Murder Mystery NYC Diaries - Case #11: Big Trouble in Little Italy
When someone is murdered, it is usually taboo to claim the victim deserved their fate, regardless how despicable and heinous their behavior may have been. This is why many authors of murder mysteries (including immersive murder mysteries) channel this frustration and put it into their work. This way the audience doesn't feel bad about seeing someone's demise, because they are only a fictional character. However, in reality, much of the time people feel this way not because they relish in in a terrible person's suffering, but rather because they are sympathetic to those who have been wronged.
Maria Barbella was born in Italy in 1868 and moved to New York in 1892. They settled in Mulberry Bend, a neighborhood in Little Italy. When going to work as a seamstress, she would pass the shoe shining stand Domenico Cataldo, another Italian immigrant, on a daily basis. The two became friendly and began a secret relationship, as Barbella feared her overbearing parents would disapprove. Eventually her parents discovered they two had been seeing each other and demanded she bring Cataldo to meet them. After he refused, her parents forbade her from seeing Cataldo any further. Despite this, Cataldo continued to pursue her, and Barbella eventually disobeyed her parents orders and met with him.
A Series of Betrayals
However, the suspicions Maria’s parents had about Cataldo may have been warranted. One night in 1895, Barbella met Cataldo at his home for a drink. It was there where he drugged her drink and sexually assaulted her. This caused Barbella to feel a great sense of shame. She had a very strong set of principles when it came to chastity and intimacy. Despite his despicable actions, Barbella demanded Cataldo marry her to restore their honor. He was hesitant at first, but eventually agreed, but continually put it off for months.
Maria Barbella eventually discovered that Cataldo already had a wife and children back in Italy and planned on returning there once he ended their relationship. Distressed, Barbella had no one else to turn to, so she discussed the situation with her parents. In the middle of an argument between the couple, Maria’s mother, Filomena Barbella, confronted Cataldo, demanding he marry her daughter. He eventually agreed, but only if her family paid him $200.
The Breaking Point
On April 26th, Domenico Cataldo was playing cards at Mancuso’s Saloon on the day he planned on leaving for Italy. Maria interrupted his match and asked him to marry her one more time. His response was, “Only a pig can marry you!”. Those were his last words. Barbella slashed his throat with a razor. He then stumbled out of the saloon, covered in blood, as horrified onlookers watched him collapse and die.
The murder itself wasn’t necessarily a mystery, but the resulting investigation and search for a motive made it one of the most notorious murder mysteries in New York. Barbella was arrested and taken to the New York Halls of Justice and House of Detention. The jury would likely have been sympathetic to Maria’s testimony, but the problem was she did not speak English. Many believe the court appointed translator did a poor job and translating her story, negatively affecting the outcome of the trial. It only took 45 minutes for the jury to convict her of first-degree murder. She was sent to Sing Sing where she was scheduled to be executed via electric chair.
A Second Chance?
The public had issues with the outcome of the trial for several reasons. Along with the botched testimony translation, people also did not think it was fair there were no Italians on the jury. Others believed it was wrong to execute a woman at all. Because of this perceived injustice, Barbella gained a following of supporters. After many complaints to the governor, Barbella was granted a second trial. This time, the defense had much more time to craft a much more sympathetic portrayal of the sequence of events, showing her as a rape victim who killed her husband after she lost her inhibitions after suffering a seizure brought on by stress from the abuse she endured. Maria had time to learn enough English to give her testimony in a much more convincing way. She claimed that because of her seizure, she had no memory of killing Cataldo. Maria was acquitted on all charges, giving this NYC murder mystery what many consider a justified ending.
After this ordeal was finished she disappeared from public life, moving back in with her parents and marring another Italian immigrant who she had a son with.
Stay tuned for our next entry in our exciting Murder Mystery NYC Diary series!