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A look back: The resurrection of 'Choir Boy' Viana

Written by
Adam Selzer

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After Sam "Il Diavolo" Cardinella was hanged in 1921, jail officials found his friends in an ambulance behind the jail, trying to bring his body back to life. He had taken steps to insure that he would choke, not break his neck, and the prison physician felt that if they'd hadn't been caught, there was a slim chance that they might have pulled it off. Such business wasn't necessarily unheard of; in 1882 doctors in Chicago had had a little success in trying to shock a hanged murderer back to life, Frankenstein-style.

And the reason Cardinella thought it would work was said to be that they'd already tested it—successfully—on one of his underlings, Nicholas "The Choir Singer" Viana, who had been hanged on his 19th birthday four months earlier. Prison lore held that "magicians" had stood around Viana's body at a nearby undertaking parlor, chanting in Sicilian while doctors worked on the body, until Viana began to breathe and moan. Some said that was as far as they managed to get, some said they stopped there deliberately and let him die as a traitor to the gang, and a few even claimed that Viana was now alive and well in hiding on the west side. 

This tale of surviving the noose has always seemed like an urban legend, but some articles found in June 1921 editions of the Chicago Herald ExaminerChicago Daily News, Chicago Evening American and Chicago Evening Post on microfilm show that prison officials took the story very, very seriously.

Word of Viana's near-resurrection reached an assistant jailer through Viana's friends and relatives, and he passed it on to Sheriff Peters, who announced that he would now be holding the bodies of hanged men under guard. "Doctors with a resuscitating apparatus succeeded in getting a flicker of life back into the body, though they failed in the end," he said.

Reporters quickly tracked down the undertaker at Marzono's Funeral Home, which had taken charge of the body. To one reporter, Marzano said the whole story was nonsense, but admitted that they'd at least talked about it to another. "There is no doubt but that we would have had some success," he said. "His temperature had dropped only two points...but we were afraid of running afoul of the law."

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