If Netflix's hit show "Bridgerton" has taught us anything, it's that people are willing to do crazy things for a woman's reputation. Here is the true story of Maria Barbella, a woman who was willing to kill for hers.
This is a transcript from episode 2 of my podcast Madames & Murderers.
Like many In quarantine, I recently binged Netflix’s “Bridgerton” and although it took me a second to dive in when I realized it wasn’t an actual historical drama but a regency version of "Gossip Girl"...I soon was enveloped by all the dreamy and albeit misogynistic pleasantries and trials of the show.
If you haven’t watched the show, skip ahead a minute because I’m about to spill some tea. The BIGGEST conflict on the show is at its core, a woman's reputation. We are at the height of the “season” where we have mothers parading their daughters around like virginal trophies in the hopes of marrying them off to some rich guy to bring honor and prestige to the family and none is more paraded than Daphne Bridgerton who’s virtue comes into questions when she is seen *GASP* kissing Lord Basset in the garden.
A kiss, which nowadays isn’t even a base, is all it took to soil a woman's reputation in pretty much every moment in human history before like the 1960s. Not even a kiss, if you were SEEN even being ALONE with a man, instant whore, hussy, honestly dig yourself a whole and die in it because your life is over.
That man makes good and marries you!! Sure, if people know you kissed or had sex before marriage, you're still vilified BUT you’re married so in other words, you're safe.
Now todays tale does not take place in the regency period but rather in the late Victorian period in none other than Little Italy New York.
The year is 1892, amongst the 247,000 Italian immigrants that would migrate to NYC in that year alone, is a young merely 24 yr old Maria Barbella, who made the journey oversees with her parents from their hometown of Farrandina in the hopes of a better life. My own ancestors made their way from Palermo just a decade prior.
As was proper and normal in the time, Maria lived with her parents and found a job as, you guessed it! A seamstress!! Y'all thought I was gonna say prostitute huh? It was on her daily walks to work that her life’s course would be altered because it was on these walks that she would pass a shoeshine stand operated by a plump douche bagel, Domenico Cataldo.
For whatever the hell reasons, they started talking, I’m assuming he called out to her, complimented her, whatever the hell and soon he starts doing that thing where he talks about his future plans like “oooo I got biig plans, Ima open me up a barbershop, I’m gonna find me a wife and I’m gonna have me a whole gaggle of babies” and Maria for again, whatever reason, is like ooooooo that wifey is gonna be meeeee…..and she’d let him walk her home from work everyday except NOT all the way because she was worried her parents wouldn’t approve.
So this feels like red flag number one right? I mean, sure, our parents are always going to want us to find the best possible husband or wife and yes we can argue that because of the time, she’s thinking oh he’s not a suitable match because he’s not established and wealthy yet OR MAYBE she’s sensing the fact that this guy is actually just the fucking worst.
So her secret gets out, some neighbors probably blabbed because OMG A SINGLE WOMAN IS WALKING ALONE WITH A MAN, and her parents find out, FLIP and DEMAND she bring him home to meet them because he’s making their daughter out to be a hussy so he better have intention to marry which Maria ASSURES them he does.
Except, Cataldo keeps making excuses to NOT come to the house, this goes on for so long that Maria’s dad is like hell no, this guy is bad news, you’re forbidden to see him and so she stop. Flash forward 3 years, its 1895 and Cataldo’s bitch ass is back to pursuing her and making promises and Maria as the now 27 year old verging on spinster hopeless romantic….falls for it.
Now buckle up folks because our story is about to do that thing where the plot twists and gets a lot darker and I just feel like we should all prepare ourselves because WE ALL SAW THIS COMING, DIDN’T WE?
One night, Maria is alone with bitchass, mistake #1, he makes her a drink that he’s drugged, a little Victorian roofie probably and then proceeds to take her up to his room and have sex with her unconscious corpse. Now, until this point Maria was a virgin, when she comes too, she clearly is no longer a virgin. In other words “she's been disgraced.” I could do an entire episode venting about female virginity throughout the ages and why female purity is one of the most infuriating social and religious themes throughout human history but for the purposes of this episode I’ll just paraphrase -
I resent with my whole being that men can put their dick, no, were encouraged to put their dick wherever they wanted and women were seen as a delicate flower that could be shamed if only glanced at too long.
Ok, moving on.
Maria gets bold and demands Cataldo marry her since he’s essentially ruined her. What I always find crazy about these situations when I read about them is like, who is going to know for sure? Like, yes YOU will know you’re not a virgin and if you’re devoutly Catholic which i’m assuming Maria was, yea, you may have some repenting to do but like, you don’t have to tell people you’re not a virgin? Or did people really just spy on people that closely that they knew everyones business so she felt there was no way to hide it? In any case, Cataldo agrees that he will marry her EVENTUALLY but first they need an apartment to live in. Might be a sensible request for the time but since it’s coming from douche bagel extreme,.....naw.
So they get an apartment, THAT DOES HAPPEN but Cataldo still won’t marry Maria and he is actively carrying on affairs with other women. Finally, when Maria has had ENOUGH on April 20th, Cataldo straight up tells her, I’m never going to marry you and instead says and I quote;
“I’ll find you a young man willing to marry you. I’ll tell him you’re a widow. I’ll buy you a black dress. You’ll marry him because I want you to. Then I’ll come to visit you while he’s at work.”
Things aren’t getting better because after that tomfoolery, the shenanigans continue when Maria learns that Cataldo is (to the surprise of no one) ALREADY MARRIED WITH BAMBINOS BACK IN ITALY and, drumroll please, PLANS ON RETURNING TO THEM.
Temperatures are rising both figuratively and literally on the afternoon of April 26th when during an intense heat wave, Maria and Domenico are fighting and her mom shows up like she apparently did frequently to plead with him to marry her daughter so she wouldn’t be disgraced and he had apparently had enough because he throws her mother to side and runs out of the apartment and into a bar. Maria chases after him because if anyone has ever been with an Italian woman knows, we don’t stop the fight just because you left.
Domenico is in Mancuso ‘s bar playing freakin cards when Maria storms in and demands ONE LAST TIME for him to marry her in which he replies, “only pigs marry.” Well, guys, Maria has had enough, she puts her hand on his shoulder, he pushes it off just as she slides a straight razor across his neck…. Does anyone else hear "He Had it Coming" from Chicago in their heads right now? Just me? Ok. Domencio stumbles into the street grasping at his neck as it spews blood before he collapses dead. I’d like to picture a carriage then riding over his corpse but...no such luck.
Despite EVERYONE seeing Maria commit the murder she returns home, has enough time to change out of her bloody clothes but yes of course, she was promptly arrested and taken to New York's Tomb Prison.
What did she say when the police asked her what happened you ask? Well she said, and i quote, “Me take his blood so he no take mine. Say me pig marry.”
The prosecution against Maria was made up with a narrative of premeditated murder stating she’d brought the straight razor with her to the bar in the sole purpose of killing Domenico….I honesty can’t 100% disagree with that BUT what they used to their advantage the most was Maria’s poor English. When trying to translate her “passionate testimony” their words not mine, they relayed a dull and nonchalant testimony which did not help.
Then of course you had the final words to the jury from Judge Geoff who said;
"Your verdict must be an example of justice. A jury must not concern itself with mercy. The law does not distinguish between the sexes. The fragility of the female sex is sometimes involved to excuse savage crimes. We cannot publicly proclaim a woman not guilty of killing a man solely because this man has proposed marriage and then changed his mind!"
Not surprisingly, it only took the jury only 45 minutes to deliberate before concluding that Maria was guilty of first degree murder and was sentenced to death at Sing Sing prison where she would be executed by the newly installed electric chair!!! Fire off the fireworks!!!
Now this was CRAZY because she would be the ONLY female prisoner at Sing Sing AND the first to be executed by the electric chair. It would have been a horrifying reality for Maria.
Yet, our story is about to twist again because despite the murder of Domenico happening in broad daylight and witnessed by many, the public was NOT OK with a woman being sentenced to death for murder and there are a couple reasons why that I’m fascinated by. One of them being the very age old and albeit WRONG belief that women are incapable of cold blooded murder. I believe very much the opposite and i’m sure many of these podcast episodes will be dedicated to the malicious and terrifying crimes of women.
The other factor is many believed that it was improper to sentence a woman to death EVEN IF she committed the crime and there was also an additional factor that many were starting to oppose the death penalty altogether.
All of these things played a role in the fight for an appeal for Maria but the largest reason why was the belief that she had not been given a fair trail and none other believed that more fiercely than Clara Slocomb who had married Count Detalmo di Brazza and was living in Italy when she’d read about the case. She was so taken with it and so sure Maria had been wrongly sentenced that she came back to America, met with Maria at Sing Sing and helped acquire her a better legal team who almost 2 years after Maria had been imprisoned, finally got Maria the fair trial she needed.
Maria’s lawyers argued that she slashed Domenico’s throat by accident due to an epileptic seizure, I’m not kidding. Apparently this defense had been used 4 other times in other countries and worked so perhaps her lawyers thought well hell! Let's give it the old college try! They introduced evidence of mental health issues in Maria’s families background, was it real? Who the hell knows. Maria who now spoke fluent english gave a new testimony of the murder claiming she had no memory of killing Domenico and then they ended it by saying Domenico’s statement that “only pigs marry” triggered her INTO that seizure…..
Yea…..why she was still carrying the straight razor and managed to slash his throat whilst in the middle of an epileptic seizure makes zero sense to me BUT it worked! After 40 minutes of deliberation, 5 less than the original trial, the jury found Maria NOT guilty and she was released from prison! Less than a year later she was married to Francesco Paulo Bruno, and the rest of her life faded into obscurity.
Do i think Maria was guilty? YES OF COURSE YES, but do I think it’s a little badass that she escaped death row, got away with the murder AND married a man and i’m assuming lived a happy life free of the POS that Domenico Cataldo was? 100%.
So the moral of todays tale Creeps is don’t promise to marry an Italian if you’re not gonna do it because not only will you pay...possibly with your life...but they will get away with it.