by LAURA GUZZO
In 1911, Angelina Napolitano was one of the most famous women in the world, with supporters from around the globe. Fast forward to today and most people, not only in the Italian-Canadian community, barely register her name.
Angelina was part of the early wave of Italian immigrants to Canada, arriving in Sault Ste. Marie with her husband Pietro and their four children in 1909. Pietro found work as a labourer but struggled to earn enough money to support his family. To cope, he took to drinking – and pressuring his wife to help out through prostitution. Despite Angelina’s repeated refusals, Pietro kept insisting and became increasingly violent. During one argument, Pietro stabbed Angelina nine times in the shoulder, arms, chest and face, leaving her hospitalized for three weeks and permanently disfigured.
On April 16, 1911, Easter Sunday, the arguing reached a breaking point. Pietro issued an ultimatum to Angelina: bring home money for the family that day or be killed. He then went to the family’s upstairs apartment to take a nap. It would prove to be fatal.While he slept, Angelina made a decision that would seal her fate and cement her fame. She crept upstairs and swiftly landed four axe blows to his head, killing him instantly. She was five months pregnant with her fifth child.
The trial came less than a month later and lasted just three hours. As the only witness for the defence, Angelina explained in broken English how her husband’s abuse drove her to kill him, so as to protect her virtue and her children. It was the first time in Canada that domestic abuse was offered as a justification for murder.
It fell on deaf ears
The jury found her guilty. Although they recommended imprisonment, judge Byron Moffatt Britton decided Angelina should hang for her crime.
Reports of the trial and sentence immediately sparked an international outcry, with over 100,000 letters pouring in from Canada, the U.S. and Europe, pleading for clemency for Angelina. The pressure reached Ottawa, and on July 14, 1911, the government commuted her sentence to life in prison.
But the damage was done. Her fifth baby died shortly after birth and her other children were taken away from her. They were never reunited and their whereabouts have also been lost. She was paroled in 1922 after serving 11 years and lived out the last decade of her life as a domestic servant in Kingston. She died in 1932, aged 49.
So what made this poor, Italian immigrant from a tiny town in Northern Ontario so sympathetic to people? “Oddly, racism and sexism worked in Angelina’s favour,” says Karen Dubinsky, professor in the departments of Global Development Studies and History at Queen’s University. “What made the story believable was the suspicion people had of Italian men. They believed that Angelina had no choice but to react the way she did.”
She adds that the first wave of feminism, which was gaining ground at the time, also helped set the context for a woman taking action to defend herself, as did her pregnancy, which people at the time believed made women irrational.
“It was the O.J. Simpson trial of 1911,” says Alessandra Piccione, writer of Looking for Angelina, an independent Canadian film that explores Angelina’s life and trial. “People recognized that this was an injustice. At the time, people could cut out petitions in all the Hearst newspapers across the U.S. and send them postage paid (!) to the office of the Attorney General in Canada.”
Both Piccione and the director of Looking for Angelina, Sergio Navarretta, were moved by the story and felt it was an important part of our history that needed to be brought to light. “I think Canadians suffer from an identity crisis because we don’t know our collective history, whether it’s Aboriginal history or the immigrant experience,” says Navarretta.
They carefully researched the story and shot the film on location in Sault Ste. Marie with an all Italian-Canadian cast. They even used the authentic Neapolitan dialect Angelina and Pietro would have spoken at the time. “The film was a good opportunity to explore an immigrant story without falling into clichés and also to explore the racism Italians suffered at the time,” he says.
Angelina’s tragic story may have taken place over a century ago but it still resonates with people today. “I remember when we screened the movie at a film festival in India,” says Navarretta. “They changed the screening time to 9 a.m. at the last minute, and we didn’t have time to do any PR. I walked into the theatre expecting it to be empty. It was packed. It just proves that regardless of the fact that she was an Italian immigrant to Canada, there was something universal about what she went through.”