It may be a statistically safe place to live, but that doesn’t mean Malta’s history is spotless when it comes to grisly murder.
Compiled from the book by Eddie Attard, Murder in Malta, we’ve picked out some Maltese murders from the late 19th and early 18th centuries that scale the social ladder. Prince or pauper – nobody was immune to the evil we sometimes choose to unleash on each other.
1. Death of an altar boy (1908)
Nearing the end of his life, a man is rotting at a mental hospital. Frangisku Farrugia is well past the 80-year mark, and he’s had plenty of time to think on his sins. Or rather, that one sin which must have clouded his personal history for most of his life.
Flashback to Palm Sunday, 1908: Frangisku meets his 10-year-old cousin Guzeppi Seguna and suggests that they take a walk from their home in Zabbar to Birgu to gather some blessed olive branches.
Guzeppi is a model child, and the darling of the village. A devout altar-boy, “neat in appearance” and hard-working. But his hard work also lays the groundwork for his downfall: the uncle who he used to help out around the house has promised to leave him his entire property, and this doesn’t go down too well with some of his envious relatives.
Frangisku confesses to the murder of his young cousin one year later, leading the police to Fort Ricasoli where he claims to have buried the little boy’s fresh corpse. He is reported to have told the police that Guzeppi “looked so beautiful when he was dead”.
Farrugia died at the Mount Carmel Mental Hospital in 1980. He was 88 years old.
2. Gay dockyard drama (1918)
Tuesday, 26 March 1918 looked like an ordinary spring day for two boatmen just going about their business at the Grand Harbour, until a dead body floated its way off the hose-shed of the Royal Dockyard and put a damper on that idea.
It transpired that the body belonged to 17-year-old Guzeppi Campbell, a dockyard worker who had been reported missing the previous day.
The ensuing investigation dredged up a sordid story, one which connected the young boy to the 57-year-old Alfred Pizzuto, who worked as a hose-maker in the dockyard and was positioning himself as something of a professional mentor for the young man.
And just in case the creeper vibes haven’t — erm — creeped up on you yet, it turned out that yes, Pizzuto made sexual advances on Campbell, having somehow discovered that the boy was gay. After Campbell threatened to expose Pizzuto — lest we forget that homosexuality was a crime in those days — the older man panicked and opted for an extreme solution to the problem.
The evidence was incontestable as it was grisly: a bloodied wooden chopping board, and the remains of Campbell’s boots and clothes, uncovered by divers in the vicinity.
Pizzuto spent the rest of his life in the mental hospital.
3. That Masonic twist (1894)
Here’s a posh murder story among the upper classes that would make Miss Marple proud.
Our protagonists are Prof. Hamilton Stillon, Chev. Augusto Bezzoni (the Italian consul for Malta) and Stillon’s Wife. His suspicion aroused by the arrival of an anonymous letter – stoked further by the fact that Bezzoni looked for any excuse to visit the Stillon residence – Stillon gets it in his head that Bezzoni is keen to get in his wife’s pants. One day, his jealous paranoia is apparently proven right, so he decides to act on the apparent evidence of it.
On 27 June of 1894, Stillon turns himself in to the Valletta police, claiming to have fired two shots at Bezzoni after catching him in bed with his wife. But, since Bezzoni died of the injuries only days after the shots were fired, Stillon could go home scot-free (regrettably, Attard fails to document how things fared with his wife after that).
This was because the law at the time was quite lenient of the ‘victims’ of adultery – provided you didn’t kill the guy porking your wife there and then, the maximum prison sentence you’d end up serving would be up to twenty days. And in fact, the jury deemed Stillon to not even be guilty.
But an alternative theory offers a weirder version of the story. Some claim that both Stillon and Bezzoni were part of a Masonic lodge, and that it was decided that – for whatever reason – Bezzoni simply had to go. So it could very well be that the love triangle theory was just an excuse. Proof that the rich can get away with murder, if their stars align the right way…
4. Vittorja the Moneylender (1910)
While the aristocracy was relaxed about their cashflow, the rest of society was ready to kill for it. And this story proves that death and cash — a close cousin to the ‘death and taxes’ adage — go hand in hand as a constant in our lives.
Upon hearing that his grandmother, the moneylender Vittorja Vella, had not been seen outside the house for some time, her grandson paid a visit to her Kirkop home to investigate. Knocking at the door didn’t work, so he squeezed through an open window on the first floor.
He found his grandmother with her hands tied up in string, and her head jammed inside a flowerpot. A post-mortem procedure would conclude that she was choked to death.
Those responsible are lost to the annals of history. Rumours swirled around Vella’s tendency to keep most of her substantial earning at home, so theft is the clear motive here.
But even then, the conclusion of this grisly episode remains unclear. While the house was ransacked, there was still quite a bit of money and other valuables left behind. More curiously still, some money and jewellery was even found in the bin. So what the hell happened here?
5. A family affair (1935)
A shooting, rat poison and a secluded farm house. This is what horror films – and real-life nightmares – are made of, and it all happened in Fgura in 1935.
A woman is accused of murdering her husband by means of a fatal gunshot wound. But then, the ensuring court case reveals a murky and upsetting story. The dead husband had been trying to poison the woman – Francesca Magro – and her daughter. One night, believing them to be asleep, the husband (and eventual victim) Antonio Magro smeared phosphorous paste all over their mouth and face. Or so Francesca claims, before confessing that she then got up from the bed, found her husband, and promptly shot him to death.
However, as we all know, the devil is in the details, and in this case the details prove to be a little bit shifty. Like how, in her initial statement, Francesca claims that she took the gun from the family goat pen; but then changes her story to claim that she got it from the wardrobe of their Fgura farmhouse. For good measure, Francesca also accuses her dead husband of sleeping around.
Neither the rat poison nor the infidelity stands up to investigative scrutiny. However, Francesca’s mother intervenes to claim that Antonio was an abusive husband – particularly to his daughter. In the end, the jury decides that Francesca was acting under considerable mental duress, and the final verdict ends up being ‘excusable homicide’, with Francesca spending just two years in prison.
6. Night of whoring gone awry (1893)
Back in 1893, “prostitution was rampant in the capital city and its suburb Floriana” and this particular incident was certainly one of many such “crimes of passion” that the oldest profession in the world must have stoked in the Maltese male of species.
To add a further element of traditional drama to this tale of primitive lust and savagery, the players concerned are both members of the military: one Maltese (Guzeppi Vella) and the other British (George L. Godwin).
Reasoning that they deserved to wet their whistle after performing their military duties aboard the HMS Colossus, seamen Godwin and his colleague James Richardson headed to St Anne’s Street in Floriana, which came highly recommended for the kind of services they were after.
However, the (very Maltese) inability to form a queue reared its ugly head as, upon deciding on a prostitute to patronise, Godwin was suddenly intercepted by the 24-year old Maltese soldier from Mosta Guzeppi Vella, who insisted that “he should go first”.
Things escalated fairly quickly, until they came to an abrupt halt after Vella stabbed Godwin through the heart with a knife he was carrying in his pocket.
Despite 14,000 signatures appealing for a reprieve, Vella was hanged at Corradino Prison on 13 March, 1893.