From the time she was a young girl growing up in urban New Jersey, Helene Stapinski heard family stories about her Italian forbearers, many in particular about her great-great-grandmother Vita Gallitelli who immigrated to America in 1892 after committing murder. In Murder in Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy (Dey St, 2017), Stapinski tells the story of how for over a decade she sought to uncover the truth about her family history and bring the details of her ancestor’s crime to light.
In 2004 with two young children and her mother in tow, Stapinski returned to Basilicata, the region of Southern Italy where her ancestor Vita had left over a century before and never returned. All Stapinski knew about her great-great grandmother was that she had been married to a man by the name of Francesco Vena and after they had committed murder, possible over a game of cards, Vita and her sons, one of whom was supposedly lost on the crossing, had gone to America to start a new life. Like most oral histories passed down through the years from generation to generation, details became obscured, and facts became altered by time. Although she is determined to make sure her own children do not follow in the footsteps of their kin, Stapinski’s family has always been involved in crime, so it is no surprise that the reason they are in America at all is because of a murder. This first trip to her ancestral home was fruitless for Stapinski in terms of uncovering her family murder, but it only made the desire to find her heritage burn stronger. Although a decade would pass before she would be able to return to Italy, with Stapinski all the while preparing and dreaming, on this second trip, undertaken in 2014, Stapinski came prepared to uncover her family’s past once and for all.
Detaching herself from her American life and travelling to Italy for a month, Stapinski throws herself into the challenge of archival research to uncover the murder. If it happened at all, she is determined to find the story. With the help of many local researchers, found friends, and long-lost cousins, the author is successful in her labourious search for answers. However, as Stapinski’s memoir relates, as she digs to find answers, the story she thought she knew about her great-great grandmother Vita Gallitelli, and by extension her entire family history, evolves and is entirely reshaped by the story that appears out of the archives. What Stapinski finds changes everything she thought she knew about her ancestors and the preconceptions she harboured about her family. With the true particulars of the murder revealed, Vita’s character is entirely recast, causing Stapinski to view her own life in an entirely new way.
While Helene Stapinski is not a trained historian, she is an accomplished journalist and knows how to weave an entertaining story. Although there are plenty of archival documents to tell Vita’s story and that of the murder that she is connected to in cold facts, there are no personal documents such as letters or journals that have been left behind to describe Vita’s feelings or thoughts. Therefore, Stapinski must use her skills as a writer to weave facts with historical conjecture as she adds a human touch to Vita’s story. The author may have taken artistic license when filling in the gaps of Vita’s life in order to personalize her subject, this does not detract from the historical research undertaken and it is clear when Stapinski is using the historical record to tell the story and when she is using her imagination to add flesh to the bones of historical fact. That being said, the section of the book which detail the author’s experiences in and use of Italian archives is fascinating from a historical and methodological perspective. Stapinski goes into considerable detail when describing the archives she visits, the documents she examines, and the myriad characters she encounters in these sacred spaces of historical learning.
Although the story of Vita Gallitelli and the life she lived is central to this memoir, it is the story of Helene Stapinski’s journey to uncover her family heritage and the discoveries she made that takes center stage. In the end all is revealed and the facts of the case laid bare, but the majority of the work is in fact taken up by the challenges and difficulties faced by Stapinski as she acquainted herself with the Italian archives and the local inhabitants of the areas her ancestors resided as she sought answers to her family mystery. This is not a criticism of the work, as indeed it is an engrossing read. But this work is a memoir and is just as much about the author as it is about the subject she is researching. Ultimately, this book would be equally appealing for true crime readers and avid genealogical researchers alike.
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 from the University of New Brunswick – Saint John and a Master’s in History from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. In the fall of 2021 he began a PhD in history at the University of New Brunswick – Fredericton in the field of Caribbean history. Connor enjoys researching all aspects 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.