In 1892, 24-year-old Maria Barbella immigrated with her family to New York’s Little Italy for a chance at a better life. She quickly found work as a seamstress at a nearby sweatshop earning a measly eight dollars per week. Nearly a year later, Maria came across a shoeshine stand at Canal Street right outside the factory. From that moment onwards, her life ceased to be anything but tragic.
The stand was owned by a handsome and wealthy fellow named Domenico Cataldo. Maria’s stomach filled with butterflies when she looked into Domenico’s eyes and when she finally gathered the courage to say hello, she learned he too was an immigrant from the Italian region of Basilicata. It was as if fate had tapped Maria on the shoulder and brought the two together.
The pair shared their hopes and dreams with one another; Domenico’s was to open his own barbershop and marry, Maria’s was to be his wife.
Maria was rather insecure and didn’t believe herself to be particularly attractive. She was taken back by the attention of such a man and after their very first encounter, she left for work early each day to chat with Domenico.
Eventually, Maria’s overprotective parents learned of Domenico’s existence and insisted he come to their home at once, but each time she extended an invitation, he was armed with excuses.
Michele Barbella took Domenico’s refusal to meet with him as a sign of disrespect and decided he was not worthy of his daughter’s hand in marriage. He forbade Maria from ever speaking with Domenico again.
Domenico was overpowered by his own hunger for forbidden fruit and he continued to pursue Maria despite her father’s wishes. Eventually, she could no longer resist him. She met with him at a boarding house where he plied her with sedative-laced alcoholic beverages. Once she was unconscious, Domenico had his way with her.
When Maria came to, she knew something was amiss. She scolded Domenico for defiling her and insisted he defend her honour by making her his wife. He convinced Maria he had every intention of doing so, he would rescue her from a life of poverty and as his wife, she would never again be forced to thread a needle. It was all just a matter of time, he told her.
Maria was elated and she continued to meet with her husband-to-be at the boarding house. She truly believed Domenico would keep his word, but nearly two years passed by and the couple remained unmarried.
Domenico persistently refused to set a wedding date and engaged in several affairs throughout the course of his relationship with Maria, hoping his abhorrent behaviour would persuade her to leave him. When his plan failed, he began to beat and degrade her.
Despite Domenico’s best efforts, a disheartened Maria stayed by his side; it was perceived to be less shameful to carry the status of a battered woman rather than one who had engaged in pre-marital affairs.
On April 20, 1895, Domenico informed Maria he had purchased a one-way ticket to Italy — where his wife and children were awaiting his return.
Maria was utterly devastated. The man she adored had led her on for years, keeping his family a secret from her. Despite her intense views regarding intimacy before marriage, she had allowed herself to be seduced by Domenico, only to be left alone with broken promises. Maria ran to her home on Mulberry Bend and told her mother, Filomena, all that had transpired.
Filomena confronted Domenico and insisted he marry her disgraced daughter at once. He agreed, for a price. Knowing full well the impoverished state of Maria’s family, Domenico demanded a $200 dowry. When Filomena informed him it was out of the question, he laughed in her face.
Mere hours before he was set to depart for Italy on the morning of April 26, Domenico met with a friend at a saloon on East 13th Street for one last round of cards. Since women rarely frequented such places at the time, all eyes were on Maria when she came barging in.
She made one final desperate plea for marriage but when Domenico refused, she suddenly cut his throat with a razor. Domenico attempted to chase Maria down as she fled but instead, he fell on the sidewalk and succumbed to his injuries.
It didn’t take long for the authorities to apprehend Domenico’s killer, after all, she was the woman donned in a blood-splattered cotton dress.
“Some of the girls told me to tell my troubles to a judge, and he would make him marry me. But how could I talk to a judge? Only by being arrested. And, besides, if Domenico was arrested, he could not go away, could he? Oh, I only meant to make a mere gash, to make the blood come out and scare him. ‘Now the judge will hear me and make Domenico marry me,’ I thought, and I was all ready to be taken by the officer,” Maria told the court.
The all-male jury was not swayed by Maria’s tale of woe. They sentenced her to death via Sing Sing prison’s infamous “death chair” for first-degree murder, a status that gained her much notoriety as she was the first woman set to face such a horrid punishment.
As it would turn out, Maria had many supporters who believed the execution of a woman to be cruel and unusual punishment, especially one who had been robbed of her dignity by the very man she loved.
A re-trial was ordered and this time, Maria was found not guilty.
Following eighteen lonely months in solitary confinement, Maria was freed after she told the court she had no memory of the crime as she had suffered a seizure upon hearing her lover’s stone-hearted final words:
“Only pigs marry!”
Sources: Murder by Gaslight, The Malefactor’s Register, Alchetron, Murderpedia, Ephemeral New York