An American Countess, an Italian Immigrant, and their Epic Battle for Justice in New York’s Gilded Age
(Simon & Schuster, New York, 2020)
In 1895, a young immigrant from Southern Italy is accused of murdering the man who drugged and raped her. In a sensational trial filled with inept lawyers, dishonest reporters and editors, and a corrupt judge, the illiterate seamstress, Maria Barbella, becomes the first woman sentenced to the newly invented electric chair at Sing Sing. Enter Cora Slocomb di Brazzà – an American heiress and social activist, married to an Italian aristocrat. After reading about the case in The New York Times, Cora sails from Italy to come to Maria’s rescue, and launches the first national campaign against the death penalty. Rallying the New York press, she bridges the social divide, and Maria’s “crime of honor” quickly seizes the nation’s attention. Yet, the powerful inventor Thomas Edison aligns his forces against Cora and the young immigrant. As the electric chair can only be powered with the AC current of his rival Westinghouse, the future of Edison’s DC direct current in America will benefit from Maria’s execution. This dramatic page-turner grapples with ethnic prejudice, criminal justice, corporate greed, violence against women, and a woman’s right to reject the role of victim.
This extraordinary book of historical non-fiction has the shape of drama as old as the Greeks with vivid relevance to the way we live now. The cast includes a young illiterate immigrant woman from Italy, an American woman of wealth and idealism, and a major historical figure named Thomas Edison. A murder drives the story. But woven through the tale are rich themes of class, shame, cruelty, kindness, loneliness, empathy, and yes, love. Pick it up!— Pete Hamill
A real-life story found in an old chest provides all the drama needed today for film roles for women. In 1890s Manhattan, abuse and rape led to a crime that churned up a nation already rumbling about women’s rights.— New York Daily News
The plot has all the elements of a first-rate, well-crafted thriller. A crackling page-turner, it is an eye-opening document about life and social attitudes at the turn of the century. As such, it tells us a great deal about how much we’ve learned as a society in a hundred years, and how little.—San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle Book Review
Combining her own family history with Barbella’s story, Pucci investigates the sensational crime [and] its equally sensational aftermath.— Washington Post
In the spirit of sensational trials across the ages, Idanna Pucci pulls out all the stops.— The New York Times
Maria’s story – starting with the murder itself – is told with chilling page-turning immediacy. But the book takes an interesting novelistic turn in the portrayal of its two protagonists – Maria and Cora. By shifting the narrative focus between the two women, the author dramatically contrasts their very different backgrounds and personalities and their inverse relationship to each other.— The Arizona Republic
A taut, energetic and skillful collage of narrative styles and genres: part gripping crime and courtroom drama, part vivid historical portrait of turn-of-the-century New York City. And it is partly an eloquent meditation on the death penalty and women’s rights.— Newsday
Pucci burrows into the clay of history to make these characters come alive.— Chicago Tribune
Idanna Pucci has skillfully crafted Barbella’s suspenseful story and documented late-19th-century prejudice against Italian Americans and women, as well as the inhumane treatment of prisoners. Gripping social history.— Publishers Weekly
IDANNA PUCCI, Florentine by birth and Balinese by adoption, studied Comparative Literature at Columbia University. She is the author of The Epic of Life, a classic on Balinese culture, and Brazza in Congo: a Life and Legacy that inspired her award winning documentary, “Black Africa White Marble”, shedding light on Central Africa’s colonial past and its troubled present. She also co-produced, “Talk Radio Tehran”, focusing on intrepid women who fulfill their aspirations in Iran’s gender-apartheid. Recently, she has also published The World Odyssey of a Balinese Prince (Tuttle Publishing, VT, 2020), a collection of true stories from the extraordinary life of a cultural visionary and medical doctor whose daring adventures transcend borders.