Friday, January 30, 2015

 Murder - Passion
Book Report - "The Trials of Maria Barbella"

Here is a report on a fascinating book written by Idanna Pucci.  This true story is about the infamous Maria Barbella, who in 1895 slit her lover's throat and was sentenced to be the first woman to be executed in the newly invented electric chair.  She is rescued by a wealthy Italian countess, however, and the story delivers a healthy dose of Italian culture and immigrant history.  

Those of you who have read my book, "1800 Kilometers in a Fiat 500", know the importance I place on history and culture in the practice of Italian genealogy.  Idanna's book is loaded with both.  I highly recommend reading her masterful story.  It should be available at your local library.

Here is my review of this book. 

The Trials of Maria Barbella by Idanna Pucci

I first discovered Maria Barbella several years ago. I had just googled my name, in search of potential family members, and to my surprise, several of the top search engine hits had to do with this woman, Maria Barbella (see; I quickly learned that she was the first woman to be sentenced to die in the recently invented electric chair at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, NY.

All of a sudden, I thought I had discovered just why it was that my own Mom and Dad never talked about the Barbella family to their children.

Some months later I learned about Idanna Pucci's book, The Trials of Maria Barbella. I couldn't wait to get a copy from the local library. When the book finally came, I was treated to much more than a story about the Barbella family. Indeed, Idanna captured not only the story, but a vivid picture of the conditions in which our immigrant relatives lived at the turn of the 20th century.

In telling this story, Idanna Pucci bridges the rich and the poor; she takes us from 1890s New York to Italy; she details how Italians clung to their beliefs here in the USA. She tells the story, not only of Maria Barbella, but of her own great grandmother, the American born Countess Cora Slocomb di Brazza.

Maria Barbella had immigrated to America with her parents in the late 1800s. Like most immigrant families, the Barbellas were poor, and all had to work to eke out their meager existence. Maria was a seamstress, and unfortunately got herself mixed up with the local shoe shine man, Domenico Cataldo.

Domenico seduced Maria, but promised to marry her shortly. Little did Maria know that Domenico's wife and children were still living in Italy. When it became evident that Domenico had no intention of marrying her, a wall of shame surrounded and stiffled her. She took a razor from Domenico's apartment and went to the bar where he was playing cards. She slit his throat and rather than watch him slowly die, she calmly returned to the apartment.

Maria was arrested tried and convicted.

Artist rendition of Maria Barbella

Meanwhile in Italy, the Countess di Brazza read newspaper accounts of the trial with uncommon interest. When Maria was found guilty and sentenced to die in the electric chair, the Countess took action. She sympathized with Maria. She intuitively realized that Maria's inability to speak English was working against her. Cora Slocomb sailed to New York, and she used her money and considerable influence to force a retrial.

I will let you read the book to determine the outcome of that second trial.

I learned many things from reading this book. I learned about the conditions our ancestors lived in. I learned about the enormous obstacle illiteracy posed these pioneers of our heritage. I gained insight into the “Italian mindset”, and Italian customs and traditions. I found this book so satisfying that I purchased several copies, and handed them out to my cousins.

I highly recommend this book. I believe you will enjoy the story.

Peter Barbella (@figliodiSassano)

Postnote:  The book explains that Maria and her family came from the small town of Ferandino, in Southern Italy.  It is some 50 kilometers east of Sassano, where my great grandfather was born.   One of my goals, for a future date, will be tracing our families to see if there is a connection.  It will be a difficult task, but the Barbella name is fairly uncommon, and you never know.  Thanks for reading.

1 comment:

  1. I had to read this post with a title like that! Fascinating story.