The Last Stop
'Mrs Antonio Must Die Tonight'
"I am almost dead now. I feel at times, I am not breathing!" So said Anna Antonio, 28, battered wife and mother of three young children, on the eve of her death in Sing Sing prison on August 9, 1934. She had just completed a harrowing, twisting journey through the labyrinth of the criminal justice system which included three reprieves from the chair and a dramatic rescue from death ten minutes before she was scheduled to die. Three times Governor Lehman granted a stay in her execution in order to resolve some unanswered questions. To many, her guilt was never firmly established and the last minute confession from one of her alleged accomplices, Vicent Saetta, 22, while cringing in the shadow of the electric chair, cast serious doubt on her murder conviction.
Anna was a slightly built woman who barely tipped the scales at 100 pounds. She had thick, long, dark hair and a very slight build. At the age of 16, Anna married a man named Salvatore Antonio, 30, of Albany, New York. As soon as they married, Sal dominated Anna's life in every way. He placed restrictions on everything she could and could not do. And when she didn't obey, she was beaten. Together they had 4 children but one died at an early age. Sal allegedly worked for a railroad as a brakeman and had two insurance policies, one with Met Life for $2,500 and another with his union, the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen for $2,800. Although he maintained a steady job, Sal had other interests as well. "The house was always full of dope and guns," Anna later told the cops. Suffering at the whim of a violent and abusive husband for 12 years, she allegedly hired a man named Sam Feracci, 42, who was a friend of Sal's, to help her out of her situation (Hearn p. 200). According to their own statements, Ferraci and another friend, Vincent Saetta, shot and stabbed Sal on a highway outside of Albany on March 27, 1932, leaving his corpse on the side of the road. Sal had 15 stab wounds and 5 bullet holes in his body when he was found. It didn't take long for cops to pinpoint Ferraci and Saetta. They told police that they killed Sal at the bequest of Anna who promised to pay them $800 of the insurance money. All three suspects were arrested on May 5, 1932 and charged with murder.
After a 26 day trial, held in Albany County Court during the Spring of 1933, Anna Antonio, Saetta and Feracci were found guilty of murder in the 1st Degree. On April 15, 1933, all three defendants were sentenced to die for Sal's murder. Less than a week later, they were on Death Row in Sing Sing, awaiting their punishment. And it is there where Anna suffered through a terrible gauntlet of fear, elation and ultimate defeat. For the next 16 months, she was dragged through a series of reprieves and scheduled executions that crushed her spirit and nearly drove her insane.
The Albany Court set a date of execution for May 29, 1933. When Anna arrived at Sing Sing, there were no other females on Death Row and three local women had to be re-hired to perform their duties as matrons. They were paid $100 per month for their work. Although they were essentially guards, all three women became friends with Anna and on the day she was executed, they stood in front of her to avoid anyone taking photographs of Anna sitting in the chair. The Snyder incident in 1928, in which a reporter snapped a death photo with a hidden camera, was still on everyone's mind.
As her attorney, Daniel Prior of Albany, filed appeal after appeal, the execution date for Sal's killers was postponed, eventually being set on June 28, 1934. As the date approached, Anna began to fall apart. Ferraci, however, acted as if nothing bothered him. "I gave the State what information I could when we were first arrested," he said. Saetta was even more resigned to his fate. "I don't expect anything," he said, "I'm willing to pay the price!" (Times}, June 30, 1934, p. 1). On June 20, Prior attended a face-to-face meeting with Governor Lehman that lasted two hours. Anna's three children, Phyllis, 9, Marie, 7 and Frankie, 3, along with Anna's brother, Pasquale Capello of Schenectady, accompanied him to the Governor's mansion. While the children played on the carpet behind him, Prior pled for their mother's life. The next day, Prior was informed that the Governor denied the request. The execution was on. At Sing Sing, when Anna was informed of the Governors' decision, she told the matrons that she wanted her brother to bring up the kids. "I'm not thinking of myself so much," she said, "I'm thinking what it will mean to the future of my children." She signed a will leaving whatever she had in this world to her kids. Anna told the matrons she was "ill, heart-broken, yet hoping something will save me!" (Times, June 30, 1934, p. 5).
On June 27, the matrons partially shaved Anna's head to prepare for electrode attachment. As the time approached, she didn't sleep nor would she eat. Her brother and sister came to visit her and brought little Frankie, Anna's 3 year-old son. They were allowed to kiss through the screen that separates the prisoners from the public. All day long, she awaited news from the Governor's office, hopeful that he would have a change of mind and spare her from certain death. At 10:50 p.m., barely ten minutes before the execution was scheduled to take place, Vincent Saetta asked to speak with Warden Lewis E. Lawes. He told the warden, that he, not Anna, had killed Sal Antonio and she had nothing to do with the murder. Saetta said that he and Sal argued over a $75 debt that Sal owed him. He said that Sal threatened his life and because of those threats, he decided to kill him. Saetta and Ferraci took Sal for a ride outside Albany on March 27, 1933 and Saetta said that he shot Sal. "Mrs. Antonio was absolutely innocent of the crime," he said.
Warden Lawes ordered a two-hour stay while he phoned the governor. Anna, minutes from death, collapsed on the spot. While the warden read Saetta's statement over the phone to Governor Lehman, Ferraci and Saetta sweated in their cells. The dramatic decision came through at 1:00 a.m. The governor said: "I have directed the warden of Sing Sing prison to postpone the electrocution of Vincent Saetta, Sam Ferraci and Anna Antonio until Friday night, June 29, in order that I may have time to study and consider the long statement made by Saetta." It was official, Anna had twenty-fours to live. She was given the news in her cell and was nearly hysterical. "Oh, thank God! Thank God!" she cried. But already, her attorney, Daniel Prior was hard at work.
The next day, while Anna endured the agonizing wait once again, the Governor and the attorneys held another meeting. Just one hour before the execution was to take place, Anna received a ten-day reprieve. It was decided that this would be enough time for Prior to draw up a motion for a new trial based on Saetta's dramatic statements. The motion would be made in Albany County Court in front of Judge Earl H. Gallup, the same judge who presided over the original trial in 1933. The Albany District Attorney John Delaney called Saetta's statement "an absolute fabrication of lies" (Times, June 30, 1934, p. 1). However, Governor Lehman would not be deterred. "I am granting a reprieve until the week beginning July 9, 1934," he said (Times, p. 1)
Drained by the emotional roller coaster of the past week, Anna rested in her cell. During her ordeal, she lost fifteen pounds and developed a gaunt appearance. She hadn't eaten in three days. Unable to cope with the constant pressure of death staring her in the face, she laid in her cot for twenty-four hours. The matrons brought her tea and toast and forced her to eat. "I am a little more hopeful, " she told them. Daniel Prior met with her on Death Row to plan for a new trial. He encouraged her and gave new hope that the case would be resolved in her favor. But on July 5, the motion for a new trial was denied by Judge Gallup. The execution was back on. Prior immediately appealed the ruling. Anna, her hopes crushed, said, "I have already died enough for a million men!"
By then, the case was attracting a great deal of attention. Various Italian civic organizations were making pleas in her behalf. Clarence Darrow, the noted defense attorney and a strong opponent of the death penalty, publicly supported her. Newspaper editorials lamented the on-again, off-again execution as cruel and unusual punishment. Perhaps prompted by these efforts, on July 10, the Governor granted a reprieve of one month to the beleaguered defendants in order to appeal the case. On Death Row, there was elation. For the first time, there was genuine hope that their lives could be spared. "If I could only live to bring up the three children!" she told the warden. The case made its way to the State Court of Appeals. But on July 16, that court refused to hear the case, thereby dropping the entire matter back into the lap of Governor Lehman. It also issued guidelines for future death penalty cases when it ruled: "After affirmance of judgment of death, no stay of execution can be granted except by the Governor." In other words, no death penalty case could come to the State Court of Appeals with the expectation of a reprieve. The new date for the execution was set at August 9, 1934. Anna was "dumfounded and thunderstruck" (Times, August 9, 1934, p. 3).
She told Warden Lawes, "I did not tell those men to kill my husband for his insurance money of $5,000. I could have killed him a dozen times" (Citizen Register, August 10, 1934, p. 2). "You don't know how terrible it is to be here! The Governor knows everything there is to know. Why doesn't he say something?" (Citizen Register, p. 2). Later that same day, August 9, the matrons returned to shave her head once again. "It looks as if they've all turned me down, God alone can help me!" she told the matrons. She suddenly fell into a semi-coma, unable to stand or sit. She looked thin and haggard, losing a great deal of weight during that last month. Anna weighed just 85 pounds. When she was asked what she wished for her last meal, she weakly replied, "I want nothing." Saetta and Ferraci both ate large meals and smoked cigars at about 7 p.m.
At 11:00 p.m., the guards came for Anna. Her time had run out. Although there was a fear she would have to be carried to the chair, Anna walked unassisted. The executioner, Robert G. Elliot, later wrote these words in his journal: "She walked to the chair unassisted although nervous. She sat in the chair calmly and repeated the Catholic prayer with Father McCaffrey" (Elliot, p. 254). The matrons strapped her into the chair and then took their places in between her and the viewing audience. Anna's head hung down, her chin touched the top of her chest. The frail and frightened woman looked like a little girl in the high back chair, which was designed for adult men. There was absolute quiet in the chamber as the deadly current was switched on. Within a few moments, as the electricity sputtered and crackled, Anna, whatever her crimes, was dead. The prison physician, Dr. Charles C. Sweet then pronounced the victim at 11:16 p.m. "I hereby pronounce this person dead," he intoned.
Before the words were out of his mouth, prison guards escorted Ferraci into the death chamber. He passed by Anna as attendants carried her body through the door. Ferraci was smiling as they strapped him to the chair, still smoking from its previous work. "I want to thank you gentlemen," he said, "I go to die but I am innocent. That is all I can say, I wish you good luck, all of you." As he finished his words, Elliot received the signal from Warden Lawes and 2,000 volts jolted his body at the speed of light. After two minutes, Dr. Sweet again rose from his front row seat and approached Ferraci's lifeless form. He applied his stethoscope to the man's chest and listed for a few seconds. "I declare this man dead," he announced. In the second row of the witnesses, there was a loud noise. One of the spectators had collapsed in the row of seats. But it was not over yet.
At 11:27 p.m., Saetta was brought into the chamber. He was grinning but the witnesses saw his teeth tightly clenched and his hands rigid. Saetta remained silent as the guards hastily applied the straps across his chest and legs. "Hello, guard!" he said. Saetta smiled bravely and within moments, the current again did its deadly work. He was pronounced dead at 11:31 p.m. All three bodies were removed and stored until the following day.
On August 10, Anna Antonio, Vincent Saetta and Sam Ferraci were claimed by family members and funeral arrangements were made. Anna was buried in Albany on August 13, 1934. Prison officials remarked to the press that more money was spent on Anna's incarceration and care than any other defendant in American history. Governor Lehman, stung by a prolonged barrage of criticism for not saving Anna's life, had this to say: "The law makes no distinction of sex in the punishment of crime; nor would my own conscience permit me to do so" (Citizen Register, p. 2). For little Marie, Anna's daughter, the day her mother died would be of special significance for her: August 9, 1934 was her 10th birthday.