A crime of passion in 19th century Little Italy

MariabarbellaWhen she first arrived in New York City in 1892, Maria Barbella, 24 (at right), fit the template of a typical Italian immigrant.

She was poor, she lived with her family in Little Italy at 163 Mott Street (below), and she found work in a factory as a seamstress making $8 a week.

But her life took a turn a year later when she met another Italian immigrant, a cad named Domenico Cataldo.

On her way to work, she would pass by Domenico’s shoeshine booth at Canal Street, and the two began seeing each other romantically.

MariabarbellaitalianarticleWhat Maria didn’t know was that Domenico was already married with a family.

She also probably didn’t suspect that Domenico would drug her drink one night, then take advantage of her while she was passed out.

When she realized what had happened, she told Domenico that he had to do the honorable thing.

“He showed her a savings book with a $400 deposit and promised to marry her,” states this summary of the case.

Maria163mottst“However, he continued to put it off and led Maria on for several months. She continued to meet with him at the boarding house in the hopes that he would consent to marrying her. She was devastated when he told her that he was returning to Italy and was ending the relationship.”

By now, Maria’s family were involved, and they too insisted he set a date.

The day before Domenico was set to sail to Italy, Maria and her mother approached him at a bar on East 13th Street where he was playing cards.

His response when they brought up marriage? “Only pigs marry.”

That’s when Maria slit his throat with a straight razor. He staggered out to the street and died on Avenue A.

Mariabarbella2Her trial, which opened in July 1895, was a media sensation. Found guilty of premeditated murder, she was the first woman ever sentenced to death in Sing Sing’s relatively new electric chair, which made its debut in 1890.

But the media attention of her case, and her notoriety as the first female set to die by electrocution, brought her lots of support, with letters and telegraphs coming in from all over the world asking the state to give Maria clemency.

A new trial was granted in 1897, and this time, her lawyers came up with a novel defense: they claimed Maria couldn’t be responsible for her actions because when Domenico mentioned pigs, it set off an epileptic seizure.

Mariabarbellanyt

The defense worked; Maria was found not guilty. She reportedly married a fellow Italian immigrant in 1897 and disappeared from public life.

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4 Responses to “A crime of passion in 19th century Little Italy”

  1. Linkage: Say Goodbye to Posman Books; Greenpoint’s Onion Dome | Pistilli Realty Group Says:

    […] Posman Books to close [JVNY] · This studio apartment on the UWS wants $720,000 [BU] · A 19th century crime of passion, on Ave A [ENY] · LES playground to get full makeover [BB] · 2014′s most memorable subway moments […]

  2. Gregoire Alessandrini Says:

    Great story from around my (old) block ! Thank you !

  3. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thank you Gregoire for your wonderful NY in the 1990s photo collection!

  4. Linkage: Say Goodbye to Posman Books; Greenpoint’s Onion Dome | LIBERTY ALLIANCE Says:

    […] Posman Books to close [JVNY] · This studio apartment on the UWS wants $ 720,000 [BU] · A 19th century crime of passion, on Ave A [ENY] · LES playground to get full makeover [BB] · 2014’s most memorable subway […]

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