Spring 2008




Looking for Angelina - The Story Behind the Movie


​by Alessandra Piccione


Throughout 2003 and 2004 my mind was mostly occupied with thoughts of a relatively unknown woman who lived in a remote corner of the world almost a century ago. Her name was Angelina Napolitano, and I was on a journey to write and produce a movie about her story.


Although it had sparked unprecedented worldwide media frenzy, Angelina’s story was virtually unknown to the general public when we stumbled across it. I learned about her story through my eventual co-screenwriter, Frank Canino who, in 1995, had written a play on the subject titled The Angelina Project. Almost immediately my partner, Sergio Navarretta (who later directed the film) and I became as obsessed with the woman behind the story, as had the hundreds of thousands who had written about her case almost a century earlier. By deciding to tell it on film, however, we found ourselves faced with the daunting task of portraying a lost history. In the interest of writing an effective screenplay, I was challenged by the ultimate question: Who was Angelina Napolitano?



Angelina Napolitano was an Italian immigrant who, at the age of 28, murdered her abusive husband Pietro with an axe on Easter Sunday, 1911, in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, while he lay sleeping in his home. Although it was clear he had abused her both physically and psychologically, and he had attempted to force her into prostitution, little effort was made by her lawyer to bring to light all the attenuating circumstances of her actions. In addition, the prosecution presented the one bit of evidence needed to convict a woman during a period still heavily steeped in Victorian morality – proof that she had slept with another man. At the end of a trial that lasted a mere three hours, Angelina was sentenced to hang.

  Accenti FEATURE    Looking for Angelina - The Story Behind the Movie   Alessandra Piccione




As fate would have it, Angelina’s sentence was delayed so she could give birth to her fifth child. This allowed time for one of the most impressive clemency campaigns in Canadian and American history to gain momentum. Initiated by a U.S. journalist and championed by virtually every feminist, socialist, humanist, religious and anti-racist political leader and organization across the United States and eventually the world, Angelina became the source for hundreds of thousands of petitions, letters and newspaper articles calling for her release. The media frenzy that followed her case was unparalleled, and the public pressure so great that Canadian authorities decided to commute her sentence. Shipped off to the Kingston Prison for Women, Angelina was allowed to live – but with no foreseeable chance of ever being released, or being reunited with her children.



Six months prior to the events of that fateful Easter Sunday, Angelina had appeared before a judge to testify against her husband, who had brutally stabbed her. On that occasion in November, Pietro Napolitano had attacked his wife “with intent to maim, disfigure or disable [her].” In spite of this, Pietro was given a suspended sentence because, ironically, the judge was concerned that there would be no one to provide for the wife and children. Women, not yet “persons” in the eyes of the law, were wholly dependent on their husbands. They had no legal right to their own property, or even their own children. When two people married they effectively became one: the husband.



At her murder trial Angelina claimed an unusual defence; she insisted she had refused her husband’s demand to sell her body on the street, and ultimately killed him to preserve her honour. In fact, Angelina’s failure to show remorse or even mention her children throughout the testimony had raised more than one eyebrow. Most ironically, however, she boldly conceded to having had an affair with a boarder named Nish, which had prompted her husband’s violent attack six months before.



In a letter penned by crown prosecutor Moses McFadden, Angelina was described as an intelligent and somewhat educated woman, whose command of the English language could easily withstand prosecutor Edmund Meredith’s aggressive crossexamination on the subject without the aid of a translator. At the same time it seemed defence lawyer Uriah McFadden, the younger and less experienced brother of Moses, overcame some novice courtroom fumbling to cite “provocation” as a defence, arguing Angelina had been sufficiently provoked to kill her husband. Based on the official record, in the midst of difficult circumstances, it seemed that he gave it his best shot. Not even the Italian witnesses did much to help her case. Most notable were testimonies by the local plumber, Peter Salvatore – the first to arrive on the scene, and Teodoro Mazzei, an elderly man who had shared the flat next to Angelina. Both these men claimed to know the Napolitano family “just to see them on the street.”



According to the established “facts,” there is virtually no evidence to suggest that Angelina’s case was treated unfairly by Judge Byron M. Britton, who for all intents and purposes abided by the letter of the law. In his own words: “It is a very painful thing to see a woman in the box charged with so serious a crime as murder. But the law of this country is for all alike. The law knows no sex, no religion, no creed, no colour, nor how much money a prisoner might have nor anything of that kind. It is intended that it shall be a law for all alike.”



Through the cold lens of legal proceedings and facts, we had little reason to consider Angelina’s case with any more sympathy than we would any other murderer’s. Yet the sheer force of the clemency campaign following the trial told us a different story – it promised a truth beyond these facts, a truth that we could not yet see.



In the process of examining archival documents, a strange pattern began to unfold – it seemed the closer we examined the facts, the further away we were from the truth. The more we probed letters, petitions, newspapers and court documents written about Angelina, the more enigmatic Angelina herself became. Here was a woman who defied definition at every turn. This was an impoverished, abused, socially insignificant immigrant mother who allegedly dared to engage in an extramarital affair and displayed strength beyond words by committing her gruesome crime. Was she a victim or a heroine? A virtuous mother or a whore? A terrible murderess or a noble warrior?


In spite of the fact that so much ink had been spilled on the subject, no documents – not even her prison letters – had come directly from her. At the height of her fame, Angelina became a media icon whose identity was magically altered, depending upon the cause, ideology or politics a writer wanted to advance. In the interest of making a movie, we faced the challenging task of navigating elusive “facts” to construct a truthful character an actor could play. For myself as a writer – and the only woman involved in this creative process – I had begun to appreciate that telling Angelina’s story was more than an exercise in historical research; it would give Angelina a voice for the very first time.



In Search of Witnesses

In June of 2003, we set off to observe first hand the community that descended from Angelina’s generation. I fantasized that we would be greeted by a bustling “Little Italy” in Sault Ste. Marie’s West End, complete with Italian gelati and stories of the infamous and legendary Angelina. If anyone could shed some light on this enigmatic woman, it would most certainly be the Italians. But when we arrived in Sault Ste. Marie, we realized that “little Italy” was no more. In fact, it was difficult to even find evidence that an Italian district had existed.



We met a small group of prominent Italian Canadians, at the local Marconi Club, who delighted in recounting stories of their Little Italy. They spoke at length about their once vibrant community, a bustling James Street market, happy childhoods and the determination of brave parents to overcome obstacles so their children could gain acceptance into respectable Canadian society. They grew sombre as they described the Gore Street divide, where Italians would not tread for fear of being attacked by local gangs. They recounted their parents’ plight as daylabourers, or “dagos,” who could never be sure whether they had work from one day to the next. They reflected on the final days of Little Italy, when it was bulldozed in the late 1960s in the name of “urban renewal.” Today, Sault Ste. Marie’s Little Italy is the site of an abandoned mall and an empty parking lot – its memory kept alive only through oral histories and photograph collections hidden within the walls of family homes.



Unfortunately, it seemed the only indication Angelina had ever lived in Sault Ste. Marie came from vague childhood memories of a “frightening incident” – or from legends passed on to children who misbehaved: “Listen to me or I’ll cut your head off like the Napolitana.” Some said that, after she committed her gruesome crime, she tried to escape to the train station. Others insisted Angelina ran through the streets screaming, “I killed the pig.” Suddenly, it seemed that our search for the sympathetic recollections of an impoverished victim – or even a photograph from the descendant of a friend or extended family or a clue to the whereabouts of Angelina’s children – had metamorphosed into the terrifying spectre of a bacchanalian madwoman, pregnant and covered in blood. Had these things truly happened, or had Angelina’s fame been sublimated by the collective consciousness of an entire community to the level of mythology and legend? Perhaps the historical documents had been correct – perhaps Angelina was a kind of immoral and unrepentant monster. One thing we knew for sure, with no family or friends to speak of, Angelina had been truly alone in this town.



At the turn of the last century and at the height of its industrial revolution, the burgeoning steel and lumber town of Sault Ste Marie, like so many towns and cities across North America, was enjoying an economic boom; it needed “outside” labour. This need was filled by immigrants, which at this time consisted of more than 4,000 Italians, and this gave rise to social tensions.



The racism displayed in the newspapers was palpable. Regularly the Sault Star, for example, denounced new immigrants or “foreigners” as a threat to proper society: “Italians are all too ready to use the knife, the pistol, or any other weapon that lies at hand, as a means of redressing real or fancied wrongs… It is needful at times to remind Anglo-Saxons that no one has the right to raise a weapon against another, save as a means of protection against imminent and otherwise inescapable peril. It is doubly requisite, for the reason just stated, to drill this fact deep into the minds of recently arrived Italians. Prompt and stern punishment is most urgently demanded…”



My own paternal grandparents, like Angelina and Pietro, had emigrated from southern Italy to smalltown Canada at the turn of the century. I always suspected dark secrets lay within their story – painful experiences that my father and his siblings had only vaguely alluded to. Staring at the mocking headlines, I began to realize this journey would mean more to me than I had thought.



I became aware of the politics behind this ethnic woman’s case. Sault Ste. Marie was about to become a city, and it needed to improve its image for the rest of the country. Internally, reports of ethnic unruliness were becoming frenzied amongst the established class. Not coincidentally, however, the town’s collective paranoia peaked at the same time that the ethnic “element” was itself beginning to mobilize politically. The Italians were starting businesses and purchasing land; they had befriended key individuals with political power; they were developing their own system of cooperative health care; they built a community church and, at the risk of excommunication, strategically lobbied for their own public school. Contrary to popular assumptions, it appeared these “foreigners” were here to stay in the thriving “Little Italy” of their own making.



As our meeting at the Marconi Club drew to a close, Ontario Superior Court Justice Ray Stortini (now retired) recognized one of the players in the trial transcript. It was Peter Salvatore, the man who claimed he did not know Angelina. We soon discovered that Peter Salvatore actually owned the small shack where, out of desperation, the penniless Napolitanos had been forced to share living quarters with Mazzei, Salvatore’s father-in-law, in the last week of Pietro’s life. Salvatore was also closely connected to the Scigliano family, in particular Benny Scigliano – the court translator. According to a report by Chicago journalist Honor Fanning, some local Italian women remembered Angelina’s mother from Caserta, Italy. In fact, the Salvatore and Scigliano families hailed from that same area. With an understanding of the dynamics between new immigrants at the time, we realized it would have been virtually impossible for these families from the same province of Italy, living in the same block in the Sault’s immigrant ghetto, not to have known each other intimately. Presumably, it was the family who arrived first that paved the way for the rest. Suddenly, our eyes began to open to a different reality, one in which the people who clearly knew Angelina best had deliberately distanced themselves from her and lied before the judge. Why had they not defended her?




A New Point of View

Since local newspapers had focused more on denouncing Angelina than on the actual court proceedings, we were forced to cross the boarder into Michigan to research the 1911 reports. Immediately, it became clear that the Americans were considerably more sympathetic to this woman’s case. Not only had the story been front page news for several weeks – describing every detail of the murder, the trial, Pietro’s funeral and the community in general – but the city of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, had initiated a massive petition to lobby Canadian authorities. Daily reports chronicled the latest tally, as thousands lined up at the local post office, town hall and library to add their names to the list. Even the bedridden had their chance to sign, when petitions came door-to-door. Most impressively, this massive action was not exclusive to the Sault’s twin city. From New York to San Francisco, New Orleans to Little Rock, Arkansas, virtually every city in every state across the United States was mobilized to a single cause – saving Angelina.



In the midst of this remarkable discovery, we also learned that the very first petition was started much closer to home by Benny Scigliano, the same man who acted as Angelina’s translator on the day of her arraignment, but was mysteriously absent on the day of the trial. Why had he started this petition? Did he know something was amiss? Had he been wrongfully dismissed from his post? This discovery also opened new possibilities for the Italians, all of whom had been called as witnesses for the prosecution instead of the defence. Did they have a reason to fear the authorities who put them on the stand?



We had the good fortune to meet Della Gardner, the last surviving descendant of defence lawyer Uriah McFadden. While previously under the assumption that McFadden was young and relatively inept during Angelina’s trial, our conversation with Gardner revealed he had actually been practicing law for over twenty years by that point. Having saved nineteen people from the gallows and dubbed “Canada’s Clarence Darrow” by the Toronto Star, McFadden’s reputation preceded him. Most ironically, however, McFadden had built his career as the first and most skilful lawyer to use the insanity plea to defend women who killed. Angelina’s case was so well suited to an insanity plea, it left us questioning why McFadden instead chose a completely untried argument that was sure to fail.



Excited and frustrated, we went back to the “facts” and examined them with new eyes. The trial transcript in particular had evolved into a suspicious document, riddled with hidden clues. Previously accepted facts now begged innumerable questions: Why had McFadden not requested time to prepare his case? Why were there no witnesses for the defence? Didn’t the argument of provocation play too neatly into the hands of prosecutor Edmund Meredith’s portrayal of Angelina as a fallen woman? Had there been an affair at all? Strange, unclear testimony by police chief Andrew Elliot began to look suspicious, as did a newspaper editorial responding to McFadden’s statements about the case.



We started questioning the real relationships behind the players in this tale; what were their allegiances and what kind of agenda did they have? Each of the legal representatives involved were high-ranking members of both society and prevailing secret societies. Both Justice Britton and Moses McFadden wielded a great deal of influence, and their vision for the nation did not include the immigrant class. An examination of Britton’s previous cases revealed an interesting pattern regarding women in particular, while even Uriah McFadden, himself a die-hard Orangeman, acknowledged he would never “take tea” with a Catholic outside of business. The more we investigated, the more we realized this case had played out against a truly sinister backdrop: Angelina never had a chance.




Through the Camera Lens

When writing a fictional screenplay, dramatic action is created out of character. In the case of a true story, however, the process of characterization is inverted. Angelina’s actions had already been taken because she had lived her life, so it was now up to me – and Frank, and Sergio – to re-examine those actions and arrive at an understanding of who she was. The creative process of seeing Angelina as a dramatic character forced us to ask powerful questions that went beyond the possibilities of historical research – questions that took us deep into the gaps between established facts to uncover a great deal more than we had ever expected to find.



Most importantly, this process allowed us to make sense of an unlikely heroine. More than a description based on a series of facts – she was a flesh and blood woman who carried with her all the pain and isolation of our own family stories, and who brought an old-world innocence and morality to a society that  did not understand. As a woman and as an outsider, Angelina’s case was never documented in the history books and was all but lost in the gap between official historical facts. Buried with her were the secrets of a troubled life, juxtaposed by her own personal strength. By unearthing her story, we had unwittingly unearthed the secrets of the immigrant heritage of a city and of a nation. By capturing it on film, we brought to life this unknown world, informed by research, personal experiences and intimate family histories. In the process of giving Angelina her voice, we ultimately found our own.



Remarkably, just as she had been the inspiration for a cause celebre in 1911, Angelina continues to be the voice of issues that touch our lives today – domestic violence, law enforcement, mental health and worker’s rights are frequently the topics of discussion after film screenings of Looking for Angelina. In a contemporary world characterized by cynicism and fear, Angelina’s story continues to shed light on our own dark secrets, and teaches us something about the compassionate side of life.




Alessandra Piccione is a screenwriter and producer for Platinum Image Film, (www.lookingforangelina.com). She lives in Toronto.



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