Sunday, 4 December 2011

Tales from Argentina - The Story of Clorinda Sarracán (Part 1 of 3)

The events I attempt to recount here took place almost 150 years ago in a village called Santos Lugares, outside Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires.  They concern the murder of Jacobo Fiorini, a portrait painter and farmer. 

Despite my research it has been difficult to separate fact from fiction.  The press got hold of the story and reported it exhaustively in the following months.  In addition, these were the days when forensic science was limited and also before fingerprinting had been devised as a means of identification in building up evidence in a legal case.  This system, known as dactyloscopy, was actually invented in Argentina in 1892 and the first country in the world to use it. 

My sources are a combination of contemporary records as quoted on the internet – trial records, newspaper reports, hearsay from reporters and father confessors – and one very interesting book written by Álvaro Abós (El Crimen de Clorinda Sarracán, Editorial Sudamericana, 2003, ISBN 950-07-2205-4).  My knowledge of the facts is consequently a mixture of truth and speculation by others, and I have found it impossible to distinguish between one and the other.  I have therefore preferred to opt for the role of mere storyteller.


(Double click to enlarge)

Part One – The Murder

According to a Buenos Aires newspaper of the time, on 12th October 1856 Clorinda Sarracán de Fiorini, aged 26, may have colluded in the murder of her husband aged 56, or even assisted by delivering some of the multiple blows to the head which killed him. 

Some days before the announcement was made, anonymous letters had been received by La Tribuna declaring that the formerly renowned portrait painter Jacobo Fiorini, who had retired to the country some years earlier to manage a smallholding, had disappeared and that foul play was suspected. 

Clorinda Sarracán on the cover of Álvaro Abós' book

Policemen and a detective by the name of Inspector Arnaud were despatched to the village of Santos Lugares, the location of the small farm where Fiorini, his wife and five children aged between 1 and 10 years resided. 

Their house was a relatively prosperous one for the area, and had been constructed according to Fiorini’s specific instructions.  It had a tiled roof with two floors as living quarters and an attic, where Fiorini continued to paint when he could.  There were seven rooms in all, with two simple columns on the veranda supporting a large beam.   Curiously, there were few windows, the main bedroom having only a small one with iron bars across it, and the attic a very small opening for light.  There was a strip of brick paving two metres wide surrounding the house to protect it from weeds; the grounds had a dovecote, fig trees, prickly pears and several varieties of weed which had been allowed to grow wild and high.  On the path leading away from the house there were willows, poplars and chinaberries. 

Pigs and chickens were bred on the farm and most of the work was done by foreman Crispín Gutiérrez and his younger brother Remigio.  In the house Clorinda was assisted by two servants, Claudia Álvarez and Nicolasa Merlo aged 16 and 15 respectively, illiterate girls whom Clorinda had obtained from a local orphanage two years earlier.  Jacobo Fiorini, who could no longer make a living from portrait painting because his hands were too stiff to paint, dealt with supplies and the general paperwork of the business, which took him to Buenos Aires on a regular basis.

It wasn’t long before the police discovered a fresh mound of earth under a rubber tree by the Fiorini property.  The recent wind and rain had sharpened the unusual shape of the rubbish dump and exposed a macabre hand, and below was a twisted body with a grisly head.  The autopsy later revealed that the victim had been wearing good quality clothes with splashes of paint down the front and there was a rope around his neck which had been used to drag him.

Many locals were willing to talk about what they knew of the couple.  Inspector Arnaud was told of their thirty year age difference, that they argued a lot, that he beat her and that she was probably having an affair with the foreman, Crispín Gutiérrez.  Clorinda’s mother had died many years earlier, and her father, Carlos Sarracán, had recently reappeared on the scene after having abandoned his family when Clorinda was little, and she had been seen having long and earnest conversations with him.  Claudia and Nicolasa also had plenty to say.

A week later on 30th October a mallet was found some distance away measuring about half a yard in length, of the type used to hammer down fence posts.  It had what looked like blood stains on it.

Inspector Arnaud didn’t hesitate.  He arrested Clorinda, the two servant girls, the foreman Crispín (24), his brother Remigio (18) and Clorinda’s father, Carlos Sarracán, and took them back to the city.

A story gradually emerged from Crispín, Clorinda, Claudia and Nicolasa’s initial statements.  There had been a fierce argument between Fiorini and his foreman Crispín, the latter claiming that he and his brother were owed back pay.  Crispín confessed to having murdered his employer because of the money and because he was angered by Fiorini’s abuse of his wife.  In addition he disliked the way the Italian-born Fiorini insulted Argentina. 

They had argued violently on the stairs and eventually Fiorini tossed him down a $500 peso bill and went back to the attic where he had been painting.  He must have been frightened by his employee’s demeanour however, because he had locked himself in and refused to emerge all day.  In the evening Clorinda persuaded him to come down for dinner, which he eventually did, insisting that it be served in the lounge, rather than in the dining-room with the children. 

Crispín returned accompanied by his brother, and at this point Clorinda thought it wise to withdraw the children and the servants to the garden.  Presently they heard a shot, and after saying “What was that?” to the others, Clorinda made her way back to the house.  According to Claudia, she seemed neither surprised nor in a hurry as she walked away.   She further asserted that her mistress had been having an affair with Crispín for some time, and that whenever the master went to Buenos Aires on business, Crispín moved into his employer’s bed.  However Nicolasa contradicted this statement and denied that they slept together.

For his part, Crispín confessed that he and his brother had returned to have it out with Fiorini.  Their employer had been in the lounge eating his dinner, with a bayonet propped beside him.  They re-started the argument and distracted him from the weapon at his side.  Presently Crispín pulled a gun which he had purchased from a pedlar the day before.  He was not however experienced with the firearm and missed, whereupon he tossed the pistol aside and grabbed the mallet used for pounding in fence posts which Remigio had brought with him, and while his brother picked up the gun and hit him with the butt, Crispín killed him with the mallet.  They then tied a rope around his neck and dragged him out to the back, leaving him on the rubbish dump under the rubber tree and covering him with soil.

When Clorinda returned she found herself alone in the house, and as she was joined by the others she ordered her maids to clean up the blood in the lounge.  Astonishingly, things went back to a sort of normal, while Clorinda told people that Fiorini had gone to the capital for a few days.  When that time had passed she travelled to Buenos Aires and contacted his family there to say she was concerned that he had not returned.  They searched the rented room where he always stayed but nothing had been touched.  Her father Carlos Sarracán returned with her to Santos Lugares and came under suspicion because he had been asking questions about Fiorini’s financial affairs.  He was under arrest for a while and was badly treated in jail, but was eventually released when he was able to prove that he had only been trying to collect Fiorini’s debts so that his widow could continue to feed and clothe her children, and had put the funds into an account for her use alone.  What little there was had now been frozen by the courts.

Clorinda made a statement confessing her guilt, but retracted it later, claiming that it had been made under duress.  She stoutly maintained she was innocent and said her husband had probably been murdered by a pedlar who had unfinished business with him, and she had thus not known he was lying dead in the grounds until he was found.

While she was in custody her children were being looked after by an aunt; she longed for their rare visits and yet these occasions were a torture to her.  She was allowed to see her one-year old daughter twice a week and only for a few minutes, during which she wept uncontrollably.  She had difficulty paying the rent on the property where her aunt cared for the children and she had no one to whom she could turn - her father had been badly affected by the time he had spent in jail and could not help.  Funds were short and her living conditions were difficult.  She shared her space with twenty or so other female criminals, and in addition to the total lack of privacy the guards constantly made advances. 

The case had taken Buenos Aires by storm.  Newspaper reporters had a field day dwelling on the grislier aspects of the murder, the abuse by Fiorini of his wife, her devotion to her children yet her probable wanton behaviour with Crispín and her reactions immediately following his death – all this counted very much against her.  The brilliant lawyer Carlos Tejedor was appointed to defend her, with Judge Miguel Navarro Viola presiding at the trial.

Carlos Tejedor, defending counsel

To be continued…  next time, the trial.


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's non-digital archive

More pictures taken around Palermo,
Buenos Aires, argentina, 1994

"Living statue"



Coral Wild said...

fascinating story - can't wait for the next instalment:)

Lonicera said...

Thanks... hope it's worth waiting for!!

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