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Angelina Napolitano murdered her husband over 100 years ago. She's still praised for it.

On Easter Sunday, April 11, 1911, Angelina Napolitano's husband napped in the spare room of their house in Sault Ste. Marie city, Canada.

As he slept, Pietro's wife walked into the room, raised an axe she had sharpened above his head, and swung, murdering him. It was a cold, brutal ending to his life.

Moments later, she went to her neighbours and said, "I just killed a pig."

It's a chilling tale — but to this day, Angelina is considered a hero in the history books, a pioneer in the echelons of feminism and a figure who changed the way domestic abuse victims are trialled in a court of law.

All for killing her husband.

Who was Angelina Napolitano?

Angelina Napolitano was born just outside of Naples, Italy in 1882. When she was just 15, she married a man named Pietro before emigrating to New York City, where they lived for seven years. 

After experiencing life in America, they decided to pack up and head north where they settled in the Canadian city of Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario with their four children.

A husband obsessed with status.

Despite several sources saying the married couple had been happy in their native Italy, the relationship began to sour after they made the move overseas. They had moved to North America in search of a better life but apparently Pietro became obsessed with status and would stop at nothing to keep up with the lavish lifestyles of his contemporaries.

As a result of his deep desire to life an affluent existence at any cost, Pietro pushed his wife into prostitution to make more money. Ultimately, his suggestion to do "bad business" caused a rift in the marriage and they temporarily split. In 1910, the couple reconciled but it was clear Pietro was harbouring resentment, jealousy and severe ill-will towards his wife.


Throughout their marriage, Pietro would reportedly beat Angelina, however it reached terrifying new levels when he attacked her with a pocket knife and stabbed her nine times in the face, neck, shoulder, chest and arms, leaving her so badly wounded she was hospitalised for weeks. 

Pietro was arrested for the violent attack but was released on a suspended sentence.

What did Angelina Napolitano do?

As per testimony from Angelina, after she was attacked by her husband, things only got worse. He began drinking more and lashing out at his wife, which resulted in tumultuous arguments. On Easter Sunday in 1911, Pietro allegedly threatened to kill her and remove her children from her if she didn't contribute any money towards the family fund. At the time, Angelina was six months pregnant, but Pietro was insistent that she go out and make money through prostitution. The threat was clear: if she didn't do as he said he would end her life and that of their unborn child.

It was her breaking point. She couldn't go on like this anymore.

When Pietro returned from his job as a labourer and decided to spend the afternoon napping, Angelina saw a chance to be free from the abuse. With an axe, Angelina ended her husband's life, hitting him four times in the head and neck.

A trial that set a new precedent for abused women.

One month later, Angelina stood trial for the murder of her husband. It was, or all intents and purposes, a far cry from a fair and just execution of a trial. In fact, she was not afforded a lawyer until later on, when the court appointed a solicitor, Uriah McFadden.


McFadden's case was based around what we now know as the 'battered woman defence', which suggests that when a person has been the victim of domestic abuse, it can drive them to commit violent acts. We now know this to form the legal terminology that states that battered woman syndrome is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

After a trial that lasted just three hours, the judge found Angelina Napolitano guilty of murdering Pietro, and despite a recommendation of clemency from the jury, Justice Byron Moffatt Britton handed down the death sentence. Angelina was scheduled to be hanged on August 9, just one month after she was expected to deliver her unborn child.

While McFadden's defence wasn't enough to receive a not guilty verdict for the trial, the details he put forward helped form the basis for the battered woman defence, which would go on to be one of the most important developments in legal proceedings. Unfortunately, it would take until the 1970s for this to be successfully used in a legal case, but regardless, Angelina will go down as an important figure in the fight for women's rights.

A rally of support from the public.

After her sentencing, Angelina's story travelled far and wide, and was picked up in the media throughout America and Europe. The case of her murdering her husband and subsequent sentence to be hanged sparked a furious debate amongst the public.

Among her supporters were a growing number of feminists who argued that Angelina's life should be spared as her crime was one of self-defence, following years of abuse at the hands of her husband. Thousands of letters and petitions came flooding through, and growing pressure came from the public asking for her sentence to be reconsidered.


In July, a month before she was scheduled to be hanged, the Federal Cabinet of Canada commuted Angelina's sentence. She would now face life in prison instead.

Shortly after the decision was made, Angelina gave birth to a daughter, though the baby passed away some weeks later. Her other children were placed in foster care and their mother was taken to Kingston Penitentiary, where she served 11 years of her sentence before dying in 1932.

How Angelina Napolitano's legacy changed the way we fight for victims today.

In Australia, we are facing an epidemic of gendered violence. According to the research organisation Counting Dead Women Australia 64 women across the country were killed in acts of violence in 2023. This past week alone, we have seen the worst unfold in the news with Samantha Murphy's alleged killer being arrested, and the body of Chaithanya Madhagani being found in a wheelie bin in regional Victoria in what police have deemed suspicious circumstances.

Over one hundred years on from Angelina's story, her experiences have marked her as a figure in the history books worthy of praise. Not only did her case help set a new legal precedent for other victims of abuse but she has been heralded as an important figure in the feminism movement.


Students at one school in Canada even campaigned to have Angelina featured on a new Canadian bank note to immortalise her and her important role in the fight against domestic abuse.

Cases like this will always elicit conversation and conjecture around morality but one truth persists: women around the world remain fearful for their lives.

Angelina's story may have happened over 100 years ago, but we are still facing the same issues. If only we could learn from the history books, implement real support and constitutional change for victims of domestic abuse, so the statistics could finally start to turn around.

Until then, Angelina's story and others like hers will continue to be the norm.

Feature Image: The Pittsburgh Press.