A woman walks into a bar looking for the man who used her. It probably happens on a daily basis across the United States. Usually the outcome is harmless. However, in 1895 a woman walked into a New York City saloon — a place where respectable women rarely, if ever, went and walked into infamy. The woman was Maria Barberi (aka Maria Barbella) and she was looking for the man who had — in the language of the 19th century — not only used her, but ruined her.
The man was another Italian immigrant, Domenico Cataldo, a bootblack who had wooed and then seduced Maria, promising marriage. Maria had no plans to become infamous that April day in 1895; she only wanted to confront the cad Cataldo and press him for a more concrete proposal. Instead, she ended up fatally wounding him, and thus Maria Barberi cemented her place in history as the first woman ever sentenced to die in the electric chair and only the second woman in the 19th century to be sentenced by a New York court to be executed.
But the State of New York was not quite ready to see a woman fry, so Maria managed to avoid becoming the first woman to actually die in the chair. That dubious honor belongs to Martha M. Place, who died at Sing Sing in the spring of 1899. Oddly, Place’s crime was almost identical to Maria’s — the murder of a suitor who jilted her.
At the time, the loss of a woman’s honor was more than just something to be clucked at by the gossips of the neighborhood. For most women, “that thing a woman holds most dear” was as important as life itself. So people struggled with the question of whether being seduced by a Lothario was a mitigating circumstance for murder.
“Is a woman justified in taking any step, however extreme, to avenge the loss of honor?” the Boston Daily Globe asked after Maria was convicted of slashing Cataldo’s throat. “That is a question that seems to be in the mouths of everybody who is at all interested in the case of little Maria Barberi, the child-woman, who has been convicted of murder in the first degree.”
Whether or not that was the question in everyone’s mouth, there was nationwide interest in her case. Most likely the interest was of a prurient nature, not one of curiosity over legal questions.
Maria’s entry in notoriety began about two years earlier when she, a new immigrant from Basilicata, Italy, working as a seamstress in a sweatshop, met a fellow Basilicatan named Domenico Cataldo. Unlike Maria, Cataldo was well-established in the New World and owned his own shoe-shine stand in Little Italy. For that time, Cataldo was quite well-to-do for an Italian immigrant. At her first trial the prosecution revealed that Cataldo had at least $400 in the bank.
n.b. That $400 has the spending power of more than $10,000 in current dollars.
Cataldo’s stand was just outside the sweatshop on Canal Street in Lower Manhattan where Maria was working. Each day they saw each other and a friendship blossomed. According to some reports, Maria was insecure about her looks, and Cataldo’s attention was encouraging for several reasons: not only was he rich, he was interested in the shy woman who did not speak English.
“I loved him, and I thought he cared for me,” Maria told a female reporter after she was convicted and sentenced to death. “He had a lot of money and said he would marry me someday. I sewed for a living, but he said when we got married, I would not have to sew any more.”
For a poor Italian immigrant girl, Cataldo’s promise was like a dream come true. But it was soon clear that Cataldo had no intention of sweeping Maria away from her poverty-stricken lifestyle.
Maria’s father, Michael Barbella, knew Cataldo’s reputation and refused to allow his pride and joy to have anything to do with the bootblack. Of course, this just pushed Maria closer to Cataldo.
“One day he coaxed me to his home,” she said. “I went there because he said we would be married there, but he did not marry me and I was ashamed to go back to my mother.”
It is clear that Maria was embarrassed not because she had been lured in by a false promise of marriage, but of — how shall we put it tactfully — putting out for Cataldo.
However, while Maria was telling the Globe reporter that she was immediately shamed by Cataldo’s seduction and reneging on his promise, the record shows differently. It is true that Maria wanted to marry Cataldo, but she was a willing guest many times at his boarding house before the relationship soured. They met at the boarding house for several months until Cataldo announced that he was leaving to return to Italy and that he had no intention of marrying Maria — or anyone else, it was later shown.
It was at this time that Maria realized that her honor was gone, but she held out that Cataldo would do the right thing and propose marriage — even if it meant returning to Italy without her family.
“I coaxed and coaxed and begged,” she claimed in court. “But he would only laugh at me and finally he tried to beat me away.”
Cataldo, who had no apparent interest in women except for sex, made a half-serious offer to marry Maria if her family gave him a $200 dowry.
Once Cataldo told Maria he was leaving the States, she put a strange course of action into place.
“You know my heart was breaking because I loved him, and I thought I would die of shame, for everybody was pointing fingers at me.
“I was no wife, but a bad woman.”
Although it appears Maria’s plan was outlandish by modern standards, with the Victorian manners that still dominated thinking in the United States, it is almost reasonable.
“Some of the girls told me to tell my troubles to a judge, and he would make him marry me,” Maria explained. “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?”
But to be arrested she would have to attract the attention of the police.
On April 26, 1895, Maria and her mother, Buonsanto Filomena Barbella, confronted Cataldo, who was playing cards in a saloon. It was a fatal encounter.
Buonosanto demanded that Cataldo marry her daughter, and Cataldo said he would for the $200 dowry. However, the Barbella/Barbera family had nothing of the sort and Mother Buonosanto became livid.
Screaming back and forth in Italian with Buonosanto, Cataldo gave his last testament:
“Solo suini sposano!”
It was a strange epitath for Cataldo, but his exclamation that only pigs marry was probably enough to sway the favor of society in favor of Maria.
The remark — which perhaps as an idiom carries more of an insult that it appears in English — was enough to send Maria over the edge.
With a knife she swung out and sliced Cataldo’s jugular, but that was not — according to her court testimony — what she was intending. After all, it was her intent to bring the both of them before a judge in hopes that the judge would arrange a variety of a shotgun marriage.
“I meant to make him bleed only a little,” she testified, “that is what I thought I had done, for he ran right up to a policeman, and I was happy. 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.”
Her happiness was short-lived when Cataldo bled out on the street. Maria was arrested and taken to the infamous Tombs prison, where she was charged with first degree murder.
In her first interview with the police, Maria’s statement was significantly different than her testimony 21/2 months later.
“She admitted having entered the bar while Domenico Cataldo was playing cards,” said the police officer who arrested and interrogated her. “Then, after having grasped the man by the hair and pulled his head back, she had cut his throat. Then she had run away. Domenico ran after her, but almost immediately he had fallen to the ground dead. The woman confessed that she had been relieved when she saw him fall because she was afraid of him.”
Although the question of what to do with a woman robbed of her dignity was forefront at her trial, the all-male jury convicted Maria of first-degree murder. For that conviction there was only one sentence: death. It was then that Maria Barberi became the first woman who faced Sing Sing’s electric chair.
“It is ordered that the sheriff of New York transmit you into the custody of the warden of Sing Sing, and that from that time and that you be kept in solitary confinement, allowed to see no one but the keepers of the prison, your family or a priest or minister of the gospel and your lawyers, until the week beginning on August 19, 1895, when the warden of the state prison is commanded to inflict upon you the death penalty by electricity,” was how the judge broke the news to Maria.
When Maria was led away, her mother, father, and brothers rushed the deputies who pushed them back from her. Once she was settled in Sing Sing, her family was allowed to see her.
“A stiletto with a blade 5 inches long was taken from Maria’s aunt before she was admitted to the room,” the Times reported. “From her sister, two pocket knives were taken.”
As the news of the conviction slowly made its way across the country, an effort surfaced to save Maria from the chair.
“There is nothing of the murderess in Maria’s appearance,” the Globe reporter wrote. “Her voice is soft, smooth, and musical; her whole manner is gentle and loving. There is nothing cruel about her. The Italians all think that Maria was justified. Those who thought that (this) could only end in a marriage are now no doubt more horrified than little Maria over the result of that one stroke of the razor.”
Maria was quickly taken to Sing Sing to await her fate. It was not supposed to be a pleasant wait, of course.
But the execution was not allowed to happen. Very shortly an international movement began to lobby for a retrial. In 1896 it was granted and Maria, claiming “that she was an epileptic and had mental problems because of her condition.” The argument worked with the second jury and she was acquitted.
This being the 1890s, Maria hit the Vaudeville circuit for a few years until she married. The marriage did not last. The final record of Maria Barberi was in 1897 when she saved the life of a woman with whom her family was living from a fire.