Cover Image: The Lady of Sing Sing

The Lady of Sing Sing

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Member Reviews

The Lady of Sing Sing (originally published as The Trials of Maria Barbella) by Idanna Pucci is both a history book that reads like a novel and a cultural/social history text that uses real incidents to highlight flaws and inconsistencies within the justice system, both in 1895 and 2021. A reader wanting either of these types of books will be quite satisfied and for those of us interested in both, we are that much happier.

While well-researched this book does not use much in the way of citation. Not that big of a deal since this is not an academic work and for someone interested in the details of the trials and the movement there is information available. But if you're used to reading academic books or the non-academic book that still tries to cite sources, you will be a little put off. Don't let it get to you, the key here, in addition to the plight of the individual, is the bigger picture, and those points are made quite well without citation. Some detail might be lost but the story and what it tells us is still intact.

I would recommend this to those who enjoy both history and, because of how it reads, historical fiction. If you enjoy looking at cultural differences, what a murder can mean in two different cultures, for example, this will be an intriguing read.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
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I enjoyed this book for the historical context and the story. My grandfather was one of the original prison guards at Sing Sing so, the title caught my attention. I thought the Author did an excellent job 'telling the story' from different perspectives, which offered a broad picture of the events. The book appeared to be well researched and I enjoyed the Author's personal connection to the story.
I particularly enjoyed the Epilogue and the story after the story, which brought the book to life.

Many thanks to the Author, NetGalley and Tiller Press for the opportunity to read and review this interesting book.

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In her recently re-released book The Lady of Sing Sing: An American Countess, An Italian Immigrant, and their Epic Battle for Justice in New York’s Gilded Age (Simon & Schuster 2020), previously published as The Trials of Maria Barbella (1996), Idanna Pucci recounts the harrowing story of young Italian immigrant Maria Barbella. After being convicted of murdering her lover, Domenico Cataldo, in New York City, Barbella became the first woman to be sentenced to death by electrocution in the state of New York in 1895. Seduced and ruined by the unscrupulous Domenico, who had promised her marriage but who never made good his promise, the desperate Maria took matters into her own hands to avenge her honour and that of her family. In April 1895, after catching wind that Domenico planned to return to his legitimate wife and family back in Italy, Maria followed her lover from their apartment to a local bar. Here, in one final pleading scene to make her his wife, in which Domenico uttered the insulting phrase “only pigs marry”, Maria cut Domenico’s throat with his own razor. Although seen by the American public as cold-blooded murder, by Italian custom Maria’s actions were interpreted by many as the only option left to a woman whose honour had been tainted. Maria did not deny the crime and openly confessed to having committed murder. However, some postulated that during her trial and subsequent imprisonment she did not even fully realize Domenica Cataldo was dead. Although she had killed him to avenge her honour, Maria was still greatly in love with Domenico and never once throughout her ordeal did she waver in her devotion to him. Depending on the perspective, Pucci makes the argument that it was in fact Maria who was the victim rather than Domenico. Intertwined with the story of Maria Barbella is that of the great American born Italian Countess, Cora Slocomb di Brazza, the author’s great-grandmother, who came to the aid of the helpless young woman who faced the electric chair. 

	There could be no greater contrast between the origins of Maria Barbella, born in the town of Ferrarandina, Italy to peasant parents, and that of the Countess di Brazza, born into an affluent family in New Orleans that was connected to many of the great families of the United States. Maria and the rest of the Barbella family would immigrate to New York in search of a better life, while Cora married the wealthy Count di Brazza and settled into the family palace in her adopted Italy, frequently crossing the Atlantic to visit her American relatives. It was only while researching her great-grandmother, that Idanna Pucci uncovered her personal connection to Maria Barbella and the role her ancestor had played in altering the young woman’s fate. Indeed, if it had not been for the countess’s interest it is unlikely that the case would have become the cause celebre that it did. Arrested soon after she had taken her lover’s life, Maria was put on trial for his murder and found guilty. Once found guilty and sentenced to death by the newly invented electric chair, Maria was sent to the infamous Sing Sing Prison to await her fate. 

	Highlighted extensively throughout the book is the prejudice and ill treatment that Italians faced upon immigration to the United States. Although they came with the hopes of starting a new life and raising their financial and social prospects, many of the Italians who came to New York City lived and worked in more appalling conditions than they had left behind in Italy. This prejudice was on full display for Maria Barbella’s trial. Although provided with an interpreter, who performed this task poorly, it was evident that Maria did not understand what was going on around her and little effort was made to rectify this. Much to the horror of Maria’s supporters, which in addition to the Countess di Brazza also included the likes of Rebecca Salome Foster, the judge, John W. Goff, who presided over Maria’s trial, felt no sympathy for the accused and allowed few witnesses to testify on behalf of the defense. It was at this point, when Maria was given the verdict of guilty and sentenced to death, that the Countess di Brazza used her far-reaching influence to bring attention to the injustice suffered by the poor Italian immigrant. Not all were supportive of Maria, but an appeal was successful, and Maria was granted a second trial. Jailed for almost two years, Maria’s second trial did not occur until November 1896. 

	Another significant theme that Pucci highlights, and which was a significant to the defense’s case at Maria’s second trial, is that of mental illness and the pseudoscience of phrenology. Taken up by the defense was the theory that at the time Maria committed the murder she in fact suffered an epileptic seizure. This theory was well supported by a thorough investigation of the medical history of both sides of Maria’s family which revealed that there was a long history of mental illness. Few of the many medical men present wished to make a judgement on Maria’s mental state at the time of the murder, but much to the shame of the Barbella family their long-held family secrets of mental illness over many generations were paraded before the court. The lawyers involved in the case even went so far as to publicly analyse the mental deficiencies and degenerate phrenology of several of Maria’s family members seated in the audience for all to see. With this line of defence, coupled with many more witnesses being allowed to testify, the counsel presented a much more sympathetic case. This time the jury found Maria not guilty and she was freed, much to the relief of the Countess di Brazza. 

	A murder trial like Maria’s made global headlines, but as Idanna Pucci makes clear in her book, the press was not always truthful in their handling of the facts. Indeed, most newspaper accounts refer to Maria as Maria Barberi rather than Maria Barbella, likely because this made-up surname brought the barbaric nature of the crime to the fore. Cora di Brazza was able to utilize the press to her advantage to drum up support for Maria, but as Pucci details, the press often sensationalized Maria’s story which ultimately affected her case and perception of the general public toward her. Not only were facts muddled, but some newspapermen fabricated entire stories about Maria, one such being that she was pregnant while awaiting execution. This gave rise to a wider conversation about the appropriateness of condemning a woman to death, especially one who might possibly be with child. 

	Since the original publication of the story of Maria Barbella in 1996, Pucci has continued her meticulous research and brings further closure to the case in the form of a fascinating epilogue that connects the past to the present. Revealed by Pucci in these final pages is what happened to Maria after her second trial and the search for living descendants of the Barbella family. The fate of The Countess di Brazza, along with all of the other key historical figures in the book, is also detailed.  Gifted with the imagination of a novelist, Idanna Pucci blends historical fact with exquisite narrative to tell the full story of Maria Barbella and what she faced at the hands of the American justice system after the murder of her lover Domenico Cataldo.
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I was overwhelmed by this magnificent book.  It is an extremely well researched,, emotional as well as factual story of  Maria Barbella's seduction, and subsequent abuse by her lover, his death, her subsequent arrest, trial, conviction and sentence of death in the electric chair in 1895..  At the same time it is also the fascinating story of the Countess of Brazza and her long and tortuous road to save Maria from the electric chair.  If it were not for her heroic efforts it is doubtful that Maria would ever have been acquitted in a second trial.  For that matter the fact that she even received a second trial was largely due to the enormous support she received from Cora di Brazza.  An American woman originally from New Orleans who married an Italian count Deltamo di Brazza whose family was well known for scientific pursuits and many philanthropic enterprises  Cora developed a close relationship with Maria and fought for her fiercely.  The book uncovers many instances of discrimination against minorities, in particular at that time, the Italians and I can relate being the daughter of an Italian immigrant.  It is difficult today to even imagine the amount of prejudice that existed then but unfortunately as illustrated in this true story it existed..  The role of the AC/DC controversy between Thomas Edison who was in favor of DC and Westinghouse (AC) and the use of the electric chair played a sinister part of this saga..    It is hard to believe that Thomas Edison could have used his influence in this case to be pro-death penalty but the evidence seems to point to it.   The last section of the book emotionally written by Cora's great grand-daughter describes the lengths she went to in order to track down Marias direct descendants which she succeeded in doing.  All in all, I highly recommend this book to readers and am grateful to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the opportunity to read this marvelous story.
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This biography is about so many facinating Americans, not just Cora and Maria.  It's so full of history about the life of immigrants and those in power, in New York city, near the turn of the century.  I felt like I got to know Cora's family and Maria's family while meeting some of the good and the bad people that they came across.  It was interesting to read all the old ideas about science and health that were testified to in court.  I especially appreciated all the work that the author put into rounding out a lovely ending.
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A true crime book that reads like historical fiction? YES PLEASE. 

Take a look:

Previously published as The Trials of Maria Barbella. In 1895, a twenty-two-year-old Italian seamstress named Maria Barbella was accused of murdering her lover, Domenico Cataldo, after he seduced her and broke his promise to marry her. Following a sensational trial filled with inept lawyers, dishonest reporters and editors, and a crooked judge repaying political favors, the illiterate immigrant became the first woman sentenced to the newly invented electric chair at Sing Sing, where she is also the first female prisoner. Behind the scenes, a corporate war raged for the monopoly of electricity pitting two giants, Edison and Westinghouse with Nikola Tesla at his side, against each other.

Enter Cora Slocomb, an American-born Italian aristocrat and activist, who launched the first campaign against the death penalty to save Maria. Rallying the New York press, Cora reached out across the social divide—from the mansions of Fifth Avenue to the tenements of Little Italy. Maria’s “crime of honor” quickly becomes a cause celebre, seizing the nation’s attention. Idanna Pucci, Cora’s great-granddaughter, masterfully recounts this astonishing story by drawing on original research and documents from the US and Italy. This dramatic page-turner, interwoven with twists and unexpected turns, grapples with the tragedy of immigration, capital punishment, ethnic prejudice, criminal justice, corporate greed, violence against women, and a woman’s right to reject the role of victim. Over a century later, this story is as urgent as ever.

This is the book I am starting this afternoon and I am really excited about it.

Its out now, definitely get a copy if you enjoy history and true crime.
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In 1895, American pioneer activist Cora Slocomb, Countess of Brazzà, waged a campaign against the death penalty. Her attempts sought to save the life of a twenty-year-old illiterate Italian immigrant Maria Barbella who killed her lover Domenico Cataldo after he seduced her, abused her and broke his promise to marry her. 
Maria was the first female prisoner in Sing Sing and the first woman sentenced to die in the electric chair. This book details her sensational trial marked by inept lawyers, dishonest reporters and editors, and a crooked judge. It details the appeal trial, too, and the author's reconciliation with Maria's descendants today. 
Readers also discover details about the death penalty in America. The author outlines her argument against the death penalty. I also found it interesting that this case includes a corporate war waged for the monopoly of electricity between Thomas Edison and Westinghouse, a main reason Maria was sentenced to the electric chair.
In this book, readers learn about the tragedy of immigration, capital punishment, ethnic prejudice, criminal justice, corporate greed, violence against women, and a woman’s right to reject the role of victim. Over a century later, this story is as urgent as ever.
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Thank you to NetGalley, Idanna Pucci and the publisher for granting my wish and providing me an e-ARC in exchange for my honest opinion.

As a granddaughter of an Italian immigrant, who also entered the US through Ellis Island and made his home/life in NYC, I was absolutely intrigued by this book.

The author does a loving and honest tribute to her family with this book and a lot of research to get it right. I, like others, found it very hard to put down and finished it in one day. The assistance she received from the Countess, the Tomb Angel and others was amazing and brave for women at that time and makes you wonder what would have been her outcome if they were not there to help her.

A great read with a terrific ending which tells the rest of the story of where the characters lives ended up.

A highly recommended read!
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What a thrill to have encountered this magnificent book!  Every single page held me spellbound.  Not only is this true story about Italian Maria Barbella who killed an abusive man in the late 1800s in New York riveting but I am very familiar with Udine and Ferradina, both communities in Italy, both key to the story.  The author is the great great granddaughter of the ambitious American aristocrat Cora Slocomb who married an Italian man.  Cora was a tireless humanitarian with a remarkable personality and advocated on Maria's behalf as she had an unfair trial.  Incidentally, Cora started a lace-making co-op in Italy and began many human rights organizations.  

As a young and incredibly naive and shy woman Maria emigrated from an impoverished environment in Italy to New York and spoke no English.  She was also illiterate.  Unfortunately, Italians immigrants were treated abysmally in New York as well.  Maria was noticed by a man and fell in love (or the idea of it) who took her honour in exchange for promises of marriage.  When he brutally rescinded that promise Maria used a razor to slit his throat as she was left with nothing.  However, she had no memory of the action and was exploited in her trial because of this and her illiteracy.  Her unusually harsh judge sentenced her to death by the electric chair which was still new.  Interestingly, the author describes the US energy supply companies Westinghouse and Edison and the first person to be electrocuted.  We see the question of insanity and self defense, too.

Kind and down to earth Rebecca Foster visited women in Sing Sing prison each day to offer hope.  Maria's story crushed her so she advocated for her along with Cora.  The author describes so much from the personalities involved to the realities of prison and fear of execution as well as Maria's trial and re-trial which came much later.  Also fascinating are the descriptions of what happened to each person involved, some poignant and moving.  

This book was written and published several years ago but is being re-published with an incredible update!  I will just say that the author's family story could not be more intriguing.  The author returns to the Udine area (not far from Venice) and Ferradina, Southern Italy to seek answers.  The emotions she must have felt...

It is not possible to recommend this book more highly.  Though tragic it is also inspiring and hopeful as we see kindness in action.  It gave me goosebumps!

My sincere thank you to Tiller Press and NetGalley for the privilege of reading this compelling ARC!
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