The Trials of Maria Barbella


The true story of Cora Slocomb, who shocked New York’s Gilded Age by launching the first nation-wide campaign against the death penalty in 1895 to save a twenty year-old Italian immigrant from execution–the first woman sentenced to the electric chair.

When an Italian seamstress Maria Barbella, was tried, convicted, and sentenced to die for the murder of her former lover, a man who had raped and abandoned her, she found an unlikely ally in Cora Slocomb, Countess de Brazza, who starts the first campaign against the death penalty to save Maria from the newly invented electric chair. Domenico Cataldo, an Italian immigrant and shoe shine boy sat playing cards in a bar on East 13th Street with friend one bright spring morning in 1895. He was looking forward to boarding a ship leaving for Italy later that day, when his young lover, another Italian immigrant, Maria Barbella entered. After a brief exchange “Only a pig can marry you!” Maria whipped out a straight razor she had concealed in her sleeve and slit Cataldo’s throat – so quickly he didn’t even have time to scream. He staggered out the door, clutching his neck with both hands, spraying blood everywhere, only making it as far as the gutter, before dying. Thus began the trials of Maria Barbella, who after a brief court case became the first woman in history to be sentenced to death in the electric chair, a controversial new invention promoted by an employee of Thomas Edison, and adopted by the State of New York during what has come to be known as the ‘War of Currents’.

And so it would have been, if Maria’s dilemma had not been read by a remarkable woman, Cora Slocomb, Countess di Brazza – an American by birth and activist by nature, who decided to take up the young woman’s cause. So moved by the case was she that she returned to her homeland and began a campaign to try save the girl.


“Evokes the full dimensions of the larger social issues…Pucci’s compelling, thoughtful account revives the stories of these long -invisible women.”
Philadelphia Inquirer

“A crackling page-turner…It has all the elements of a well crafted thriller…an eye -opening document.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“The first crusade against the death penalty. The author, after years of work in the archives of newspapers masterfully puts together the pieces of a stunning and sprawling mosaic of pride, ignorance and misery that make up the pages of this book.“
Gianpaolo Pioli, Il Messaggero

“The incredible account of a true story, rich in implications, meticulously reconstructed …”
Mirella Serri, La Stampa

“A fascinating novel, very well constructed, with great cinematic rhythm, in which the protagonists find the humanity that the arid papers yellowed by time could not possibly have.”
Giovanni Nardi, La Nazione

Rights sold: Italy [Longanesi] [LEF], US+Northamerica [FourWallsEight] [Windows] [Vintage], Spain [Lumen Editorial] rights reverted, France [Editions Intervalles]
rights reverted, Optioned for film [Blenheim]

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Genre: Fiction, True Crime