“I know I’m going to die. I don’t mind now. There never was any real hope.” – Anna Antonio, hours before her execution.
The case of Anna Antonio is interesting not for her crime (which was a fairly squalid affair) but for what the law and society made her endure thereafter. Married to railroad worker and suspected drug dealer Salvatore Antonio, her marriage wasn’t, according to her, love’s young dream. She claimed he was violent and abusive which he may well have been but, according to witnesses, in their many domestic arguments she had a tendency to give as good as she got. Witnesses hearing her express a fervent desire to see him dead probably didn’t help her case much, either.
It was in the early hours of March 27, 1932 that her final chapter began. New York law students driving between Castleton and Albany discovered Salvatore’s body crumpled in the middle of the road. They put him in their car, still alive although seriously injured, and rushed him to Albany Memorial Hospital. He died minutes after arriving but, with five .38-calibre bullet wounds and fifteen stab wounds, it was a minor miracle that he’d lasted as long as he had.
This was clearly a murder and, within a month, New York detectives had trawled through his rather dubious friends and acquaintances looking for likely suspects. Sam Feraci and Vincent Saetta were certainly likely suspects as they too were suspected of being in the drug trade. They became prime suspects when it emerged that they’d taken the victim on a drinking spree and were the last people to have seen him alive. After being grilled by detectives for less than a day they admitted Antonio’s murder. They also pointed the finger firmly at his wife Anna as having paid them to kill him.
Anna initially denied any knowledge of their actions, at least for a while. Then she changed her story, admitting that she’d ordered his murder as her only way out of an abusive, violent marriage. Then she changed her story again, claiming that she’d only ordered them to deliver a severe beating. If they’d killed him, then the blame was theirs, not hers, according to her latest version of events as they piled up in front of investigators.
In early-May of 1932 the trio were charged with first-degree murder, a capital crime in New York at that time. Saetta and Feraci were facing execution for actually committing the crime. Anna was facing the chair for ordering it. They went to trial and, on April 15, 1933, were convicted and sentenced to death. All three were transferred to Sing Sing Prison’s infamous death house to file appeals, tick days off the calendar and watch the clock tick, their fates now entirely in the hands of others. Saetta and Feraci were confined in the regular death house cells while Anna ended up in the death house Women’s Wing, six cells set aside solely for the female condemned. In theory they wouldn’t have long to wait, their execution date was set for May 29, only a few weeks after their arrival. It would take rather longer in practice for justice to be served.
The appeals were quickly filed and, just as quickly, denied. The first delay pushed their date back to June 28. Technically New York’s death warrant specified the week beginning June 24 but part of the execution ritual at Sing Sing saw executions carried out on a Thursday. ‘Black Thursday’ as it was known. On June 17 Anna had her mandatory sanity hearing before the State Lunacy Commission. The Commission passed her as legally sane, closing yet another door to avoiding the chair.
Her fight, however, wasn’t over but just beginning. A strong media campaign was mounted and quickly gathered steam. On June 20 attorney Daniel Prior went before Governor Herbert Lehman, not a Governor with any love for executions, to argue for clemency. The request was denied. On June 27 Warden Lewis Lawes, in charge at Sing Sing and an implacable enemy of the death penalty, personally visited Lehman to make his own plea for clemency. Lehman still refused, deciding that he couldn’t set the precedent of reprieving Anna because she was female while letting her male assassins go to the electric chair for a murder she’d personally ordered.
June 28 dawned. ‘Black Thursday’ had arrived. By early evening all preparations were in place for the triple execution scheduled for 11pm. ‘State Electrician’ Robert Elliott was in place testing his equipment. Warden Lawes was briefing the official witnesses. The prison was on lockdown as members of the public gathered outside the prison. Anna had refused her last meal, sinking ever deeper into psychological numbness, fear and despair as the minutes ticked by relentlessly towards 11pm.
Just after 10pm Saetta made an urgent request to see Warden Lawes. He wanted to make a statement that had vital information on the case, he claimed. Lawes hurried to see him and, hearing Saetta’s new claims, called Governor Lehman. The clock ticked well past 11pm before Lawes went to speak to the official witnesses in the death chamber. He explained to them that Lehman had granted the trio 24 hours while Saetta’s statement was checked. Anna was finally informed at 3:15am, having collapsed at 1am from the strain.
Saetta’s statement was simple. Salvatore Antonio owed him a $75 drug debt and had threatened to kill him rather than pay the money. Saetta believed him and enlisted Sam Feraci to help him deal with Antonio permanently. According to Saetta, Anna knew nothing about it and hadn’t promised the pair $800 from her husband’s life insurance.
Unfortunately, Saetta’s ploy was rather less noble or honest than it at first appeared. The next day Anna’s lawyer Daniel Prior went to discuss clemency with Lehman and the prosecuting attorney. The prosecutor was blunt, describing Saetta’s statements as:
“An absolute fabrication of lies.”
It probably didn’t help the trio that a prison clerk revealed that, on admission to the death house, Saetta had said:
“We’ll beat this case yet. If not, I’ll make a statement at the last minute.”
Lehman, however, proved more sympathetic. He granted a ten-day reprieve for Anna and her two hitmen in order to allow Prior to argue for a retrial before Judge Earl Gallup, who had presided over the original trial. Gallup denied the appeal on July 5, but another reprieve was granted allowing Prior to argue before the Court of Appeals. They denied the appeal on July 16, but granted another reprieve so Prior could argue before Supreme Court Justice Bryon Brewster on August 2, 1934. Unfortunately for the killers Brewster wasn’t convinced, stating in his ruling on August 8:
“I am painfully aware of the gravity of my decision. But I cannot find that the new evidence is ground for a new trial, or that it would have changed the rendered verdict.”
The trio’s latest date was August 12, only four days away. Time was rapidly running out and doors were closing to the three condemned nervously awaiting either damnation or deliverance. Three times they had come within minutes of dying. Three times Fate had stayed Robert Elliott’s hand. It wouldn’t be a case of ‘Fourth time lucky.’
On August 12 Lehman was at his desk reviewing Prior’s latest clemency request on Anna’s behalf. Lawes was making the customary pre-execution preparations. In the afternoon Anna, veering wildly between hope, panic, bitterness and apathy, was sat listening to the death house radio. Governor Lehman’s decision was relayed to her by a brutally brief newsflash:
“Latest flash from Albany! The Governor has refused a further reprieve for Mrs. Antonio. She must die in the electric chair tonight.”
All hope was gone for them. With Anna irrevocably doomed so too were Saetta and Feraci, both of whom took the news in sullen, resigned silence. Anna didn’t do so well. Nor did she enjoy the final visit of her brother, sister-in-law, nephew and a friend who she had turned away rather than see them. It probably didn’t help that it was her daughter Marie’s seventh birthday, either, although Marie didn’t see her mother on her final day. Anna’s son, 3-year-old Frankie, did come to see her having been brought by Anna’s brother. With that distressing event over, it was time for Anna herself to make some preparations.
The death house barber, an old convict named Jimmy ‘The Shiv’ DeStefano came by to shave her head and right leg for a smooth, clean contact when the electrodes were placed. Anna declined a final meal and dressed for the occasion, choosing a blue dress she’d made in her cell.
At 11pm the ritual began. Anna, escorted by prison Chaplain McCafferty and several guards, walked around 100 paces from the death house Women’s Wing, past the pre-execution cells known as the ‘Dance Hall’ where inmates usually spent their final hours. On the way through the ‘Dance Hall’ she passed the cells of Saetta and Feraci, walking by without acknowledging either of them. They would follow her immediately after her death.
She walked into the death chamber and was swiftly seated, strapped and the electrodes secured. A line composed of two female matrons and a male guard formed in front of the chair to forestall any secret pictures being snapped on hidden cameras, as had happened when Ruth Snyder was executed in the same chair in January, 1928. With their backs to the official witnesses and blocking their view, these three officers ensured she died without too large an audience. At 11:11pm on Black Thursday’ the switch was thrown and her story was over. During the next 15 minutes first Feraci and then Saetta walked through the door, were seated, shocked and wheeled after her into the adjoining autopsy room.
Immediately after the executions Governor Lehman stated:
“Appeals have been made to me to grant executive clemency to Anna Antonio on account of her sex, but the law makes no distinction of sex in the punishment of crime; nor would my own conscience or the duty imposed upon me by my oath of office permit me to do so. Each of the defendants is guilty. The crime and manner of its execution are abhorrent. I have found no just and sound reason for the exercise of executive clemency.”