Dorothy Frooks was a white, New York lawyer from a well-connected family who fought for the 19th Amendment in the 1910s and fought against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, and in between that defended clients and debated with Eleanor Roosevelt. While the full story of the “daughter of a prosperous businessman and an international society figure” who married a Vanderbilt at age 89 has yet to be told, the New-York Historical Society holds some of her papers. Newspaper articles, ones that presumably Frooks herself clipped, fill the six boxes that make up the collection. Flip through the pages and Frooks’s experiences unfold. But, the Frooks Papers also reveal other stories: ones that contribute to a robust literature amplifying the voices of immigrant women, working-class women, and women of color in the 20th century.
One such story that we learn through the collection is of Catherine De Ninno, a young Italian immigrant who Frooks defended in court when she was accused of murder. Frooks preserved trial photographs, newspaper clippings, and even letters from De Ninno in her scrapbooks. Likely, she did so to make visible her own contributions to De Ninno’s case, which gained national attention. The handwritten marginalia on the clippings, which focuses on Frooks’s involvement, provide evidence of this intent. But, in preserving this material, the lawyer also incidentally opened a window into a working-class, Italian teenager’s life—one filled with trauma, resilience, and a quest for justice. Census records, immigration documents, and digitized newspapers allow us to pursue her story further.
In 1913, Catherine (known as Kate) and her family joined the thousands of emigrants from Italy who moved to New York. Boarding the Venezia in Naples, the family consisted of 28-year-old Mary, eight-year-old Salvatore, and two-year-old Kate. Records from Ancestry.com suggest that—like many men—Kate’s father, a wood carver, immigrated to New York first and moved back and forth between New York and southern Italy until the remainder of the family joined him. Antonio did not stay with the family long once his wife and children settled in Manhattan. Convicted of assault, he spent 10 months imprisoned at Sing Sing Prison in 1916. Scribbled across the prison blotter, someone noted that Antonio was in “poor health.” By 1920, the U.S. census listed Mary as a widow, heading a household at 215 East 110th Street of nine other people: four children, her mother, brother, sister-in-law, and two sisters.
The family would have likely remained largely invisible to the historical record, appearing fleetingly and frustratingly in census records as they struggled to keep afloat. But that changed in 1926, when Kate shot the man who raped her. News of her action—which demonstrated agency and resistance, but still violated the law—spread across the nation. Newspapers detailed the story of a “girl” killing the man who “betrayed” her and the trial that followed.
The man who Kate shot was Luigi (sometimes Louis) Fino, a boarder in her mother’s apartment. One day when her mother had gone out, Luigi sexually assaulted then 12-year-old Kate in a brutal attack that left her unconscious. Her mother kicked Fino out of the house, but did not report the assault, convinced that it would ruin her daughter’s reputation. Heeding her mother’s advice, Kate, too, kept it secret even though the rape left her pregnant. According to several media accounts, a couple quickly adopted the baby Kate delivered nine months later, unbeknownst to the young teenager who thought he had died during childbirth.
Kate survived the sexual assault and tried to move forward. Newspapers from the time tell us that in July 1926, at 16, she married 23-year-old Rocco De Ninno, and they moved to Evanston, Illinois. Soon afterwards, she and Rocco began receiving letters from Luigi threatening to publicize the attack if they did not send him money. Clearly, Luigi did not fear the law. Rocco responded not by supporting his wife, but by asking her to leave their new home. From Evanston, Kate traveled to Chicago, acquired a gun, and then took a bus to New York. She shot Luigi on a Bronx street on November 13, 1926.
While some worried in the 1920s that the pendulum in terms of prosecuting sexual assault, especially statutory rape, had swung too far and that men might be “victims” of fabricated accusations, De Ninno largely received sympathy. Wealthy coal and railroad heir Harry Thaw, who had murdered the famed architect Stanford White two decades earlier, rushed to De Ninno’s defense, as did Margaret Wilson, the daughter of former President Woodrow Wilson. Ultimately, the judge did not sentence De Ninno to any jail time, believing that the trial was punishment enough for her crime.
De Ninno’s story helps us understand more about the construction of whiteness in the 1920s, representations of criminality, and discourse around sexual assault, as well as how one young teenager navigated trauma, survival, and resistance in a system that muffled working-class, women, and immigrant voices. It allows us to hone in on a moment when Italian Americans experienced both prejudice and tolerance; when men controlled court proceedings and juries, but (many) women could vote; and when some Americans began to rethink their positions on sexual assault. We cannot know for certain if Frooks expected her papers to be used in this way when she donated them. But, scholarship over the past several decades (such as Paula Austin’s recent Coming of Age in Jim Crow D.C.) has shown the revelatory power in rethinking intentions, reconceptualizing archives, and recentering voices. In this case, Frooks’ papers provide a window into a struggling young immigrant’s experiences with harassment, violence, and sexual assault, and with the court system, her family, and the press.
Written by Lauren C. Santangelo, National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow, New-York Historical Society
Thanks are due to Larry Weimer who noted De Ninno’s case when processing the collection.