The scariest Chicago gangster you've never heard of

Written by
Adam Selzer
Fraser Mummery/Flickr

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Employees of the old jail on Illinois and Dearborn were tough to scare. Stories of the jail being haunted circulated from time to time, and an old parade of serial killers and multi-murderers were held there over the years. But there was one guy who really gave the jailers the creeps: Sam Cardinella, a gang leader who had been known around the South Side as "Il Diavolo"—The Devil.

Cardinella seems like a guy who read Oliver Twist as a how-to manual. He ran a pool hall on 22nd Place where he'd lure boys, initiate them into his gang, then send them out on robbery jobs, from which he'd take most of the money. One of the kids, Nicholas Viana, walked into the pool hall one afternoon on the way home from choir practice and committed his first of his several murders only days later.

Viana cursed Cardinella just before he was hanged on his 19th birthday. Vianna's body was placed in a wire basket and driven away in an ambulance instead of a hearse. Jailers thought it was weird, but shrugged and got on with their jobs.

Months later, Cardinella himself was brought before the noose, after months of pacing in his cell, refusing food and scaring the heck out of the guards. The night before his hanging, it's said that he was uttering the name "Viana" repeatedly as he had his final meeting with his family.

On the scaffold, though, he lost his nerve completely. He collapsed, and had to be hanged while tied to a chair. His body, too, was put in a wire basket and brought to an ambulance.

This time, jailers got curious and stopped the ambulance. Inside, they found a team of doctors and nurses at work on the body. All of the weight loss, and the collapse, had been a ruse, designed to give Cardinella a shorter drop with less weight on the noose. The idea was that if he strangled instead of breaking his neck, they could bring him back to life—which is what they were attempting to do in the ambulance.

It was later whispered among prisoners that Cardinella had thought it would work because it had already been tested successfully on Viana, who, according to legend, was revived after his hanging, then allowed to die again as punishment for betraying the gang. 

Some writers would later insist that the story of his attempted resurrection was invented in the 1960s. Yet the story made the news only days after the event, in July of 1921. The sheriff told newspapers he'd verified the Viana story himself and enacted a new policy: Bodies of hanged men would now be guarded for an hour before being turned over. 

For more on Chicago hangings, see Fatal Drop: True Tales of the Chicago Gallows by William Griffith. 

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