Lake Como is a peaceful place but, when crimes are committed, they tend to truly hit the headlines. No doubt this is due to media coverage delighting in the lake’s exotic natural landscape and that Como has seemed to specialise in crimes of passion. We have previously reported on how Cernobbio and its luxury hotel, Villa D’Este, saw the shooting of wealthy industrialist Carlo Sacchi by his ex-lover, Countess Pia Bellentani, in September 1948 and how this tragedy hit the national headlines at the time. Fifty eight years prior and just up the road in the neighbouring village of Moltrasio, another murder – also later to be judged a crime of passion – saw the conviction of a young American for bludgeoning his wife during their honeymoon, placing her stunned body in her travelling trunk where she died of asphyxiation and seeking to conceal the body by jettisoning the trunk in the lake. This incident also gained massive newspaper attention on both sides of the Atlantic not just for its self-evident drama but also because it raised a whole series of legal issues at the time surrounding the extradition of an American citizen to Italy.
The Fated Newly-Weds
The murder took place on June 6th 1910 within the ‘dependance’ of the Villa Legnazzi in Moltrasio. The victim was the 40 year-old ex-actress, ex-San Franciscan socialite divorcee Mary Scott Castle and the accused was Porter Charlton, the 21 year-old bank clerk and son of Puerto Rican judge Paul Charlton.
The couple had recently married on March 12th of that year in Wilmington, Delaware where she had claimed to be 27 years old and he 25. Mary had just been granted a divorce from her husband Neville Castle who had been a prominent San Franciscan attorney but, having lost a fortune, had moved up to Alaska to pursue fresh enterprises. Porter’s parents were unaware of their son’s marriage until after the event and were not impressed by the bride. Her acting career had stalled after some initial success but she still retained a reputation for her great beauty. She had been characterised as ‘imperious of will and with a consciousness of power’. Porter suffered from ill-health. He was tubercular and his father once described him as ‘weak of will and feeble of body’. The newly-wed couple did however share a similar character trait, a tendency to lose their patience and get into furious tempers. This trait may well have led Mary Scott Castle to the attempted murder of a former lover William D. Craig. She shot him at close range, but with an under-powered revolver, in a corridor of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York in 1909. This event is remarkably similar to the shooting of Carlo Sacchi in the Hotel Villa D’Este in 1948 except that Craig was fortunate to survive unharmed. In Mary’s case, the bullet intended for her ex-lover was deflected by a fountain pen and he was only lightly injured. When the case against Mary finally came to court, the victim decided not to press charges.
The Road to Tragedy
The couple set off on their extended honeymoon in Italy from New York on April 16th 1910 on the Italian steamboat Duca D’Aosta. They arrived in Genoa on April 28th and overnighted the day after at the Pensione Rigatti. They then made their way north and checked in to the Hotel Barchetta on Piazza Cavour in Como on May 3rd, staying for two nights before moving over to the nearby Hotel Metropole Suisse.
They were impressed by Como and made it known on May 7th that they wished to spend at least a month on the lake if they could find somewhere to rent. Not long after, they took up residence at the Villa Legnazzi in Moltrasio. There was nothing to suggest at this stage that the couple were anything other than happy in each other’s company.
Yet, on having moved into the Villa Legnazzi, which was a relatively modest ‘villetta’, the locals could hardly fail to hear the occasional heated argument sounding over the tranquil village. When returning to dine and stay overnight at the Metropole Suisse on May 17th, they were ejected from their room by the hotel manager at two in the morning due to their failure to stop disturbing the other guests with their animated rows. Porter even followed this up by refusing to pay the full fare demanded by the boatman prepared to row them back to Moltrasio at that early hour. Relationships between the couple and local residents deteriorated even further once they were befriended by a retired Russian resident called Konstantin Ispolatov, known locally as ‘Costantino il Russo’. Costantino was well read and spoke a number of languages thus making himself useful to the couple as their translator. Porter spoke only English whilst Mary also spoke some French. Added to the locals’ distrust of Costantino and the sound of violent argument emanating from the villa, gossip also began to circulate that the couple and Costantino held wild orgiastic parties.
In A Fit of Temper
As the honeymoon began to go severely sour, the couple began to consider that they had both made a mistake by marrying in such a hurry. Money was clearly a problem. Local suppliers were having to wait for payment. Porter could only call upon a modest allowance from his father. Mary had more of a fortune but was soon forced into selling jewellery to finance their stay on the lake. The realities of life were catching up with them and neither liked the prospect. On the night of June 6th all these tensions rose to the fore as the couple again started an intense row. Porter was later to claim that he was so provoked by his wife that he lost his temper and, picking up a mallet he had been using earlier in the day to mend some furniture, struck her a number of times to the head. Mary collapsed unconscious in a pool of blood. Porter immediately assumed she was dead and so, possibly after waiting one day, he emptied her trunk except for some letters and jammed his wife’s body in it forcing her head between her knees. He then also threw in the mallet, closed up the trunk and carried it down to the nearby jetty on the lake. Here he added a boulder to the trunk to give it added weight and heaved it into the water. The next morning he pocketed the rest of his wife’s jewellery and set out for Genoa to avoid capture intending to return to the United States as soon as possible.
The trunk was discovered two days later on June 9th when a couple of fishermen caught their lines on it. They retrieved it thinking its weight suggested it might contain something of value but found instead the body of Mary. She was quickly identified by the letters that had remained in the trunk. An autopsy followed which revealed that she had not died as a result of her head wounds but due to asphyxiation – she had been alive when placed in the trunk. At first, investigators considered that maybe Porter had also been killed since there was no sign of him. The bottom of the lake was dragged in search of a similar trunk containing the husband. Meanwhile, ‘Costantino il Russo’ was arrested as the main suspect to a double murder. Porter had sent off a couple of letters on the morning of his rapid departure and, once those had been retrieved, suspicion turned on him. A false lead led investigators to believe Porter may have taken the train north to Zurich which implied he may well be heading for Hamburg where he could take a steamer for New York. Instead he had boarded the steam boat Prinzess Irene which from Genoa, having stopped also at Naples and Palermo, docked on the morning of June 23rd at Hoboken, New Jersey.
Mary Scott’s brother, Captain Scott, had been convinced from the moment Mary’s body had been recovered that she had been murdered by Porter. He was at the dock in Hoboken on the morning of June 23rd following his hunch that Porter might be arriving there on a steamship from Hamburg. By chance, the Prinzess Irene had also docked that morning in the same port and Captain Scott was able to identify Porter as he waited to take charge of his luggage. Porter claimed to be called Jack Coleman when questioned but his true identity was soon revealed after his luggage was searched. He made a rapid and complete confession once his true identity had been revealed. He was then arrested and detained in New Jersey.
Extradition to Italy
Public interest at this point on both sides of the Atlantic switched from the details around the actual murder to the course of the legal debate on whether Porter should be extradited. An extradition treaty did exist between Italy and the United States. It had however been broken a number of times with Italy preferring to bring its nationals to trial in Italy wherever possible even if their crime may have been committed in the United States. Under US law, a United States citizen could not be tried for a crime committed outside of US jurisdiction. So, unless Italy requested extradition, Porter would have to be released immediately. On June 29th 1910, the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs duly requested Porter’s extradition. While Porter remained in detention, his family set about contesting extradition on the basis that the existing treaty had been abused so many times that it was no longer valid and, in any case, Porter was insane and could not be held responsible for his actions.
The legal issues were disputed from June 1910 until June 1913 when a definitive order was given for extradition. Porter finally returns to Como in November and is given a trial date of May 1914. He would however only face a charge of ‘unpremeditated’ murder – a formula similar to a crime of passion – and he underwent further examination by psychiatrists (known at the time as ‘alienists’) to establish the extent of any apparent insanity.
In spite of the date set as May 1914, the trial did not actually begin until October 1915 by when Italy was at war. A final verdict of guilty but with diminished responsibility was passed on October 26th with a sentence of six years eight months. Porter only had to serve a further 29 days in Como’s San Donnino prison since time spent in detention since 1910 was taken into consideration as well as a one year ‘discount’ awarded to all those convicted during the war for crimes committed before the war started. Thus it was that Porter left Italy for the United States for the last time on January 12th 1916 taking the SS America from Naples to New York.
Porter Charlton then faded into obscurity to die aged 45 in November 1933.
Thanks are due to the research undertaken by Fabio Cani and Gerardo Monizza (both local historians and editors at Como’s publishing house, Nodo Libri). Their research was based on the material deposited with the Como Palazzo di Giustizia and later transferred to Como’s Archivio di Stato.
Other sources include the United States newspapers of the time with many articles in the newspapers from the San Francisco Bay area where Mary’s family were mainly based and from New York where Porter had previously been working.