A skeleton in your family closet can be challenging enough to exhume and investigate. But try researching your genealogy and solving an ancient murder while you simultaneously serve as historian, tourist, travel guide and of course, since it is Italy, food critic. Helene Stapinski does all that in Murder in Matera, bringing to life the customs, passions and people—dead and alive—of Southern Italy. With refreshing wit and endearing respect for the generations of shoulders she stands on, Stapinski has resurrected her great-great-grandmother, Vita Gallitelli, and follows her tragic journey from Matera, Italy, to Jersey City.
Gallitelli died in Jersey City in 1915, but her infamy as a “loose woman” and alleged murderer lived on in stories told by Stapinski’s mother. Her family was further blemished by the bad behavior of modern relatives, such as a cousin who rigged bingo games to enrich his mother and Grandpa Beansie, a former inmate. These facts led the author to fear that her own children might inherit a tendency toward crime, with the help of a genetic defect possibly passed down from Gallitelli. She needed to know the truth about her great-great grandmother, and so began a 10-year, trans-Atlantic research project. Did Gallitelli in fact kill someone, and if she did, why? Was she a “puttana” who slept around, scandalizing her Italian hometown? Why did she become one of thousands of emigrates fleeing their homeland in the 19th century, and what happened to one of her children on that miserable ocean crossing to New York?
Such questions drove Stapinski to leave her own family behind in America and seek answers in Matera. The truth lay deep in the oral and documented history of the poverty-stricken province and, when the truth is revealed at last, it changes everything, including her perspectives on family, marriage, motherhood and, above all, the destiny-changing courage of immigrants like Vita Gallitelli.