Jana G. Pruden is a reporter at The Globe and Mail and host of the new podcast In Her Defence, which starts Oct. 10.
In the summer of 1911, as Angelina Napolitano waited to see if she would be executed for murder, she spoke to a female newspaper reporter about the circumstances of her husband’s death.
“I was afraid,” Ms. Napolitano said. “I felt hot. He went upstairs to bed. That was noon. I was mad. Blood was hot. No place for me to go. No friends. I was crazy. I go to the kitchen for the axe. I go upstairs. I think if he is awake, he kill me. I was sick of life. He was asleep. I struck him. I kill him. It had to be.”
The death of Pietro Napolitano in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., on Easter Sunday in 1911 was the first documented example of what would become known as a “battered woman” case in Canada, where a woman killing an abusive man – even while he’s sleeping – may in some cases be justified as self-defence.
While some news coverage of the time focused on Ms. Napolitano’s protection of her virtue (she was pregnant, and her husband was forcing her into prostitution), it was clear she’d narrowly avoided being killed by him in the past, and had good reason to believe he’d carry out his threats in the future.
“He stab me on the head, on the arms, on the face, nine stabs,” Ms. Napolitano told the reporter Honor Fanning, according to a story reprinted in papers around North America. “Sometimes he say he kill me if I do not do what he say. I thought he would kill.”
Over the past year and a half, I’ve been working on the story of Helen Naslund, an Alberta woman who shot and killed her abusive husband while he was sleeping in 2011. The cases of Ms. Naslund and Ms. Napolitano – which happened almost exactly 100 years apart – have many similarities, and raise some of the same questions about the nature of justice, including how women are judged by a system that was, and in some cases, still is geared toward men.
“How utterly different men’s and women’s points of view are is amply illustrated in Angelina Napolitano’s case, and it is also therefore clear that a jury composed entirely of men is utterly unqualified to judge a woman … ” Sonia Leathes wrote, on The Globe’s women’s page in 1911, making her argument alongside an ad for corsets, a recipe for tomato macaroni, and a question about whether women should wear gloves in the summer. “A male jury cannot and must not be allowed to judge a woman.”
I covered my first domestic homicide in January, 2001, and, as a court and breaking news reporter, have been covering domestic and intimate partner murders ever since. In almost every case, the primary victim was female. The killer, male.
Sometimes the killers were boyfriends, husbands. Sometimes killer and victim were still living together; other times the victim had left or was in the process of leaving.
Sometimes only the woman died. Other times whole families, strangers, police.
Covering some of Canada’s worst acts of violence and mass murders – six adults and two children killed in Edmonton in 2014; 22 people killed in Portapique, N.S., in 2020; 11 people killed and 18 injured on the James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan in 2022 – domestic violence and coercive control emerge again and again at the root of those hideous and devastating acts. The effects of “domestic violence” reach so far beyond the domestic realm.
Working on stories of domestic homicide and intimate partner violence has changed my own life in many ways. It has made me so watchful, so aware of red flags, of signs of danger. I’ve seen how domestic violence can affect every kind of family, every kind of person. Rural women and Indigenous women are at even greater risk.
I’ve also seen how complex domestic violence is – that sticky cycle. I’ve seen how helpless families and friends feel, how much shame and stigma there still is to have this happening in your life, in your family, and how powerless people feel to stop it.
I’ve felt this myself. There are times I’ve asked, “Are you afraid of him?” Times I’ve said: “I worry one day he will kill you.”
It’s personal for me. But it’s personal for you, too. Even if you don’t know it.
I think often of the broad ripples of this violence, the long tendrils of harm that snake through families and lives. The incalculable loss to the world of every single woman and child and person who dies or is killed because of domestic violence. So many lives changed forever, families and communities scarred for generations.
During Helen Naslund’s sentencing, the judge likened her and her son to good people who “react poorly when other options are open to them.” I’ve thought a lot about what other options were open to Helen, given what she knew then. Options that didn’t end up with her being killed or taking her own life. After all this time, I still don’t know what they were.
What I do know is that sharing these stories and talking openly about domestic violence without shame and stigma have the potential to change – and save – lives. And everyone deserves to be safe at home.