Edit Module
Edit Module

A Chicagoan's quest to learn the truth about his father — whose life is the subject of a new graphic novel — delves deep into the city's criminal past, crosses paths with one of the 20th century's most notorious murderers, and leads to unexpected redemption.

It’s been 48 years since the police came for Charlie Rizzo. But the 68-year-old glassmaker from Belmont Cragin can recall the moment as if it were yesterday. Twenty years old at the time, he was sitting on his bed in the two-flat he shared with his father, a mild-mannered divorcé who sold insurance from an office in front. Charlie’s dad had been blinded in a boyhood hunting accident—or so he’d told his son—and was a voracious reader of the classics of Western literature who wrote poems and essays in his spare time.

Matt Rizzo with his son Charlie
Matt Rizzo with his son Charlie, in 1957 Photo: Courtesy of First Second Books

Charlie was filled with shame as he listened to his bewildered father answering the officers’ questions. Charlie loved his dad and knew he’d let him down. Days earlier, he and two friends had robbed a pair of homes in the northern suburbs, making off with the loot in Charlie’s Buick Riviera. A neighbor had taken down the license plate number.

Charlie’s dad persuaded the cops to let him have 10 minutes alone with his son. When his father came into the bedroom, he was in tears. It turned out that he had begged the cops for time not to scold his son, but to make a confession of his own.

“There was never any hunting accident,” he said, explaining to Charlie that he’d withheld the truth about his blindness all these years to protect his son. The injury, he said, was the result of a robbery gone wrong. The man Charlie had known his whole life as gentle and learned and kind had been a criminal just like him.

The story that eventually emerged from this startling revelation would become a lifelong fixation for Charlie. It’s a tale that spanned many decades, delved into the world of the Chicago Mafia, and led to the prison cell of one of the 20th century’s most infamous criminals, Nathan Leopold, who became the unlikeliest of mentors to Charlie’s father.

That curious friendship is at the heart of a new graphic novel, The Hunting Accident (September 19, First Second Books), by David Carlson and Landis Blair. For Charlie Rizzo, the book represents the culmination of a tortuous quest for the truth, a journey that reveals how the sins of a son can be redeemed, in the fullness of time, by those of a father.

 
Pages from 'The Hunting Accident'

Charlie doesn’t remember precisely when he first heard the apocryphal story of the misfired buckshot that blinded his father, Matt Rizzo. In Carlson and Blair’s telling, the dad relates the anecdote to the son while they’re riding a city bus in a snowstorm in 1959, after meeting outside the Newberry Library.

Charlie had no reason not to believe his dad. The tale fit with his image of the man: a victim of misfortune who’d scraped a life together as an insurance salesman and took his pleasure from books and writing, devouring Braille editions of Homer, Dante, Keats, and other literary greats.

Charlie was 10 and had just moved into his father’s apartment at Diversey and Austin after the death of his mother. When Charlie was 3, she had whisked him to California after learning of his dad’s criminal past. Charlie had come to know his father only through rare court-ordered visitations, during which the two would stay in a motel, eat diner food, and go swimming together.

Advertisement

The first apartment the father and son occupied was cramped—a shared double bed, a bathroom, a hot plate—but the close quarters created a comfortable intimacy. Over time, Charlie became his father’s keeper. He was careful to return cups and dishes to the exact spot where he’d found them. He planted flowers in a small plot behind the building so his father could enjoy their scent in summer. He chose hobbies that his dad could hear him practicing: tap dancing, cello. Outside of the apartment, he was his dad’s eyes. He helped him onto the electric trolley that plied Diversey Avenue in those days. He counted change to make sure store clerks weren’t cheating him. And he picked up Braille books at the local post office—dozens every month, each as heavy as a dumbbell—ordered from libraries in New York and London to satisfy his father’s literary appetite. Charlie would wheel them home on a handcart. At night, he fell asleep to the soft rasp of his dad’s fingers moving over the raised dots.

Charlie was also his father’s secretary, helping him proofread his poems and literary essays and then submitting them to academic journals in the hope—slim at best for a writer without so much as a high school diploma—that they might one day be published.

Secrets hovered around the edges of their lives, though. When Charlie asked about his parents’ divorce—about why his mother left Chicago so abruptly—his father would fall silent. When his dad asked Charlie about school, about what he did when he went out at night, the boy would fall silent too. Charlie didn’t reveal that he got teased by classmates for having a blind father and no mother. He didn’t tell his dad he was embarrassed when strangers would stare at them together on the street. He didn’t tell him that he and his friend Steve—an older guy with a beautiful girlfriend and a flashy car—had begun stealing food from the grocery store and smashing Halloween pumpkins on neighbors’ porches. And he certainly didn’t tell his dad about driving Steve and another friend around to rob North Shore houses in the Buick that Charlie had bought using his late mother’s Social Security money.

 
Matt Rizzo’s 1935 booking papers
Matt Rizzo’s 1935 booking papers Photo: Courtesy of First Second Books

The wall of secrecy finally began to crumble the morning the cops came for Charlie. As the officers waited in a vestibule near the back door, the facts of the horrible day his dad lost his sight spilled out. It was 1935, in the depths of the Great Depression. Matt Rizzo had dropped out of school several years before and had fallen in with the local Mafia. He and two buddies decided to hold up a liquor store in Portage Park. But the shopkeeper was armed, and as Rizzo was running to the car, a shotgun blast killed his friend. A second shot hit Rizzo in the head, rendering him blind. His other friend, the getaway driver, dumped Rizzo at the hospital, where he was arrested.

“I never gave the police that third man’s name,” he told Charlie, his voice choked with emotion. “And I did four years in prison for it. I’m not gonna let you take the fall like I did. Tell me who you were working with.”

Charlie was crying now, too. He was scared of his pal Steve, so he didn’t talk at first, but when his dad guessed that Steve was involved, Charlie caved and gave up the third boy’s name. The elder Rizzo told the police. Then his son was hauled off to jail.

The next morning the cops told Charlie his dad had bailed him out. When he got home, his dad had the following words for him: “I’m going to help you out this one time, and never again.”

And then Matt Rizzo picked up the phone to reach back across the gulf of years that separated him from his past, reconnecting with a world he thought he’d sworn off for good. He dialed a lawyer that his cousin, a Chicago cop, had told him about: Dean Wolfson, a fixer for the Mob who would himself end up in prison for bribery not too many years later. Wolfson agreed to take Charlie’s case and got the kid off with three years’ probation.

Advertisement

“Why didn’t you tell me the truth?” Charlie recalls asking his dad when it was all over.

“You were already ashamed of me,” his dad responded. “I didn’t want to make it worse.”

Charlie didn’t know what to say.

Maybe it was a sense of duty to his father, maybe it was simply a case of being scared straight, but whatever the reason, Charlie never again had any major run-ins with the law. He went to college. He got married. He started a business not too far from where he’d grown up. When his dad began having heart problems in his early 70s, Charlie, who’d since gotten divorced, moved back in with him and took care of the elder Rizzo until his death a few years later, in 1987.

 
More pages from 'The Hunting Accident'

In the months before Matt Rizzo’s death, his son made him a promise: to try and publish the writing that meant so much to him. Charlie couldn’t find a way to make that happen. But as the years passed, another idea took hold: to discover the full story of his father’s unusual life and tell it to the world.

The details of the elder Rizzo’s time after prison were clear enough: The third accomplice in the botched holdup helped get Rizzo set up as a tavern owner. But the story of his time in Stateville was murkier. Charlie knew his dad had mastered Braille with the help of a benevolent fellow prisoner. But when he started interviewing family members about the prison years, yet another remarkable story came to light.

Charlie eventually sat down with his cousin—the cop who put his dad in touch with Wolfson. The cousin refused to speak directly about Matt Rizzo’s time in prison, but when pressed, he handed Charlie a book. It was a copy of Life Plus 99 Years, the autobiography of Nathan Leopold, the perpetrator, along with Richard Loeb, of what was once called the crime of the century: the coolly calculated kidnapping and murder of 14-year-old Robert Franks in Chicago in 1924.

“Flip through that book, and you can read about your dad,” the cousin told Charlie. He was incredulous at first, but sure enough, a couple hundred pages in, Leopold—an academic prodigy and polymath who’d been sequestered for his own protection after Loeb had been murdered in the prison showers—describes being moved into the prison hospital’s mental ward with a new inmate who was blind, uneducated, and suicidal. The two dejected men became friends.

Paired with a blind person, Leopold, who was already fluent in at least five languages, took it upon himself to learn the Braille alphabet, which gave him the advantage of being able to continue reading after lights-out. Through the Stateville library, which Leopold had successfully lobbied the prison authorities to expand and improve, he ordered a primer in Braille and taught himself to read the raised dots. Along the way, with methodical patience, he taught Matt Rizzo to do the same, offering the young tough from the West Side what would become a path out of darkness: reading and writing.

Advertisement

In Charlie’s imaginings—and in what would become the central narrative conceit of Carlson and Blair’s graphic novel—Leopold took on the role of Virgil and his father that of Dante, the former guiding the latter through hell and toward salvation. It was a radical notion: one of the country’s most infamous murderers helping a hopeless street thug turn his life around through the redeeming power of the written word.

What’s more, the felicitous prison friendship had apparently worked both ways: When Carl Sandburg testified at the killer’s 1958 parole hearing—the famed poet was friends with Leopold’s lawyer, Clarence Darrow—he pointed to his having taught a blind man to read Braille. Leopold was subsequently ordered released after nearly 34 years behind bars.

 

Carlson and Blair’s account of Matt Rizzo’s life ends where it begins: at the Newberry. A few of the final panels depict a grown Charlie Rizzo, thin and bald, carrying reams of his father’s writings up the front steps of the library.

Though some of the scenes in the book are imagined, that one really happened. Today, thanks to Charlie’s perseverance, the Newberry houses most of Matt Rizzo’s surviving poems and essays, as well as his Braille stylus and even some old photos. One of those photos is included in the afterword of The Hunting Accident. Taken in 1957, it’s a faded and torn snapshot of Charlie as a young boy, in the embrace of his dad, who is smartly dressed in a suit and a fedora. It’s a beautiful day, and they’re both smiling.

Edit Module
Edit Module
Submit your comment

Comments are moderated. We review them in an effort to remove foul language, commercial messages, abuse, and irrelevancies.