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.


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.

fataldrop button

Henry Jumpertz and the Barrel Mystery of 1859

Jumpertz as he appeared in
Frank Leslie’s newspaper

In 1859, Henry Jumpertz was arrested for the murder of Sophie Werner. It seemed like an open-and-shut case. A barrel had arrived in New York that smelled so terrible that authorities had to open it up. Inside, the first thing they saw was a woman’s face. It was all green and blue and decomposed, but still recognizably a face, and piled on top of a whole bunch of other guts and body parts. The barrel was easily traced back to Henry Jumpertz, who ran a barber shop at Dearborn and Randolph.

Jumpertz’s story didn’t make him sound all that innocent – his story was that Sophie, his mistress, had hanged herself, and, fearing that he’d be arrested for murder (being an immigrant made him an easy target), he’d decided to chop the body into pieces, disposing of some of it in the snow before sealing the rest into a barrel, which he kept next his bed for the next two weeks. Naturally, he was arrested for murder. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper said that “what he has confessed of shows him capable of any enormity.” He was quickly convicted, despite a suicide note written by Sophie that was held up as evidence that it hadn’t been murder at all.

In an odd scene that would repeat itself with some other Chicago murder stories, crowds of women came to try to meet Jumpertz while he was on trial (which always gave reporters a chance to make a sly misogynistic comment). According to the Chicago Times, “among the crowd…were large numbers of women. Old women and young women, plain women and ugly women, well-dressed women and women in shabby habilments (sic), women of all shades, sizes, colors, habits and tongues – all manifesting an excited interest in the fate of a man who, by his own admission, is a person whom all right-thinking people must regard with loathing and abhorrence.” Of course, one should remember that this is the Chicago Times, a newspaper that wore its racism and sexism on its sleeve under the direction of Wilbur F. Storey, who would have done great as a cable news loudmouth.  The Tribune was a bit more specific – they said it wasn’t women looking for an introduction so much as prostitutes. “Abandoned and notorious females are permitted singly and in companies to the cell of Henry Jumpertz, the murderer.”

Jumpertz, only 24, was at other times described as a model prisoner, even helping to design a new sort of gallows on which he could be hanged. But expert analysis got him off the hook – at the last minute, it was determined that the handwriting on the suicide note was really Sophie’s, which makes it a bit of a landmark case, since no one, so far as anyone could tell, had ever used that sort of forensic handwriting analysis in court before.

The case was a big enough deal to inspire the book at the left, which was mostly made up of copies of Jumpertz’s letters that had been rounded up. I’ve never seen a copy of it, though copies exist in a couple of university libraries. It may have been Chicago’s first true crime book.

Whether Jumpertz was guilty is still debated occasionally (his name comes up in discussions of how abortions were portrayed in the 19th century – he apparently told one woman he’d impregnated that he’d marry her if she had an abortion), as well as discussions of handwriting analysis. It’s often said that his various girlfriends were always regarded as having been led astray while Jumpertz was portrayed as a terrible libertine, but I see pretty much the same pattern one usually sees in mid 19th-century immigrants who are convicted with murder: they portrayed him as the biggest monster alive at first, but as his hanging date came closer and closer they started talking about his intelligence and how calmly he was awaiting death. After he escaped the gallows, the press pretty much forgot all about him, outside of a stray mention of him serving in the union army some years later.

After his release, he did join the Union Army; he was a sergeant in Vicksburg in 1862 during the Civil War.  Some early reports claim he died in the war, but pension records have him alive (though an invadid) in 1875.

A bit more on Jumpertz is in FATAL DROP: True Tales of the Chicago Gallows

The Skull of Del Close at the Goodman Theatre

It’s pretty well established now that the skull in the artistic director’s office at the Goodman wasn’t really the skull of comedian Del Close when he was alive, but it’s his now! He donated his skull to the theatre so that he could play Yorick, and the skull they have serves as his, at least symbolically.  A fundraiser once offered to show it to me if I donated enough cash, and I finally got to see it over the weekend.

 I have an article up today on The Order of the Good Death about it:

“Wanna See a Famous Skull?”
by Adam Selzer

Human Heads at O’Hare

A package of more than a dozen severed human heads is currently being holed up at O’Hare. Officials are acting like this is no big deal, but I would have loved to see the TSA agent’s face when the coolers containing them went through the x-ray.

See more from the Chicago Tribune.

What can I say? I’m a sucker for headlessness. Here’s statue from Graceland Cemetery:

The “Demon Bank” on North Clark

No, this isn’t one of those “occupy” posts. But there’s one bank on North Clark that seems to have demons carved right into the facade – at 2021 N Clark. Would you go to a bank with demons on it?

Up close, you see that the thing actually has horns and everything. Is this supposed to be the devil? Does this mean I can sell my soul at this bank? Finally, a way to get a mortgage!

I’d say it’s actually more likely Pan, the greek god, than Satan, but I’d really love to find out what was going through people’s heads when the place was built, back in 1935. I’m not sure there was a bank in the space then (there has been since at least the 1970s), but 1935 was exactly the time period when a builder could probably get away with putting a demon on a bank and acting all coy about it. People would take his side. Look how many took John Dillinger’s side for robbing the banks (this is about half a mile, give or take a few blocks, from the Biograph Theatre, where he saw his last movie before being shot in the nearby alley).  Of course, putting Pan on a bank doesn’t make a WHOLE lot more sense than putting Satan on one.

 The building is actually mainly residential; most of it is a high rise:

The main residential entrance is on the other side of the building, on North Lincoln Park, and is kind of creepy itself (and I mean that in the nicest possible way).

Anyone know more about this place? The fire insurance map from the year it was built is sort of unreadable.

The Disco Salad Bar

Hi, guys. You’ll never believe what I discovered today at the Holmes Murder Castle site. I was there all day with a TV show, including a trip into the basement. I’ll have more details and stories later (and LOTS of photos), but for now all I can do is tease.

So, anyway, the mysterious discovery: Nearby the murder castle apparently once stood….THE DISCO SALAD BAR!

Now, the salad bar appears to have been closed for years. However, it WAS operational in the last quarter century. Rory, who has been the security guard at the post office that occupies part of the murder castle site since 1986, told me he used to go there for lunch sometimes. “It was okay,” he said. 

The Chicken Man Strikes Again

To my knowledge, no other writer has better described Chicago than Daniel Pinkwater, who wrote about a thinly-disguised version of Chicago in The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, The Education of Robert Nifkin, and Lizard Music, which is now available ina gorgeous new hardcover. In honor of that long-overdue reissue, here’s a shot by Jack davis of The Chicken Man doing his thing on Maxwell Street. The Chicken Man appears as a character in several of Pinkwater’s books.

We’ve previous featured a video of the chicken man and a great shot of him on the bus . This guy may not have come to Chicago until he was about 40, but he was truly a Chicago original. He was still performing around town on his 100th birthday.

Some Chicago sites of interest for Pinkwater fans:

-Bughouse Square (alias Washingston Square Park) – Just above Clark and Chicago, this park in which people make speeches appeared under its own name in NIFKIN and as “BLueberry Park” in The Snarkout Boys

– The McCormick Mansion in Old Town. This was The Bateman School from the 1950s-70s, and was said by Daniel to be the place to find the worst kids in the city. It appeared as the Wheaton School in NIfkin

– The Clark Theatre. Hark, Hark, the Clark! Originally standing where the alley is now on the west side of Clark, just below Washington, The Clark, which was open 23 hours per day and showed a different double-feature nightly, served as The Snark Theatre in The Snarkout Boys series.

We should really have entries about all of these things amidst the blood, guts, and gore around here soon!

The Chiditarod!

When you’re walking down to the UPS store and see a bunch of guys in chicken suits crossing the road, you should pretty generally go see what’s going on. I crossed the road myself and saw a bunch of costumed guys and decorated shopping carts.

I had stumbled onto The Chiditarod, which was described to me as part costume contest, part talent show, part food drive, part pub crawl, and all awesome. My distaste for running pub crawls in my Weird Chicago days was legendary, but this is one I can get behind! Scattered between 11 bars in the city, 165 teams are competing this year. They’ve raised something like ten TONS of canned food. How wonderful is that?

The creativity I saw from some crews was astounding – it was like Odyssey of the Mind for adults!

This is Roger McCubbins and Kip Burgess, who came in full Doctor Who regalia with their Tardis-themed shopping cart. Check out Roger’s Tumblr!

And here’s some video footage of the line: