Location: New York, New York
Victim: Domenico Cataldo
Cause of Death: Slashing
Accused: Maria Barbella
Maria Barbella was 24 years old when she and her family left the town of Farrandina and settled in New York’s Little Italy. They were among the 247,000 Italian immigrants who arrived in the United States in 1892. Maria found a job as a seamstress and going to and from work she would pass by a shoeshine stand operated by Domenico Cataldo. Soon they began to talk. He told her he planned to find a girl to marry and open a barbershop. Before long he would walk her home from work but never all the way—Maria wanted to keep their association a secret from her parents for fear they would disapprove.
Maria’s parents eventually did find out and demanded that she bring Domenico home to meet them. Domenico kept finding excuses for not meeting Maria’s parents until finally her father forbade her to see him anymore. Maria obeyed her father’s command for a time, but by 1895 Domenico was actively pursuing her again, and she relented.
While living with Maria, Domenico Cataldo was seeing other women. On April 20, he told Maria he would never marry her. He had other plans. Maria testified that he told her:
“I’ll find you a young man willing to marry you. I’ll tell him you’re a widow. I’ll buy you a black dress. You’ll marry him because I want you to. Then I’ll come to visit you while he’s at work.”
Maria also learned that Domenico already had a wife and children in Italy and planned to return to them.
On April 26, 1895, New York was in the midst of an historic heat wave. The day before, at 3:30 in the afternoon, the temperature had jumped from 52 degrees 90 degrees. Maria and Domenico were arguing when Maria’s mother, Filomena, came to the door as she had several times before to plead with Domenico to marry her daughter. He pushed her aside and ran downstairs to the street and then to Mancuso’s bar, two doors down. He was playing cards when Maria came in ten minutes later. She asked him again to marry her and Domenico shouted:
“Only pigs marry.”Maria put her hand on his shoulder and as he tried to push her away, Maria slashed his throat with a straight razor. Clutching his throat, Domenico ran into the street and gushing blood ran through a crowd of horrified bystanders. Then he fell to the sidewalk and died.
Maria went home and changed out of her bloody clothes, but it did not take the police long to find her. When they arrested her she said in broken English:
“Me take his blood so he no take mine. Say me pig marry.”The police took her to New York’s Tombs prison.
The prosecution in the trial of Maria Barbella presented a case accusing her of premeditated murder. They claimed she had taken the razor with her that day expressly to cut Dominico Cataldo’s throat. But the strongest force working against Maria was her inability to speak English. As she told her impassioned tale, a court appointed translator poorly translated her words in a dull monotone that seem intended to bore rather than inform the jury. Maria’s lawyers offered a less than compelling defense and she found no comfort from Judge Goeff who told the jury:
"Your verdict must be an example of justice. A jury must not concern itself with mercy. The law does not distinguish between the sexes. The fragility of the female sex is sometimes involved to excuse savage crimes. We cannot publicly proclaim a woman not guilty of killing a man solely because this man has proposed marriage and then changed his mind!"The jury deliberated for 45 minutes then found Maria Barbella guilty of first degree murder.
The electric chair had been introduced in New York in 1889 as a more humane and efficient method of execution than hanging. The first electric chair execution in Buffalo in 1890 would belie both of those assertions. The condemned man, William Kemmler was given 2000 volts of electricity for 11 seconds. Smoke rose from his head and the room smelled of burnt flesh. Kemmler appeared to be dead, but on close examination he was found to have a small wound pulsing blood and he was struggling to breathe. The jolt had not killed him. The electricity was turned on again, this time for over a minute, until executioners were sure he was dead.
Saving Maria Barbella from the electric chair became a cause célèbre. Many people felt she had not gotten a fair trial, others felt it was wrong to execute a woman, and some were against the death penalty in all cases. Governor Morton was petitioned to pardon Maria, but he would not decide until her appeal had ended.
After eleven months in prison, Maria Barbella’s appeal succeeded and she was granted a new trial. She would spend another seven month in jail before it started.
Though the defense now had an eyewitness who said Domenico Cataldo reached for a pistol before he was killed, they decided on a more risky plea than self-defense. They claimed that Maria was not guilty because she was having an epileptic seizure when she killed Domenico. Unlike the more common insanity defense, the epilepsy defense had only been successful four times and never in the United States. Her lawyer’s introduced evidence of mental problems in Maria’s background and in several generations of Maria’s family. While making sure the jury also heard the self-defense evidence, they contended that Domenico’s statement, “Only pigs marry.” had triggered an epileptic seizure in Maria. Maria, now fluent in English told her story without an interpreter. She now claimed she had no memory of killing her lover.
After listening to a battle of experts on the topic of epilepsy, the jury retired. This time, after forty minutes of deliberation, they found Maria Barbella not guilty.
Less than a year after her release from prison Maria Barbella married Francesco Paulo Bruno, a man who had come from her village in Italy. After that she disappeared from public life.