Tuesday, 7 July 2015

The Boiling Porridge Murder

An Italian musician convicted of murdering his compatriot by pouring boiling hot porridge over him was sentenced to death but reprieved and transported instead.

In the late 1830s two travelling pianists, Girolome Capello and Antonio Tuscani, arrived in Liverpool and went into partnership. They lodged at a boarding house ran by an Italian named Luigi Ginnochio in Thurlow Street, off Richmond Row in Everton. The two men performed together, but Capello was the senior partner, handling all the finances and effectively paying a salary to Tuscani.

There seemed nothing untoward on the night of Monday 12th July 1841 when Capello and Tuscani went to bed in their lodgings, where they shared a room with an Italian married couple. At around 1am the lodging house keeper went to bed, having made up a fire ready for the following morning. However by doing this, he had provided Capello with the means to put together an improbable murder weapon.

At 4am the occupants of the house were woken by Tuscani's screams. He was running naked down the stairs shouting 'I am burnt I am dead' and covered in white floury powder. Ginnochio went to see what was going on and saw that his torso was badly scalded. Capello then appeared, but he was fully clothed except for his hat and on seeing the others he ran out of the door as fast as he could. Mrs Ginnochio did what she could to treat the burns while her husband went to find a doctor. On returning within ten minutes, he found that his wife had put a shirt on Tuscani and helped him to another bed.

Ginnochio went to the room where the two men had slept and found that there was a white flour mixture on the bed, similar to what Tuscani had been covered in. A bucket that was normally kept in the kitchen was next to the bed, having clearly contained the mix, while in the kitchen the fire that Ginnochio had made up earlier had been re-lighted. A pot which he had cleaned the night before had now been used, while Capello's hat was on the kitchen table.

Tuscani was taken to the Infirmary in the morning and when Ginnochio visited him he stated that he was sure he would die. In giving his depositions, he said that there had been a falling out the day before the incident as a result of them failing to agree the terms of a £12 debt which he owed to Capello. Despite his landlord's belief that he would recover, he slipped away on 25th July from exhaustion as a result of the scalds.

Two days later an inquest took place with the coroner Mr P F Curry describing it as an extraordinary case. A verdict of wilful murder was returned leading to Capello, who had been apprehended soon after the incident and remanded on a charge of wounding, now being committed for trial on a coroner's warrant.

Capello appeared at the assizes on 26th August before the Lord Chief Justice Denman. At his barristers request the jury consisted of three Italians and an interpreter was also made available. Under cross examination, Ginnochio admitted that the two men had been on good terms right up to the night of the killing and that Capello had always been honest and good natured. The defence counsel then suggested that the mixture was not porridge at all but instead plaster, a claim that was swiftly denied and it was reiterated that it was steaming.

Luigi Gasparino, who had known Capello for nine years testified to his good character but did give evidence about the argument that had taken place between the two men on the Sunday before the killing. He explained how the two had a discussion away from others but he could see that it ended by the two of them each making a finger gesture of contempt. A fellow musician Carlo Rabbiotti told how Cappello had asked him to keep his organ for him overnight on 12th July and said that he would be collecting it the following morning. When he arrived shortly after 4am, he was wearing no hat and asked Rabbiotti for a loan of one. 

Capello's defence counsel argued that due to his previous good character and lack of premeditation he should only be convicted of manslaughter. It was suggested that he could have made the porridge with the intention of eating it, but had a quarrel and threw it over Tuscani in the heat of the moment. In summing up though the judge said there was nothing in the evidence to have the charge reduced to manslaughter or justifiable homicide and that by leaving his organ with Rabbiotti earlier in the evening it suggested Capello was planning an escape.

The jury took just a few minutes to find Capello guilty of murder, but did recommend mercy on account of his previous good character. Lord Chief Justice Denman then agonisingly deferred sentence until the following morning.

The next day Capello walked firmly into court but was looking anxiously for an interpreter. When asked if he had anything to say he seemed resigned to his fate, replying 'I can only beg a favour, that some time may be granted to me to reconcile my mind, that I may repent myself.' The judge described it as a 'carefully secured, deliberately cruel murder'. Dismissing the jury's recommendation for mercy he went on to say 'It would have given me great pleasure to comply with that recommendation if I thought it consistent with my public duty, but it is necessary that examples are made when such horrible crimes are committed.' He then pronounced sentence of death.

Despite the judge's views, the Home Secretary did act on the recommendation of the jury and commuted the sentence to transportation for life. On 25th July 1842 he landed at Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) along with 299 other convicts on the ship Susan.

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