Saturday September 30th 2023

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Tales from Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery: #211

No Justice for Martha


On September 9, 2012, the University of Minnesota hosted a dedication ceremony to honor the 250 adults who served as research subjects for medical students in the years 1914-1916.The University provided a marker in their memory. Photo: Tim McCall

Gilbert Seashore, the Hennepin County Coroner, ruled Martha Rossa’s death as an “intentional homicide.” But despite the fact that Nick Piritano, the man who shot her, confessed, her case never went to trial. Instead, the county prosecutor devoted his efforts to prosecuting Piritano for killing Nick Bruno, a man who was in the same house as Martha on the night that she died.
The transcripts of Piritano’s trials, both of them for the murder of Bruno, appear to no longer exist. And newspaper accounts about what happened on the night of May 5, 1913, are confusing and contradictory at best.
What is known is that on that evening she was at the home of Nick Piritano. The papers referred to her as his housekeeper but suggested that there was more to their relationship than that. They referred to Piritano as a “jealous slayer.” Martha was referred to not as Miss Rossa or even Martha but as “the Rossa woman,” a term that reporters often used to suggest that a woman was of questionable character. She had also worked as Bruno’s housekeeper and whether there was more to their relationship is not known.
What is clear is that Martha was at Piritano’s home at 308 Fillmore Street Northeast when Bruno showed up at the door with a pistol. Martha had spent some time with Bruno earlier in the day, and Piritano stayed home from work that night because he was afraid that Bruno would show up at the house. He was right. Bruno showed up at the door around midnight and told Piritano that he had gotten into a fight in a bar and was hiding from the police.
Newspaper accounts about what happened next varied widely. According to the Minneapolis Journal, Bruno entered the house and Piritano grabbed a shotgun and killed him. He fired a second shot that hit Martha when she stepped into his line of fire. The bullet struck her in the head and she “received part of the discharge in the face.”
The Tribune’s account said that Piritano allowed Bruno to enter the house and waited until Bruno and Martha were in a bedroom separated from the rest of the house by a curtain. Piritano fired through the curtain and killed Bruno who was lying in bed asleep. The lights went out and Piritano fired a second shot, the one that struck Martha.
Piritano walked out of the house and turned himself in to two policemen who were passing by. He was taken to the police station where he signed a confession.
Bruno died immediately but Martha did not. She was taken to the city hospital around midnight and died there three hours later.
A grand jury indicted Piritano on two counts of first-degree murder, one for Bruno, the other for Martha. The cases were set to be handled separately. The first trial, which began on May 27, 1913, focused only on Bruno’s death. Piritano pleaded self-defense. He described Bruno as a bully who had offered to sell Martha to him and threatened Martha with a razor when she objected to his presence in the house. After deliberating for 24 hours the jurors were deadlocked: Six in favor of conviction and six in favor of acquittal. They considered a lesser charge of manslaughter but couldn’t reach agreement on that charge either: Eight were in favor on conviction, four for acquittal. On June 5th, the judge declared a mistrial.
The second trial began almost immediately and ended on June 14th, after the jury, having deliberated for only two hours, found that Piritano had killed Bruno in self-defense. The county attorney told the court that Piritano would likely claim that Martha’s death was unintentional and he believed that since the jury failed to convict Piritano, that a jury would not convict Piritano in the case of “the Rossa woman” even though she posed no threat to anyone.
Little is known about Martha (whose name was also recorded as Maritia Roosa), other than that she was born in Finland and that the coroner estimated that she was 25 years old. Her body was unclaimed and was, as required by law, turned over to the Anatomy Department at the University of Minnesota to be studied by medical students. This was a time when few, if any, people willingly donated their bodies for research. Bruno’s body was claimed by his family and he is buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery.
Martha is buried in a common grave with 249 other adults who served as research subjects. In September 2012, the University of Minnesota honored them during a dedication program. Their marker is located in Lot 44-60, section H of the cemetery.

Sue Hunter Weir is chair of Friends of the Cemetery, an organization dedicated to preserving and maintaining Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery. She has lived in Phillips for almost 50 years and loves living in such a historic community.

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