Maria Barbella (born October 24, 1868) was
the first woman sentenced to die in the electric chair. She was
convicted of killing her lover in 1895; however, the ruling was
overturned in 1896 and she was freed.
Maria Barbella was born in Ferrandina, Basilicata,
Italy. Her family immigrated to Mulberry Bend, New York in 1892. After
living in the United States for nearly a year, Maria Barbella met
Domenico Cataldo, who was from her same region of Italy. She worked in
a factory and every day she would pass by Cataldo’s shoeshine booth.
They spent lots of time together but these meetings were kept a secret
from Michele Barbella, Maria's overprotective father. Michele found
out about Domenico and he forbade Maria from ever seeing or speaking
to him again. Domenico continued to pursue Maria until she finally
gave in and agreed to meet with him again.
One day Cataldo took her to a boarding house, where
he seemingly drugged her with the drink he bought her, and took
advantage of her. Because of her very strong morals about intimacy and
marriage, Barbella said that they would have to get married to make
everything right. He promised they would marry in several months, but
they never did because he was already married to a woman in Italy,
with whom he had children. Domenico said he was going back to Italy so
he wouldn’t be able to marry her, leaving her devastated. Maria told
her mother about the situation. Her mother confronted Domenico and
insisted he marry Maria but he said the only way he would do that was
if they paid him $200. On April 26, 1895, Maria killed him by cutting
his throat with a razor.
She was arrested and put in The New York Halls of
Justice and House of Detention (otherwise known as "The Tombs") for
2.5 months. Her appointed attorneys were Amos Evans and Henry
Sedgwick. The trial began on July 11. This case stirred up controversy
because Italians felt that the verdict was unjust since there were no
Italians in the jury. At the time of the trial, Maria was unable to
speak or understand English.
Maria admitted everything: how she slit his throat
and how he ran after her, but couldn’t reach her and had dropped dead.
The jury was shown to have felt sympathy for her case; however,
according to Recorder Goff, "The verdict was in accordance with the
facts, and no other verdict could, in view of the evidence, have been
considered." The jury declared Maria guilty and she was sent to Sing
Sing prison where she was sentenced to death by electric chair
occurring on August 19, 1895. She was the second woman sentenced to
death in New York and the first woman to be sentenced to execution by
electric chair. After 1902 nothing is known about her life.
Second Trial and Release
Many complained to the Governor about how the
situation was handled, but it seemed nothing could be done. On
November 16, 1896, she was given a second trial at the criminal branch
of the New York Supreme Court. She was granted an appeal when she was
suddenly said to be epileptic and mentally ill because of everything
that had happened. She was found not guilty, remarried and had
a son named Frederick. Her husband left her and remarried in Italy in
Fleischer, Lawrence. "Maria Barbella: The
Unwritten Law and the Code of Honor in Gilded Age New York." From
In Our Own Voices: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Italian and
Italian American Women. Boca Raton, FL: Bordighera Press, 2003,
Messina, Elizabeth G. "Women and Capital
Punishment: The Trials of Maria Barbella." From In Our Own
Voices: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Italian and Italian
American Women. Boca Raton, FL: Bordighera Press, 2003, pgs.
Pucci, Idanna. The Trials of Maria Barbella.
New York: Vintage, 1996.
The Trials of Maria Barbella: The True Story of
a 19th-Century Crime of Passion
By Idanna Pucci
City, April 26, 1895, 9:30 AM. Domenico Cataldo sat studying his cards
in a saloon on East 13th Street. He was looking forward to boarding a
ship leaving for Italy that very afternoon. His lover, also a young
Italian immigrant to New York - Maria Barbella - then entered the bar.
There was a brief exchange. "Only a pig can marry you!" were his last
words. Maria Barbella whipped out a straight razor and slashed his
neck so swiftly Cataldo had no chance to scream. He staggered out the
door, clutching his throat with both hands, knocking Maria over,
spraying blood everywhere. Finally, as he reached Avenue A, he lurched
off the curb and fell twitching into the gutter, where he died.
the saga of Maria Barbella, who shortly became the first woman
sentenced to die in the electric chair, at the time a brand-new
invention. Hearing of her plight, Cora Slocomb, Countess di Brazza -
an American by birth, and author Idanna Pucci's great-grandmother -
returned to this country to help organize an appeal to save Maria that
was, ultimately, successful. The Victorian public was galvanized by
the spectacle of Maria's trials. But in fact, her story rings with
issues that would fascinate a contemporary audience: sex; prejudice;
and the right of a woman to reject the role of victim, to avenge
herself against a persecutor.
Profile of Maria Barbella, Italian immigrant who
became the first woman sentenced to die in the electric chair in 1895
and the first woman on death row in Sing Sing Prison.
Maria Barbella was born on October 24, 1868, and
grew up in the village of Fernandina, in the Basilicata region of
Italy. Her family immigrated to the United States in 1892. Her father,
Michele Barbella, brought his wife, Buonsanto Filomena, and his family
to the Little Italy section of New York and settled on Mulberry Bend.
In November, 1893, after being in the U.S. for 11
months, Maria met Domenico Cataldo, who, like Maria, was also an
immigrant from Basilicata, Italy. He had a shoeshine booth on the
corner of Canal and Elm Streets and Maria passed there everyday on her
way to the factory where she worked as a seamstress.
Maria began to stop and talk with him daily, often
leaving early from her home to spend time with him. Domenico told
Maria that he was looking for the right girl to marry. Maria thought
herself to be unattractive and was flattered by the attention she
received from Domenico. He would walk her home but he never came into
her house to meet her parents.
Maria's father learned of her secret meetings with
Domenico and forbade her to see him again. Maria, the obedient
daughter, consented to her father's demand and avoided Domenico.
However, Domenico was determined to seduce Maria. He waited for her at
the factory one day and told her that he missed her terribly and
wanted to marry her. Maria refused his advances. However, Domenico
persisted and waited for her to get off work for ten more days. By the
middle of March 1895, Maria was allowing Domenico to escort her home
every night as before.
Domenico persuaded Maria to go with him to a
boarding house, where he gave her a drink and seduced her. Maria
became upset afterwards and demanded that he marry her. He showed her
a savings book with a $400 deposit and promised to marry her. 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.
Maria and her mother confronted Domenico in a bar
where he was playing cards. Her mother demanded that he marry Maria.
Domenico said that he might be persuaded to marry her if the family
paid him $200. Maria's mother exclaimed that they didn't have that
kind of money. Domenico laughed at her and said his last words, "Only
pigs marry!" Maria then stabbed him. On April 27, 1895, a headline in
The New York Times read, "A young woman, Maria Barbella, cuts Domenico
Maria was arrested and incarcerated at the New York
Prison--the Tombs. She was 27 at the time of the murder. She spent 2
and 1/2 months in the Tombs and was visited everyday by a family
member. A little-known attorney, Amos Evans and Henry Sedgwick on his
first case, were appointed her case. She told them of her love for
Domenico and of his refusal to marry her. She did not see the lawyers
again until she appeared in court on July 11. On that day, she
appeared wearing a dress she had made while in prison, and a dark gray
felt hat trimmed with orange flowers and feathers.
Twelve men had been chosen as jurors and none of
them were Italian. The judge in the case was John W. Goff. Maria's
confession was read by the agent who took it, John O'Rourke of the
East Fifth Street Police. It read in part:
"She admitted having entered the bar while Domenico
Cataldo was playing cards. Then, after having grasped the man by the
hair and pulled his head back, she had cut his throat. Then she had
run away. Domenico ran after her, but almost immediately he had fallen
to the ground dead. The woman confessed that she had been relieved
when she saw him fall because she was afraid of him."
In his deposition, police officer O'Reilly stated:
"I went immediately to Miss Barbella's apartment where, hidden behind
a stool, I found a bloody cotton dress." The Deputy Coroner, John
Huber, testified that Domenico had died from a loss of blood from a
neck wound caused by the six-inch long knife Maria had used to stab
him. The defense used by Maria's lawyers was that Domenico made a
practice of seducing women with false promises and that Maria was one
of his victims. Domenico was portrayed as "a gambler, a libertine of
the worst kind."
Judge Goff stated that from the evidence it
appeared that Maria had acted in a fully conscious manner. He asked
the jury not to have mercy on Maria. He said, "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!"
In less than 45 minutes, the jury reached their
verdict: Guilty of murder in the first degree. Maria Barbella became
the first woman in the U.S. to be convicted of murder since the
electric chair became the instrument of capital punishment.
On July 18, 1895, Judge Goff sentenced her to
death--"execution by electricity." Maria was transferred to Sing Sing
Prison, the first female convict held there in 18 years and the first
one on death row. She was a model prisoner. Her case was talked about
nationwide and in Italy. Many people maintained that she should live.
Hundreds of letters were sent to New York's Governor Morton,
criticizing the State for its death sentence.
Countess Cora Savorgnan traveled from Italy to
assist Maria in getting an appeal. On April 16, 1896, the Court of
appeals granted Maria a retrial on the basis of omitted testimony
during her first trial and the lack of Judge Goff's impartiality.
Maria was transferred from Sing Sing back to the Tombs.
Maria's second trial lasted 24 days and her defense
argued that she was an epileptic and had mental problems because of
this condition. She was found not guilty in the second trial. After
her release from prison, Maria married an Italian immigrant named
Francesco Bruno on November 4, 1897. In 1899, she had a son named
Frederick. In 1902, she was living with her parents and her husband
had returned to Italy and remarried. Nothing is known of her life
after this time.
On March 20, 1899, two years and 3 months after
Maria Barbella's acquittal, Martha M. Place, the first woman to die in
the electric chair, was executed at Sing Sing.
(October 24, 1868 - March 20, 1899--last we know of her) was the
first woman sentenced to die in the electric chair. She was
involved in a controversial trial.
Maria Barbella was born in
Ferrandina, Italy. Her family immigrated to Mulberry Bend, New York in
1892. After living in the United States for nearly a year Maria
Barbella met Domenico Cataldo. He was from the same region of
Italy as Maria. She worked in a factory and everyday she would pass by
Cataldo’s shoeshine booth.
They spend lots of time together
and soon the talk of marriage came about. All of these meetings were
kept a secret for Michele Barbella, who was an over protective father.
Michele found out about Domenico
and he forbade Maria from ever seeing or speaking to him again.
Domenico continued to pursue Maria until she finally gave in and
allowed to meet with him again. Maria had very strong morals about
intimacy and marriage.
Cataldo took her to a boarding
house where he got her drunk and took advantage of her. Because of her
virtues Barbella said that they would have to get married to make
He promised they would marry in
several months, but they never did. They continued to have secret
meetings, Maria hoping that he would finally propose. One of those
meetings and the answer she received was the start many problems in
Maria’s “needy” world.
Domenico said he was going back to
Italy so he wouldn’t be able to marry her. Maria was devastated. She
had never felt loved, and know that someone made her feel loved, only
to use her, her self esteem was shattered. Maria told her mother about
Her mother confronted Domenico and
insisted he marry Maria. He said the only way he would do that was if
they paid him $200, money that they didn’t have. After hearing this
Maria stabbed him. On April 27 of 1895 the Times printed a story on
how Maria had cut his throat. This situation had clearly hurt her and
maybe even driven her to insanity.
She was arrested and put in New
York Prison a.k.a the Tombs for 2 ½ months. Her appointed attorneys
were Amos Evans and Henry Sedgwick. The trial began on July 11. This
case stirred up controversy for Italians felt that the verdict was
unjust because there were no Italians on the jury.
She admitted to everything - how
she slit his throat and how he ran after her, but couldn’t reach her
since he dropped dead. Even Judge Goff had mercy for her because he
felt she acted accordingly. He said this because he knew she was
intimidated by Domenico and didn’t know how to handle the situation.
However he felt that the jury should make their decision based on the
guidelines of justice opposed to pity.
The jury’s verdict — guilty.
She was sent to Sing Sing prison where she would be the first woman to
be executed by an electric chair. Many complained to the Governor
about how the situation was handled, but it seemed nothing could be
done. She was granted an appeal in 1896 in which she was suddenly said
to be epileptic and mentally ill because of everything that went on.
She was found not guilty,
remarried and had a son. Her husband left her and remarried in Italy
in 1902. She was the first female convict in 18 years that was sent to
Sing Sing and the first woman to be sentenced to execution by electric
chair. After 1902 nothing is known about her life.
Murder in Little Italy
emigrated from Italy to New York City with her parents in 1892. By
1895 she was in love with Domenico Cateldo 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
April 26, 1895
Location: New York, New York
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.
Domenico gave Maria a drink that was probably
drugged, then took her to his room and had sex with her while she was
unconscious. Disgraced, Maria was ashamed to go home to her parents.
Domenico promised to marry her but first found an apartment where they
could live together. Though Maria would constantly demand that
Domenico honor his promise and marry her, he continually refused.
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
“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
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.
Old World revenge -- 'Only a pig would marry
you,' Domenico Cataldo says to Maria Barbella
David J. Krajicek - NYDailyNews.com
As she walked home from work in the fall of
1893, a seamstress named Maria Barbella developed a habit of dawdling
as she passed a shoeshine booth at Canal and Lafayette Sts. in
Manhattan's Little Italy.
The bootblack, Domenico Cataldo, 27, was an Italian
immigrant, like Barbella and everyone else in the teeming
Cataldo wasn't handsome, with a face mottled with
smallpox scars. But he always paused to greet the shy, plain Barbella
and she blushed at his attention.
When she finally got the gumption to return his
greeting, she learned that they both came from the Basilicata region,
on the ankle of Italy's boot. During their second chat, Cataldo crowed
about his bank balance: $923. He told her, in Italian, "If I find the
right girl, I will marry her."
She nearly fainted at the idea that she might be
that girl. After all, she was pushing 25.
Cataldo began showing up at Barbella's clothing
factory, Louis Graner & Co., on Broadway near Spring St., to walk her
She lived with her parents on Elizabeth St. near
the Mulberry Bend slum. They had been in America only a year and held
fast to Old World etiquette. They were eager to meet Cataldo, but the
quirky suitor always had an excuse for failing to walk Barbella all
the way to her door.
Barbella soon began to feel sexual pressure from
Cataldo, who liked to paw at her petticoats. She confided in her
parents and they forbade her to see him again unless he proposed
She began taking a different route to work. Months
went by, but one day in March 1895 Barbella found Cataldo standing
outside her factory again. When she brushed past him, he said, "I will
She raced home to tell her parents.
A few days later, on March 28, the couple stopped
at a bar on Chrystie St. Cataldo fetched Barbella a soda and the room
began to spin when she drank it.
In a haze, she was led upstairs. Later, she awoke
in a bloody bed with Cataldo seated beside her. He congratulated her
for her virgin purity.
Barbella was overwhelmed with shame. She told him
her reputation was ruined and she could not return to her parents.
Cataldo promised to find them a place. She said, "Marry me first." He
gritted his teeth.
They moved into a room on E. 13th St., where each
day began and ended with an argument over marriage. She insisted on
legitimacy and he put her off.
Finally, during yet another quarrel on April 20, he
admitted that he would never marry her. She was crushed.
On April 26, Barbella and her mother confronted
Cataldo at Mancuso's saloon on E. 13th St.
Filomeno Barbella gave him an earful. "How can you
be so deaf to your own people's customs?" she told him in Italian.
"Marry her or she'll never be able to hold her head up again!"
Cataldo teased that he would marry Maria if her
parents paid him $200 - a fortune for poor immigrants. As the mother
stormed away, Maria stepped close to the cad and asked, one last time,
whether she would be his wife.
HE REPLIED, "Only a pig would marry you."
With that, the young woman pulled a straight razor
from her sleeve and dragged it across Cataldo's throat. He stood and
staggered out the door, leaving a ribbon of blood down E. 13th before
falling dead at the corner of Avenue A.
Maria Barbella, charged with murder, got little
sympathy. On trial that July, Judge John Goff guaranteed her
conviction by telling the jury, "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 convicted her and Goff condemned her to
die - the first woman sentenced to the electric chair.
New York's yellow press cheered the verdict,
mocking Barbella's broken-English version of Cataldo's final insult:
"Say me pig marry!"
"This is the United States and not Italy," lectured
the Brooklyn Eagle, "and Italians who come here must learn that the
stiletto and the razor as instruments of justice are under ban."
But as she awaited her fate at Sing Sing, Barbella
gained an advocate. Cora Slocomb, an American who had married an
Italian nobleman, was moved to tears when she saw a story about the
conviction while in Italy. The Countess di Brazza hurried to New York
She hired Frederick House, a respected attorney, to
mount an appeal and she organized a clemency campaign that flooded
Gov. Levi Morton with letters. Women's rights activists, including
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, joined the cause.
The Court of Appeals ordered a new trial based upon
Judge Goff's impartiality. The second proceeding in December 1896 had
a much different tone. The new judge allowed testimony sympathetic to
Barbella, including nine days of medical witnesses who documented a
history of epilepsy in her family.
Attorney House argued that Barbella had killed
Cataldo while blinded by a seizure brought on by the cad's "pig" quip.
He dismissed Cataldo as a "lascivious libertine" whom "the city will
The jury voted to acquit and Barbella walked free.
She soon married and had a son, attaining the legitimacy she yearned
for. Barbella slipped into obscurity and lived the rest of her days
outside the headlines.
Ed. Note: The full story of
Maria Barbella's life, murder conviction and court battle and the
19th-century socialite Cora Slocomb who helped save her from the
electric chair is told in author Idanna Pucci's 1997 book "The Trials
of Maria Barbella." The book is being made into a film produced by