One of the most important murder trials in Canada. Angelina Napolitano murdered her husband with an axe and was sentenced to be executed…
Although it had sparked unprecedented worldwide media frenzy, Angelina’s story was virtually unknown to the general public and was the first case in Canadian history to use the Battered Women’s Syndrome’ defense. Napolitano killed her husband on April 16, 1911 after claiming being abused by him for a long period of time.
Angelina Napolitano was a married immigrant woman who was in an abusive marriage. Angelina was subject to regular beatings from her husband and legal recourse in her situation was futile as the courts of the time tried their best not to involve themselves in the private lives of citizens. At this time, the generally accepted norm was that husbands could treat their wives as they seemed fit and occasionally “correcting” them was not uncommon. However, even this common practice was taken to extremes when on one occasion Angelina’s husband, Pietro Napolitano stabbed her nine times with a pocket knife. Angelina was a mother of four and pregnant with a fifth child when her husband started to force her into prostitution because of the family’s financial difficulties. After many arguments over the matter, many of which were violent, Angelina killed her husband with an axe while he was sleeping.
The Canadian legal system has in the past had a deeply embedded gender bias which made legal recourse for some women unjust in many areas of the law. Many of the gender stereotypes were so embedded into the law they were hard to decipher and even when they were acknowledged, they were perpetuated unknowingly.
Angelina had been born in a rural town near Naples and, following a seven-year stay in New York City, had come to Ontario with Pietro in 1909. They lived first in Thessalon and then moved to the Sault.
As the winter of 1910–1911 continued, Pietro, who worked on and off as a labourer, began to pressure Angelina to earn money (to build the family a house) by prostitution. On April 16, 1911, Easter Sunday, when Angelina was six months pregnant, Pietro told her to go out and make money through sex or he would beat her, kill her, or kill her unborn child. He was going to sleep and she had until he woke to get some money.
That afternoon, as Pietro slept in their top-floor apartment on James Street, Angelina took an axe and hit him four times in the neck and head, killing him. She immediately sought out a neighbour and confessed, adding “I just killed a pig,”, then waited for the police to come. They found her with her arms wrapped around her youngest child, and charged her with murder.
The trial began on Monday, May 8, 1911, in Sault Ste. Marie, with Justice Byron Moffatt Britton presiding and Edmund Meredith as the crown attorney. When the court realized that Angelina didn’t have a lawyer, the trial was adjourned for a day to allow the court-appointed lawyer, Uriah McFadden, to prepare a case.
When the trial resumed on Tuesday, May 9, Meredith called nine witnesses to testify to Angelina’s guilt. McFadden called only Angelina herself, who didn’t speak English well. McFadden’s case rested on what was essentially the battered woman defence; he argued that Pietro’s abuse had forced a desperate Angelina to murder, and cited the November stabbing. Britton, however, ruled the incident inadmissible evidence, arguing that “if anybody injured six months ago could give that as justification or excuse for slaying a person, it would be anarchy complete.”
In the courtroom Napolitano was seen as a villain however, the public continued to contest the social meanings attached to her case. Napolitano confessed immediately to the killing of her husband as a response to her domestic abuse and refusal to become a prostitute. The case, and followed clemency, highlights that, “the notions of ‘victim’ and ‘villain’ are themselves historically constructed,” and that the social meanings attached to Angelina Napolitano’s, “life and crime were shaped by prevailing assumptions about gender, race and class”
Angelina was not denying the fact she killed her husband, however she claimed if she had not done so he would have forced her into prostitution which would greatly compromise her virtue and dignity. Her lawyer decided to use provocation as her defence. This defence is based on actions which are committed in the “heat of the moment” and when a person acts in response to a wrongful act or insult which provoked them. At the time of her case, it was assumed that the insult must be sufficient to deprive the ordinary man of the power of self-control. The judge rejected this defence, and furthermore did not allow for the knife attack and claims of prostitution to be entered as evidence.
Although it was clear he had abused her both physically and psychologically, and he had attempted to force her into prostitution, little effort was made by her lawyer to bring to light all the attenuating circumstances of her actions. In addition, the prosecution presented the one bit of evidence needed to convict a woman during a period still heavily steeped in Victorian morality – proof that she had slept with another man. The jury returned a guilty verdict. The trial had lasted only three hours. Although the jury recommended clemency, Britton sentenced her to hang. The execution was scheduled for August 9, one month after Angelina’s due date.
As fate would have it, and with Angelina’s sentence delayed so she could give birth to her fifth child, this allowed time for one of the most impressive clemency campaigns in Canadian and American history to gain momentum. Initiated by a U.S. journalist and championed by virtually every feminist, socialist, humanist, religious, and anti-racist political leader and organization across the United States and eventually the world, Angelina became the source for hundreds of thousands of petitions, letters and newspaper articles calling for her release. The media frenzy that followed her case was unparalleled, and the public pressure so great that Canadian authorities decided to commute her sentence. Shipped off to the Kingston Prison for Women, Angelina was allowed to live – but with no foreseeable chance of ever being released, or being reunited with her children.
Six months prior to the events of that fateful Easter Sunday, Angelina had appeared before a judge to testify against her husband, who had brutally stabbed her. On that occasion in November, Pietro Napolitano had attacked his wife “with intent to maim, disfigure or disable [her].” In spite of this, Pietro was given a suspended sentence because, ironically, the judge was concerned that there would be no one to provide for the wife and children. Women, not yet “persons” in the eyes of the law, were wholly dependent on their husbands. They had no legal right to their own property, or even their own children. When two people married they effectively became one: the husband.
At her murder trial Angelina claimed an unusual defence; she insisted she had refused her husband’s demand to sell her body on the street, and ultimately killed him to preserve her honour. In fact, Angelina’s failure to show remorse or even mention her children throughout the testimony had raised more than one eyebrow. Most ironically, however, she boldly conceded to having had an affair with a boarder named Nish, which had prompted her husband’s violent attack six months before.
In a letter penned by crown prosecutor Moses McFadden, Angelina was described as an intelligent and somewhat educated woman, whose command of the English language could easily withstand prosecutor Edmund Meredith’s aggressive cross-examination on the subject without the aid of a translator. At the same time it seemed defence lawyer Uriah McFadden, the younger and less experienced brother of Moses, overcame some novice courtroom fumbling to cite “provocation” as a defence, arguing Angelina had been sufficiently provoked to kill her husband. Based on the official record, in the midst of difficult circumstances, it seemed that he gave it his best shot. Not even the Italian witnesses did much to help her case. Most notable were testimonies by the local plumber, Peter Salvatore – the first to arrive on the scene, and Teodoro Mazzei, an elderly man who had shared the flat next to Angelina. Both these men claimed to know the Napolitano family “just to see them on the street.”
Through the cold lens of legal proceedings and facts, there is little reason to consider Angelina’s case with any more sympathy than we would any other murderer’s. Yet the sheer force of the clemency campaign following the trial told a different story – it promised a truth beyond these facts.
Here was a woman who defied definition at every turn. This was an impoverished, abused, socially insignificant immigrant mother who allegedly dared to engage in an extramarital affair and displayed strength beyond words by committing her gruesome crime. Was she a victim or a heroine? A virtuous mother or a whore? A terrible murderess or a noble warrior?
In spite of the fact that so much ink had been spilled on the subject, no documents – not even her prison letters – had come directly from her. At the height of her fame, Angelina became a media icon whose identity was magically altered, depending upon the cause, ideology or politics a writer wanted to advance.
One of the players in the trial transcript, was Peter Salvatore, the man who claimed he did not know Angelina. It was discovered that Peter Salvatore actually owned the small shack where, out of desperation, the penniless Napolitanos had been forced to share living quarters with Mazzei, Salvatore’s father-in-law, in the last week of Pietro’s life.
Salvatore was also closely connected to the Scigliano family, in particular Benny Scigliano – the court translator. According to a report by Chicago journalist Honor Fanning, some local Italian women remembered Angelina’s mother from Caserta, Italy. In fact, the Salvatore and Scigliano families hailed from that same area.
With an understanding of the dynamics between new immigrants at the time, it was realized it would have been virtually impossible for these families from the same province of Italy, living in the same block in the Sault’s immigrant ghetto, not to have known each other intimately. Presumably, it was the family who arrived first that paved the way for the rest. Suddenly, it became clear and eyes began to open to a different reality, one in which the people who clearly knew Angelina best had deliberately distanced themselves from her and lied before the judge. Why had they not defended her?
Local newspapers had focused more on denouncing Angelina than on the actual court proceedings, and it became clear that the Americans were considerably more sympathetic to this woman’s case. Not only had the story been front page news for several weeks – describing every detail of the murder, the trial, Pietro’s funeral and the community in general – but the city of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, had initiated a massive petition to lobby Canadian authorities. Daily reports chronicled the latest tally, as thousands lined up at the local post office, town hall and library to add their names to the list. Even the bedridden had their chance to sign, when petitions came door-to-door. Most impressively, this massive action was not exclusive to the Sault’s twin city. From New York to San Francisco, New Orleans to Little Rock, Arkansas, virtually every city in every state across the United States was mobilized to a single cause – saving Angelina.
The case produced enormous debate. Among Angelina’s critics were bigots who depicted the murder as proof of the danger posed by “foreigners.” A columnist quoted in the Sault Star drew on contemporary racist stereotypes, calling southern Italians “hot-blooded” foreigners who “are all too ready as it is to use the knife, the pistol, or any other weapon that lies at hand, as a means of redressing real or fancied wrongs.” Another article in the paper argued that Angelina deserved to die because she was immoral, making much of the fact that for a brief period when Pietro was out of town she had permitted a man to board with her.
Many people took up her cause, and the campaign to have her sentence commuted to a prison term. A flood of letters and petitions arrived in the office of the federal minister of justice, Sir Allen Bristol Aylesworth, among them lengthy petitions organized by individuals and groups from Sault Ste Marie, Toronto, New York, New Orleans, and Chicago, as well as England, Austria, and Poland. Italians in the Sault were relatively quiet – the Sault Star claimed they were against Angelina – but many in Toronto, Montreal, Chicago, and New York, especially leftists, joined the campaign. So did McFadden and other Anglo-Canadians, including a men’s Bible group. Supporters asked the government to acknowledge Angelina’s history of abuse and spare her life; a few even demanded a pardon. Some of the loudest voices were those of Canadian, American, and British feminists who, in agitating for the vote, had become seasoned lobbyists. Indeed, the presence of an international women’s movement helps account for the sustained publicity the case received. Various feminists stressed that the beatings had constituted sufficient provocation and that Angelina had acted in self-defence. The judge’s rejection of this argument, they added, revealed sexist codes. As the suffrage journal Common Cause (London) declared, the law and its administration “are both bad” for “they are exclusively masculine.”
A doctor in Ohio, Dr. Alexander Aalto, even offered to be hanged in Angelina’s stead, saying: “It would only be fair to Mrs. Napolitano for a man to give his life for her, inasmuch as her life is in peril on account of a man’s persecution of her, and because men condemned her.”
Dr. Aalto’s remarks reflect a theme among Angelina’s supporters, who included women in the fledgling feminist movement. These early feminists argued that Pietro’s beatings meant the murder was in self-defence, and that Britton was being sexist when he threw out the evidence of abuse. The British suffragette journal “Common Cause” excoriated not only the law that had condemned Angelina, but also the justice system that upheld it as “both bad, for they are exclusively masculine.”
Other arguments presented in the letters included the idea (put forward by the area’s MP, Arthur Cyril Boyce) that Angelina must be not guilty because her pregnancy made her temporarily insane, the idea that Angelina should be praised for taking the life of a sexually immoral man, and the argument that Angelina’s fear of her impending doom would adversely affect her unborn baby, therefore she should be pardoned. This last was a common psychological view at the time.
Other petitioners held Angelina up as a courageous woman who had rid the earth of a lout. “The taking of a corrupt life of her wicked husband was not even murder” but a “dreadful loathsome duty,” wrote one woman from England, because it “delivers of the race from loathsome ulcers.” “The world,” she concluded, “needs such heroines to lift it out of the foul rut in which it lies today,” for the “rut of immorality” was “a far worse crime than murder!” Such comments are best understood in the context of the sexual politics of early feminism, which subscribed to popular, though erroneous, stereotypes of the propensity among “foreign” men for violence and sexual immorality.
Some argued that Angelina should be granted clemency to save her unborn child from harm. This reasoning was based on the view, also current at the time, that a foetus could suffer psychological damage because of its mother’s agitated state. The Toronto Suffrage Association warned that “every additional hour spent by her [Napolitano] in the condition of terror, anticipating her execution” would “react in a deleterious manner upon her unborn innocent child.” (Tragically, the baby would die a few weeks after birth.) Others, including Arthur Cyril Boyce, the mp for Algoma West, even claimed that Angelina’s pregnancy had produced temporary insanity – an extreme version of the notion that pregnancy could produce an unbalanced emotional or mental state.
On 14 July 1911 Angelina’s sentence was commuted by the federal cabinet to life imprisonment. Eleven years later, on 30 Dec. 1922, she was granted parole from Kingston Penitentiary. From prison she had tried to contact her children, who had been placed in foster homes, but it remains unknown whether she ever saw them again.
Angelina’s later life is not well known. She did give birth, but the baby died within a few weeks. Angelina reportedly died on September 4, 1932 at the Hotel Dieu Hospital in Frontenac County, Ontario.
As a woman and as an outsider, Angelina’s case was never documented in the history books and was all but lost in the gap between official historical facts. Buried with her were the secrets of a troubled life, juxtaposed by her own personal strength. By unearthing her story, it has unwittingly unearthed the secrets of the immigrant heritage of a city and of a nation.
Just as she had been the inspiration for a cause celebre in 1911, Angelina continues to be the voice of issues that touch our lives today – domestic violence, law enforcement, mental health, are frequently the topics of discussion. In a contemporary world characterized by cynicism and fear, Angelina’s story continues to shed light on our own dark secrets, and teaches us something about the compassionate side of life.