• U.S.

RACES: What We Call Cornuto

2 minute read

A Negro maid to an Italian mistress sat in the witness chair of a Brooklyn, N. Y. divorce trial last week “making horns.” Carrie Cooper raised her hands to her forehead, sticking up two fingers, and made a laboriously ugly face. That, she said, was what her 36-year-old mistress, Mrs. Josephine Marotta, had done behind the back of her old husband, Giacomo, who is just twice her age.

The Brooklyn judge did not understand why this slight gesture was considered important testimony in a divorce case. Court Interpreter Vincent D’Agrossa volunteered to explain. This case involved an Italian couple, and to Italians the bit of old-world folklore had plenty of meaning. The gesture, said Interpreter D’Agrossa, was “what we call cornuto.” It was an ancient custom to cut the spurs off castrated cocks and graft them to the birds’ heads, where they grew as horns. Since the horned capon was a strutting definition of sexual inadequacy, its horns became a symbol of cuckoldry. The sign of the horns, he said, should not be confused with the somewhat similar gesture of defense against the evil eye (index and little finger pointing parallel).

Mrs. Marotta hotly defended herself. Everyone knew she was a good woman, she said. Everyone knew she had been acquitted of manslaughter after shooting her lover, Louis Gumas, six years ago. She had never made the cornuto sign behind her husband’s back. She had not made love behind his back with her divorced husband Thomas Catanzaro; nor with Dr. Charles Stoerzer, sometime house physician of the Raymond Street Jail (her sometime residence); nor with “a tall, thin man.”

Up to the stand to cap Mrs. Marotta’s case walked her two innocent-looking daughters by Catanzaro, Geraldine, 18, and Isabel, 16. Their testimony made old Giacomo seem somewhat less a capon. They said they had entered their mother’s kitchen one night in 1934, had found Negro Maid Carrie Cooper sitting in Stepfather Giacomo’s lap. He was feeding her chocolate pudding.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com