Angelina Napolitano (1882-1932) was an immigrant to Canada who murdered her abusive husband in 1911, igniting a public debate about domestic violence and the death penalty. She was the first woman in Canada to use the battered woman defense on a murder charge.
Napolitano was found guilty, and although the jury recommended clemency, she was sentenced to death. After an international outcry, however, the Canadian federal cabinet eventually commuted her sentence to life imprisonment. She served 11 years before being paroled.
Early life and marriage
Angelina was born in Italy about 1883, probably in a small town not too far from Naples. Her family name is not known. She married Pietro Napolitano about 1898 and the couple emigrated to America shortly after the turn of the century. They lived in New York City for seven years and moved to Canada in 1909 – first to Thessalon, Ontario, then to Sault Ste. Marie, where there was a sizable Italian immigrant community. The couple had four children.
The Napolitano marriage was violent; Pietro beat and threatened his wife. In November 1910, he attacked her with a pocket knife, wounding her nine times in the face, neck, shoulder, chest and arms and leaving scars. He was charged with assault, but received a suspended sentence.
As the winter of 1910–1911 continued, Pietro, who worked on and off as a labourer, began to pressure Angelina to earn money (to build the family a house) by prostitution. On April 16, 1911, Easter Sunday, when Angelina was six months pregnant, Pietro told her to go out and make money through sex or he would beat her, kill her, or kill her unborn child. He was going to sleep and she had until he woke to get some money.
That afternoon, as Pietro slept in their top-floor apartment on James Street, Angelina took an axe and hit him four times in the neck and head, killing him. She immediately sought out a neighbour and confessed, adding "I just killed a pig", then waited for the police to come. They found her with her arms wrapped around her youngest child, and charged her with murder.
The trial began on Monday, May 8, 1911, in Sault Ste. Marie, with Justice Byron Moffatt Britton presiding and Edmund Meredith as the crown attorney. When the court realized that Angelina didn’t have a lawyer, the trial was adjourned for a day to allow the court-appointed lawyer, Uriah McFadden, to prepare a case.
When the trial resumed on Tuesday, May 9, Meredith called nine witnesses to testify to Angelina’s guilt. McFadden called only Angelina herself, who didn’t speak English well. McFadden’s case rested on what was essentially the battered woman defense; he argued that Pietro’s abuse had forced a desperate Angelina to murder, and cited the November stabbing. Britton, however, ruled the incident inadmissible evidence, arguing that “if anybody injured six months ago could give that as justification or excuse for slaying a person, it would be anarchy complete.”
The jury returned a guilty verdict. The trial had lasted only three hours. Although the jury recommended clemency, Britton sentenced her to hang. The execution was scheduled for August 9, one month after Angelina’s due date.
Reaction and aftermath
Once the story hit the newspapers, however, a media frenzy began – not just in Sault Ste. Marie, but especially in the United States and even Europe. Though some of the coverage was negative, arguing from racist stereotypes that Angelina, as an Italian, was a “hot-blooded foreigner” and deserved to pay the penalty for her crime, most of it revolved around those sympathetic to the abuse she had suffered, and agitating for her sentence to be commuted to jail time or even a pardon. The federal minister of justice, Sir Allen Bristol Aylesworth, received many letters from individuals (including McFadden), as well as petitions organized by groups in Sault Ste Marie, Toronto, New York City, Chicago, England, Austria, and Poland. A doctor in Ohio, Dr. Alexander Aalto, even 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, inasmuch as her life is in peril on account of a man's persecution of her, and because men condemned her.”
Dr. Aalto’s remarks reflect a theme among Angelina’s supporters, who included women in the fledgling feminist movement. These early feminists argued that Pietro’s beatings meant the murder was in self-defense, and that Britton was being sexist when he threw out the evidence of abuse. The British suffragette journal "Common Cause" excoriated not only the law that had condemned Angelina, but also the justice system that upheld it as “both bad, for they are exclusively masculine.”
Other arguments presented in the letters included the idea (put forward by the area’s MP, Arthur Cyril Boyce) that Angelina must be not guilty because her pregnancy made her temporarily insane, the idea that Angelina should be praised for taking the life of a sexually immoral man, and the argument that Angelina’s fear of her impending doom would adversely affect her unborn baby, therefore she should be pardoned. This last was a common psychological view at the time.
Angelina’s later life is not well known. She did give birth, but the baby died within a few weeks. Her older children were placed in foster homes. She was granted parole on December 30, 1922, after serving 11 years at Kingston Penitentiary. Angelina reportedly died on September 4, 1932 at the Hotel Dieu Hospital in Frontenac County, Ontario.
In 2003, independent film director Sergio Navarretta began researching Angelina’s life for a documentary, but expanded the project into a feature film “once we realized how dramatic the facts were.” The film, Looking for Angelina, was shot in two weeks in 2004 at Sault Ste. Marie, on a shoestring budget of $250,000. The writers, Alessandra Piccione and Frank Canino, took inspiration from Canino’s play "The Angelina Project". Lina Giornofelice starred as Angelina, with Alvaro D’Antonio playing Pietro. For authenticity, large parts of the film are in period-correct Italian with English subtitles.
The film showed at the Montreal World Film Festival, Cinéfest in Sudbury, Quitus Italian Film Festival in Montreal, Shadows of the Mind Festival in Sault Ste Marie, the International Film Festival of India, Cimameriche Film Festival in Genoa and the Mumbai International Film Festival. “In general,” said director Navaretta, “audiences have responded to the film on an emotional level, empathizing with the journey of [the characters].” "Looking For Angelina" won three awards: A Special Recognition at the Cimameriche Film Festival and Best Feature (Drama) and Quitus Award of Distinction at the Quitus Film Festival in Montreal.
Domestic violence campaign
The film Looking For Angelina includes a domestic violence awareness campaign component. The film’s producers, Platinum Image Film, often screened the movie before a panel discussion of domestic violence experts, or put on screenings to raise money for organizations such as the Shelter from the Storm Campaign and other organizations.
As of October 2008, the film DVD sells packaged with a 114-page companion book, Child Abuse Prevention and Intervention, written by Toronto community agency BOOST. The book is intended to help teachers help children learn about and prevent family violence.
- Kathleen Airdrie (2008-12-02). "Angelina Napolitano, Domestic Violence Victim".
- Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online: Angelina Napolitano. By Franca Iacovetta. University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2004. page accessed June 2008
- Platinum Image Film press release New Film About Italian Immigrant, March 13, 2006. Accessed June, 2008 via A Guide to Women in Canadian History
- I just killed a pig by David Helwig. SooToday.com, May 06, 2004 Online version accessed June, 2008
- Official film website: Looking for Angelina Archived July 24, 2011, at the Wayback Machine., accessed June, 2008
- Navarretta the mastermind behind Angelina by Ravi Amarnath. The Gazette, University of Western Ontario, September 26, 2006 Archived June 11, 2011, at the Wayback Machine. accessed June, 2008
- Statistics Canada: Selected Ethnic Origins, Sault Ste. Marie accessed June, 2008
- OFFERS TO HANG FOR WOMAN, The New York Times, June 24, 1911. scan in the New York Times online archive accessed June, 2008
- Second Story Press (secondstorypress.ca) Fall 2008 catalogue, page 10. Book ISBN 978-1-897187-54-8
- Biography at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
- Canadian Historical Review 72 (1991): 505–31, Murder, womanly virtue, and motherhood: the case of Angelina Napolitano, 1911–1922 by Karen Dubinsky and Franca Iacovetta. 2004, University of Toronto/Université Laval.
- "Looking For Angelina" official website
- "Platinum Image Film" official website