Francesco Raffaele Nitto, better known as Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti, followed Al Capone as leader of the Chicago Outfit in the years after Prohibition. He was boss more in name than fact, but he left a major stamp on the city’s Mafia organization by the time he killed himself to avoid prison time.
Nitti was born January 27, 1886, in Salerno, Italy, in the town of Angri. His parents were Luigi and Rosina Nitto, and he may have been a cousin of Capone, though this fact is disputed by historians.
Luigi died when Nitti was just two years old, and his mother was remarried to Francesco Dolendo. Nitti’s stepfather emigrated to New York in 1890, and Nitti, his mother, and his older sister followed three years later, when Nitti was seven. They settled in Brooklyn.
Nitti dropped out of school after the seventh grade, going to work as a pinsetter in a bowling alley, then as a factory worker, then as a barber. He left home at 14 when his relationship with Delendo went bad. Nitti started fencing stolen jewelry through his barbershop and became friends with Capone’s brothers and their gang, the Navy Street Boys.
Not much is known about Nitti’s life between 1910 and the start of Prohibition in 1919, when he began to make his name as a Chicago Mafioso under Capone. He left Brooklyn sometime around 1910 or 1911, and may have arrived in Chicago about 1913. He set up a barbershop there as a front for his criminal activities and made connections to figures in the Chicago underworld, including boss Dean O’Banion of the North Side Gang.
In 1917 Nitti married Rose Levitt in Dallas. They moved to Galveston, Texas, where he became a part of that city’s crime syndicate. After stealing money from two Galveston mobsters in 1918, he apparently fled back to Chicago and resumed his criminal enterprise there.
By this time both Capone and his mentor, Giovanni “Pappa Johnny” Torrio, had relocated to Chicago to work under Giancomo “Big Jim” Colosimo, boss of the city’s growing branch of the American Mafia, known simply as the Outfit. Eventually Nitti’s criminal success caught their attention.
Prohibition took effect in 1919, and Torrio had Colosimo assassinated so he could take over the Outfit and expand into the illegal liquor trade. Torrio and Capone were impressed by Nitti’s jewel theft and fencing ring, but they especially wanted a piece of his alcohol smuggling operation.
Nitti had a well-established network of smugglers who could bring Canadian whiskey across the border and into the city,
where he could distribute it to speakeasies. This made him invaluable to Torrio, Capone and the Outfit throughout the 1920s. Nitti started as a bodyguard for Capone, but he quickly rose through the ranks.
In the mid 1920s, tensions between Chicago’s two major bootlegging gangs erupted into open warfare. Dean O’Banion and his Irish-American North Side Gang, with whom Nitti had once worked, now competed against the South Side Outfit for control of liquor distribution in the Gold Coast neighborhood. O’Banion pulled a scam on Torrio, and Torrio retaliated by having O’Banion murdered.
The North Siders responded by trying to assassinate Torrio. He recovered but decided he’d had enough of the mob life. He handed the Outfit to Capone and retired. With Capone now boss, Nitti’s fortunes climbed. He also divorced Rose and married Anna Ronga, daughter of a Mafia doctor.
The violence and political corruption that marked Prohibition in Chicago eventually proved to be Capone’s downfall. By the end of the 1920s both local law enforcement and the federal government had decided he had to go. He was prosecuted for income tax evasion in 1931 and sentenced to 11 years in prison, marking the end of his reign.
Nitti also went to prison for failing to pay his taxes, but was only sentenced to 18 months. His time behind bars taught him he was severely claustrophobic and poorly suited to a life of incarceration.
On his release he took over the Outfit, at least as front man. In truth the organization’s day-to-day affairs were run by his underboss, Paul “The Waiter” Ricca, a close friend of Capone.
Police, emboldened by Capone’s downfall, immediately put the pressure on Nitti. He was almost killed during a raid in 1932 in which one of the police officers was paid $15,000 to murder him. Law enforcement would put a target on him for the rest of his life.
Prohibition formally ended in 1933, and the Outfit under Nitti turned its attention elsewhere: labor racketeering, prostitution and especially gambling. Nitti also began to focus on expansion, pushing the Outfit to take control of crime in parts of Wisconsin, Missouri, California and Nevada, where legalized gambling eventually became the mob’s most lucrative source of income.
But that expansion eventually brought Nitti down. In 1943, the federal government handed down a raft of indictments accusing Chicago mobsters of extorting the largest movie studios in Hollywood. The Outfit had used its control of unions to threaten labor unrest unless the studios paid out large sums. Nitti and Ricca were among those charged.
Ricca blamed Nitti for the scandal and insisted he should be the one to go to prison for it. But Nitti couldn’t stand the idea of a return to the close confines of a cell, and he feared his fellow mobsters might kill him to keep him quiet. He may also have been suffering from terminal cancer.
On March 19, 1943, the day before he was scheduled to testify to a grand jury, two workers at a Chicago rail yard saw Nitti wandering the tracks. He was almost hit by a train, and the workers lost sight of him. They then spotted him sitting against a fence, where he proceeded to shoot himself in the head with a .32 caliber revolver.
Nitti was buried at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillside, Illinois. He lies near the gravesites of Capone, O’Banion and other Chicago mobsters.