Opinion

Murderous wife paid dearly in landmark abuse case

By Tom Villemaire, Special to Postmedia Network

Judge Byron Moffat Britton rejected axe-killer Angelina Napolitano’s defence of abuse for murdering her husband in 1911, finding her guilty and sentencing her to hang.

Judge Byron Moffat Britton rejected axe-killer Angelina Napolitano’s defence of abuse for murdering her husband in 1911, finding her guilty and sentencing her to hang.

On Dec. 30, 1922, Angelina Napolitano walked out of Kingston Penitentiary, a free woman. She was 39.

She was the mother of five children, but she hadn’t seen four of them since Easter Sunday, April 16, 1911 — the day she had murdered her husband in the family home, a crime for which she’d been sentenced to death.

Her trial was told that on that holy day, she had been told by her husband, Pietro Napolitano, to go out and sell her body in prostitution while he slept. She was five months pregnant with this child, but he threatened that if she had no money when he awoke, he would either beat her or kill her. He had attacked her with a knife the previous November, stabbing her nine times and leaving her shoulder and face disfigured. He received a suspended sentence. The court heard he had also beat her numerous other times.

Pietro went upstairs to his bed, clearly fearless.

Angelina, terrified, considered her options. She picked up an axe and followed her husband up the stairs.

“If he was awake, he would kill me, if he wasn’t . . .”

Pietro was asleep by the time she entered the bedroom and she struck him on the neck and head four times with the axe, killing him. Then she called a neighbour, told him what had happened and sat with her four children, hugging the youngest, and waited for the police to arrive.

The trial, which began in May (less than a month after the murder), was a sensation, covered in newspapers around the world.

It was the first Canadian trial where evidence of an abusive relationship was offered as a defence in a murder case.

The judge, Byron Moffatt Britton, said that evidence of abuse wasn’t admissible: “if anybody injured six months ago could give that as justification or excuse for slaying a person, it would be anarchy complete.”

Angelina had no lawyer at the start, but Uriah McFadden was appointed to represent her and the proceedings were stopped until the next morning so a defence could be prepared.

Nine witnesses testified for the prosecution and Angelina was the sole witness for the defence.

The jury found her guilty but recommended clemency. Britton ignored the jury and sentenced Angelina to hang, but only after she’d given birth, setting Aug. 9 as the date for execution.

Support for Angelina poured in from around the world. She was lauded for her courage. One comment from a London, England petitioner: “The taking of a corrupt life of her wicked husband was not even murder. The world needs such heroines to lift it out of the foul rut in which it lies today.”

Dr. Alexander Aalto of Cleveland, Ohio, offered to be hanged in Angelina’s place, saying “It would only be fair to Mrs. Napolitano for a man to give his life for her.”

The month before her execution was to take place, the federal cabinet commuted her sentence to life imprisonment. She gave birth in August. The baby died a few weeks later. Angelina was sent to Kingston, almost 1,000 kilometres from her remaining children, whom she never saw again, to serve her sentence. She was released 11 years later.

Angelina died in 1932, only 49 years old, at Hotel Dieu Hospital in Kingston.