A Life of Service: Remembering the Tombs Angel, a Heroine of the Gilded Age

B. The Life and Work of Rebecca Salome Foster

7. Providing Legal Assistance

Interior of the Tombs, Murderer’s Row. Originally published in Darkness and Daylight by Helen Campbell, 1895.

A regular part of Mrs. Foster’s work was to find attorneys for defendants in serious cases. With money in short supply, Mrs. Foster used her persuasive powers to prevail upon attorneys to take on cases pro bono. For instance, she often induced the young Samuel Seabury, Esq., who later became a very famous reformer and judge in New York,[118] to take cases from her on this basis. Early on, when Seabury was in court one day, she came up to him and asked if he would act as counsel for some of her non-paying defendants.[119] He accepted and thereafter threw himself enthusiastically into the cases she recommended to him. “She was kindly, sympathetic and humane and so great was my respect for her,” Seabury said, “that there was no case that she asked me to defend that I refused.”[120] For a young lawyer, this proved to be good, albeit not lucrative, experience. “There was no need to wait for causes and clients to come to me now,” Seabury said. “Mrs. Foster saw to it that I was well supplied.”[121] Other attorneys were likewise well-supplied: in the summer of 1896 alone, for example, she provided lawyers for 133 women and 84 men.[122]

Mrs. Foster also did what she could to provide direct, personal support to defendants in some very serious and notorious cases. One of these, a tremendous scandal at the time, was the case of Maria Barbella.[123] Barbella was an immigrant from Italy. One Dominic Cataldo, a fellow immigrant, had abused her, had taken advantage of her, and then, after false promises otherwise, had rebuffed her efforts to persuade him to marry her and save her from a life of degradation. Cataldo conveyed his refusal quite publicly. “Do you think I would marry such a girl,” he said. When she persisted, he refused, adding that “hogs may marry.” Barbella became enraged, attacked him with a razor, and cut him with it. He staggered into the street and died.[124]

There had been witnesses to the final altercation and Barbella thus did not deny that she had attacked Cataldo, although she asserted that she had not intended to kill him and there was evidence that she had been in a state of severe emotional distress for some time prior to and at the time of the attack. Barbella was incarcerated in the Tombs and put on trial for murder in 1895. Mrs. Foster took a great interest in her case and aided her in every way possible. She was at Barbella’s side in court every day throughout the trial. The defense did not argue that Barbella had been incompetent at the time of the attack. Barbella, who knew almost no English, testified in her own behalf at the trial, but the testimony was to no avail. Barbella was convicted. Mrs. Foster assisted Barbella throughout the sentencing hearing (the prisoner entered the courtroom “supported by Mrs. Foster, the Tombs Angel”) and stood up with her before the bar when the sentence was imposed. The judge sentenced Barbella to death. She would become the first woman to die in the electric chair in New York State if the sentence were carried out as scheduled in August 1895.[125]

Barbella was sent to Sing Sing the day sentence was pronounced and Mrs. Foster accompanied her. It was reported that “Mrs. Foster will make arrangements at Sing Sing for the girl to have any delicacy she wishes, for which Mrs. Foster will pay out of her own pocket.”[126] Because Barbella was in a deeply disturbed state, Mrs. Foster allowed herself to be locked in the room with the prisoner for one or two days and nights. Then, when Barbella was in a better frame of mind, Mrs. Foster returned to the city and her work.[127]

Thereafter, Mrs. Foster continued to expend herself on Barbella’s behalf. Along with a prominent volunteer, an American-born Italian countess,[128] Mrs. Foster found a new attorney for Barbella and visited the editors of all the leading newspapers in an effort to persuade them to take positions in favor of clemency for Barbella or a new trial (which of course was ultimately a matter for the Court of Appeals).[129] During the months that Barbella was incarcerated at Sing Sing, Mrs. Foster visited her frequently.[130]

Attorneys representing Barbella pressed an appeal on her behalf. The appeal succeeded the next year when the Court of Appeals ordered a new trial,[131] finding that the trial judge had made various errors, in particular, submitting the case to the jury upon a charge of first-degree murder that was erroneous in critical respects. At the second trial in 1896,[132] Mrs. Foster once again sat at Barbella’s side throughout.[133] This time Barbella’s lawyers argued that she had acted under the compulsion of extreme emotional upset. The argument succeeded: Barbella was acquitted, and she left the courtroom with Mrs. Foster at her side. It was reported that Mrs. Foster would find employment for her.[134] As the attorneys who succeeded so spectacularly on behalf of Barbella had been recruited by Mrs. Foster and the Italian countess, Barbella ultimately owed her life to them.

Another case in which Mrs. Foster played a similar role was that of Mary Dunne. Mrs. Foster was at her side when she was tried on charges of having murdered her husband during a quarrel.[135] And Mrs. Foster was at the counsel table beside Ida Lieberman during the latter’s trial for arson, which ended with a conviction.[136]

One of Mrs. Foster’s last cases was that of Florence Burns, a young woman who was charged with the murder of one Walter S. Brooks in another sensational case. During a hearing in the case that lasted several days, Mrs. Foster sat by her side as her best friend when all others had apparently abandoned her.[137] At the end of a day’s hearing, Burns was “led over the Bridge of Sighs to her cell in the Tombs” accompanied by Mrs. Foster and a policeman.[138] Chaplain Munro wrote that “this is just the kind of work Mrs. Foster had been doing — of the most unselfish and loving character to prison unfortunates for nearly twenty years.”[139]

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