THE TRIALS OF MARIA BARBELLA: The True Story of a 19th Century Crime of Passion by Idanna Pucci

THE TRIALS OF MARIA BARBELLA: The True Story of a 19th Century Crime of Passion

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A dramatic account of a young immigrant, who in 1895 slit her lover's throat and became the first woman sentenced to the recently invented electric chair. Pucci (Bhima Swarga: The Balinese Divine Comedy, not reviewed) became interested in this story when she learned that her American-born grandmother, Cora Slocomb, Countess di Brazz…, was one of Maria Barbella's staunchest advocates, traveling from her Italian estate to New York City to directly assist and use her influential social connections to benefit a woman she saw as ""another poor Italian immigrant at the mercy of the American courts."" Barbella, a seamstress who worked grueling hours for eight dollars a week, believed Domenico Cataldo when he lured her from her parents' home by promising marriage. Finally rejected by him, Barbella murdered Cataldo in front of witnesses; a biased judge and entirely non-Italian jury readily discounted the lame defense, which Barbella herself, who was bewildered by events and spoke little English, could not even understand. Convicted of first-degree murder, she was sentenced to die at Sing Sing Prison. While she learned English in prison, advocates wrote and petitioned on her behalf; the public devoured her story in the newspapers; and almost a year after her arrest, the state Court of Appeals ordered a retrial in which she was acquitted. Pucci's own fascination with the story's characters gives the account considerable life and immediacy. However, one senses that Pucci is less determined to peel back the layers of the story than simply to tell it well--which she does. But Barbella's conflicting explanations for her actions are unreconciled and there is no modern assessment of the medical arguments regarding her epilepsy (apparently important to her acquittal). An intriguing story, but don't count on being able to render a verdict on Barbella's case at the end of it.

Pub Date: March 2nd, 1996
Page count: 300pp
Publisher: Four Walls Eight Windows