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Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Parricide - The first woman in Canada to use the battered woman defence
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: April 16, 1911
Date of arrest: Same day
Date of birth: 1882
Victim profile: Pietro Napolitano (her abusive husband)
Method of murder: Beating with an axe
Location: Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada
Status: Sentenced to death on May 9, 1911. Commuted by the federal cabinet to life imprisonment on July 14, 1911. Eleven years later, on 30 Dec. 1922, she was granted parole from Kingston Penitentiary

Angelina Napolitano or Angelina Neapolitano (1882-1932) was an immigrant to Canada who murdered her abusive husband in 1911, igniting a public debate about domestic violence and the death penalty. She was the first woman in Canada to use the battered woman defence on a murder charge. In 2005, the story of her marriage and dramatic trial was turned into an award-winning independent film, Looking for Angelina.

Early life and marriage

Angelina was born in Italy in about 1883, probably in a small town not too far from Naples. Her family name is not known. She married Pietro Napolitano about 1898 and the couple emigrated to America shortly after the turn of the century. They lived in New York City for seven years and moved to Canada in 1909 – first to Thessalon, Ontario, then to Sault Ste. Marie, where there was a sizable Italian immigrant community. The couple had four children.

The Napolitano marriage was violent; Pietro beat and threatened his wife. In November 1910, he attacked her with a pocket knife, wounding her nine times in the face, neck, shoulder, chest and arms and leaving scars. He was charged with assault, but received a suspended sentence.


As the winter of 1910–1911 continued, Pietro, who worked on and off as a labourer, began to pressure Angelina to earn money (to build the family a house) by prostitution. On April 16, 1911, Easter Sunday, when Angelina was six months pregnant, Pietro told her to go out and make money through sex or he would beat her, kill her, or kill her unborn child. He was going to sleep and she had until he woke to get some money.

That afternoon, as Pietro slept in their top-floor apartment on James Street, Angelina took an axe and hit him four times in the neck and head, killing him. She immediately sought out a neighbour and confessed, adding "I just killed a pig,", then waited for the police to come. They found her with her arms wrapped around her youngest child, and charged her with murder.


The trial began on Monday, May 8, 1911, in Sault Ste. Marie, with Justice Byron Moffatt Britton presiding and Edmund Meredith as the crown attorney. When the court realized that Angelina didn’t have a lawyer, the trial was adjourned for a day to allow the court-appointed lawyer, Uriah McFadden, to prepare a case.

When the trial resumed on Tuesday, May 9, Meredith called nine witnesses to testify to Angelina’s guilt. McFadden called only Angelina herself, who didn’t speak English well. McFadden’s case rested on what was essentially the battered woman defence; he argued that Pietro’s abuse had forced a desperate Angelina to murder, and cited the November stabbing. Britton, however, ruled the incident inadmissible evidence, arguing that “if anybody injured six months ago could give that as justification or excuse for slaying a person, it would be anarchy complete.”

The jury returned a guilty verdict. The trial had lasted only three hours. Although the jury recommended clemency, Britton sentenced her to hang. The execution was scheduled for August 9, one month after Angelina’s due date.

Reaction and aftermath

Once the story hit the newspapers, however, a media frenzy began – not just in Sault Ste. Marie, but especially in the United States and even Europe. Though some of the coverage was negative, arguing from racist stereotypes that Angelina, as an Italian, was a “hot-blooded foreigner” and deserved to pay the penalty for her crime, most of it revolved around those sympathetic to the abuse she had suffered, and agitating for her sentence to be commuted to jail time or even a pardon.

The federal minister of justice, Sir Allen Bristol Aylesworth, received many letters from individuals (including McFadden), as well as petitions organized by groups in Sault Ste Marie, Toronto, New York, Chicago, England, Austria, and Poland. A doctor in Ohio, Dr. Alexander Aalto, even offered to be hanged in Angelina’s stead, saying: “It would only be fair to Mrs. Napolitano for a man to give his life for her, inasmuch as her life is in peril on account of a man's persecution of her, and because men condemned her.”

Dr. Aalto’s remarks reflect a theme among Angelina’s supporters, who included women in the fledgling feminist movement. These early feminists argued that Pietro’s beatings meant the murder was in self-defence, and that Britton was being sexist when he threw out the evidence of abuse. The British suffragette journal "Common Cause" excoriated not only the law that had condemned Angelina, but also the justice system that upheld it as “both bad, for they are exclusively masculine.”

Other arguments presented in the letters included the idea (put forward by the area’s MP, Arthur Cyril Boyce) that Angelina must be not guilty because her pregnancy made her temporarily insane, the idea that Angelina should be praised for taking the life of a sexually immoral man, and the argument that Angelina’s fear of her impending doom would adversely affect her unborn baby, therefore she should be pardoned. This last was a common psychological view at the time.

Whether any of these arguments had an impact, the federal cabinet eventually did commute Angelina’s sentence to life imprisonment on July 14, 1911.

Angelina’s later life is not well known. She did give birth, but the baby died within a few weeks. Her older children were placed in foster homes. She was granted parole on December 30, 1922, after serving 11 years at Kingston Penitentiary. Angelina reportedly died on September 4, 1932 at the Hotel Dieu Hospital in Frontenac County, Ontario.


In 2003, independent film director Sergio Navarretta began researching Angelina’s life for a documentary, but expanded the project into a feature film “once we realized how dramatic the facts were.” The film, Looking for Angelina, was shot in two weeks in 2004 at Sault Ste. Marie, on a shoestring budget of $250,000. The writers, Alessandra Piccione and Frank Canino, took inspiration from Canino’s play "The Angelina Project". Lina Giornofelice starred as Angelina, with Alvaro D’Antonio playing Pietro. For authenticity, large parts of the film are in period-correct Italian with English subtitles.

The film showed at the Montreal World Film Festival, Cinéfest in Sudbury, Quitus Italian Film Festival in Montreal, Shadows of the Mind Festival in Sault Ste Marie, the International Film Festival of India, Cimameriche Film Festival in Genoa and the Mumbai International Film Festival. “In general,” said director Navaretta, “audiences have responded to the film on an emotional level, empathizing with the journey of [the characters].” "Looking For Angelina" won three awards: A Special Recognition at the Cimameriche Film Festival and Best Feature (Drama) and Quitus Award of Distinction at the Quitus Film Festival in Montreal.


NAPOLITANO (Neapolitano), ANGELINA, home-maker and convicted murderer; b. c. 1883 near Naples (Italy); nothing is known of her baptismal name or parents; m. 1898 Pietro Napolitano; d. in or after 1924.

On the afternoon of Easter Sunday, 16 April 1911, in the upper flat of a house in the immigrant quarter of Sault Ste Marie, Ont., Angelina Napolitano, 28 and pregnant, killed her husband. As he slept, she struck him four times on the neck and head with an axe. After calling a neighbour to tell him what she had done, she waited for the police, hugging the youngest of her four children. Angelina had been born in a rural town near Naples and, following a seven-year stay in New York City, had come to Ontario with Pietro in 1909. They lived first in Thessalon and then moved to the Sault. Two years later Angelina was charged with murder.

At her trial in the town’s district court, on 8–9 May 1911, justice Byron Moffatt Britton presided. The crown attorney was Edmund Meredith. Uriah McFadden became Angelina’s lawyer only after proceedings began on the 8th and it was revealed that she had no counsel. Court was then adjourned until the next morning so a defence could be prepared. Nine witnesses testified for the crown; Napolitano was the only witness for the defence. She was convicted. The jury recommended clemency but Britton sentenced her to hang – on 9 August, to allow her time to give birth.

Why did Angelina kill Pietro? The evidence strongly suggests that she had become terrified of a violent husband bent on forcing her into prostitution. An underemployed labourer, he had wanted money to build a house. At the trial it was revealed that Angelina’s face, neck, and shoulder had been disfigured in November 1910, when he knifed her nine times. Charged with assault, he had received a suspended sentence. The abuse continued, and on the fateful day he had again told Angelina to prostitute herself or, as she put it, “be a bad woman.” If she did not have money for him when he woke up, he threatened to beat or kill her.

At the trial McFadden argued that Angelina had been provoked into murder by her husband’s abuse, most notably when he had stabbed her the previous year. But the judge ruled such evidence inadmissible, saying that "if anybody injured six months ago could give that as justification or excuse for slaying a person, it would be anarchy complete." In an era before a history of abuse was admissible, Britton’s interpretation was reasonable though not generous.

The case produced enormous debate. Among Angelina’s critics were bigots who depicted the murder as proof of the danger posed by “foreigners.” A columnist quoted in the Sault Star drew on contemporary racist stereotypes, calling southern Italians “hot-blooded” foreigners who “are all too ready as it is to use the knife, the pistol, or any other weapon that lies at hand, as a means of redressing real or fancied wrongs.” Another article in the paper argued that Angelina deserved to die because she was immoral, making much of the fact that for a brief period when Pietro was out of town she had permitted a man to board with her.

Many people took up her cause, and a campaign was launched to have her sentence commuted to a prison term. A flood of letters and petitions arrived in the office of the federal minister of justice, Sir Allen Bristol Aylesworth*, among them lengthy petitions organized by individuals and groups from Sault Ste Marie, Toronto, New York, New Orleans, and Chicago, as well as England, Austria, and Poland. Italians in the Sault were relatively quiet – the Sault Star claimed they were against Angelina – but many in Toronto, Montreal, Chicago, and New York, especially leftists, joined the campaign. So did McFadden and other Anglo-Canadians, including a men’s Bible group. Supporters asked the government to acknowledge Angelina’s history of abuse and spare her life; a few even demanded a pardon. Some of the loudest voices were those of Canadian, American, and British feminists who, in agitating for the vote, had become seasoned lobbyists. Indeed, the presence of an international women’s movement helps account for the sustained publicity the case received. Various feminists stressed that the beatings had constituted sufficient provocation and that Angelina had acted in self-defence. The judge’s rejection of this argument, they added, revealed sexist codes. As the suffrage journal Common Cause (London) declared, the law and its administration “are both bad” for “they are exclusively masculine.”

Other petitioners held Angelina up as a courageous woman who had rid the earth of a lout. “The taking of a corrupt life of her wicked husband was not even murder” but a “dreadful loathsome duty,” wrote one woman from England, because it “delivers of the race from loathsome ulcers.” “The world,” she concluded, “needs such heroines to lift it out of the foul rut in which it lies today,” for the “rut of immorality” was “a far worse crime than murder!” Such comments are best understood in the context of the sexual politics of early feminism, which subscribed to popular, though erroneous, stereotypes of the propensity among “foreign” men for violence and sexual immorality.

Some argued that Angelina should be granted clemency to save her unborn child from harm. This reasoning was based on the view, also current at the time, that a foetus could suffer psychological damage because of its mother’s agitated state. The Toronto Suffrage Association warned that “every additional hour spent by her [Napolitano] in the condition of terror, anticipating her execution” would “react in a deleterious manner upon her unborn innocent child.” (Tragically, the baby would die a few weeks after birth.) Others, including Arthur Cyril Boyce, the mp for Algoma West, even claimed that Angelina’s pregnancy had produced temporary insanity – an extreme version of the notion that pregnancy could produce an unbalanced emotional or mental state.

On 14 July 1911 Angelina’s sentence was commuted by the federal cabinet to life imprisonment. Eleven years later, on 30 Dec. 1922, she was granted parole from Kingston Penitentiary. From prison she had tried to contact her children, who had been placed in foster homes, but it remains unknown whether she ever saw them again. The trail ends after she left Kingston in the spring of 1924.

Franca Iacovetta -

The sources for this article may be found in Karen Dubinsky and Franca Iacovetta, “Murder, womanly virtue, and motherhood: the case of Angelina Napolitano, 1911–1922,” CHR, 72 (1991): 505–31.




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