Sunday, October 17, 2010

Murder in Little Italy

Maria Barbella emigrated from Italy to New York City with her parents in 1892. By 1895 she was in love with Domenico Cateldo, another Italian immigrant, who had seduced Maria and promised to marry her. Maria continually pressed him to keep his promise but Domenico refused. Then one evening in a Little Italy saloon she could take it no longer; he refused again and she cut his throat with a straight razor. There was no question that she committed murder, but the jury at her trial would have to determine whether the murder was premeditated and whether Maria Barbella would be the first woman sentenced to die in New York’s newly installed electric chair.

Date: April 26, 1895

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 and he told her of his plans to find a girl to marry and to 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 Cataldo home to meet them. Cataldo 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 Cataldo was actively pursuing her again, and she relented.

One evening Cataldo gave Maria a drink that was probably drugged, then took her to his room and had sex with her while she was unconscious. Now disgraced, Maria was ashamed to go home to her parents. Cataldo promised to marry her but first found an apartment where they could live together. Though Maria would constantly demand that Cataldo honor his promise and marry her, he continued to refuse.

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 later 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 Cataldo 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 Cataldo were arguing when Maria’s mother, Filomena, came to the door as she had several times before to plead with Cataldo 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 Cataldo 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.

Maria was sent to Sing Sing prison, near Albany, where she would be only woman prisoner, and the first female prisoner on death row. She would also be the first woman to be executed by the prison’s newly installed electric chair.

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.

Maria’s most prominent supporter was Cora Slocomb, an American woman who had married Count Detalmo di Brazza and now lived in Italy. She had followed the case from the beginning and had returned to America to help Maria. Countess di Brazza visited Maria in prison and made sure she had competent attorneys for her appeal.

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.


Pucci, Idanna. The Trials of Maria Barbella: The True Story of a 19th-Century Crime of Passion. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1996.

Maria Barbella


Caroline says:
February 11, 2012 at 4:12 PM

Ten dollars says that if Maria were, say, a prominent politician and not a poor Italian immigrant who couldn't speak English, she would have gotten off scot-free the first time around. (I've yet to make up my mind on whether I find her guilty or not, but I do think she was served a raw deal in sentencing.)

Aura Romano says:
April 28, 2018 at 4:03 AM

I thought haven’t read such distinctive material anywhere else on-line.

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