The 1885 trial of Maria Barberi in New York City was one of the zaniest and most bizarre in the history of American jurisprudence.
This sordid story of a scorned woman moved to murderous passions began when Maria, 30, a native of southern Italy, met Dominic Cataldo in Manhattan’s Little Italy. Cataldo persuaded naive Maria to move into his lodgings on 13th Street by promising eventual marriage.
However, the callous cad had nothing of the sort in mind. After Maria repeatedly begged her lover to go to the altar, Cataldo finally told her: “Only pigs marry!”
Obviously, that was the wrong thing to say. A few days later, Maria crept up behind Cataldo, who was sitting in a bar, and slit his throat with a razor. Not one to die easily, Cataldo jumped up, ran from the bar and at the corner of Avenue A and 14th Street commented to passersby, “I die.” Then he did.
Maria’s first trial was speedy and to the point – she was found guilty and sentenced to death.
At this point the case caught the attention of “sob sister” reporters whose job it was to stir the passions of female newspaper readers with maudlin stories.
In that era, it was unthinkable that a charming creature such as Maria would become the first woman executed in the electric chair.
Busybodies around the country were up in arms and fired off petitions to New York Governor Levi Parsons Morton.
The sob sisters kept pounding away and in the process reinvented Maria as “a mere child of 15,” half her real age. They extolled the virtues of a kind soul who pampered her pet canary Cicillo in her “dank, dark cell” in the Tombs. A man in Kansas wrote that he would be willing to die in Sing Sing’s electric chair in Maria’s place if the governor would pay his travel expenses to New York.
Sordid publicity about the impending execution brought a new trial.
The “Tombs Angel” who “prayed in the light of a solitary sunbeam falling on the cold stones of her cell” was the essence of propriety in court. On the opening day she handed her lawyer gifts – a silk purse and a chatelaine bag, which she had crocheted in her cell.
Her defense had already been plotted by the sob sisters. The press had been running sketches of Maria’s ears and asking, “Is she a degenerate?” Many people at the time believed that a person’s mental condition could be determined by the shape of the head and the contours of the body.
Defense attorneys maintained that Maria was a victim of “psychical epilepsy.” She was ruined mentally, they argued, when some unnamed villain years earlier put unknown drugs into her soda water and beer! They also produced charts of Maria’s family that pointed to ancestors plagued with epilepsy and insanity.
The highlight of the presentation involved an uncle of Maria’s who was an exhibitionist. It was the habit of this uncle to gather his friends around him in his favorite bar and buy them drinks. He would then tear off his clothes and run naked through the streets, shouting incoherently.
Maria’s neighbor Angelo Piscopo testified that the girl had fits. He reenacted one of Maria’s alleged epileptic seizures with such fervor that several members of the press became hysterical and some of the women jurors fainted.
The prosecution was helpless. It put up a brief fight when a Dr. Hrdlicka said that his studies of Maria’s skull proved her to be a lunatic. The prosecution showed the “expert” witness several unlabeled drawings of human craniums, which the learned physician promptly termed “abnormal.” The heads shown were those of President Grover Cleveland, George Vanderbilt and Henry Alger Gildersleeve, the presiding judge at Maria’s trial.
In the end, the prosecution wilted. The chief prosecutor kissed Maria’s hand and told her: “My dear, I never doubted for an instant that you were a good honest girl.”
Maria Barberi returned to the Tombs, but only to retrieve her canary. When she emerged from that forbidding prison, thousands stood in her path cheering her freedom.