The Martini Murder
Exercise Yard at the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Exact Date Unknown. LIbrary of Congress.
For Joseph R. and Camille (Della Sala) Failla and their two children - eleven-year-old Joseph Jr. and ten-year-old Camille Susan - Christmas 1949 promised to be wonderful.
The Faillas had been married since 1934, and in the fifteen years since their marriage, Joseph’s prospects had risen consistently. Joseph, a garment cutter by trade, had taken a position in 1937 as a production manager at Martini Frocks. He was a hard and dedicated worker, and his efforts didn’t go unnoticed. By 1944, the senior Failla had become a minority stockholder and general partner in three of Martini’s offshoot corporations: Martini Designed, Inc., Diminutives, Inc., and the Josy Dress Corporation, holding a 12½% interest in the first two corporations and a 33⅓% interest in the third.
Joseph and Camille Failla on their Wedding Day in 1934.
The Christmas season of 1949 saw the family living comfortably in a five-room apartment in the Throggs Neck neighborhood of the Bronx at 72 Lamport Place. It seemed as if the Faillas had the perfect life. Failla’s daily job was as factory manager and production supervisor for the Diminutives concern at a salary of $200 a week (roughly $3100 a week in today’s currency). Earlier in the year the couple had taken a two-week vacation to Hamilton, Bermuda, and in the weeks prior to Christmas Day they had attended a Martini-Diminutives holiday office party and had celebrated Christmas Eve with relatives. No doubt the Failla family went to bed on Christmas Eve feeling warm, happy, and excited for Christmas Day.
Navy Blue Nylon Tulle Martini Frocks Cocktail Dress, 1949.
But whatever the family had planned for the holiday season, it was not to be.
No one knows exactly what occurred between Joseph and Camille Failla early on that Christmas morning to trigger a heated argument, but at some point Camille got out of the couple’s bed and took up two steak knives from the kitchen, one for each hand. She returned to their bedroom and stabbed Joseph before he had a chance to rise; she then chased him into their living room. She was able to stab him repeatedly until he dived between their grand piano and the Christmas tree. She managed to stab him once more in the chest before he collapsed under the tree and onto the family’s unopened Christmas presents.
The Front page of the New York Daily News, December 26, 1949.
Ten-year-old Camille had been awakened by her parents’ argument, and saw her mother stab her father. The young girl called police and told them what her mother had done. When authorities arrived, they found Joseph R. Failla sprawled across a box containing a $5000 mink coat he’d bought his wife, bleeding to death. Camille Failla, who had rushed to the bathroom after the stabbing and taken an overdose of sleeping tablets, was semi-conscious and slumped in a chair near her husband. Loyal to the end, Failla refused to tell police who had stabbed him, whispering only, “I don’t know who did it.”
Joseph and Camille Failla were both taken in the same ambulance to nearby Fordham Hospital. Joseph - who had sustained thirteen stab wounds from his chest and abdomen to the arch of his right foot, and had part of a broken knife blade still lodged in his chest - was dead on arrival. Camille was placed under an oxygen tent in critical condition.
Mrs. Joseph Failla, 32, Guarded by Patrolman John Feddor, AP Wirephoto, December, 1949.
Investigators scrutinized Camille’s mental state before and after the attack. They learned Camille had broken a psychiatrist appointment just days earlier. She was known by her friends and neighbors to have issues with intense jealousy, accounts Camille herself seemingly corroborated when she told police at the scene she’d flown into a rage because of two letters from another woman she’d found in her husband’s coat pocket. However, accounts from Joseph’s co-workers and his partner at Martini-Diminutives, Inc., designer Sylvan Rich, claimed the victim was a family man who had never been known to associate with other women.
Lexington-Herald-Leader Article Caption, December 26, 1949.
A little over a week after Joseph’s murder, his will was filed in the Bronx Surrogates Court. Joseph’s will named his wife Camille his sole beneficiary and executor, but as Camille was charged with Joseph’s murder - and if convicted could neither act as executor or inherit the estate - the court decreed alternate executors would fulfill the role. Joseph’s brother-in-law Fred Della Sala and Jerome ‘Jerry’ Silverman, his friend and fellow business partner at Martini, became the estate’s executors.
Husband Stabbed, Star Tribune, December 26, 1949
Meanwhile, Camille had recovered from her suicide attempt and was transferred to Bellevue Hospital Prison Ward for observation. Two days after the homicide she was arraigned and charged with first-degree murder. A month later she went before the court and pleaded guilty, with a specification of insanity. Hospital psychiatrists at Bellevue had noted she was in “such a state of insanity she was incapable of understanding” and recommended to the judge she be committed to Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Her defense pleaded with the court to send her instead to Rockland State Hospital, arguing a cure for her condition would be better obtained there than in a criminal facility. All parties agreed that upon her recovery and release, she would face a murder indictment. The judge rendered his decision and Camille was committed to Rockland State Hospital in Orangeburg, New York, on January 30, 1950.
Camille Failla had been given two choices - live her life in Rockland State Hospital, or face life in prison for first degree murder. Neither was a desirable choice. But it was infinitely more than the choices she had left her two children with.
$100,000 Left to Mrs. Failla by Slain Mate, Daily News, January 8, 1950.
Two days after Camille’s commitment, Joseph’s parents (Ignazio and Margaret Failla) and Camille’s parents (Frank and Assunta ‘Susan’ Della Sala) embarked upon a suit for custody of their grandchildren and for control over their father’s estate. Joseph's will had stipulated his estate would go to his children in the event of the death of his wife; with Camille committed and likely unable to inherit even if released, Joseph’s children stood to gain a substantial legacy.
The battle went on for months. The attorney for the Faillas argued there was a strain of insanity in the Della Sala family and attempted to prove this assertion by pointing to Camille’s sister Olga (who was a patient in the Central Islip State Hospital), and her mother Assunta’s alleged shooting of a cousin some four decades previous. Arguments were also made regarding financial status and love for the children. Joseph Jr. and Camille Susan were asked who they wished to live with. Both children testified they wanted to live with the Della Salas, who lived in the first floor apartment below them on Lamport Street.
Article Headline from The Evening Star, December 26, 1949.
As if this painful court battle wasn’t enough trauma for Joseph and Camille’s two young children, the proceedings were interrupted on February 18th, 1950, with more devastating news: less than two weeks after entering Rockland, Camille Failla had hung herself on facility grounds.
Camille had left her ward in the main reception building to use the washroom. She had been found by a ward nurse fifteen minutes later hanging from two overhead pipes in the washroom, a strap normally used to restrain patients during shock treatments around her neck. She had stepped off a waist-high wash basin. No one knew how Camille had obtained the strap, as she was not herself being treated by shock therapy, but she’d somehow managed to get one from the facility’s medical supply. Hospital doctors worked over her for an hour in an effort to revive her, but her autopsy showed she had broken her neck and died instantly.
Suicide Probe is Continuing, The Journal News, White Plains, New York, February 20, 1950.
The Front page of the New York Daily News, February 19, 1950.
Given her previous assessment at Bellevue Hospital regarding her suicidal ideation, there was an immediate police and district attorney’s investigation into her death. They ruled Rockland had no culpability for her death, citing that “persons with suicidal tendencies are particularly cunning in obtaining means of taking their lives.” Although her attorneys tried to demand then-Governor Dewey conduct a full investigation into her death, their pleas were ignored and the matter was brought to a close.
Police Find No Lack of Care, The Journal News, White Plains, New York, February 21, 1950.
With Camille’s death, it became obvious who would inherit the vast Failla estate - which ultimately totaled over $300,000, close to $3M in today’s currency. Arguments over where her now-orphaned children would live and who would control their money became even more bitter in the month following her death than they had previously been.
Finally, in April of 1950, the Bronx Surrogate Court rendered its decision. Assunta Della Sala was awarded custody of Joseph Failla, Jr., and her daughter Lydia Cloughessy, the children’s aunt, was awarded custody of Camille Susan Failla. Both Assunta and Lydia lived at the same Lamport Street address, and the court’s decision seemed largely based on the children’s stated desire to live with the Della Salas. In this way, the court felt both the children’s physical needs were best represented.
Bronx vs. Queens, Daily News, February 2, 1950.
Guardianship of the $300,000 estate, however, was granted to Margaret Failla, their paternal grandmother. Much of the estate was tied up in stocks the senior Failla had held in Martini Designed, Inc., Diminutives, Inc., and the Josy Dress Company, and representatives from those companies had already been pursuing the sale of those stocks in order to buy back their company from the Failla children. The court felt granting financial guardianship to Margaret Failla would ensure the financial interests of the children would be best represented.
You might be thinking we’ve reached the end of this heartbreaking saga. But the tragedies the Failla and Della Sala families had to bear didn’t end with the deaths of Joseph and Camille.
Grandfolk Battle Over Yule Slaying Children, The Daily News, February 2, 1950.
In May of 1951 - a little over a year after Camille Failla’s suicide - her twelve-year old son, Joseph A. Failla, Jr., died. Despite a thorough search, any details on his death or burial seem to elude us. The cause of his death is certainly recorded on his death certificate, but if we assume he died in the Bronx, the city of New York doesn't provide any online access to them just yet. A search of readily available newspaper databases came up empty, and likewise, his burial location is unknown. His only place his death is mentioned is during a series of New York State Supreme Court appellate proceedings involving the will of Joseph Failla Sr., between his executors and Margaret Failla, Joseph’s grandmother and guardian of the Failla children’s estate. These proceedings took place in 1953 and 1954.
Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Failla, date unknown, AP Wirephoto, December 1949.
There was one more tragedy to come. A little more than a decade after Joseph Jr. had died, his aunt Flora, Camille’s sister, had become despondent over her illness. She was found in her home in the fall of 1963. She had hung herself.
Ultimately, Joseph Failla’s entire estate - valued at over $3M today - passed to Camille Susan Failla, Joseph R. Failla’s sole heir. But given the loss of her entire family, this fortune must have surely been cold comfort.
Patricia Browning received her archival postgraduate degree in Information Management & Preservation from the University of Glasgow. Her lifelong fascination with research saturates nearly every aspect of her life. These days - when she's not nose-deep researching vintage fashion labels - she can be found doing genealogy or developing a podcast about her pet project, David Tennant's early theatre career in Scotland.
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The National Archives at Washington, D.C.; Washington, D.C.; Series Title: Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels and Airplanes Departing from New York, New York, 07/01/1948-12/31/1956; NAI Number: 3335533; Record Group Title: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1787-2004; Record Group Number: 85; Series Number: A4169; NARA Roll Number: 29. Retrieved from Ancestry.com.
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