The story of Josephine Terranova reads like a combination of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Cinderella, with a conclusion that falls somewhere in between the fates of those two heroines.
By 1906, Josephine’s uncle had been raping her for five years, but the Sicilian immigrant who lived with her aunt and uncle in a quiet Bronx neighborhood was so innocent (and possibly simple-minded) she did not know what he was doing was wrong until she told her new husband about it.
One might expect sympathy on the part of Giuseppe Terranova toward his wife’s victimization, but that’s not how the carpenter reacted. In response to Josephine’s revelation which he felt should have come before — not after — their marriage, Terranova declared that he had been given damaged goods and thus an offense had been committed against him; he threw her out of his house and declared their marriage null and void.
“Josephine,” he told her less than a month after their marriage, “You are no longer my wife. This is no longer your home.”
After Giuseppe left her, 17-year-old Josephine “believing that by blood alone came atonement for her sinful ignorance” (as one female reporter wrote), stabbed her uncle, Gaetano Riggio, and aunt/godmother Conchetta to death.
Josephine’s story begins at the end of the 19th Century when she came over from Sicily with her mother as an 8-year-old child. Unable to care for her daughter, her mother asked her sister and brother-in-law to take in their niece. They agreed.
Having dropped her youngest child off in what she imagined would be a safe, enriching environment, Josephine’s widowed mother disappeared into the throng of Italian immigrants and eventually returned to the Old Country where it is assumed that she fell ill and died. Regardless, Josephine never heard from her or her sisters again.
It should have been ideal for Josephine; the Riggios were quite well off, thanks to Gaetano’s successful bakery. The childless couple owned their own home in the Williamsbridge section of the Bronx — while not exactly a wide-open green space, the neighborhood was upscale and airy for the time.
Instead of a dream-come-true, living with the Riggios was nothing more than a nightmare for the naive young girl who quickly learned she was not to be treated as daughter, but as a servant/slave.
“They never sent me to school and they did not let me go to church,” she told a reporter in the Tombs while awaiting her murder trial. “All I could do was to work in the store. I was not allowed to have any girl- or boyfriends. My aunt told me that she was my godmother and that I must do her bidding. I believed she could do no wrong.”
Not only did the couple treat Josephine like Cinderella before the royal ball, the Riggios apparently delighted in tormenting their young charge.
“You can never be happy,” Conchetta once told her. “You are the devil’s child.” Conchetta was reciting the old Sicilian wives’ tale that any baby born on Good Friday was cursed by God.
The foul treatment would only get worse. Four years after she arrived in the Riggio home, Josephine was led by her godmother into a cold room where her uncle awaited.
“She told me to obey him and she left the room,” Josephine said. “I was frightened, but there was no place to go. My mother and sisters were in the Old Country and I did not know any good nuns to whom I might appeal. I had never been to confession and I did not know the wrong. For three years I lived this way.”
At her trial Josephine said that the told her godmother immediately after the first sexual assault, but received no sympathy.
“It was horrible. I told my aunt right away at first,” Josephine told the all-male jury. “But she only said, ‘Oh that is nothing. Little girls must do as they are told.'”
In addition to being sexually assaulted, Josephine told of being beaten, fed just scraps and leftovers, and forced to sleep in an unheated part of the house.
“I did not get enough to eat. I was not often allowed to go out. They always followed me,” she testified. “I could not talk to the men in the bake shop. They would not let me talk in English. I was obliged to get out of bed at 3 o’clock to begin the work. I never got to sleep until after 12 o’clock at night. I did all the housework for 10, 11 and 16 boarders up to the time I was married.”
When Giuseppe Terranova first saw the young beauty in the bakery, the young man who had grown up in a village less than five miles from Josephine’s Sicilian home fell in love.
At first Josephine rebuffed the building contractor’s advances, following the instructions of her abuser/uncle, who also denied Terranova’s requests to court the young woman. Eventually, however, Riggio changed his mind.
“Then just before Christmas Giuseppe came to my uncle’s house. He told my uncle he wanted to marry me,” she said. “They did not let me say one word to him. Giuseppe bought me all the pretty things for my wedding. Oh, I loved him.”
In January 1906, Giuseppe and Josephine, she wearing the velvet purple gown and new shoes Giuseppe purchased for the occasion, were married in a civil ceremony at the New York City Hall. Josephine also wanted a church wedding and told her relatives that she wanted to go to confession beforehand. Gaetano, fearing that his secret was about to be revealed, tried to dissuade her.
“Don’t you confess. The priest will teach you bad things,” he said. Then putting a white shawl over his head and shoulders, he called to Josephine. “Come here, Josephine, and I’ll confess you.”
But Margarita Furnio, Giuseppe’s sister, was not satisfied and took her future sister-in-law to the local parish priest. Gaetano followed at a distance, Margarita testified later. She told how the priest, after taking Josephine’s confession, refused to give the girl Communion.
“He said that he would not give her the Communion,” Margarita said. “Because she had no religion and did not know who God was.”
However, somehow Josephine received her church wedding; she remained in the Riggio home until that day. On the night before her wedding, Gaetano raped her one last time.
The marriage was unhappy from the start, but not because Giuseppe and Josephine were incompatible. Soon after Josephine moved into the home Giuseppe prepared for them, Gaetano began dropping hints that there was something amiss with Josephine’s purity.
“I was very happy,” she said during her testimony. “He loved me and I loved him. Then in three weeks we went to pay our visit to my uncle and aunt. My uncle looked at me and said to my husband: ‘This girl is not virtuous. She was born on Good Friday and she cannot be a good girl. You will not live with this girl more than one more week. When you get home you remind her of what I have said and make her explain.'”
It was when the newlyweds returned home that Giuseppe demanded to know what Gaetano meant and Josephine told him everything. For ten days after Giuseppe stormed from the home Josephine did not eat and rarely slept, her sister-in-law testified.
Her despair, combined with the lack of nourishment, caused her to begin to hear voices urging her to kill her aunt and uncle, Josephine told jurors. She said the voices assured her that once they were dead her “disgrace” would be cleansed from her.
“Josephine, tomorrow you must go,” she said the voice told her.
She told the court that she doubted whether it was the voice of God, and to make sure she made the Sign of the Cross and asked: “Is that God’s voice?”
The answer came: “You must go. It is God’s voice.”
She purchased a pistol and a stiletto and went back to house in the Bronx.
“Good evening. How are you?” Gaetano said when she appeared in his store. “Come upstairs with me. I know why you come.”
The rapist and victim climbed the stairs to where the Riggios had their apartment above the bakery.
Dominic Ciccio, an employee at the Riggio bakery, takes up the tale:
I heard cries of “Help!” I ran upstairs and went into the room. Josephine was crouching. She had a pistol in her hands. She was pointing it at her aunt. Riggio, the uncle, stood over her, and was holding the arm which held the pistol and was trying to drag her away. The pistol went off twice. Josephine must have fired it because she held it.
I closed in quick and got the pistol. Then Josephine ran out of the room. I held the boss up. He was hurt and there was blood on his clothes. He staggered and said, ‘I am dying.’ A baker came in and he held up the boss’s wife. I did not see any blood on her but she was hurt.
“Husband and wife fell to the floor. Josephine Terranova threw the knife between them, gathered her shawl about her shoulders and left the house,” the Times told readers. “The household knew in a moment what had happened, and every Italian felt that the Sicilian had taken what was hers. Not a hand was raised to stop her; not a man followed her.”
Gaetano and Conchetta were rushed to Fordham Hospital where doctors hoped to be able to save the life of Conchetta, but were sure Gaetano’s cause was hopeless. He was stabbed twice in the stomach, while she was stabbed through the back, slicing her kidney. The gunshots were wide of the mark.
Meanwhile, New York’s finest were out searching for Josephine. She was not at her home, and Giuseppe’s relatives had already disowned her. Ever the caring husband, Giuseppe led police to believe she had committed suicide.
Two days after the murder detectives learned that Josephine had relatives in Brooklyn and began a stakeout of their home. She was arrested there. Gaetano, suffering miserably with a gut wound, died two hours before the arrest, and Conchetta followed the morning after.
“I am glad I did it,” Josephine said. “I do not believe that God or the law will hold me to blame for what I have done.”
Josephine was right — at least about the law: A jury made up mostly of men with daughters and sisters acquitted her of Conchetta’s murder after a brief trial. The prosecution announced that it would not bother to try her for killing her uncle.
Two days after her acquittal for her godmother’s murder, Josephine was served with divorce papers by Giuseppe. The petition listed “fraud” as the reason for the divorce. It was granted, and Josephine Terranova — her 15 minutes of infamy over — became just another name in the dusty newspaper morgues of New York City.
One Boston newspaper reported that she entered a convent, but this cannot be confirmed. Regardless, while she escaped the gallows where Tess died, unlike Cinderella, she most likely did not live happily ever after.