Murdered in bed: The foul killing of Rosa di Lucia in Sligo
After the mysterious death of a woman in 1914, suspicion turned to her ice-cream vendor husband and their young servant
A general view of Sligo Town in the late 19th century. Pictured is Market Street, just off modern-day, Grattan Street where the killing took place. Photograph: National Library of Ireland/Flickr Commons
Rosa di Lucia gave birth to her third child a little more than a week before she was killed in her bed at her Sligo home.
In the days following the birth on November 30th, 1914, she had been in poor health. She spent much of that time in bed at the house, located on modern-day Grattan Street in the town. Rosa lived with her husband, Angelo, their children, her brother-in-law Pasquali and Jane Reynolds, a 17-year-old servant who attended to Rosa and the baby.
The di Lucias were originally from Italy. Angelo worked as an ice cream vendor in Sligo town and Jane, from Ballymote, had been with the di Lucias for about five months by December 8th, 1914; the day of Rosa’s death. That morning, to those who saw Rosa’s body, it was clear she had suffered a number of wounds on her head and face. Less clear was how exactly the wounds were inflicted.
The story told first told by by Jane was a sad one. The servant, who stayed in the bedroom with Rosa during the night, claimed “the missus” had self-inflicted the fatal blows using a hammer later found in the room. But, as was observed and widely reported, there were three wounds on Rosa’s head - any of which could have caused unconsciousness.
Fast forward to just under a year later and Angelo di Lucia sits on a courtroom back bench with Jane Reynolds in Dublin. The latter is now 18 years old, and holds a newborn of her own – a daughter – in her arms. Both are charged with the murder of Rosa di Lucia.
It was decided that day that Jane and Angelo would be tried separately. A female warder took the child from Jane and Angelo was escorted out of the room: that was the scene on the morning of November 2nd, 1915 - the first day of Jane’s two-day trial - set by a report in The Irish Times.
Before examining the evidence, it’s worth looking at the time between the crime and the trial. Much happened in those 11 months.
The case quickly caused a sensation in Sligo. And much anger. As a result, there was a question about whether a fair trial was possible in a Sligo courthouse, particularly considering Angelo was not originally from Ireland. The courts, as a result, were cautious.
In February, a judge pulled up the Sligo Champion editor at the time – 27 year old James A Flynn. It was agreed Flynn was in contempt of court for a report published in December, which allegedly assumed the guilt of the accused parties. No punishment was levelled at the Champion and the judge ruled it an accidental breach owing to Flynn’s inexperience (prior to his appointment as editor a year beforehand, his role was that of junior reporter).
In spring, the venue of the trial was changed to Dublin and scheduled for the following assizes. It was delayed again when it was discovered the young servant was pregnant – she gave birth in the July 1915, meaning she was pregnant at the time of Rosa’s death.
Over a number of court reports in The Irish Times in November 1915, a full picture of the Crown’s version of events emerges. The prosecution first set out to establish a sense of a close, inappropriate relationship between Angelo and Jane.
The two, the court heard, were spending a lot of time together in public prior to the murder. “He and she went to places of amusement, and to dances, and the murdered woman was not with them,” Jane’s trial heard. “Counsel suggested to the jury that the prisoner was present at the time of the murder, and took part in it . . .”
On the night of Rosa’s death, Pasquali slept in the same room as Angelo, while Jane slept in the room with the new mother. Pasquali – not considered a reliable witness – said at one point he heard Rosa shout “Oh, oh, oh”, to which Angelo said: “The missus is hone a little bit in the head.” Pasquali went back to sleep, according to his own testimony, until Jane raised the alarm the following morning.
Rosa’s maternity nurse, Mrs Tiernan, said she found Rosa dead in the bed, with a bandage over her forehead and her clothes recently changed. She recalled seeing a wound on Rosa’s forehead, another further down between her eyes and one on her temple. Jane stuck with her story: “The prisoner said she must have killed herself,” reported The Irish Times, quoting Tiernan’s testimony.
One police sergeant said that on his arrival to the scene, he was shown to the bathroom, where the prisoners pointed out a blood-stained sheet. He told the court noticed a naggin of whiskey on the table and that the hammer was discovered near the fireplace.
Rosa’s doctor confirmed her health had been improving. Another servant said Jane recently told her Angelo had physically abused Rosa, striking her for not peeling potatoes.
The most damning evidence was a statement made to Head Constable Murphy by Jane at Sligo train station. The account was given to the policeman during a three-minute conversation that took place as she waited for her return train to Ballymote after addressing the inquest.
Oh, I did not do it my lord; he killed his wife. My lord, don’t hang me
The defence tried to have the statement thrown out, but it was allowed to be read in court. In that version of events, Jane had painted a picture of a violent crime fully orchestrated by Angelo. The servant said her employer had approached her and asked: “Jane, my wife’s head is gone: will you kill her for me?”
Jane claimed she unsuccessfully tried to use the hammer to carry out her employer’s request, but Rosa was too strong. The naggin of whiskey, she said, had been bought to fortify her courage. When Jane failed to kill Rosa, Angelo appeared in the room and murdered his wife.
Jane’s defence went about questioning the “affair” motive. Why, the defence counsel asked, would Angelo would risk botching such a crime by recruiting a 17-year-old girl to carry it out? The defence also came down heavily on the manner in which Jane’s damning statement was extracted from Reynolds at the station. She had apparently been reduced to tears during that interrogation: “What sort of torture must this girl have suffered?”
In the end, it didn’t matter. The jury took about an hour to convict Jane of wilful murder on November 3rd, with a “very strong” recommendation of mercy.
Jane did not appear to realise the position she was in and a “painful scene” followed the handing down of the mandatory death sentence. Jane cried out: “Oh, I did not do it my lord; he killed his wife. My lord, don’t hang me, I have a little child. I am found guilty, but I am not guilty at all. I have a father and three brothers at the front.”
Mr Justice Dodd said he would forward the jury’s recommendation as soon as he was able. Women in the galleries cried, said the report, and the court was eventually cleared. The prisoner was escorted by a private exit and transferred to prison in a cab.
The next day Angelo’s trial took place. The report was quick to mention his “swarthy complexion and respectable appearance”, as well as the strained expression he wore as he followed proceedings. He pleaded not guilty.
Many of the witnesses, and nearly all the evidence, was the same as that used against Jane. Angelo said he was woken up before 7am by Jane, who said Rosa was dead. Upon entering the room, he said his wife was actually still alive. He said he then washed her head. The Attorney General highlighted the fact that Angelo never said he asked Jane what happened. An odd detail, he said, for a man whose wife was, by all indication, “foully murdered”.
The defence said there was “not a particle of evidence” to show Angelo murdered his wife or helped Jane do so; the married couple lived on terms of “amity and affection”.
The prosecution, in reply for the Crown, said no one bar the prisoner knew better that Rosa di Lucia did not take her own life. The judge told the jury to draw their own conclusions from the facts, but said “it was their duty to see that a man may not with impunity do to death the wife of his bosom.”
After 40 minutes, Angelo was found guilty and sentenced to death. He kept his composure as he was escorted from the courthouse.
The executions were fixed for Tuesday, December 2nd, 1915. Neither went ahead. Jane Reynolds and Angelo di Lucia saw their convictions commuted to penal servitude for life in the weeks before their date with the executioner.