- - Thursday, March 19, 2020

How society should treat a person who has killed another has been a dilemma for millennia. In our attempt to make the punishment fit the crime, we have divided such killings into more and more subcategories, with the penalties varying according to our concept of their enormity. 

So we have first-degree murder (planned), second-degree murder (intentional but unplanned), manslaughter (accidental), and such modern variations as “felony murder” and murders that are also hate crimes, as well as the unprosecuted category of “justifiable homicide.”

But all the parsing has not made it easier for us as a nation to decide what punishment to mete out once a killer has been convicted. There is such a constant debate raging over the death penalty — outlawed in 21 states — that in 2019 there were only 22 executions although there were more than 2,600 inmates on death row.

One of the best organized and most wide-ranging debates over the death penalty — and the whole concept of when and how a killer should be punished — occurred in 1896, and is the subject of the just-published “The Lady of Sing Sing” by Idanna Pucci. Compelling and eminently readable, the book nonetheless leaves the demanding reader with far too many questions.

Ms. Pucci’s book is about Maria Barbella, an Italian immigrant to New York who killed the man who had seduced her and then refused to marry her. It is undisputed that she wielded the straight razor that severed his neck artery, but her intentions — even her competency — was far from clear.  Maria, 26 at the time, was convicted and sentenced to death in the electric chair, a modern replacement for hanging. 

But her trial was such a travesty — presided over by an obviously biased judge who appointed an incompetent lawyer to defend her, refused to allow testimony by defendant’s witnesses, and gave a prejudicial charge to the jury — that it was thrown out by an appellate court.

The strategy for her second trial and for the nationwide demonstrations of support for her, was engineered by the real heroine of this book, author Pucci’s great-grandmother, Cora Slocomb. She was the Countess di Brazzà, daughter of a prominent New Orleans family who had married an Italian nobleman.

Cora was a social and political dynamo. She chaired various peace organizations, and organized a lace-making cooperative for Italian peasants and successfully lobbied Washington to lower the tariff on lace so they could sell more in the United States. When she read of Maria Barbella’s plight, she immediately took helping her as a personal crusade. 

She did not get to the United States in time for the first trial, but she captained the appeal and second trial, enlisting the top legal talent in New York paying expenses out of her own fortune.

Besides the legal campaign, di Brazza mounted a vigorous public relations effort. “Mass meetings in favor of Maria were organized in various cities,” according to Ms. Pucci. “In Boston, two thousand people filled Faneuil Hall.” Prominent politicians, business moguls, and clerics were rounded up by the countess to speak out on Maria’s behalf. 

Newspapers printed a petition form she designed which readers could sign and send to New York’s governor asking for commutation of the death penalty. It was a historic development. Ms. Pucci writes: “The press’s intervention transformed Cora’s intent to save Marian Barbella from the electric chair into the first nationwide American campaign to abolish the death penalty.” One-hundred-fifty-thousand of the forms were returned.

So the story goes in “The Lady of Sing Sing,” which reads more like a novel than a work of non-fiction. It unspools without a single footnote or bibliographic reference, a salmagundi of cited source material (quotes from newspaper articles), material from which she might possibly have documentation (such as trial testimony), and material which there is no possible way for her to know (such as how characters were feeling or thinking).

The reader has little aid in separating fact from Ms. Pucci’s fertile imagination. And at times she is just plain wrong, perhaps most importantly in portraying Maria as the first woman sentenced to death by the electric chair; that honor (if it is indeed an honor) belongs to Lissie Halliday, sentenced the year before Barbella.

Doubts about reliability are edged even higher by the strange publishing history of this book. Bilingual Pucci wrote it in English, but it was first published,in 1993, in an Italian translation. It’s first English publication three years later, titled “The Trials of Maria Barbella,” was not her original manuscript, but a translation back from the Italian. That was then re-edited the following year for the paperback edition. The current version seems unchanged, including information she discovered later only in an “afterword.”  

So all in all, “The Lady of Sing Sing” is a good read, but be cautious about citing it as a credible source.

• Daniel B. Moskowitz, a Washington journalist, has long specialized in writing about legal affairs.

• • •


By Idanna Pucci

Tiller Press, $26.99, 282 pages

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