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.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Off The AutoStrada

Now that we have completed the excerpts from my book, "1800 Kilometers in a Fiat 500", this blog will concentrate more on things Italian; the country, the people, the history, the culture and Italian genealogy.  Enjoy this episode, a ride through the countryside in the mezzogiorno.

Many of Italy's roads are similar to American roads.  The AutoStradas are wonderful and the highways are quite acceptable.  The country roads are something else.

We present, here, a video of the back road from the commune of Padula to the commune of Sassano.  Here's how we came to this road.

We had spent a few hours at the Museum of Surnames in Padula, Salerno, Campania, Italy.  This surprising find was tucked away in a most implausible location in the old part of Padula, another hillside commune.  There we found one of Italy's most enthusiastic genealogists, Michele Cartusciello.

We left the museum and made a very short visit to a monastery, San Lorenzo.  Because we were short on time, we did not do the monastery justice.  So we got in the Fiat and drove back to Sassano.

Monastery of San Lorenzo - Padula, Salerno, Campania

Driving through the countryside is not like anything I have experienced in good old "Stati Uniti".  First off, the dirt road was barely wide enough for one car.   You felt as though you could reach out your window and knock on the doors of the farmhouses we passed.  There were loose animals everywhere.  It was quite an experience.  Press the play button and see for yourself.

Listen to the soothing hum of the Fiat's diesel engine and watch all those farmhouses go by.

Buona Salute a tutti

#genealogy   #Italy    #Mezzogiorno

Monday, January 19, 2015

Back to Rome,
One night in a "No Tell" hotel,
and Home Sweet Home

In this post we visit an old friend in Sulmona, and drive to the outskirts of Rome for our last evening in Italy. We get our Fiat safely back to the airport, fly home, and reflect on our wonderful adventure and great genealogical finds, summarized below.

Today we woke up with mixed feelings of nostalgia and anticipation. We have been away for a while and it will be good to return home, yet we have been on an incredible adventure and it will be sad to see it end. Brunetta and Bepe prepared another wonderful breakfast for us, and we sat for a while enjoying the beautiful view of the Adriatic. We bid farewell to our hosts and set off towards Rome, to visit with old friends.

Our Hosts at Rifugiomare, Brunetta and Bepe

We first met our old friends, Italian natives, Peter and Anna Ventresca in our small hometown of Littleton, Massachusetts, many years ago. Peter and I were co-workers in the same company. Peter retired to Italy, and settled into his home town.  We were delighted to have the opportunity to see him and Anna again. We made arrangements, by email, to visit them in their newly constructed home close to the village of Sulmona. Sulmona is about half way between Chieti and Rome so this was a convenient stop for us.

Castello di Ventresca

Peter had told us to set our GPS to Vallelarga, another small village. So we did. The ride across Italy was wonderful. There were many snow capped mountains in view and once we left the autostrada, the road seemed to blend into the countryside. We were approaching the village and I began to wonder how I would actually find Peter's home from wherever the GPS landed us. I didn't need to worry.  When the GPS said, “arriving at destination”, I stopped the car. I looked around at all the old homes searching for someone to ask for help, and then, on a corner not 100 yards away, there was Peter, standing in the sunshine waiting for us to arrive.

Peter led us to his home which is, to say the least, quite a magnificent palace. Peter showed us the grounds, including his handmade rock garden maps of Italy and Massachusetts. He showed us all the rooms inside. He showed us the outdoor kitchen that was being finished by several workers.

the outdoor kitchen

Then, Peter and Anna took us on a tour of the village of Sulmona. There we came to a very extensive open market. We saw an example of an original Roman aqueduct, and many other very old structures. Then we were treated to lunch at a very nice restaurant.

Open Market in Sulmona - aqueduct in background

We returned to their home and had a wonderful time catching up on news. Finally, we bid farewell to our friends who got in their car to lead us in a convoy to the highway to Rome.

friends reunited in Sulmona

The ride to Rome became more and more hectic as we got nearer and nearer. Sophia (our GPS) let us down a few times, but we recovered and eventually found our way to the village of Frascati, to find our final B&B(?). This turned out to not be the best choice for our last evening. We picked Il Paradiso from a google map because it was outside the madhouse of Rome yet an easy shot to the airport in the morning.

Il Paradiso, Frascati Italy

What we didn't know was that at Il Paradiso the rooms were located directly over a pizzeria and pool hall. To put it nicely, this wasn't the best room we had on our trip, but the shower was spacious, and we managed to get a little sleep.

In the morning, we had our free continental breakfast and then completed the most harrowing drive of our trip; the ride to the airport. We successfully delivered the car to the Hertz lot, and then had about a three hour wait for our Alitalia jet back to Boston.

We collapsed into the chairs at the gate and nearly fell asleep as we reflected on where we had been and what we had accomplished.

I love it when a plan comes together

  • We met and received great help from an accomplished genealogist, Joe DeSimone.
  • We met our facebook cousin Pelligrino Mascolo and had a wonderful dinner with his parents
  • We saw two old family churches
  • We collected several family records at the Avellino Archivio di Stato.

Morte in Avella

  • We found the Sassano cemetery
  • We made friends while touring the old town built on a mountain
  • We met with Don Otello and found a remarkable marriage certificate, in Latin
  • We visited the Museum Del Cognome in Padula and met with Mormon genealogist Michele Carasciello
  • We retrieved several records from the Ufficio di Anagrafe
  • We met with Facebook cousin Oreste Barbella and his family

1734 Matrimony

Palo Del Colle
  • We attended a festival and toured the city with, now lifelong friend, facebook cousin Vito Tricarico
  • We saw the Palo del Colle cemetery
  • We got a personal tour of Bitonto and Bari with Domenico Tricarico
  • We met a real cousin, Angela Lattanzio
  • We retrieved some useful records from the Trani Archivio di Stato

Meeting cousin Angela

  • We saw ancestral churches
  • We saw ancestral streets
  • We were shown Foglios di Famiglia by a wonderful clerk in the Vasto Ufficio di Anagrafe
  • We found more records in the Chieti Archivio di Stato
  • We learned how to make “Wine Cookies”

Foglio di Famiglia

Put all this together with making dozens of new friends, visiting old friends, and seeing so many wonderful sights and you might gain a sense of how satisfied we are.

We landed in Boston and went quickly through customs. There at the luggage carousel was our daughter, waiting to bring us “Home Sweet Home”. We were certainly glad to get home, however, I must admit that now, as I write these final words some two months after our trip, a piece of my heart is still in Italy and I'm not at all certain that it will ever return.

We hope that this blog has inspired some of you.  We also want to make ourselves freely available to offer advice and encouragement to any of you that may have questions.  Our email is  Thank you for reading.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Merry Christmas from the Salerno Police

In  this blog, we are going to digress just a little from the main story of our genealogy trip.  We are going to talk about our disastrous visit to the city of Salerno.  

In our book, we have a chapter about this calamity.  It is described there in some detail.  We did not include it in the blog because, I believe, we were trying to wipe the memory from our minds.  It was an extremely trying day.  This is, indeed, one of the failures of our trip (and cause for a return visit to make corrections).

Recent developments, over the Christmas holiday, have caused me to include this incident here and now.   Read on!  

Part of our trip plan was to visit the Archivio di Stato in Salerno. This archive holds notary records, military records and civil records above and beyond the microfilm records that we have already seen.  We wanted to explore some of their resources.  Perhaps more important, we wanted to personally thank Doctor Fernanda Maria Volpe.  This archivist went out of her way to uncover a marriage allegati for us, and the information in this document was priceless.  It put us back another generation.  We were even carrying a gift for her to show our appreciation.  The meeting never occurred. 

In Salerno, we wound up driving our FIAT into a restricted zone .  It was a zone in which automobiles were not allowed.  With great difficulty, we managed to extract ourselves from this zone without being arrested.  When I got out of the "no car" section without sirens blaring behind me, I thought I was home free.


The book describes our failure to locate the Archivio di Stato or even find a place to park the FIAT.  It does not mention the traffic violation that resulted from our transgression into the restricted zone.  It seems that the police have cameras everywhere.

About three months after we returned from Italy, I noticed an unexpected charge on my American Express Bill.  It came from the Hertz rental company and had something to do with a charge in Europe.

I was indignant at the 40 something euro charge.  I had already payed my rental bill, in full.  So I asked Hertz what right they had to tag extra charges on my bill after the fact.  They claimed that the charge was there because the car was caught on camera by the Salerno poliziotto in a restricted zone.  

Well, I thought, 40 euros is about $60.  I know that I was indeed guilty.  I was in a restricted zone, and if I ever want to go back to Italy, I should should accept the charge.  I would just let Hertz pay the fine.  

Wait a minute!  Hertz told me that the 40 euros doesn't cover the fine.  That was simply the administrative charge for them to complete the paperwork with the Salerno Police.  I would receive another notice, at a later date, directly from the Police.

What?  Sixty dollars just to tell the police my name and address?  I didn't like it, but I paid up, and then waited for the other shoe to drop.  I waited and I waited and I waited.  I had visions of the Salerno poliziotto watching me, on camera, trying extricate myself from the alley I got stuck in and laughing uncontrollably at my plight.

Sometime around the beginning of December, I had convinced myself that I would never get a letter from Salerno.  After all, it was 8 months now.  But on December 23 I had a dream that the letter would arrive in the mail the next day with a few Christmas Cards.  You can guess what we received in the Christmas Eve mail.  It didn't even say buon Natale.

Merry Christmas

To their credit, everything was computerized.  I was able to pay the 100 euro fine on the web.  I'm guessing that the police send out a lot of these fines.

What I'm wondering is, "Do they have a sick enough sense of humor to make the fines appear on Christmas Eve?"

Next time, we will find a train station and take a train into Salerno Centro. (Otteniamo troppo presto vecchio, e troppo tardi intelligente.)

Next, and final, post.  A visit with old friends in Sulmona, and a hectic ride to Frascati, for our last B&B (???), Il Paradiso, on the outskirts of Rome.  We reflect on our trip and summarize some of our findings.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Research in Vasto and Chieti

This is a continuing saga of our research trip to Southern Italy in search of ancestral data.  In this post, we get outstanding assistance from a town official in Vasto, and once again are received as "royalty" in an Archivio di Stato;  this time in Chieti.
This is our 10th post. 

This morning we woke up to face a day with a very ambitious schedule.  We had plans to drive 20 miles south to the village of Vasto and look for records in the Ufficio di Anagrafe.  Then we were going to drive 40 miles north to the Archivio di Stato in the city of Chieti.  We would return to our B&B that evening.  We finalized our plans over a very good breakfast.

Ummm!  Italian Blood Orange Juice

The drive south was scenic and uneventful.  The village, on the Adriatic, was very busy with traffic but we found our way to the city hall and we found a parking garage to rest the car.  We entered the Anagrafe office and found a very long line.  We waited for about forty minutes and eventually we got to speak with the official.  We told him we would like to see records of the Decristofaro family.  We showed him our family tree.  

With one eye on the long line behind us, the clerk asked if we would mind coming back at noon.  He said he could help us then.  

Old Vasto

Somewhat skeptical about the clerk, we said we would be back.  Then we set out for our next goal, locating our ancestral church, San Giuseppe.  With the help of a passerby, we discovered that the church was within a few yards.  We were in the old part of town, and all the old buildings around us made a stark contrast with the modern city hall and the busy city street just behind us.

We approached the church and found the door open.  There was a cleaning crew there, and they allowed us in to look around.

Chiesa di San Giuseppe
After viewing the church, we decided to try to find strada San Francesco Di Assisi.  This was an address on some of the documents I had previously found.   I took a seat on a bench with some fine young gentlemen and managed to get directions to the street.

Can you pick out the "Americani"?
We took in the sights, visited the street, and found another church, the chiesa di San Francesco Di Assisi.  This church was also open and quite a sight to behold.  While I was there I found a family name, Trivelli, imprinted on one of the pews.  Oh how I wished I had time to look this particular family up.  Perhaps this will give me a reason to come back.

Chiesa di San Francesco Di Assisi
After this, it was time to return to the Anagrafe Office.  I must admit, I was not expecting to find any useful information from the clerk there.  Although we had shown him a picture of our family tree, we thought his mind was more on the long line of people waiting for service.  To make matters worse, my grandmother's name, Decristofaro, was akin to the name Smith in the US.  

Well, were we in for a big surprise!

A segment of the Foglio di Famiglia
When we went back to the office, the clerk took us into a back room and he produced two "family foglios" of the Decristofaro family.  Somehow, out of all the Decristofaros in Vasto, he had managed to find the exact families of my direct descendants.

The family foglio is like a census with names of the parents, the children, their birth dates, their death dates, their occupations, and more.  It simply reeks of valuable data.  I couldn't have misjudged this clerk more.  He had the family foglio for my grandfather and my great grandfather.  

What a find.  I couldn't believe my luck.  We took photos of all the information and thanked the clerk, but he was not interested in remuneration.  Sitting here now, I'm wondering if this clerk knew a lot more about this particular family.  I regret not quizzing him more thoroughly, but he was, indeed, a very busy clerk, yet, somehow, I believe he knows a lot more about "my" Decristofaros than I had thought.  Even more, I regret not getting his name and email.

On our way out of town, a miracle occurred.  All of this time in Italy, we have been pleased with every aspect of our trip, except the awful coffee they drink.  That problem was alleviated in a small way when Gay spotted a McDonald's on the road.  We each enjoyed a cup of real coffee, and then it was on to Chieti.

Real Coffee
 In Chieti, we made our way through the busy streets to the Archivio di Stato.  There, once again we were treated as royalty.  Here we found several new records and we got a tour of their impressive facility.  They have over 16 kilometers of bookshelves stored in a temperature controlled environment. 

Research at the Chieti Archivio Di Stato
 When we had concluded our business, the staff encouraged us to visit the Constantine Barbella Museum of Art in the center of the town, but once again, we were stymied by busy narrow streets and no available parking.  (Mental note to self: we must learn more about public transportation in Italian cities.)

This book will be on my Christmas wish list
 We drove back to our B&B and enjoyed a wonderful dinner there.  Later we relaxed with our hosts and got to know each other a little better.  Bepe took us to the back yard to show us a spectacular night time show being put on by an army of Italian fireflies.  There were thousands of the creatures and the light show was marvelous.

With that, we retired for the evening.  Night time thoughts focused on our final adventure; getting back to Rome for the flight home.

There are many more stories and bits of information about our trip in our book, "1800 Kilometers in a Fiat 500" available by clicking the link below. 

Next, and final, post.  A visit with old friends in Sulmona, and a hectic ride to Frascati, for our last B&B (???), Il Paradiso, on the outskirts of Rome.  We reflect on our trip and summarize some of our findings.

Friday, January 2, 2015

More Research in Trani, and off to Chieti

This is a continuing saga of our research trip to Southern Italy in search of ancestral data.  In this post, we get one more surprise visitor, say good by to the farm in Palo del Colle, and begin our journey north to Chieti.  First, we stop in the village of Trani for a little research at their Archivio di Stato
This is the 9th installment

Oh no!  Not again!  Yesterday we walked at least 1000 miles through the streets of Bitonto and Bari.  We're dead tired and there goes that blasted donkey again, at 5:00 AM.  Couldn't he let us sleep in just one day?  But just look at him.  How could you possibly be angry at a face like that? 

We got up and washed and immediately began fretting about how we were going to get back to civilization from the farm.  There were not enough uneaten breadcrumbs to mark the path to the town.  The GPS had not a clue as to where we were.  Oh bother!

Down to breakfast for one last time and again we feasted on the fresh eggs from the farm.

We were mentally plotting our departure in the lobby when unannounced, in walks Domenico Tricarico, our guide from yesterday.  Domenico must have seen the glazed look in my eyes as he was drawing his "exit" map and trying to explain to us how to get on the road to Trani, the night before.  He decided to come and personally lead us out to a main road and show us the highway to Trani.  And so, we bid farewell to Marie and her husband, got in the car, and began to follow Domenico through the back country roads, to a fairly major highway.  There, we said farewell and we were off to Trani.

An angel shows us the way to our next stop
 You should understand that the Archivio di Stato for the province of Bari is in the city of Bari.  However, they have a branch archive in the small commune of Trani, some 20 miles north of Bari.  The records for Palo del Colle are kept in Trani.  Since we missed our opportunity to go to the Ufficio Di Anagrafe in Palo del Colle, we wanted to spend some time in Trani before we made our way to our next destination near the commune of Vasto.

Trani is an amazingly clean looking commune right on the coast of the Adriatic.  The incredibly blue sky made the whiteness of the buildings seem even whiter.

A church in Trani with a bright blue sky background
 We parked in a small piazza and walked a short distance to the Archivio.  There we were greeted, almost like royalty.  You develop a distinct impression that the clerks here don't see too many "Americani" searching for "dead people".

Lots of help at the Archivio di Stato
We spent several hours in Trani, and photographed a few more interesting documents.  If it weren't for the fact that most of the Palo records are available on line, we might have stayed longer.  

Archivio di Stato, Bari - Sessione Trani

We said arivederci and began our trip north to the commune of Rocco San Giovanni.  This is a village on the Adriatic coast which lies almost halfway between Vasto and Chieti, two important destinations for our research activities.  Vasto is the home of my paternal grandmother.  

The ride was scenic, but otherwise uneventful.  We stopped at an Auto Grill for some lunch.  When we got to our destination (close to the village of Lanciano) our GPS ordered us to ascend a very steep and very narrow road.  We were having apoplexy as it seemed we were driving straight up, at a 90 degree angle.  Eventually, we stumbled upon our hidden B&B, and what a magnificent surprise.  

Rifugiomare is a B&B high up on a mountainside, overlooking the Adriatic Sea.  The view was simply amazing.  The building was constructed on two levels.  The main house and the lounging area were on the upper level.  The rooms were on the lower level, underneath a grassy patio area.  From both levels there was a breathtaking view of the sea, and it seemed so close that it felt like you could touch the water.

The Rifugiomare Lounge
We settled into our very spacious and very comfortable room (with a walk in shower).  We climbed to the upper level and sat down in the lounge to catch up on our emails and other internet activities.  Our hostess, Brunetta, brought us some (American coffee) and introduced us to Wine Cookies.  

Fish - Adriatic Style
We did some planning for our next day and then went down the mountain to a seaside restaurant.  We had pasta and fish.  Eating fish from the Adriatic, Italian style was a new experience for us.  It was hard work breaking all those shells, but the food was delicious.

Beach in front of the Restaurant
We took a little walk on the beach after dinner, and then we went back to the B&B.  We met Brunetta's husband, Bepe, and had some coffee and more wine cookies.  We capped the evening with a little limoncello and slept soundly.

There are many more stories and bits of information in the book, "1800 Kilometers in a Fiat 500" available by clicking the link below.

Next Post:  More fabulous genealogical finds - A trip to the Vasto Ufficio di Anagrafe and to the Archivio di Stato in Chieti.

Wine Cookies:
3 Cups of flour
1 Cup of Sugar
1 Cup of wine (red or white)
1 cup of olive oil (maybe a little less)
1 teaspoon of baking powder
Mix the ingredients into a pasty dough
shape into small meatball size balls
Roll in sugar
bake at 375 for 20 minutes