The Lady of Sing Sing by Idanna Pucci

In her recently re-released book The Lady of Sing Sing: An American Countess, An Italian Immigrant, and their Epic Battle for Justice in New York’s Gilded Age (Simon & Schuster 2020), previously published as The Trials of Maria Barbella (1996), Idanna Pucci recounts the harrowing story of young Italian immigrant Maria Barbella. After being convicted of murdering her lover, Domenico Cataldo, in New York City, Barbella became the first woman to be sentenced to death by electrocution in the state of New York in 1895. Seduced and ruined by the unscrupulous Domenico, who had promised her marriage but who never made good his promise, the desperate Maria took matters into her own hands to avenge her honour and that of her family. In April 1895, after catching wind that Domenico planned to return to his legitimate wife and family back in Italy, Maria followed her lover from their apartment to a local bar. Here, in one final pleading scene to make her his wife, in which Domenico uttered the insulting phrase “only pigs marry”, Maria cut Domenico’s throat with his own razor. Although seen by the American public as cold-blooded murder, by Italian custom Maria’s actions were interpreted by many as the only option left to a woman whose honour had been tainted. Maria did not deny the crime and openly confessed to having committed murder. However, some postulated that during her trial and subsequent imprisonment she did not even fully realize Domenica Cataldo was dead. Although she had killed him to avenge her honour, Maria was still greatly in love with Domenico and never once throughout her ordeal did she waver in her devotion to him. Depending on the perspective, Pucci makes the argument that it was in fact Maria who was the victim rather than Domenico. Intertwined with the story of Maria Barbella is that of the great American born Italian Countess, Cora Slocomb di Brazza, the author’s great-grandmother, who came to the aid of the helpless young woman who faced the electric chair. 

            There could be no greater contrast between the origins of Maria Barbella, born in the town of Ferrarandina, Italy to peasant parents, and that of the Countess di Brazza, born into an affluent family in New Orleans that was connected to many of the great families of the United States. Maria and the rest of the Barbella family would immigrate to New York in search of a better life, while Cora married the wealthy Count di Brazza and settled into the family palace in her adopted Italy, frequently crossing the Atlantic to visit her American relatives. It was only while researching her great-grandmother, that Idanna Pucci uncovered her personal connection to Maria Barbella and the role her ancestor had played in altering the young woman’s fate. Indeed, if it had not been for the countess’s interest it is unlikely that the case would have become the cause celebre that it did. Arrested soon after she had taken her lover’s life, Maria was put on trial for his murder and found guilty. Once found guilty and sentenced to death by the newly invented electric chair, Maria was sent to the infamous Sing Sing Prison to await her fate. 

New York Journal, November 20, 1896, page 3 (Public Domain)

            Highlighted extensively throughout the book is the prejudice and ill treatment that Italians faced upon immigration to the United States. Although they came with the hopes of starting a new life and raising their financial and social prospects, many of the Italians who came to New York City lived and worked in more appalling conditions than they had left behind in Italy. This prejudice was on full display for Maria Barbella’s trial. Although provided with an interpreter, who performed this task poorly, it was evident that Maria did not understand what was going on around her and little effort was made to rectify this. Much to the horror of Maria’s supporters, which in addition to the Countess di Brazza also included the likes of Rebecca Salome Foster, the judge, John W. Goff, who presided over Maria’s trial, felt no sympathy for the accused and allowed few witnesses to testify on behalf of the defense. It was at this point, when Maria was given the verdict of guilty and sentenced to death, that the Countess di Brazza used her far-reaching influence to bring attention to the injustice suffered by the poor Italian immigrant. Not all were supportive of Maria, but an appeal was successful, and Maria was granted a second trial. Jailed for almost two years, Maria’s second trial did not occur until November 1896. 

            Another significant theme that Pucci highlights, and which was a significant to the defense’s case at Maria’s second trial, is that of mental illness and the pseudoscience of phrenology. Taken up by the defense was the theory that at the time Maria committed the murder she in fact suffered an epileptic seizure. This theory was well supported by a thorough investigation of the medical history of both sides of Maria’s family which revealed that there was a long history of mental illness. Few of the many medical men present wished to make a judgement on Maria’s mental state at the time of the murder, but much to the shame of the Barbella family their long-held family secrets of mental illness over many generations were paraded before the court. The lawyers involved in the case even went so far as to publicly analyse the mental deficiencies and degenerate phrenology of several of Maria’s family members seated in the audience for all to see. With this line of defence, coupled with many more witnesses being allowed to testify, the counsel presented a much more sympathetic case. This time the jury found Maria not guilty and she was freed, much to the relief of the Countess di Brazza. 

            A murder trial like Maria’s made global headlines, but as Idanna Pucci makes clear in her book, the press was not always truthful in their handling of the facts. Indeed, most newspaper accounts refer to Maria as Maria Barberi rather than Maria Barbella, likely because this made-up surname brought the barbaric nature of the crime to the fore. Cora di Brazza was able to utilize the press to her advantage to drum up support for Maria, but as Pucci details, the press often sensationalized Maria’s story which ultimately affected her case and perception of the general public toward her. Not only were facts muddled, but some newspapermen fabricated entire stories about Maria, one such being that she was pregnant while awaiting execution. This gave rise to a wider conversation about the appropriateness of condemning a woman to death, especially one who might possibly be with child. 

            Since the original publication of the story of Maria Barbella in 1996, Pucci has continued her meticulous research and brings further closure to the case in the form of a fascinating epilogue that connects the past to the present. Revealed by Pucci in these final pages is what happened to Maria after her second trial and the search for living descendants of the Barbella family. The fate of The Countess di Brazza, along with all of the other key historical figures in the book, is also detailed.  Gifted with the imagination of a novelist, Idanna Pucci blends historical fact with exquisite narrative to tell the full story of Maria Barbella and what she faced at the hands of the American justice system after the murder of her lover Domenico Cataldo.  

Please add The Lady of Sing Sing: An American Countess, An Italian Immigrant, and their Epic Battle for Justice in New York’s Gilded Age to your Goodreads shelf.

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About the Author:

Connor E. R. DeMerchant is an historian from Kingston, New Brunswick, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and History and a Master’s in History from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. In the fall of 2021 he will be pursuing a PhD in history at the University of New Brunswick – Fredericton in the field of Caribbean history. Connor enjoys researching all aspect of Victorian Britain and its global empire, with his MA thesis focusing on Queen Victoria’s interest and impact on music during her reign. When not being an academic, Connor enjoys doing genealogy, rug-hooking, and thrifting. 

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