his master plan to escape: he was losing a lot of weight as part of a plot to make sure he would be strangled by the gallows without his neck breaking. After his execution, the police found his friends trying to resuscitate the body.

Also present in the army was Harry “The Lone Wolf” Ward, whose execution was also nearly foiled by a crazy plot to bring him back to life (more on him in future posts). Most of the others were members of the Cardinella gang.

Stories of both of these guys are in William Griffith’s book, shamelessly plugged below:

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The Strange Tale of the Cardinella Gang, Part 4

The reason Cardinella had been saying viana’s name was to assure them that he was going to be brought back to life the next day. Apparently, the great revival plan had already been tested on Viana – and it had worked.

The story is impossible to confirm; it was told in whispers by prisoners over the years, and got back to the county physician. They were able to confirm that Viana’s body had been transported by his friends in a basket lined with hot water bottles into a waiting ambulance that was filled with nurses and doctors, but THAT ambulance was allowd to leave.

According to the stories told for years by prisoners, that ambulance had been driven to a nearby funeral home where the body was laid out on a slab. A team of doctors ministered to it while strange men in robes stood around chanting something – no one knew what – in Sicilian.


And, after several minutes, The Choir Boy opened his eyes and began to groan.

The doctors stepped back and the chanting ceased, and soon the boy’s eyes closed again. He was a traitor to the gang; no one ever intended to allow him to live. The whole thing had only been an experiment to see if Cardinella, too, could be brought back to life later on…

Whether this story was quite true will never be known; at least one book states that the whole story about Cardinella was made up by reporter Ben Hecht in his book “Gaily, Gaily.” This is incorrect; the story there was about a gangster named Frankie Piano who was hanged in 1910 (there was no Frankie Piano, no one was hanged in 1910 in Chicago, and the story about Cardinella was first told by the county physician, an eyewitness, nearly 3 decades before the Hecht story was published). From eyewitnesses, it can be fairly well determined that there was, at least, an attempt to revive Viana, and that Cardinella believed that it had been a success. His friends, those who had been involved in the experiment, must have come out of it with at least enough faith to try it on Cardinella himself.

But maybe they knew that it would never work. Cardinella was a master at using people’s supersitions to frighten them, to hold them in his power. Perhaps his friends were afraid to refuse to carry out his wishes, even after his death.

Fatal Drop: True Tales of the Chicago Gallows contains a long chapter retelling the whole sordid tale of the Cardinella gang for the first time. While gangsters like Capone have become legends, the equally deadly Cardinella has been totally forgotten by history – until now.

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The Strange Tale of the Cardinella Gang, Part 3


Fatal Drop: True Tales from the Chicago Gallows by William Griffith.
In honor of our first spin-off book, it’s Hangin’ Week on the blog!  


After an hour, the prison officials opened the ambulance and saw a team of doctors trying to revive Sam Cardinella’s corpse. One was injecting stimulants into his chest. Another was pumping him with electricty. A nurse was rubbing his wrists.

Suddenly, the reason for Cardinella’s behavior in prison, and his gallows break down, became clear: it had all been a ruse to insure that he would strangle to death. Most prisoners wanted their necks to be broken by the drop, but if the neck was NOT broken, there was a chance – a very, very remote one – that the prisoner could, in theory, be brought back to life.

By losing forty pounds, Cardinella decreased the amount of pressure that would be put on the noose. By faking a break down and being tied to a chair, his neck began the drop a foot or two lower than it would have if he had been standing, leading to a shorter, less violent drop. Indeed, his neck hadn’t broken – he had strangled to death.

The warden ordered the ambulance to go straight to the undertaking parlor. They were followed by the county physician, who confirmed was Cardinella was, in fact, dead, and would stay that way.

It was only later, though, that they realized why Cardinella had been talking about Nicholas Viana the night before…

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The Strange Tale of the Cardinella Gang: Part 2

Sam Cardinella himself scared the hell out of the guards, who had seen everyone do everything twice. The county physician later said “If I were superstitious, I would say there was something satanic about it.” Others would later describe him as “a human spider, crawling the city, spinning a web of death, and sending boys to carry out his fatal instructions.”

In prison, he was surly and unpleasant. Most of the prisoners ended up making friends with the guards, but Cardinella freaked them out. In prison, he began to refuse to eat, and eventually lost about forty pounds.

The night before his hanging, he was visited by his wife and six children, and finally broke down, crying. The site of this evil, frightening man weeping like a remorseful family man only freaked the guards out further. He spoke in such a thick sicilian dialect that even those who spoke the language couldn’t understand a word he said – except for the name “Viana,” which he repeated over and over.

The next morning, as he was led to the gallows, the frail Cardinella broke down completely, collapsing into hysterical fits. Unable to get him to stand, the guards eventually had to tie him to a chair, and he was hanged chair and all. When he was dead, the body and chair were cut down and released to the custody of his friends, who brought it out to a waiting ambulance.

Weird Chicago Presents:


Fatal Drop: True Tales from the Chicago Gallows by William Griffith(Click for ordering info!)
In honor of our first spin-off book, it’s Hangin’ Week on the blog! We’re telling short versions of a few of the tales from the book, and presenting a new Podcast of our gallows ghost hunt!

Inside the ambulance, prison officials noticed a couple of men who appeared to be doctors. Wondering what was going on, the warden ordered the men to hold the ambulance in the jail yard for an hour. Soon, the reason Cardinella had been talking about Viana would become chillingly clear…

The Strange Tale of the Cardinella Gang: Part 1



Fatal Drop: True Tales from the Chicago Gallows.
Click for info! We’re telling short versions of a few of the tales here on the blog this week!

In December, 1920, Nicholas “The Choir Singer” Vianna was hanged in the old Cook County jailhouse on Illinois Street. His hanging was a bizarre present for his 19th birthday.

Nicholas was, in fact, a teenage choir boy – and a heck of a singer – when he wandered into a 22nd street pool room around 1917. A week later, he was a criminal. The pool hall was run by a man known only as Il Diavolo – Italian for “The Devil” – who taught the kids who came into his pool room to commit crimes.

The gang was an offshoot of The Black Hand, the Italian gangs that had terrorized the city before prohibition – whenever an Italian came into property, he could expect to get a letter from the Black Hand demanding money. If he didn’t pay up, that property would be bombed. If he STILL didn’t pay up, his family could end up murdered. The Black Hand was responsible for hundreds of bombings over the years, and Death Corner, an intersection in Little Hell (a sicilian neighborhood that would eventually be torn down to make room for Cabrini Green) averaged about a murder a week for most of the 1910s.

But Black Hand operations were only a sideline to the gang on 22nd street, led by the mysterious Il Diavolo, who was, in reality, a shadowy mug named Sam Cardinelli (or Cardinella; the records vary). In his pool room, he taught kids to run hold ups, and how to kill. He’d send them out on errands, then take a cut of the the money. As often as not, he’d then cheat the boys out of their cuts with loaded dice. One wonders if Cardinella thought “Oliver Twist” was a how-to manual.

Each crime the gang commited was a puzzle to the police – no thread seemed to connect them until a few members of the gang were captured in 1920. When they began to confess, it came to light that they’d been responsible for about 400 hold ups, and a few dozen murders, in just the last six months.

“I was only a boy when I went into the pool room,” said Nicholas Vianna, who had killed over a dozen people. “A week later, I was a criminal.” Vianna gave crucial information that helped send Cardinella to the gallows, but withheld a great deal more, even though it sealed his own fate, for fear that Cardinella would have his mother and sister killed.

While awaiting his own execution, he regularly entertained the prisoners by singing – his voice was exceptional. “Beat any show you ever saw!” said one guard. As he was led to the Death Cell (the library, the nicest room in the jail, where condemned men spent their last nights), he sung the aria Il Miserer to the applause of all, then shouted a good-bye and good luck to all of the prisoners “Except for you, Sam Cardinella. May your soul go to hell!”

None the guards could understand why, a few months later, on the night before his own execution, Cardinella kept repeating the name “VIana” over and over….

Note: Records vary on whether Sam Cardinella’s name was Cardinella, Cardinelli, or some variant thereof. This is often the case in these things; the records don’t clear anything up, they just confuse things further. I’m going with Cardinella for this series. Sam’s is the longest story in FATAL DROP – I can’t believe that it isn’t in every Chicago crime book already, but as far as I know this is the first time the story has been retold in book form.