This Week in Canadian History – November Week 2

Byron Moffatt Britton
Justice Byron Moffatt Britton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most people have never heard of Angelina Napolitano.  But thanks to her, Canadian women now expect more justice in the judicial system.

Angelina is the first person to use the now-commonly known argument battered woman defense on a murder charge in Canada.  It was a case that drew attention quite literally around the globe.  Also, her story is told in a movie, Looking for Angelina.

Angelina Napolitano was born in the vicinity of Naples (Italy) in approximately 1883, and no one seems to know her family name.  In 1898, she married Pietro Napolitano, then they emigrated first to New York City, and, seven years later, moved to Canada.  They lived in Thessalon (Ontario) and then moved to Sault Ste. Marie (Ontario), which has a substantial Italian community.  Together they had four children.

Their marriage, we learned, was a violent one. For instance, in November 1910, Pietro had assaulted her with a knife nine times, in the face, neck, shoulder, chest and arms.  He was charged with assault, but received a suspended sentence.

When he could find work, Pietro was a labourer.  His solution to poor income, he forced Angelina to earn money through prostitution.  Easter Sunday on April 16, 1911, Pietro told the six month pregnant Angelina to do just that.  He was going to take a nap, and expected the money by the time he woke up.  If she didn’t have the money, he threatened to beat her, kill her, or kill the unborn child.  So while he slept, she took an axe and hit him in the neck and head.  Then she went to her neighbour’s house, and said, “I just killed a pig.”  Then she waited for the police.  She was arrested.

Trial was set for Monday, May 8, 1911, but when the court realized she had no lawyer to represent her, Judge Byron Moffatt Britton assigned Uriah McFadden as defense attorney.  The trial then took place the next day, May 9.  Crown attorney Edmund Meredith questioned nine witnesses, while McFadden only called one witness, Angelina herself, who did not speak English very well. Citing the November 1910 incident, McFadden argued that the abuse pushed her into committing murder.  However, Justice Britton ruled the argument inadmissible, saying, “If anybody injured six months ago could give that as justification or excuse for slaying a person, it would be anarchy complete.”

The trial lasted only three hours.  The jury came back with a guilty verdict.  Though they recommended clemency, Justice Britton sentence her to hang on August 9 – one month after Angelina’s due date.

The story broke in newspapers and soon took on a frenzy not seen before in Canada.  It was published and debated in Canada, the United States, and even Europe.  Some of the discussion were negative, citing such arguments as racist stereotypes of Italians being “hot-blooded,” hence deserved to pay the penalty.  Others, though, were sympathetic, because of the abuse and demanded a stay of execution and serve jail term, or even a pardon.

Sir Allen Bristol Aylesworth, the federal minister of justice at the time, received many letters from people, group organizations from Sault Ste. Marie, Toronto, New York, Chicago, England, Austria, and Poland.  An example of the support for Angelina, a doctor in Ohio, Dr. Alexander Aalto, offered to be hanged in her stead, saying, “It would only be fair to Mrs. Napolitano for a man to give his life for her.”  The earlier feminists responded to the judge’s decision to throw out evidence of abuse, by claiming it was self-defense.  Some of the arguments were double-edged, such as the Sault Ste. Marie MP, Arthur Cyril Boyce, claimed that “her pregnancy made her temporarily insane.”   Of course, though it would be ridiculous to use these arguments today, these do reflect the views of those days.

The federal cabinet finally commuted Angelina’s sentence to life imprisonment on July 14, 1911.  Her children were placed in foster homes, and it is not known if she saw them after that.  She did give birth, but sadly the baby died in just a few weeks.  After serving eleven years at Kingston Penitentiary, she was granted parole on December 30, 1922.  There doesn’t seem to be any detail of her life after that, except for her death on September 4, 1932 at the Hotel Dieu Hospital in Frontenac County, Ontario.

Looking for Angelina, a movie of her story, was made with director Sergio Navarretta, by Platinum Image Film.  It was a two-week production that was shot in Sault Ste. Marie in 2004, on a budget of just $250,000.  It was authored by Alessandra Piccione and Frank Canino.  For authenticity, the film is in period-correct Italian with English subtitles.  The film has won three awards.  Since October 2008, the DVD is packaged with a 114-page companion book, Child Abuse Prevention and Intervention.

I can recommend a few site to visit if you would like to learn more about today’s post.  There is the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, the always comprehensive Women in Canadian History, and to learn more about the film, go to the source at Platinum Image. To order the DVD (Looking for Angelina), you can it at Second Story Press.


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