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.”
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.