She slumped down into the half-broken wooden chair, heart straining against the cage of her ribs. Street noises – hoof beats, shouts, curses — seemed so muffled, though the window was open with spring breeze moving her faded patterned curtains.
Earlier, she sent the children to Mrs. O’Neil’s three houses down. “Hush” she whispered. “Father is sleeping; let him lay still and quiet.” The children, far too thin and stunted in their ill-fitting clothes nodded in silent agreement. They saw the painful results of angering Father – the slap, the punch – bruises blossoming on arms and thighs. The scars, bright against Mother’s olive skin.
The new life inside her moved. Yes, she had done it for this little one and for the others. Being a bad woman to please a pig of a man. She would never prostitute herself.
The mingling smell of his sweat, beer, and blood seemed to shut the window and pull the walls towards her. She sighed, straightening her crumpled back. She must wash her hands, pull in the laundry line, put on a fresh apron. Tell Mrs. O’Neil, gather up her little ones. Then wait for the police. Angelina knew she could not hide what she had done. Done for herself and the little-one-to-be. She would not walk the streets of Sault Ste. Marie as a woman for sale. And now she thought, as she laid the blood-stained ax on the table, he would no longer swagger.
When Angelina Napolitano killed her husband on Easter Sunday, April 16, 1911, the “battered woman” defense did not exist within the Canadian judicial and legal systems. Her trial and conviction (8-9 May, 1911) sparked an international debate.
Few details exist about Angelina’s life narrative. Probably born circa 1883 in a small town outside Naples, she married Pietro Napolitano in 1898, immigrating first to New York City (circa 1900), then Canada in 1909. Eventually, the family (Angelina had four children) arrived in the immigrant Italian community in Ste. Sault Marie, Ontario. Angelina first came to the attention the legal system when Pietro was charged with assault in November, 1910. Her stabbed her nine times with a pocket-knife in her face, neck, shoulder, chest and arms. However, as was common then, he received a suspended sentence and returned home.
Her court-appointed lawyer, Uriah McFadden, called only one witness, Angelina herself. In her testimony, stumbling over unfamiliar English words, she stated her case of self defense due to provocation. As she would not compromise her “virtue and dignity” by prostitution, she had to kill him, or be killed.
Police records and other evidence of her husband’s recent attack were deemed inadmissible by the judge, Justice Moffatt Britton.: “if anybody injured six months ago could give that as justification or excuse for slaying a person, it would be anarchy complete.” Thus, without a reasonable “provocation” (what now would be a “battered woman’s defense”) defense, Angelina was quickly found guilty. On May 9, 1911, despite pleas from the jury for clemency, the Judge sentenced her to death.
Response to her sentence reveals much about Canadian society in the first decade of the 20th century. The Ste-Saint Marie newspapers ran stories steeped in the prevalent racist rhetoric. Angelina was “hot-blooded,” and like others of her “race,” was “all too ready as it is to use the knife, the pistol, or any other weapon that lies at hand, as a means of redressing real or fancied wrongs.” This was the danger caused by allowing immigrants to flood into the country.
Support for Angelina, seeking the commuting of her sentence to a prison term, or even a pardon, could be couched in the gendered, sexist, and stereotype tropes on the time. Some argued that, as she was six months pregnant, Angelina’s actions were caused by an unbalanced emotional state. Others felt her understandably agitated state prior to her execution would leave lasting psychological damage to her unborn child: “every additional hour spent by her in the condition of terror, anticipating her execution [would] react in a delirious manner upon her unborn innocent child” warned the Toronto Suffrage Association. Angelina gave birth in prison; her child did not survive.
Within a few weeks of her sentencing, petitions and letters flooded the desk of the Canadian Minister of Justice, Sir Allen Bristol Aylesworth. Groups as diverse as British feminists and a men’s bible group all echoed her lawyer, McFadden’s plea for leniency. Canadian, American and British suffragists and feminists, seasoned lobbyists, were particularly able to launch a global campaign and keep Angelina’s case in the public consciousness.
With two months, Angelina’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Then, her life narrative once again fades. She served 11 years in the Kingston Penitentiary, perhaps was able to locate her children who had been placed in foster care. It is supposed she died in Frontenac, Ontario in 1932.
Her life narrative caught the imagination of film maker, Sergio Navarretta, who made the feature film Looking for Angelina in 2004. It was screened at several film festivals, and was used as the focal point of educational screenings on domestic abuse.
I was not aware of Angelina prior to my research for oatcakes & snowdrops. As the world began to “shelter in place,” I wondered about those whose homes were anything but a shelter. Thus, Angelina’s story took on a new immediacy for me. Domestic violence hot lines continue to operate; shelters are still open. With close proximity, phone calls become more dangerous. Text and chat are also available to provide women and others in abusive relationships with assistance. These organizations are also resources for the friends, family, neighbours, co-workers of people in abusive relationships.
Domestic abuse is confined to physical violence – the slap, the kick, the punch can come verbally, psychologically, monetarily, and emotionally as well.
In the US: National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233; logon to thehotline.org; or text LOVEIS to 22522. The National Domestic Violence Hotline recognizes that with social distancing, methods other than a phone call are crucial. Their website, chat, and text lines provide other ways to connect. Remember, you are not alone.
Sources for this post include:
Karen Dubinsky and Franca Iacovetta, “Murder, Womanly Virtue, and Motherhood: The Case of Angelina Napolitano, 1911-1922”, Canadian Historical Review 72 (1991): 505-531. Accessed through Project Muse.
Franca Iacovetta, “Napolitano, Angelina,” Biography Canada.
Liza Myers, “The Case of Angelina Napolitano”, Dalhousie Feminist Law Student Blog, January 12, 2014.
“Angelina Napolitano”, Wikipedia.
“Canada’s Great Women,” Canada’s History, posted January 8, 2016.