Spotlight on the Napolitano archives

Our vaults contain artifacts that can be difficult to view or read, as not all parts of history are always pleasant. For example, we have the case files for a gruesome murder that took place in the spring of 1911 in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, which garnered international attention.

Angelina Napolitano, a mother of four with a fifth on the way, was charged with murdering her husband, a man who she claimed had both abused her and forcefully insisted that she should provide for the family through prostitution. Hers was one of the first Canadian criminal cases in which the "battered woman" defence was used. Despite this, she was found guilty of the crime and sentenced to death.

A media frenzy ensued, as people around the world were troubled by the thought of a pregnant woman sitting on death row. 

Our archivists recently unearthed a number of files related to the case. They include countless letters and petitions from Canada and abroad, begging the Governor General to pardon Angelina or commute her sentence. Empassioned pleas even came from across the United States, Austria, Poland and other countries.

In July 1911, faced with intense scrutiny and pressure from the media and the public, the Canadian government announced that Angelina Napolitano's sentence had been commuted to life in prison. Our records show that she was an exemplary prisoner, earning praise from prison staff. She regularly wrote letters to government authorities, begging for mercy and asking to be reunited with her children. In 1923, she was granted parole and released from Kingston Penitentiary. Very little is known about her life after her release.

While these archives are dark, they also show how an issue like violence against women can mobilize people around the world to action.

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