Maria Barbella Trials: 1895-96

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Maria Barbella Trials: 1895-96

Defendant: Maria Barbella
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: First trial: Amos Evans, Henry Sedgewick; Second trial: Frederick B. House, Emanuel Friend
Chief Prosecutors: John F. McIntyre, Alfred Lauterbach
Judges: First trial: John W. Goff; Second trial: H.A. Gildersleeve
Place: New York, New York
Dates of Trials: First trial: July 11-15, 1895; Second trial: November 17-December 10, 1896
Verdict: First trial: Guilty; Second trial: Not guilty
Sentence: First trial: Death by electrocution

SIGNIFICANCE: Maria Barbella was the first woman in the United States condemned to die in the electric chair.

On July 18, 1895, Maria Barbella became the first woman in the United States sentenced to be executed in a new invention called the electric chair. Efforts to save the young Italian immigrant from the deadly, unreliable contraption focused on whether or not she deserved to have been convicted in the first place.

Three months earlier on New York City's lower east side, Barbella had tried to reason with the man she loved and with whom she lived, Domenico Cataldo. Cataldo had forcibly taken the young woman's virginity, but despite assurances that he planned to marry her, he showed no intention of honoring his promises. On April 26, he was more interested in playing cards than in discussing matrimony when Barbella stood behind him in a saloon, pleading quietly. Before the astonished patrons, Cataldo suddenly lurched toward the door, his neck bleeding from a mortal wound inflicted by a straight razor in Barbella's hand.

Premeditation at Issue

Prosecutors accused Barbella of murdering Cataldo for ruining her reputation and to gain access to $825 in his bank account. This theory assumed a premeditated plan, so Barbella was charged with the capital offense of firstdegree murder. When her trial began on July 11, the defense presented a different view of Barbella's behavior. They accused Cataldo of being a cad with a distasteful record of seducing young women. When Barbella pleaded with him to marry her, his reply was derisive laughter and the retort, "Only pigs marry!" Driven into a rage by his words, she had killed him. Since the rage provoked a spontaneous act, there was no premeditation. The defense asked that their client be charged with second-degree murder, which was not a capital offense, but Judge John Goff denied the motion.

When Barbella took the stand in her own defense, she testified in Italian. In spite of the imperfect translation heard by jurors, it became clear that Cataldo had drugged and seduced her. With her reputation ruined, she had gone to live with him. Shortly thereafter he announced that he was returning to Italy without her. The prosecution relentlessly asked Barbella why she had stayed with a man possessing such reprehensible morals. She replied that she loved him. Barbella continued to insist that she wanted to marry Cataldo, not murder him, and that she had no memory of the attack. Barbella's mother testified that she too had begged Cataldo to marry the girl and restore her honor. Cataldo, said Mrs. Barbella, had laughed and demanded two hundred dollars before he would do such a thing.

Such testimony elicited growing public sympathy, particularly from women. Their feelings were not shared by Judge Goff when he charged the jury on July 15. Goff said that the defendant should expect no compassion from the court simply because she was a woman. If Barbella had planned to kill Cataldo, said Judge Goff, such premeditation made her guilty of first-degree murder. The judge offered his own view of her intent. "It is, in my opinion, futile to claim before any sensible men, constituting a jury, that she intended to use that razor at the time for some purpose not disclosed, that is, for some harmless purpose; and after she took that razor, she secreted it, and followed Cataldo to the saloon. That required thought. It is for you to say whether that was an act of deliberation."

Death Sentence Sparks Protests

The jury took less than an hour to find Barbella guilty. On July 18, Judge Goff sentenced her to be taken to Sing Sing state penitentiary and executed. News of the sentence transformed the case into a national sensation. Philanthropist missionary Rebecca Foster and an expatriate American, the Countess di BrazzA, hired new lawyers for Barbella and organized a petition drive. Thousands of signatures poured into New York governor Levi Morton's office, asking him to pardon the immigrant woman or, at least, commute her death sentence. The execution was effectively halted when an appeal was filed on her behalf.

Frederick House, Barbella's new lawyer, requested a new trial before New York's state court of appeals. House argued that the state had offered no evidence of any premeditation. House accused Judge Goff of multiple errors, such as excluding testimony critical of Cataldo's character and misleading the jury about the facts of the case. House said that the judge erred in charging that only Barbella's acts could be used to weigh her mental condition. Most significantly, House characterized Goff's jury charge as a direct instruction to return a guilty verdict.

On April 21, 1896, the court of appeals agreed. Barbella was granted a new trial on grounds that the defense had not been allowed to use all the evidence at their disposal. The lengthy appellate decision ruled that Judge Goff's charge to the jury was riddled with serious errors and reflected a troubling lack of impartiality from the bench.

When the retrial began on November 17 before a new judge, H. A. Gildersleeve, the defense made a concerted effort to establish that the Barbella family had a history of mental instability and alcoholism. Numerous Italian witnesses who knew the families of Barbella's parents were called. It became clear that her ancestors and all of her siblings had suffered from seizures, some of them fatal. In testimony that was not allowed during the first trial, Barbella's parents testified that Maria had once tried to commit suicide by leaping from a roof and remembered nothing after she was restrained. Her mother was also allowed to recount the abuse Maria had suffered at Cataldo's hands.

The defendant apparently shared her family's mental problems. "Sometimes I feel a machine in my head and the pain is so great I cannot stand it," she said. The defense benefited from her new ability to speak English, which she learned at Sing Sing with the help of the warden and his wife. She stated that she had planned to drown herself if Cataldo rebuffed her final request for marriage. She had taken the razor to hasten her own death after jumping into the river. Despite hours of grueling cross-examination by prosecutors, she insisted that she loved Cataldo and had no memory of what had happened following his comment about "pigs," apart from a red flash and an overwhelming heat in her head.

The defense also introduced the fact that Cataldo was carrying a knife when he was killed, which was confirmed by police reports. Character witnesses included Julia Sage, the wife of Sing Sing's warden, who had come to know the immigrant woman well. Mrs. Sage testified that in her judgment Barbella was incapable of committing a premeditated murder.

During nine days of medical testimony, doctors testifying for the defense presented a scenario in which Barbella had killed Cataldo during a brief fit of epilepsy, triggered by the shock of his "pigs marry" dismissal. The prosecution's experts contended that Barbella was in full control of her faculties. Yet defense attorney House concluded his final argument by steering the burden of proof toward the prosecution. "The only truth here is that Maria Barbella suffers from epilepsy. Distressed at Domenico's insults and unaware of her own illness, she killed a man whom, at any rate, the city will not miss."

As swiftly as the earlier jury had found her guilty, Barbella was found not guilty on December 10. She was freed immediately. Instead of facing the electric chair, she used another recent invention, the telephone, to call Mrs. Sage and the Countess di BrazzA with the news.

Tom Smith

Suggestions for Further Reading

"Marie Barbella's Story." New, York Time (December 5, 1896): 9.

Pucci, Idana. The Trials of Maria Barbel/a New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1996.

"Recorder Goff's Errors." New York Times (April 22, 1896): 9.

"To Save Maria Barbella." New York Times (April 8, 1896): 10.

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Maria Barbella Trials: 1895-96