The Lady of Sing Sing

Genre: Non Fiction

Book Summary

This “gripping social history” (Publishers Weekly), with all the passion and pathos of a classic opera, chronicles the riveting first campaign against the death penalty waged in 1895 by American pioneer activist, Cora Slocomb, Countess of Brazzà, to save the life of a twenty-year-old illiterate Italian immigrant, Maria Barbella, who killed the man who had abused her.

Previously published as The Trials of Maria Barbella. In 1895, a twenty-two-year-old Italian seamstress named Maria Barbella was accused of murdering her lover, Domenico Cataldo, after he seduced her and broke his promise to marry her. Following a sensational trial filled with inept lawyers, dishonest reporters and editors, and a crooked judge repaying political favors, the illiterate immigrant became the first woman sentenced to the newly invented electric chair at Sing Sing, where she is also the first female prisoner. Behind the scenes, a corporate war raged for the monopoly of electricity pitting two giants, Edison and Westinghouse with Nikola Tesla at his side, against each other.

Enter Cora Slocomb, an American-born Italian aristocrat and activist, who launched the first campaign against the death penalty to save Maria. Rallying the New York press, Cora reached out across the social divide—from the mansions of Fifth Avenue to the tenements of Little Italy. Maria’s “crime of honor” quickly becomes a cause celebre, seizing the nation’s attention. Idanna Pucci, Cora’s great-granddaughter, masterfully recounts this astonishing story by drawing on original research and documents from the US and Italy. This dramatic page-turner, interwoven with twists and unexpected turns, grapples with the tragedy of immigration, capital punishment, ethnic prejudice, criminal justice, corporate greed, violence against women, and a woman’s right to reject the role of victim. Over a century later, this story is as urgent as ever.


“This extraordinary book of historical nonfiction 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

"As told by Idanna Pucci, [this] story is as gripping as any four-star nail-biter at your local multiplex. It’s also completely true. Readers will come away from this crackling page-turner with a new understanding of how different things were a century ago, and how very much the same.”
—San Francisco Chronicle

“Combining her own family history with Barbella’s story, Pucci investigates the sensational crime and its equally sensational aftermath.”
—The Washington Post

“A real-life story found in an old chest provides all the drama needed today for film roles for women. In Gilded Age Manhattan, abuse and rape led to a crime that churned up a nation already rumbling about women’s rights.”
—New York Daily News

About the Author

Since leaving her ancestral home in Florence, Italy, IDANNA PUCCI, pursued her interest in diverse cultures through far-flung journeys. Her first stop was New York, where she worked for her uncle, fashion designer Emilio Pucci, who introduced her to Indonesian iconography through his work inspired by Bali and Java.

She soon moved to Bali, where she pursued her interest in myth and the oral tradition. Various assignments for Asia Magazine enabled her to travel throughout South East Asia and Japan, and across the Soviet Union on the last steam engine of the Trans-Siberian railway. During her Comparative Literature studies at Columbia University, she wrote "The Epic of Life" a classic on Balinese culture.

She has produced various documentaries: "Eugenia of Patagonia" on the life of her aunt who founded a town at the end of the world, and served as its legendary mayor for thirty years; "Black Africa White Marble", inspired by her book "Brazza in Congo: A Life and Legacy" (Umbrage, 2009) that sheds light on Western Africa's colonial past and its troubled present; and more recently "Talk Radio Tehran" about defiant women in Iran who fulfill their aspirations in spite of the gender-apartheid system that dominates their lives.

She is also the author of "The Lady of Sing: an American Countess, an Italian Immigrant, and their Epic Battle for Justice in New York's Gilded Age" (New Edition, Simon & Schuster, NY, 2020 - with preface by Edgar Morin). It's the story of her American great-grandmother who shook New York's Gilded Age in 1895 with the first campaign against the death penalty to save the first woman sentenced to the electric chair, a twenty year old Italian immigrant.

In "The World Odyssey of a Balinese Prince" (Tuttle Publishing, VT 2020) a collection of true stories between East and West with a foreword by Francesco Clemente, she narrates the extraordinary life of a cultural visionary and medical doctor whose daring adventures transcend borders.

Idanna serves as an ambassador of Religions for Peace, the world's largest interfaith organization. She speaks Italian, English, French, and reasonable Bahasa Indonesia. She resides with her husband between Florence and New York.

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