Grandma Cora di Brazzà (1862 – 1944 )

her battle for female emancipation –
 the first campaign against the death sentence.[1]

  On 26th April 1985, over breakfast, in the di Brazzà household, my father’s grandmother (Nonna) Cora Slocomb di Brazzà, read out a short article from the New York Times entitled “Killed for refusing to marry her; a young woman, Maria Barbella (otherwise known as Maria Barberi), cuts Domenico Cataldo’s throat”. Maria was a young Italian girl from Ferrandina (Basilicata), who had only recently arrived on Ellis Island, and had found work as a seamstress in the Louis Graner cloak factory, New York. Domenico Cataldo, the man who had seduced her, was a shoemaker from a different town, Chiaromonte, in the same region. Cora commented “Another poor Italian emigrant at the mercy of the American courts”. Driven by the code of honour so typical of her origins, Maria had allegedly approached Domenico one morning, as he was playing cards in a bar, to remind him that he had promised to marry her. He answered: “Ha! Only a pig would marry you!” Maria Barbella cut his throat with a razor and was accused of murder – a real crime of passion. She would have been the first woman ever to die on the electric chair had Nonna Cora not intervened. As police officers came to arrest her at home, Maria declared, somewhat in a trance: “Me take his blood so he no take mine. Say me pig marry.” She was completely unaware of having committed a crime.

Detalmo di Brazzà, Cora’s husband, was a liberal in favour of women’s rights. Cora was first and foremost against all forms of injustice and was firmly convinced that any woman committing murder in such a cold-hearted manner must have done so in self-defence. She called the butler, Nonino, and ordered him to have her taken by carriage to Udine, to send a telegram to her aunt Sallie Townsend in Long Island, asking her to investigate further. Aunt Sallie replied saying that Maria Barbella was detained in prison in New York, awaiting trial mid-July and that her prospects were not good. Cora did not hesitate: she simply had to help an emigrant who was risking paying the price for the discrimination against Italians.

They headed off on the North Star Line steamship Nomadic, Cora with her painting materials and Detalmo with his automatic postal recorder, a new invention he patented in Boston and later produced for four years in a factory he opened in New York. The New York prison was nicknamed “The Tombs” for the overcrowding and extremely harsh conditions in which prisoners were kept whilst awaiting trial. Maria was silent and often panic-stricken, only sometimes taking slight relief from the kindness shown by Mrs. Foster who visited prisoners daily, earning herself the name of the “Tombs’ Angel”. She was assigned two state attorneys who visited her just once before the 11th July hearing. Unable to speak or understand English, she was found guilty for first-degree murder and sentenced to die on the electric chair, which had only just become the new instrument of capital punishment.

That day, two newspapers cast doubt on the case and gave rise to some hope for Maria. The World wrote an in-depth article entitled “Should Maria Barberi die?” declaring that the woman charged was “poor, defenceless, had no knowledge of the laws or language of the country, nor of her rights… (that) her layer had caused more damage than he had brought benefit… (that there had been no clarification of) the issue of the mental condition of the girl at the time the crime was committed” …(and that) the technical aspects that sufficed to absolve her did not instead suffice to sentence her…”. The Recorder on the other hand, released a front-page headline that read “Hope for Maria. Countess Savorgnan visits her in jail” as well as commenting that Cora “intends to appeal for clemency… she is a close friend of some of the city’s wealthiest families, including the Vanderbilts, the Iselins and the Couderts… so maybe the poor woman does have some hope after all”.

Cora and Detalmo arrived in New York three days late, on precisely the day Maria Barbella was sentenced. They stayed in the Savoy, between Fifth Avenue and Fifty-Ninth Street. They took a suite that was a copy of the boudoir of Maria Antoinette in Versailles. Cora went to Tombs the next morning, where she met with Mrs. Foster, introducing herself to Maria Barbella as an immigrant from the United States. Cora immediately saw that Maria Barbella had absolutely no intention of killing and decided then and there to do everything within her power to upturn the decision of the court and block the death sentence announced for the next day. She told Maria: “You will have the best protection money can buy…” Cora visited Maria’s lawyer, Mr. Evans, and came away with a very low opinion indeed. She therefore contacted a brilliant criminal lawyer and lover of social causes, Frederick House, who together with his colleague Emanuel Friend agreed to take on the case without demanding any fees over and above court costs. On her part, Cora decided to launch a campaign in favour of Miss Barbella, using her influential friends who were against capital punishment. But it was too late to attempt to obtain a suspension prior to sentencing.

The sentence was confirmed and Maria was moved to the penitentiary of Sing-Sing, the first time a woman had ever crossed its gates. Cora was interviewed by a journalist, to whom she declared, amongst other matters: “Women already need to fight so hard to defend their virtues, it is high time a new woman stands up and makes herself heard. We want the governor to receive such a massive number of names on petitions for a pardon that he will be forced to act; we want the press to help us sensitise the general public. On my part, I can help raise some interest… amongst some of the most influential families of the United States of America”. The Barbella case became famous. In the history of the State of New York, a total of five women had been sentenced to death, all by hanging, and this was therefore the first ever sentence to the electric chair (its inventor, the dentist Alfred Southwick had managed to have it approved by the State of New York in 1889).

The Savoy made a room available to the Brazzàs free of charge and this became Cora’s general headquarters in the battle to save Maria. Underwood sent a typewriter with a typist. Cora’s stance became the first official American campaign against the death sentence. Feminists awoke. An article published in the Herald on 20th July read: “What is, in the name of civilisation, this marriage for which women kill those they love when they cannot obtain it, and from which a great many seek to escape once it has been obtained? The answer is simple: It is an institution that is entirely ill suited to the modern woman”. The feminist élite, comprising talented writers with a vast public and who enjoyed international fame, took Maria’s side, headed by Mary Livermore, Elisabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

Mary Livermore, teacher and journalist, wrote in the World: “When a woman takes it into her hands to vindicate her purity, she is sentenced to death… if the law does not protect women, and indeed it does not, then women need to protect themselves. I myself would have done exactly the same. I now believe… that if a man were as imprudent as to ruin my daughter, I would have no hesitation in killing him…”

Elisabeth Cady Stanton wrote in the same newspaper: “No woman has ever had a fair trial and nor shall they until they are judged by a jury of their peers. Laws are made by men, managed by men and enforced by men…”

Susan B. Anthony, Chair of the National American Woman Suffrage Association declared in the San Francisco Chronicle: “I am and I will always be against murder, whether committed by an individual or the State… but that the State should kill a young woman who does not understand our language for a crime that is often pardoned of a man, I find particularly repulsive. Hands off! At least until women are not emancipated and can decide, with men, exactly what the law is and who should dispense it”.

But most of the press, including the New York Times, published judgements given by men and women against the granting of a pardon. Cora then decided to contact editors and directors herself. She was unable to convince many of them, but did cause the Herald to change tack, persuading its editor, Gordon Bennet, to support Maria.

Cora, who had at first thought only to beg clemency for Maria became increasingly convinced that re-trial was needed and agreed to finance the entire appeal, contacting first-class lawyers. But she began receiving written threats, warning to renounce her campaign to save Maria. So Detalmo showed the threatening letters to Frederick Grant (son of ex-President Ulysses Grant), a friend of his who in the meantime had been appointed head of the New York Police Department. The New York policeman, Joseph Petrosino, an expert of the Mano Nera (a mafia association), thereby became Cora’s bodyguard.

And in the meantime, witnesses came forth in floods for Maria, including statements by Potter, the Bishop of New York, whose son had married Cora’s first cousin. The bishop declared to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle that “Maria Barberi was led to commit a crime by a social code that differs from our own. This is an excellent reason to show clemency and not fulfil the sentence”.

Whilst Maria’s fame grew and Mr. House prepared his case, the police lieutenant Mr. Petrosino shadowed Cora, flanking Detalmo in surveillance duties. Joseph Petrosino was short and muscular, with a bullmastiff type jaw, or perhaps that of a gangster. Detalmo, on the hand, stood tall and elegant and was sometimes mistaken for Leo Tolstoy. “Every crime leaves a trace”, Mr. Petrosino said. The conclusion had been reached that the Mano Nera had nothing to do with it and suspicions fell to Charles Chaplin, the corrupt Director of the World, so he dressed as a journalist and infiltrated into the headquarters of the newspaper. There he found proof that the anonymous letters had been typed on Mr. Chapin’s personal typewriter, but Cora would not agree to have him arrested at risk of distracting attention from Maria’s case. In the meantime, various witnesses began to come forth of their own accord, providing information on the life of Domenico Cataldo and the crime. A shoemaker told how his daughter, and at least five other girls, had all fallen victim to Mr. Cataldo’s tales. An Italian girl admitted to having been Mr. Cataldo’s lover and confessed that she had become his way of getting rid of Maria, driving her mad and to suicide. One woman, Caterina Manguso, said that “the real story behind the murder had not been told” and mentioned and traced Nando Tavolacci who had been playing cards with Mr. Cataldo when Maria entered the bar, as an eye witness. He ended up admitting that Domenico had a knife with him and was about to use it when Maria cut his throat with a razor. It was therefore a case of self-defence by the woman, which made the first trial invalid. Thus mass gatherings were organised in various cities in support of Maria. Even the Governor Morton’s wife came out in her favour. One hundred and fifteen thousand signatures were collected petitioning for pardon.

Late August, Cora and Detalmo needed to return to Italy for the grape harvest and the installation of a pump he had invented to provide running water from the source in the park to the villa and stables. But a great many people made sure they kept up with developments by writing to them. Cora read the letters to the lace-makers. And Maria learned to read and write in English, thanks to the lessons she was given by Mrs. Sage, the wife of the director of Sing-Sing.

In October, Cora decided to head to Ferrandina to gather information on Maria. She obtained a certificate from the criminal records office: there were no charges. And she also found out about previous cases of epilepsy in her family.

The appeal court hearing was held on 7th April 1896 in New York, with Cora and Detalmo present. The judge (of the first trial), Mr. Goff, did not even bother to attend. The defence lawyer, Mr. House, took eight days to point out all the errors and irregularities of the first trial. Judge O’Brien thus concluded that the principles of procedural correctness had been extensively breached. On 16th April, on the basis of denied witnesses and the bias shown by Judge Goff, the Court of Appeal granted Maria Barbella the right to a retrial. This concluded before the end of 1896, with her complete acquittal.

Her great grandson, Corrado

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[1] This text is based on the book by Idanna Pucci “Il Fuoco dell’Anima” (Longanesi, 1993), reprinted as La Signora di Sing-Sing, which is worth reading) – hers are all the quotations -, and on the tales told me by my father Detalmo Pirzio-Biroli about his grandmother, Nonna Cora (See also his book “Finestre e Finestrelle su Brazzà e altrove” (Ed. Campanotto, 2005)